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Arms Wide Open

A Midwife's Journey

Author: Patricia Harman

In this prequel to the highly praised The Blue Cotton Gown, Patricia Harman reaches back to her youthful experiments in living a fully sustainable and natural life in the 1960s and ’70s in rural Minnesota and on a commune in Ohio, forming alliances with the eco-minded and antiwar counterculture. From those riveting days as a self-taught midwife, delivering babies in cabins and on farms, sometimes in harrowing circumstances, Patsy takes us into the present day, where she faces the challenges of running a women’s health clinic with her husband, mothering adult sons, and holding true to her principles and passions in the twenty-first century.
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“There are more honest, revealing moments here than in many memoirs. Harman, whose prose is sparse but not simple, covers a span of decades, deftly revealing her own youthful struggles with identity through the children we witnessed her raising earlier in her book, revealing, in short, a full life.” —Publishers Weekly

“Harman is a gifted storyteller. Her writing is honest, vivid, and moving.”—Natural Child Magazine

“A sparkling, vivid story of how a midwife is born—and survives. This story takes you places you never expect to go.”—Tina Cassidy, author of Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born

“It’s good to hear these stories, good to remember the fervor against the Vietnam War and our collective voices raised in protest. It’s heartening to know that the indomitable Midwife Harman still carries on the legacy of those years with a message that is still vital and necessary all these years later.”—Carol Leonard, author of Lady’s Hands, Lion’s Heart: A Midwife’s Saga

“Patricia Harman’s unflinching honesty and soaring poetry unfold the dream and the reality of the rural communes, political activism, and urban counterculture in the 1970s, and what we, the veterans of that particular era of bohemian life, have become today. She weaves in the telling details—the songs we sang, the clothes we wore, the glories of nature we witnessed, and, most especially, the causes for which we organized, and the austerities we endured willingly, for the sake of the earth and all her children.”—Alicia Bay Laurel, author and illustrator of Living on the Earth

“The heart of Arms Wide Open is birthing, but its soul is sustainable living and a spirit of environmentally friendly management of resources. Harman’s commitment to this theme permeates her book, and with similar focus on other contemporary issues, it is relevant for a vast array of readers.”—Rain Taxi

Prelude

All the way down Route 119, past Gandeeville, Snake Hollow, and Wolf Run, I’m thinking about the baby that died.

I wasn’t there, didn’t even know the family. It happened a few days ago, with another midwife, at a homebirth in Hardy County, on summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

Word on the informal West Virginia midwives’ hotline is that the baby’s shoulders got stuck, a grave emergency. The midwife, Jade, tried everything, all the maneuvers she’d studied in textbooks and the special tricks she’d learned from other practitioners, but nothing worked. They rushed, by ambulance, to the nearest hospital thirty miles away, with the baby’s blue head sticking out of the mother, but it was too late. Of course it was too late.

Homebirth midwives in West Virginia are legal, but just barely, and there’s no doubt the state coroner’s office will investigate. Jade is afraid.

We are all afraid.

We whip around another corner and I lose my supper out the side window. Who do I think I am taking on this kind of responsibility? Why am I risking my life to get to a homebirth of people I hardly know? What am I doing in this Ford station wagon being whipped back and forth as we careen through the night



I awake sick with grief, my heart pounding. I’m lying on a pillow-padded king-size bed with floral sheets. A man I hardly recognize sleeps next to me. This is Tom, I remind myself: my husband of thirty-three years, a person whose body and mind are as familiar to me as my own. I prop myself up on an elbow, inspecting his broad shoulders, smooth face, straight nose and full lips, his short silver hair, in the silver moonlight. One hairy leg sticks out of the covers. One arm, with the wide hand and sensitive surgeon’s fingers, circles his pillow. It’s 3:45, summer solstice morning.

When I rise and pull on my long white terry robe, I stand for a moment, getting my bearings, then open the bedroom door that squeaks and pad across the carpeted living room. Outside the tall corner windows, the trees dance in the dark. Once I called myself Trillium Stone. That was my pen name when I lived in rural communes, wrote for our political rag, The Wild Currents, taught the first natural-childbirth classes, and started doing homebirths.

Now I’m a nurse-midwife with short graying hair, who no longer delivers babies, living with an ob-gyn in this lakefront home, so far from where I ever thought I would live, so far from where I ever wanted to live. I search the photographs on the piano of my three handsome sons, now men. Do I wake? Do I sleep

OK, my life has been a wild ride, I’ll admit it, but the image of this hippie chick lurching through the night, on her way to a homebirth, with only a thick copy of Varney’s Midwifery as a guide, disturbs me. What did she think she was doing? Where did she get the balls



On the highest shelf in the back of our clothes closet, a stack of journals gathers dust. For seventeen years I carried them in a backpack from commune to commune. They’ve moved with me across the country three times, through midwifery school, Tom’s medical school and his ob-gyn residency. I can’t get the diaries out of my mind, a mute witness to my life . . .

I slip back through the bedroom. Tom snores on. By the dim closet light, I find a stepladder and struggle to bring down the shabby container. The journals have been closed for twenty-five years; pages stick together and smell faintly of mold.

I’m on a mission now, trying to understand, but I’m surprised to find that I started each entry with only the day and the month, no year. This is going to take a while. It seems I never expected anyone would want to reconstruct my life, not even me. I’m an archaeologist digging through my own past.

With narrowed eyes, I flip through notebook after notebook, daring that flower child to show her face. When the alarm goes off, Tom, dressed in blue scrubs for the OR, finds me asleep in the white canvas chair, with a red journal open, over my heart.

Contents

About the Book

In this prequel to the highly praised The Blue Cotton Gown, Patricia Harman reaches back to her youthful experiments in living a fully sustainable and natural life in the 1960s and ’70s in rural Minnesota and on a commune in Ohio, forming alliances with the eco-minded and antiwar counterculture. From those riveting days as a self-taught midwife, delivering babies in cabins and on farms, sometimes in harrowing circumstances, Patsy takes us into the present day, where she faces the challenges of running a women’s health clinic with her husband, mothering adult sons, and holding true to her principles and passions in the twenty-first century.

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Praise

“Harman is a gifted storyteller. Her writing is honest, vivid, and moving.”—Natural Child Magazine

“A sparkling, vivid story of how a midwife is born—and survives. This story takes you places you never expect to go.”—Tina Cassidy, author of Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born

“It’s good to hear these stories, good to remember the fervor against the Vietnam War and our collective voices raised in protest. It’s heartening to know that the indomitable Midwife Harman still carries on the legacy of those years with a message that is still vital and necessary all these years later.”—Carol Leonard, author of Lady’s Hands, Lion’s Heart: A Midwife’s Saga

“There are more honest, revealing moments here than in many memoirs. Harman, whose prose is sparse but not simple, covers a span of decades, deftly revealing her own youthful struggles with identity through the children we witnessed her raising earlier in her book, revealing, in short, a full life.”—Publishers Weekly

“Patricia Harman’s unflinching honesty and soaring poetry unfold the dream and the reality of the rural communes, political activism, and urban counterculture in the 1970s, and what we, the veterans of that particular era of bohemian life, have become today. She weaves in the telling details—the songs we sang, the clothes we wore, the glories of nature we witnessed, and, most especially, the causes for which we organized, and the austerities we endured willingly, for the sake of the earth and all her children.”—Alicia Bay Laurel, author and illustrator of Living on the Earth

“The heart of Arms Wide Open is birthing, but its soul is sustainable living and a spirit of environmentally friendly management of resources. Harman’s commitment to this theme permeates her book, and with similar focus on other contemporary issues, it is relevant for a vast array of readers.”—Rain Taxi 

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About the Author

Patricia Harman, CNM, has published in The Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health and The Journal of Sigma Theta Tau for Nursing Scholarship along with alternative publications. She is a regular presenter at national midwifery conferences. Haram began as a lay mid-wife on the rural communes where she lived during the ‘60s and ‘70s before she became a nurse-midwife on the faculty of Ohio State University, Case Western Reserve University, and West Virginia University. The author lives and works near Morgantown, West Virginia, and has three sons. Her first book, The Blue Cotton Gown, was published to acclaim. This is her second book, which is a prequel to her first.

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Questions for Discussion

  1. Patsy Harman begins her memoir by recounting the hippie lifestyle she and her lover, Stacy, have chosen. It is a difficult life without the conveniences of electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, or a vehicle. “But it’s my choice,” Patsy writes (p. 2). Can you imagine yourself giving up all the luxuries of a modern life for your principles and values?

  2. Patsy recalls the violence and hatred aimed toward hippies. She notes, “This is the country we were born in, but we are strangers in a strange land” (p. 6). How does this fear of the “other” or fear of difference still isolate people in America? How might you unconsciously perpetuate the alienation of others in your everyday life? Even in more dire situations, when Patsy as a midwife must consider bringing her patient into a hospital setting, she notes how ridiculous it would seem, nine hippies in a hospital. Even she recognizes the absurdity of this image, but when the parents make such a choice due to an emergency, should their appearances (and particularly their different appearances) matter? Think of a time you felt ostracized because you looked or seemed different. Do any of us truly fit the “norm”? Why do we have a “norm” to begin with?

  3. Thinking about her first time giving birth, Patsy recalls the strength her lover gave her, and says, “The pain would suck you down under the earth. People who love you are your anchor to life” (p. 15). Has there been a time when someone supported you through an extremely difficult time? Would you have made it through without that person? When Brandy gives birth to her second child, now with a husband and her first son to support her, she seems more emotional. When Patsy asks her about the birth, she replied, “I wasn’t afraid. I had everyone I loved around me, and I had you” (p. 219). How do the persons around you affect your psyche during moments of pain or difficulty?

  4. Money is a sensitive issue even in a commune, or perhaps especially in a commune. The policy is “To each according to his need and from each according to his ability” (p. 16). Have you ever been in a situation where you found yourself dealing with the sensitivity of money? How do we make assumptions about others who have need and those who cannot give? Looking at the latest non-violent protests of today’s skewed class divisions, the Occupy movement, how can we begin to broach the topic of money, the 1%, and the 99%?

  5. For a period of time, Patsy is discontented, commenting on how frustrated she has been with her and Stacy’s lack of progress, when she “gets upset because nothing ever gets finished” (p. 30). She tries to comfort herself, thinking of the wonderful home she has that many people are not lucky enough to have as well, yet she continues to easily get “pissed.” Everyone has heard of the phrase “think of the starving children in Africa” relating to an unfinished plate. Does this kind of juxtaposition really help us when we feel upset in our lives? If not, how should we try to rethink ways of empathy and solace such that we are able to feel gratitude to what we have rather than focusing on what we don’t have?

  6. Do you believe it was irresponsible for Jody to not get prenatal care or to arrange for a hospital birth or a midwife? The birth of her son Hawk turned out fine, but, as Patsy frets and points out, what if? On the other hand, it seems that money problems coupled with stigmatism at the Health Department discouraged Jody from seeking professional aid for her birthing altogether. Should money or judgments matter or affect how doctors and aides treat pregnant women? Why do money and social judgments allow us to forsake the needs of others?

  7. “Can we find a way to live sustainably?” (p. 69). Patsy, her lover, and her son live out in a cabin near the wilderness, trying to find a way to live sustainably. Has this necessity changed today? How does their journey to answer this question compare and contrast with the way we try to find its answer today? And, as Tom asks, “How does community fit in?” (p. 69) Can it be enough if several individuals are dedicated to sustainable living? How are the way Patsy and Stacy try to live together on a farm and the way Patsy and the commune try to live together similar and different from the idealism of communism? Patsy mentions to Tom how she and Stacy have tried several communes, but “finding the right community is even harder than living sustainably” (p. 69). How does one’s community affect living sustainably? How does living in America today affect each individual’s choices in terms of conserving energy or making bioethical choices? Later, in the commune, Rachel occasionally accepted money from her father, but this brings into the question of “How can we say we’re trying to live a subsistent life when we accept money from outside?” (p. 127) How does privilege play a role in sustainable living?

  8. Have you ever known anyone considering an abortion? Wren faces a complicated situation regarding her unplanned pregnancy and soon must decide whether or not to have an abortion. Wren foresees how having this baby will ruin her schooling opportunities and she does not even know who the father is. Patsy is pro-choice, but notes “I’ve never really known anyone who’s had a termination” (p. 76). What are the implications of being pro-choice or pro-life but never really knowing anyone who had to make such a difficult decision? How do political ideals sometimes fail to really take into account real lives?

  9. After Baby Willow’s death, the commune receives news of the last failed demonstration against nuclear power. Patsy notes that the loss of the baby has “made me review my priorities, torn me from the revolutionary barricades down to cold earth” (p. 119). Patsy made it known since the beginning that she was against the extreme methods of some of the revolutionaries. However, how are the “revolutionary barricades” and the “cold earth” different? Is one idealism and the other reality? High mindedness and practicality? Why should one perhaps be regarded with more seriousness than the other?

  10. Patsy is shocked when she meets Paul, an Austin midwife. Why is it surprising that Paul is a midwife? Should it be surprising? Many hospitals at the time refused to allow fathers into the birthing room, but why was it socially unacceptable to allow men into the birthing process? How have things changed, and how have they stayed the same?

  11. At Sue’s birth, Patsy notes, “That’s what I love about attending births, there’s no room for mistakes” (p. 140). Many people would fear attending births for the very same reason: there’s no room for mistakes. Nevertheless, Patsy gains strength and courage from what others would find a source of anxiety. How do we turn sources of fear into sources of courage and strength, the way Patsy had when she realizes that Sue’s birth is going to be a breech?

  12. Mrs. Utt tells Patsy of how, on her tenth birth, she heard Dr. Carson tell a nurse that she “already had too many damn babies” (p. 152). After her premature baby was taken from her, the doctor sterilized her against her will. How does this reflect on the way we view family size? Is there such a thing as having too many babies? Ultimately, what do you think Dr. Carson’s act says about the way medical professional treat and regard women and all patients?

  13. Patsy calls the place where Mrs. Utt lives the “third world” (p. 160). “I, who have elected to live without running water, plumbing, or electricity, I, who only recently had a phone installed, am shocked to see families existing without the basic conveniences of the twentieth century” (p. 160). Why is it shocking to see such poverty, especially since Patsy has chosen voluntary poverty? How does real poverty compare to voluntary poverty? Also, how is Mrs. Utt’s residence both like and not like the “third world” of other countries?

  14. After the car accident, Mr. Wheeler reports, “Been an accident on that turn every year as long as I can remember. We told the state highway department least three times, but they don’t listen....They won’t come ‘til someone gets killed” (p. 162). How does his statement reflect on government action? Why do we all not listen, whether it be about safety issues or bullying or racial problems, “’til someone gets killed”? Why are issues ignored until it becomes so serious that it results in a death?

  15. During Mara’s birth, Patsy says, “Her body works perfectly to produce this new life and I remember that this is the way it’s supposed to be. This is the way, if not interfered with, most women can give birth”(p. 173). What are the ways that modern medicine and birthing “interfere” with the way women are naturally meant to give birth? What are some of the pros and cons of these interferences?

  16. Tom’s specialty is pelvic pain, and because of that he takes care of many women who are referred to him by others, women with endometriosis and adhesions, women in delicate health or with autoimmune diseases that lead to poor healing, “patients the other docs prefer not to mess with” (p. 208). Why are there patients that are deemed undesirable by doctors? What does this say about the healthcare system, when patients who need the most help are the less likely to get it? Should doctors and healers hold such preferences, and how do these preferences come about?

  17. Both Ruby and Cindy’s chronic pelvic pains are related to their social situations, which Patsy says is very common for chronic patients (p. 216). “It there were an adequate pain center in the area, one that cared about the patients and looked at their problems holistically,” Patsy states, “we would long ago have referred Cindy and Ruby, but there’s nothing like that...” (p. 217) Pain that manifests in the body usually comes from a copious amount of reasons, but specialists do not have the ability to heal holistically. What does this say about America’s health system of specialists? Moreover, Ruby asks for Valium, a request that Patsy ignores. Have we begun to rely too heavily on painkillers for our problems?

  18. Tom must dismiss one of his long-lasting patients after seeing that she had cocaine in her system, but not her prescribed narcotics. The event shakes him and he says, “I used to know whom to trust...but not now”(p. 222). Do you think of your relationship with your doctors as one with trust? In what ways do patients trust doctors, but also doctors trust patients? How does this bond affect the interactions between patients and doctors? Why is it so important? After Gladys and Ruby, Tom decides he will no longer give narcotics to patients except right after their surgeries. It is a loss to the patients who only take their narcotics as prescribed. What decision would you have made in Tom’s place? Are their any safe ways to prescribe narcotics?

  19. When Tom burned his draft card, he wounded his parents who felt he had betrayed America. He felt un-American. Patsy says, “TV and movies portray hippies and protestors as kids going crazy with love and drugs, but in reality there was pain everywhere....Pain, on our part, when our parents rejected us for not believing what they believed and not wanting to live as they lived” (p. 233). Why do we as a country get so attached with the idea of Americanness? How do we hold onto our beliefs and way of life so tightly that we reject those who do not share them? Patsy makes a connection to the Vietnam War and the war against Afghanistan. Despite protests against the Afghanistan war, there has been no major protest movement compared to those during the Vietnam War. Have we become apathetic to the pain of war?

  20. After the seventeen-year-old visit of Jasmine, Patsy says, “It shows you that all teen pregnancies don’t end tragically” (p. 236). Have you known any teens that got pregnant? How did their story unfold? There is a common negative perception to teen pregnancies, but why must this be the only case?

  21. How has the suing of malpractice affected healthcare in the United States? What are the benefits of medical-malpractice suing, and what are its cons? How does it affect the way doctors act or their choices? Does it take away from their desire to help patients?

  22. When Patsy wonders about a hybrid car, Tom says, “Forget that saving the earth doesn’t seem possible in the time required. We just need to do what we can. If it’s not possible, we’ll find out later” (p. 283). What do you think of the new dreams that Tom and Patsy make? What can we take away from the idea that “we just need to do what we can”? Why are making new dreams important?

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Arms Wide Open

ISBN: 978-080700171-4
Publication Date: 3/20/2012
Pages: 304
Size:5.5 x 8.5 Inches (US)
Price:  $18.00
Format: Paperback
Availability: In stock.
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