The Missing Chapter to Ina May's Guide

This is Part 2 of a three-part series on Natural Birth. Click here for Part 1 and Part 3.

When I was pregnant, I was terrified of childbirth. I told that to my midwife, and she suggested that I read Ina May Gaskin’s manifestoes on natural birth: Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth.

I loved Ina May’s story—a hippie living on a caravan of school buses, who learned to be a midwife by delivering other hippies’ babies on those school buses. I loved her message—that we do not have to be fearful of childbirth, and that laughter and kissing and politeness can help reduce pain. And I loved her statistics—there is an incredibly low rate of medical interventions for births at the Farm Midwifery Center, which Ina May founded on the Tennessee commune, where the aforementioned caravan of school buses landed. After a good dose of Ina May, I was confident that I could give birth naturally. It was going to be a challenge, but I was prepared.

Ina May led the midwives at the Farm

Ina May led the midwives at the Farm

Her husband, Stephen Gaskin, was the commune's spiritual leader

Her husband, Stephen Gaskin, was the commune’s spiritual leader

And then I actually gave birth. And it was nothing like what Ina May said it would be. I felt like I had failed. But I also felt mad at Ina May. And the whole natural birth industry, actually. For making me believe that natural birth was not only possible, but that it had the potential to be an ecstatic experience. And for not telling me what you were supposed to think if you didn’t get to have it.

Ina May with a fetuscope in the 70s

Ina May with a fetuscope in the 70s

Ina May with a fetuscope now

Ina May with a fetuscope now

In this episode, I tell Ina May how I felt betrayed by her. And her answer is truly stunning. I’ll let you listen to what she says, but once you’ve heard the episode, please come back to this page. If you wound up feeling like I did after having a baby, Ina May wants to hear from you. Tell your story in the comments below, or just let her know what you think is missing from her book. She will be watching!


More on Ina May Gaskin

Here is Ina May’s TEDx Talk, which I excerpt in the story:

And this movie about Ina May’s life has great footage of the Farm, past and present, including a scene of a 10-pound baby being born to an unmedicated mother. I could see my own reflection in my computer screen as I watched this, and my jaw was literally dropped. The film also shows in action an example of the Gaskin Maneuver, an obstetrical procedure named after Ina May.


All photos except blue/green portrait: David Frohman; Blue/green portrait: Sara Lamm

345 thoughts on “PODCAST #28: The Missing Chapter to Ina May’s Guide

  1. Before I was pregnant, I knew I wanted a natural birth. I wanted to give birth at home, but my family of doctors and nurses drilled it into my head that it only takes a few seconds for a birth story to turn tragic. To ease any potential for guilt, I opted for a hospital birth with midwives.

    The midwives were low-intervention and after my 20 week ultrasound, they measured and checked the baby’s position with their hands. Everything was great and on track, so they said. At 39 weeks, my water started to leak and because I was GBS positive, I went to the hospital early for antibiotics. I was unhappy already: “Great, here’s the first intervention of the day…”

    When we got to the hospital, the medical resident did a standard ultrasound and found that my baby was frank breech. When I asked what options I had for delivery, the midwives and surgical team looked at me like I was crazy. I started sobbing immediately and was angry that any attempt for a vaginal birth was disregarded because of liability concerns and a lack of education about breech deliveries. Recovering from the c-section was awful, and I struggled to understand how women could choose this option. I had a strong case of postpartum depression and cried (sobbed) most of the first few months. Breastfeeding was an incredible challenge in the beginning and I so desperately needed to retain a sense of being a “natural mama” so I persisted. It wasn’t my baby was 11 weeks old that I nursed her pain-free (despite three lactation consultants and numerous breastfeeding support resources).

    Being pregnant was such a beautiful time for me. I loved how my body felt and grew and I felt free from body image issues and self-criticism for the first time in my life. Having a c-section, I felt weak as if I failed my first goal of motherhood. I know that’s not really the case, but that’s how I felt. I was convinced that this postpartum depression was related to not having a natural birth, but the stories shared here make me think differently. So, thank you to this forum.

  2. I’m coming late to this party because I’m catching up on all the podcasts from the beginning (and loving them!).

    I’ve read all 344 comments to date and have not read a single mention of NITROUS OXIDE. I used it for pain relief during labor and it was amazing. It turned me instantly from a shrieking witch to one of Ina May’s blissed out zen mamas. I was lucky enough to deliver in one of two hospitals in the US that uses nitrous oxide. And that is going to continue to be the case as long as no one knows about it and advocates for it as an option. The natural birth movement should be aware of this option because it offers a great middle ground between zero pain relief and the giant needle of an epidural.

    I went into my birth hoping not to get an epidural, but somewhat open to the possibility because I was aware of my ignorance–I had no idea what birth, normal or not, felt like. I didn’t want an epidural for many of the same reasons other women prefer not to have them: 1) big needle in your spine, 2) cascade of interventions, 3) being stuck flat on your back, 4) baby born lethargic and drugged, 5) slower recovery. Nitrous oxide has none of these downsides. You breathe it in through a gas mask, and as soon as you stop breathing it, the effects wear off. As soon as I took my first breaths of the gas, I felt calm and peace descend on me. My anxiety disappeared. I feel like I got the experience Ina May writes about, and nitrous oxide was what made it possible. Since then, I’ve joked frequently that I wish I could use it recreationally.

    In most aspects of my birth experience, I consider that I was lucky. My pregnancy was easy and healthy, I went into labor on my own, my labor was relatively short, nitrous oxide was available to me, my baby was fine. I don’t think I did anything to deserve or earn this easy labor. I just got lucky. When I hear about another woman who had a more difficult experience than mine, I don’t jump to judge her. I don’t think to myself that she must have been weak, or uninformed, or unempowered, or anything like that, and I certainly don’t say anything so rude or ask pointed questions that come off as judgemental, no matter how curious I might be. My first assumption is simply that she was unlucky, while I was lucky. I think that is an attitude that could stand to be incorporated in the natural birth movement as well. An acceptance of the randomness inherent in childbirth. So much of this is just a crapshoot.

    Other women have posted about how the doctors, nurses, midwives, were either supportive or not. I didn’t have any experiences with professionals who were rude or insensitive or anything like that. The worst moments of my interactions with midwives and nurses were when they were just TOO BUSY. And I don’t blame them personally for this, I blame the hospital system that kept the beds overcrowded and assigned too many patients to each doctor and nurse. Why? $$$ Duh. Here are some examples, from trivial to non:
    –when I arrived, there were no available beds, so I was given a tiny room in triage and told to walk the halls. I did for a while, until I felt overexposed, in a robe and slippers, moaning through my transition while family members of other patients watched from their seats in a waiting area. I didn’t know I could get my nitrous oxide in the triage room if I requested it. I didn’t know I didn’t have to walk the halls or that there were smaller, more private areas I might have paced instead.
    –my anesthesiologist came to administer my nitrous oxide, but forgot a form I needed to sign. She left to get it, got involved with another patient and forgot about me for over a half hour of my most intense labor. She apologized when she finally returned, and I snapped, “It’s NOT ok,” since I hadn’t yet had my magic happy gas and was still in my Mr Hyde labor form.
    –my sister’s doctor didn’t come to help her deliver for over 5 hours while she was at the point of being ready to push. He was delivering a baby in another hospital, and she had an epidural, so they figured it wasn’t urgent. WTF

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