Birth Story, the hagiographic documentary portraying the creation of the Tennessee collective “The Farm”, explores the development and success of Ina May Gaskin’s midwifery practices. Gaskin, an integral member of the natural childbirth movement, was essential in revitalizing the tradition of contemporary midwifery, and while Birth Story provides neither a comprehensive nor a balanced look at the complex relationships between birth and society, it does make for an informative and compelling film.
The deliveries presented in Birth Story look very different than the images usually associated with childbirth. But these births are truncated, and through a mixture of archival footage from different decades of the Farm’s midwifery practice, to more recent video of labor and delivery, these segments are disorienting not only because of the very real and candid treatment of these births but also the seeming shortness of the deliveries. These scenes create the impression that labor and birth are quick and easy, and although meant to highlight the maneuvers and techniques of midwifery and natural childbirth, this creates a false sense of facility. There’s dilation, a head, and then a crying, healthy baby — as it appears to the viewer this process is not long or complicated, which fits with Gaskin’s thesis that fear inhibits labor. This creates a convincing counter myth to combat the images we most associate with labor which portray birth as a difficult, long, and painful process. While the film does provide compelling evidence for the success, power, and beauty of natural childbirth, it eliminates most mention of any potential complications. Breech births and babies with shoulder dystocia are easily delivered. But what about instances when medical intervention is needed? Unfortunately much of the film avoids these difficult realities.
Full disclosure: I was born by C-section. But it was the 1980s, and my mom wore smart power suits, kept her maiden name when she was married, and was the single-earner parent in our family. She came of age in the 1960s and benefited immensely from the advances of the feminist — and eventually post-feminist — movements. The professional and personal freedoms afforded to her by the dismantling of traditional gender roles provided her with the great luxury of choice and autonomy. Gaskin’s approach and practice is similarly forged from this generation of social and cultural upheaval. Yet Gaskin’s point, that women have become disconnected from their labor and hampered by outmoded attitudes about birth supported by institutionalized practices, seems to pigeonhole women into a simply-delineated reality in which hospitals are bad and home births are good. By making these distinctions, there’s an implied judgment leveled at women who make the incorrect choice for their birth plan.
Aside from examining what labor and birth mean on a personal and social level for women and culture, Birth Story further explores these issues’ gender dynamics by introducing Stephen Gaskin, Ina May’s husband. A leader within the counterculture community in San Francisco, Gaskin, Ina May, and their collective caravanned across the country to found The Farm in the 1970s. Once a charismatic leader and powerful figure, Stephen now appears docile and domesticated. In commentary from former Farm midwives, one of the women notes that, initially, being part of the Farm community required acknowledging Stephen as one’s spiritual leader and teacher. Now he putters around the house, hanging Ina May’s accolades on their wall and letting her trim his hair. Stephen is aware of this arrangement when he mentions that he is happy to be her Sherpa. While he seems to mean this as complimentary to his wife’s achievements, it’s the wrong metaphor: during the expedition the Sherpa is the guide, the one familiar with the mountain and acclimated to the trek. In this story, Ina May forged her own path to become the celebrated pioneer of contemporary midwifery.
As with all revolutionary figures and breakthrough movements, there is a certain tendency here to be too doctrinaire when perhaps a more nuanced approach is required. This is perhaps what led to some of the eventual fracturing among the collective, which is briefly alluded to but never explored. Reviving a woman’s agency during her pregnancy was a crucial and transformative idea. But highlighting this idea as the standard for correct birth damages the integrity of the movement’s achievement. Still, Gaskin’s immeasurable contribution to the natural childbirth movement should not be diminished. It was important work which rightly continues to be championed to this day. Birth Story fails to honor this achievement by neglecting to provide a thoughtfully critical treatment.