Arms Wide Open: A Midwife's Journeyby Patricia Harman
A midwife’s memoir of living free and naturally against all odds
In her first, highly praised memoir, Patricia Harman told us the stories patients brought into her exam room, and her own story of struggling to help women as a nurse-midwife in medical practice with her husband, an OB/GYN, in Appalachia. In this new book, Patsy reaches back to/b>
A midwife’s memoir of living free and naturally against all odds
In her first, highly praised memoir, Patricia Harman told us the stories patients brought into her exam room, and her own story of struggling to help women as a nurse-midwife in medical practice with her husband, an OB/GYN, in Appalachia. In this new book, 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 with living a fully sustainable and natural life.
Drawing heavily on her journals, Arms Wide Open goes back to a time of counter-culture idealism that the boomer generation remembers well. Patsy opens with stories of living in the wilds of Minnesota in a log cabin she and her lover build with their own hands, the only running water being the nearby streams. They set up beehives and give chase to a bear competing for the honey. Patsy gives birth and learns to help her friends deliver as naturally as possible.
Weary of the cold and isolation, Patsy moves to a commune in West Virginia, where she becomes a self-taught midwife delivering babies in cabins and homes. Her stories sparkle with drama and intensity, but she wants to help more women than healthy hippie homesteaders. After a ten-year sojourn for professional training, Patsy and her husband, Tom, return to Appalachia, as a nurse-midwife and physician, where they set up a women's-health practice. They deliver babies together, this time in hospitals; care for a wide variety of gyn patients; and live in a lakeside contemporary home--but their hearts are still firmly implanted in nature. The obstetrical climate is changing. The Harmans' family is changing. The earth is changing, but Patsy's arms remain wide open to life and all it offers.
Her memoir of living free and sustainably against all odds will be especially embraced by anyone who lived through the Vietnam War and commune era, and all those involved in the back-to-nature and natural-childbirth movements.
"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
“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
“This new memoir is a peek at midwife Patsy Harman’s early hippie days, a world where idealism and compassion never cease to matter, where her commune mates struggle—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—against an unjust/unwinable war with a limitless sense of personal commitment and self-sacrifice. 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, Midwife and 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
“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
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
- Beacon Press
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Read an Excerpt
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.
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