DoulaMomma, aka Kim Collins, is our resident columnist on all things childbirth related and has been writing for The MotherHood since its conception in 2006 (and at her own blog since 2008). In her work as a birth doula, Kim is witness to the importance of adequate nutrition, support, education, and pre and postnatal care, for keeping mothers and children safe and healthy.
Inspired by, and in support of, the 2011 Mother's Day release of Christy Turlington Burn's documentary No Woman, No Cry—and its sister campaign, Every Mother Counts—we are pleased to reprint here Kim's December 2007 column detailing her trip to the world-renowned midwife training center in Tennessee known as The Farm, headed by Ina May Gaskin.
No Woman, No Cry "shares the powerful stories of at-risk pregnant women in four parts of the world, including a remote Maasai tribe in Tanzania, a slum of Bangladesh, a post-abortion care ward in Guatemala, and a prenatal clinic in the United States".
Every Mother Counts is "an advocacy and mobilization campaign to increase education and support for maternal and child health".
We have not yet seen the film, but the campaign is impressive in its scope, boasting powerful partnerships, well researched (and frightening) statistics, and offers a number of practical ways you can get involved to help improve the dire conditions highlighted by the film.
We hope you will read Kim's post detailing the power, dedication and wisdom found in this famous midwifery community here in the United States, and then visit Every Mother Counts to learn more about the state of maternal and child health worldwide.
Spread the word. Take action. This Mother's Day, show the world that you truly believe that every mother counts.
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|DoulaMomma portrait by Danny Hellman|
DOULAMOMMA: DOWN ON THE FARM
by Kim Collins
WHEN I sent my son to skateboarding camp this year, I couldn’t help but think about the trip I would soon be taking. Like my son, I would be going to a place I had dreamed about, where I would have a chunk of uninterrupted time to focus on a passion with a group of cool, like-minded people. For my son and other skateboarders, this camp is like Graceland to an Elvis fanatic. And like many in the birth world, my own personal version of fantasy camp is The Farm.
The Farm is an intentional community in Tennessee that was once the largest commune in the U.S. Unlike most other communities started by hippies in the early 70s, this one has remained relevant, in part, because of its celebrated midwives, birthing clinic and well-loved books, Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide to Birth. The midwives of The Farm, most notably Ina May Gaskin, are lauded in countless books and within the birth world for their amazing birth statistics. These women were originally self-trained through necessity —babies were being born while the 500-strong group caravanned in converted school buses around the country—and then finally moved from California to Tennessee to start their new society, which would eventually grow to 1,500. The midwives found sympathetic doctors who gave them equipment and more training, as well as hospital backup; some of those doctors even came and gave birth with Farm midwives. Their out-of-hospital practice has the best results possible with a cesarean rate of less than 2% after thousands of births. The only obstetric term named for a midwife, the Gaskin Maneuver (used to dislodge a baby’s stuck shoulders), is named for Ina May. It’s not unheard of for women from all over the world to head to The Farm when they are looking for compassionate and skilled assistance with a vaginal breech birth, a skill that is rarely taught anymore. The Farm is also known within the birth world for its education of midwives and midwifery assistants.
Though I had made a day trip to The Farm a few years ago to tour the clinic and birthing cabins, I dreamed of getting to go there and really immerse myself in the classes and the culture. Plans started to form last January when my husband and I were having dinner at a doula colleague’s home. We happened to get on the topic of trips we want to take and talk turned to The Farm. Maybe because we were well into a bottle of wine, the men suggested that we should book a Farm trip and they would hold down the respective forts. It didn’t take much persuading…we had nine months to gestate our trip plan — the ironic time frame was not lost on us.
Farm folks refer to their arrival as “landing” and we knew we had made it when we passed through a gate and eventually pulled up to the Farm store and saw an old Volvo wagon covered in lefty bumper stickers. We had a nice chat with the car’s long-haired, middle-aged, flowing skirted occupant, who was one of the original Farm pioneers, now off to D.C. for a protest. Far out! Eight of our fifteen classmates would share our rustic cabin, one of the first structures built and made sacred by the many births that had taken place there. It had electricity, but no loo; the shower and toilet were in the nearby clinic building, along with a communal kitchen.
At our orientation, we met the other women with whom we would be spending the next ten days. Our tiny universe was made up of women young and not so young. We were from all over the U.S., Europe and South Africa. Some in the group were newer to birth, others established doulas with lots of experience and some were well on their way to or already practicing midwifery. One woman was very pregnant and another announced that she was newly expecting her third. Some of the younger women were not yet mothers, but knew already that birth was their calling.
We made the first nightly two-mile hike to dinner, waving back at each car that slowed and waved, as is the custom. Dinners were at the home of a Farm member who is a vegan cookbook author. From the first night, it was decided that we would share a Quaker grace of silence before eating, something we called “our moment.” The food was amazing, as was the conversation. It was noted that we were already loud and rowdy, a point we were told most classes took a few days to reach.
We hiked back for our post-dinner class, where we were informed that there are poisonous snakes, ticks and chiggers, so we best use our flashlights if the bathroom called in the night. That, combined with the heat, made for a restless night for many of us.
Our days were fairly scheduled, starting early and ending late. We were joined each morning by a cat we called Breakfast Kitty; he seemed to enjoy soaking up the plentiful, free-floating estrogen surrounding us. Classes were all day and again at night although we had meal breaks and some free time to explore, do yoga, visit the swimming hole, and eat fresh “ice bean” vegan soy ice cream. We learned all sorts of clinical skills, sometimes practicing on each other or on Farm clinic patients, “pregnant ladies,” as they are known, who came to help us out. For cervical dilation checks we used models, “Fanny” and “Rosy.” We usually finished around 9:30pm, but some nights we watched videos of the midwives and others giving birth. We also managed to gather for a full moon bonfire ceremony complete with howling, a blessingway ceremony for our pregnant colleagues and we saw an amazing meteor shower while lying in the middle of the (deserted) road as we schooled our South African classmates in the stars of this hemisphere (we checked for snakes first, since the pavement was warm). After the first few nights, we felt comfortable traveling only by moonlight, emboldened by our conversations and feeling just a hint of what it must have been like in the early days of Farm life. In spite of information overload, we were always so high on what we were learning, and each other, that the nights usually went quite late as we developed our own inside jokes, impersonations and guesses about whether there had ever been “free love” in the woods around us. We soaked up the old-school Farm lingo still used and freely spoke of things being “psychedelic” or “heavy,” discussed our “old man” at home and called to each other down the road with a loud, “Yark!”—just as we learned they used to do. We shared our stories and experiences with each other and the bonds felt tight.
Most of us were as interested in learning about the entire culture of the Farm as we were about midwifery. Spending time with Farm residents, both “settlers” and their (grown) kids, was a treat and something we did quite a bit in our down time. Apparently, folks there also enjoy the “Middies,” as the midwifery students are known. I found it totally fascinating to be in a culture that has set itself apart from the U.S. experience to a large extent. I found all the groovy-ness I imagined, but also some bitterness, too, because of the hard choices and changes that happened during Farm history. Because I grew up in Tennessee, I recall a few crunchy looking Farm kids who came to my camp and now know that this must have been around the time of “the change-over,” as it’s now known, when the community, like much of this country in the 1980s, was going through tough financial and social changes.
About two-thirds of the community left because it could no longer continue to commingle finances and stay afloat. Much of their financial strain came from changes that the Reagan administration made to health care regulations. It seems that The Farm’s policy of helping out birthing women, including the local, uninsured Amish folk, along with a bad crop year, had left them with lots of debt. The Farm now has about 250 residents and is slowly growing, with a set approval process for new members.
The Farm is involved in more than promoting healthy birth practices. Members of its sister organization, called “Plenty,” provide first-responders for domestic and international natural disasters. The Farm also remains dedicated to training people in sustainable building practices and organic farming at its Eco Village Training Center. They spread their commitment to wholesome food through a soy dairy and exotic mushroom farm.. Some of the pioneers have come back and many of those who left tend to gravitate toward counterparts who have a shared Farm history. It’s common for Farm kids to live together in other cities. Still, we did hear that there were a few who prefer to have nothing to do with the place they left behind.
Like society “off the rez,” I was surprised to see that the midwives are actually fairly conservative and practice with an eye toward being able to prove they did the right things, should they ever end up in court. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me that even The Farm has had to adapt to the litigiousness of American birth. But the differences were greater than similarities. Most stunning for me was the palpable feeling that the sacredness of birth is central to this community. The midwives are held in high regard and it was and is seen as good for the community to help care for midwives and their families, since the midwives were caring for the families of others. This support for strong, wise women, young and old, at the center of the culture is beautiful. I feel lucky to have been a part of it for a time and hope to go back for advanced training. I also know I am blessed to have formed my own community of folks who care about birth as I do and provide the support and care needed to each other so that we may do this work we consider holy.
Kim Collins, also known as DoulaMomma, lives with her husband and three sons in New Jersey. A “reformed” attorney, she now teaches childbirth classes, counsels on birth options, creates belly casts, and works as a birth doula. Reach her at email@example.com.