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A midwife’s memoir of living free and naturally against all odds
In her first, highly praised memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, Patricia Harman recounted the stories that patients brought into her exam room, and her own story of struggling to help women as a nurse-midwife. In Arms Wide Open, a prequel to that acclaimed book, Patsy tells the story of growing up during one ...
A midwife’s memoir of living free and naturally against all odds
In her first, highly praised memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, Patricia Harman recounted the stories that patients brought into her exam room, and her own story of struggling to help women as a nurse-midwife. In Arms Wide Open, a prequel to that acclaimed book, Patsy tells the story of growing up during one of the most turbulent times in America and becoming an idealistic home-birth midwife.
Drawing heavily on her journals, Patsy reaches back to tell us how she first learned to deliver babies, and digs even deeper down to tell us of her youthful experiments in living a fully sustainable and natural life. In the 1960s and ’70s, she spent over a decade with her first partner living in rural areas in Minnesota and Ohio before eventually purchasing a farm with Tom Harman in West Virginia.
Patsy recounts the hardships and the freedom of living in the wilds of Minnesota in a log cabin she and her lover built with their own hands, the only running water hauled from nearby streams. She describes long treks in the snow with her infant son strapped to her chest, setting up beehives for honey, and giving chase to a thieving bear. Eventually, yearning for more connection, Patsy moves into communal life, forming alliances with the eco-minded and antiwar counterculture that was both loved and reviled in those days.
As a young mother on the commune, Patsy offers her personal experience and assistance to other women who, like her, wish to have safe, natural births. In time, she becomes a self-taught midwife, delivering babies in cabins and on farms, sometimes in harrowing circumstances. But her passion for the work drives her to want to help more, to do more. And so she begins the professional training that will fully accredit her to assist in childbirth. In a final section, Patsy takes us into the present day, facing the challenges of running a women’s health clinic with her husband, mothering adult sons, and holding true to their principles and passions in the twenty-first century
More than a personal memoir, Arms Wide Open paints a portrait of a generation’s desperate struggle to realize their ideals as they battled against the elements and against the conservative society that labeled them “hippies” and belittled their ecological and pacifist beliefs. Her memoir is a beautiful recollection of the convictions of the baby boom generation, a riveting account of surviving in the wild, and a triumphant story of living responsibly in our over-consuming society.
“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
Praise for The Blue Cotton Gown
“This luminescent, ruthlessly authentic, humane, and brilliantly written account of a midwife in rough-hewn Appalachia, a passionate healer plying her art and struggling to live a life of spirit, stands as a model for all of us, doctors and patients alike, of how to offer good care.”—Samuel Shem, MD, author of The House of God, Mount Misery, and The Spirit of the Place
“Harman has a gift for storytelling, and The Blue Cotton Gown is a moving, percipient book.”—Karen R. Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“As the mother of seven children and veteran of eight pregnancy losses, I knew when I ran my bath that I would be unable to resist Patricia Harman’s memoir of midwifery, The Blue Cotton Gown. What I didn’t realize was that it would cause me, a sensible person, to get into her bath with one sock still on and rise from it when the candle was gone and the water cold. Utterly true and lyrical as any novel, Harman’s book should be a little classic.”—Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean and Cage of Stars
“Arms Wide Open is more than a book about delivering babies and bringing new life into the world; it’s about the deterioration of the optimism once so prevalent in the cracks and crevices of this country. It’s about the human spirit, and the desire to do good unto others. But most importantly, it’s about Mother Earth, the time we spend here, the things we plant, the mark we leave and the power she has over all of us.”—Hippocampus Magazine
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.
Posted July 8, 2011
Patricia Harman's second memoir tells the story of her hippie years and later her years as a married woman developing and practicing the science and art of midwifery. For those old enough to remember, we recognize in her character a true hippie who protests the Vietnam war, rejects everything about living a wealthy lifestyle that destroys the environment, and protests any forum that would be considered traditional or conservative. It's a time when draft-dodgers are running to Canada or sticking around to protest not only war but the development of nuclear arms or projects. Yes, the lifestyle is free and the possibilities seem endless!
Patricia Harman performs a wonderful balancing act within this well-crafted memoir! Pages fly by in which the reader seems to be right there with Patricia, Stacy, and her son, Mica, in the wilds of a Minnesota farm, hating and loving the vicious cold and snow in one moment and treasuring the rich colors, flowers, and animals seen in a place far from civilization. Or one is there singing community songs while sharing work and play in good and bad times. It's risky business, however, and the onset of illness and running out of money can turn one's Utopia into a fearful nightmare!
As time passes, the causes' force seems to lose potency, and their commune friends are leaving for other livelier places. But after a painful break with Stacy, Patricia meets Tom, a man who seems more level-headed and whose passion for medicine is equally shared. They both study in their respective fields, with financial help, get married, and begin careers in ob/gyn and midwifery often fraught with problems that could destroy them in the blink of an eye. It's the early days of wanting natural childbirth and many aspiring mothers lack the medical care or intelligence to know both the risks and the benefits of giving birth in such a way. Add to that the obvious opposition of the accepted medical world!
Arms Wide Open...is a well-written, wonderful read that deserves a large audience both for its excellent writing style and for the historical development of an unknown medical phenomenon depicted so intelligently, scientifically, and naturally! Truly Superb, Ms. Harman!
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Posted June 9, 2012
Thank you Patsy for another wonderful read. Through my years with you as my midwife and now as one of my favorite authors, you have shown yourself to be a gentle and beautiful spirit. This shines through in your writing. I can't wait for the next one!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 2, 2011
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