In their critically acclaimed new documentary, Birth Story, these co-directors and friends tell the story of Ina-May Gaskin and The Farm Midwives, whose “social experiment” changed a generation’s approach to childbirth. We are as excited about this important film as we are to hear how they balance their passion project with motherhood.
It seems that there is has been a shift even since we had our first kid nearly 10 years ago in the culture around birth. There didn’t seem to be any other option than a traditional hospital delivery. I only knew of a water birth through a friend who was having her baby delivered by a midwife in England at the same time I was scheduled for an induction on a certain day. Of course, it’s all exploded with people taking back some of control of their deliveries. What do you think is happening in the culture that accounts for this shift?
When Ina May was having her first baby in the 1960s, forceps deliveries were the norm—in the part of the US where she lived at the time, nearly 60 percent of all babies were delivered that way. Husbands weren’t allowed in labor rooms. Huge episiotomies were considered “normal.” So there are a whole host of reasons that many women of Ina May’s generation decided to push for a change in the birth culture.
Similarly, today, the situation isn’t ideal: our c-section rate is reported at 32% nationally (and as high as 70% in some hospitals) and labors are routinely augmented with synthetic hormones–so it would seem that even with the great advances since the days of forceps, on a very basic level, some things aren’t working as well as they could be. I think women are tired of being told that their bodies aren’t capable of delivering their babies and they are looking for alternatives. Women are smart, and I think that in our gut we sense that fear does not have to be a big part of giving birth. The fact that more and more people are using doulas has helped to change the birth culture too–when women see the impact of having an advocate with them during labor, and they feel the difference it makes on their comfort level, which then positively impacts their ability to give birth–and then afterwards they swap stories. Birth stories are a very powerful and potent cultural force.
And meanwhile, there is also a huge increase in our ability to share information with each other thanks to the internet–Birth advocates are well-organized, and very active on social networks!
How did you decide to do this film? How did you meet Ina May?
Birth Story began for us, appropriately enough, when we were both pregnant. My directing partner Sara Lamm and I were both given copies of Spiritual Midwifery and it inspired us–who knew birth could be so beautiful! We looked around for a film about Ina May and the Farm Midwives and it didn’t exist. As luck would have it, Ina May came through LA for a birth conference in October of 2009 and happened to be staying at the great Los-Angeles-based doula and childbirth educator Ana Paula Markel’s house. We call Ana Paula the “Official Movie Doula,” because she not only introduced us to Ina May, but she traveled with us to the Farm to help us take care of Sara’s young son, offered feedback, hosted early screenings of the film at her birth education center, and on top of all that supported us when we each gave birth.
I read an article in the New Yorker a few years ago about childbirth and the idea that Americans have been lulled into a false sense of security about the process. It went through a litany of maneuvers pioneered before the advent of epidurals and surgery that, according to this piece, are still the preferred and safest means of delivering babies, despite our advances. In other words, any low-tech solution that guarantees a vaginal delivery is preferable to any invasive surgery, now matter how conditioned people have become to “scheduling delivery.” I think people don’t’ realize that in the US we have significantly higher rates of infant mortality than most European countries as well as Japan. People don’t realize that a c-section is a major surgery, and with that, come numerous risks. Does any of this factor into your film?
We really wanted to show one community’s approach to childbirth, with the idea that by observing how Ina May and The Farm Midwives treat the process, we might learn something about the broader mainstream culture. To that end, we didn’t focus a lot on the statistics, but of course they were always on our minds–C-sections are critical when they are necessary, but the World Health Organization recommends that a country’s C-section rate not be higher than 10-15%. Yet in our country we are more than double that. When you start delivering that many babies via major abdominal surgery, you are going to run into more complications for mother and baby–increased likelihood of infection, readmission into the hospital, trouble with the placenta in later pregnancies etc. A terrific study just came out by a well-known maternal health organization that details in a fair, scientific way the risks associated with cesarean birth vs. those associated with vaginal birth. Highly recommended reading for any woman who wants to educate herself about her options.
What do you think this film does for moms/women?
Our hope is that Birth Story, like Ina May’s books, can take some of the fear out of the process of being pregnant and giving birth. And we wanted to celebrate and honor what women’s incredible, powerful, gorgeous bodies are capable of. Also, the film shows a group of smart, loving women who have worked together to create global change. We hope it will inspire women all over the world to step into their own collaborations and leadership.
What were the biggest lessons you learned in the process of making this film?
We were two filmmakers balancing motherhood and filmmaking–it felt at times like a mind bogglingly difficult exercise in insanity! We learned to work together, to support each other.
Of course we also learned about perseverance. We learned how to shoot in low light. We learned over and over again that when you think something has gone terribly wrong, there is usually a silver lining or a great lesson in it. We learned about the power of witnessing birth. We learned how to take a breath and know it will work out. We learned how to stand up for ourselves and work a camera and sound equipment and how to delegate and how to be pregnant and breastfeed AND make a film. We learned about collaboration. We learned how to ask for help over and over. We learned how powerful social media can be for independent filmmaking. We learned how to listen better. We learned the best snack on the road is apples, almonds and cheese. This list could be endless but that’s just a few of the things.
You have kids of your own, knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently in terms of your own deliveries?
I feel very comfortable with how my births went. I had a C-section with my first (he was breech), a natural VBAC with my second. I wish I could have another baby just so I could give birth again! I think the most important thing I have learned is that its SO IMPORTANT to have a great team of care providers around you that knows what you want and will advocate on your behalf. And it’s critical to educate yourself. My husband was by my side through it all and my everything. Also my doula’s sweet, loving support was invaluable.
What story did you set out to tell when making this film and how did it change along the way (if at all)? It seems that stories always do and usually for the better.
I agree. That’s the exciting thing about documentary! You arrive at a shoot and don’t really know what will happen that day. So many surprises!
We set out to make a portrait of Ina May Gaskin and we knew the film would inevitably weave between the past and present to tell her story. As we learned about the other Farm midwives and their very essential roles at The Farm Midwifery Center, we realized this each of these women had a very important story to tell and they were all essential to the work that Ina May was doing. The commune part of the story seemed more important at the beginning of the process but as we delved into it, we realized there’s a whole other film that should be made about Stephen Gaskin and the Farm and we wanted to focus solely on the midwives. We had no idea when we started shooting that there was a treasure trove of archival material so when that came to light and we saw the footage of the births from 30 years before, we were blown away. It was incredible to be interviewing these wonderful women and then actually have the footage of the births they were describing in the interviews… We were also very committed to filming during each season and having quiet moments in the film. A lot of what we set out to do is in there but expanded upon.
On a separate work/life note, how do you balance work and motherhood? Do you have periods when you are working intensely and then periods where you take a break? Or do you have a regular work schedule? It seems that in order to do what you do you would need to delve deeply in a subject, live and breathe it for a while, and then come up for air. If this is true, how do you handle home life? Do you tag team with your husband? Sitter? We like to hear how creative moms make it happen. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s all about helping other moms as we are all hanging by a thread most days and could use any inspiration/help we can get!
When Ina May said we could film her, we went to The Farm for one weekend and shot one interview with her. It all went very well and that was the beginning. So for over a year, Sara and I would go to the farm for 5-6 days every 2-3 months. In between we were meeting but it wasn’t terribly demanding but of course we were researching and it was on our minds. When we were editing, we were there almost everyday. Since then we have worked most every day. We patch it all together with the enormous support of our husbands and babysitters and it’s pretty challenging and quite stressful at times. If a baby is sleeping, we are on the computer getting as much done as possible until they wake up! We both pick up our kids at school but work as much as we can while they are at school or at night. It’s not a 9-5 gig and it is our own venture so we have flexibility but it’s always on our minds and so while there may be no escape, it is also a bit of an obsession, and it is always a privilege to pursue one’s obsessions. The number of moving parts involved with filmmaking can be mind numbing at times. We try to take walks and meditate and talk a lot and we get through it together. But we are exhausted! We are a true team and that’s how things get done. When someone’s child is sick, then the other person is there and there is an understanding. We’ve had our fair share of outstanding circumstances (life!) during the last four years as well as 5 babies born to our crew, so it’s been driven by a lot of support and hand holding all the way through.