Ina May Gaskin with baby.
This Seed and the Story column originally ran in February 2014.
Ina May Gaskin is often considered the mother of the modern midwife movement in the United States. Born into an Iowa farming family, in 1971 she and her husband help to found a commune in Summertown, Tennessee known today as the Farm. Ina May and several other midwives living on the Farm created the Farm Midwifery Center, one of the first non-hospital based birth centers in the United States.
From the 1970s through today women come from hundreds, even thousands, of miles to give birth at the center where women and their partners take an active role in natural birth. Over the years the midwives at the Farm have worked closely with supportive physicians and inspired a model of maternal care that seeks the merge the knowledge and advancements of modern medicine with the more holistic, mother-centered focus of traditional midwifery.
No one can deny certain advancements in modern medicine save the lives of mothers and children. But for those who support more natural forms of birth, there is a belief that our modern medicalization of healthy birth tends to treat these natural, human events as pathology, leading to unnecessary interventions that may cause more harm than they prevent. Having these conversations are likely to get you into a heated debate with folks on either sides of the aisle. But they’re discussions worth having, especially when they’re informed. After all, what’s more central to the perpetuation our human existence than birth?
As a historian, folklorist, and, most importantly, mother, I’m interested in a merging of the two forms of knowledge. Rather than seeing them as two distinct camps of thought, I’m curious about the ways in which these forms of knowing can complement each other to create a healthcare experience that supports both mothers and babies, honoring age-old wisdom and new discovery. We know what the medical model of care looks like. These days it’s our cultural norm.
But in the midwifery model of care, a midwife and/or a doula (a birth attendant there to help support the mother) sits with the laboring woman, caring not only for her body but also her spirit. A healthy pregnancy means making sure the mother has access to healthy foods and surroundings, ensuring she is supported in ways that extend beyond the physical body. What I find most fascinating about the midwife model of care is the focus on birth as a long process that can’t be predicted or planned. Midwives and doulas are there to support the mother as she proceeds through all stages of the labor and birth, knowing that these transitions are difficult, beautiful, and scared events.
I was recently reading the book Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. Near the end she mentions meeting a traditional midwife from south Arkansas named Anna Mary Sykes. Mrs. Sykes was probably in her 70s at the time, and this would have been in the 1980s when she crossed paths with Ina May. Mrs Sykes tells the story of her days as a young mother and how uninformed she was about her own labor. “They didn’t tell us anything, even when we were getting married. When I was alone in labor, I looked all over myself. I was trying to find out where the baby was going to come out.”
Traveling midwives in the 1920s. Image from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
Ina May doesn’t include Mrs. Sykes backstory, but I can’t help but wonder if her initial ignorance about her own body informed her decision to help other women during pregnancy. There has been a small amount written on traditional midwives of Arkansas, but I haven’t been able to turn up anything about Mrs. Sykes as of yet. But I’m curious to learn more. And I wonder about the knowledge of so many former midwives who never wrote down their experiences and who, eventually, became discredited as birth moved from the hands of women to the male-focused practice of hospital-based obstetrics. How often do reject older ways of knowing in favor of something new, when all the while we’re most wise when seek an understanding of our experience that incorporates the two?
More on midwives of Arkansas in coming columns, including more on midwifery in African American communities and the work of Mamie Odessa Hale Garland (see links below). Do you know anything about Mrs. Sykes or other traditional midwives in the region? I’d love to hear about them. Thanks so much for reading!
Arkansas Midwives in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture
Mamie Odessa Hale Garland
More books and resources from Ina May Gaskin
Ina May on Democracy Now!
The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier newspaper in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.