I was a VBAC baby. My mother was in labor with me for “Oh, about 10 hours. No, 12. 11, maybe?” with no epidural before I squealed myself into existence at 1:41 in the afternoon, weighing 6 pounds, 12 ounces and stretching 21.5 inches long. I had thick, black hair pulled into a ponytail by week one, and I was everything my parents had ever hoped and dreamed of.
But that’s it. Tales of my early days typically involve me throwing Saltine crackers into Presbyterian church aisles, praising a 71-year-old toothless man for his Tooth Fairy income, and getting sneezed on by a buckskin Quarter Horse. Rarely, if ever, did we talk about my birth.
It wasn’t until I sat with Pamela Hunt in her home on The Farm — North America’s oldest still active intentional community in middle Tennessee — and discussed the art of spiritual midwifery did I begin reflecting on the details I never knew nor bothered to ask about. How badly did I hurt my mom? Was she scared? Did she squeeze my dad’s hand so tightly that his fingers cracked like in the movies? Did she think I was beautiful and perfect? Or squirmy and purple?
Pamela tugged at the tie-dye scarf draped over her shoulders. “To us, birth is a sacrament between the parents who are opening up their souls and bodies to make a new baby.”
“No bright lights and doctors in surgical masks?” I sipped my ginger green tea out of a yellow mug with a red heart and ‘SAN FRANCISCO’ painted across the front.
“Oh, no,” she shook her head. “That’s the off button. Women want to be in soft lights in a cozy, comfortable place. They don’t want to be told what to do – they want to be loved and respected.”
In the late 1960s, Pamela was a San Francisco State University art major. She began attending Stephen Gaskin’s seminar ‘Magic, Einstein, and God,’ one of the many classes part of the University’s experimental college. “It was a group of classes you didn’t get credit for, but you definitely learned from. We studied things like telepathy and the importance of where you put your energy as well as simply being kind to one another. We felt like kindness could change the world, and at that time, things needed to be changed.”
The class had grown from about 10 students to roughly 1,400 by the time Gaskin decided to buy a bus and take his family elsewhere to put his teachings into practice. “We wanted in, so about 250 of us said, ‘Well…we wanna go!’”
In 1970, 50 school buses were stripped. They decorated them with rugs, stoves, and curtains they had found in the Mission District and painted the exterior neat and clean. “They were very sweet inside,” Pamela said, smiling. The sun broke through the windows hung by stained glass wind chimes and reflected on her silver hair parted down the middle and pulled back.
For the next year, they caravaned from California to Tennessee for cheap land and better winters than Michigan. “A couple of us had already had natural childbirths, so we thought ‘Okay, we’ll have our babies on the bus!’ And so we did.” During that time, nine babies were delivered with the help of Pamela and Stephen’s wife, Ina May Gaskin.
Pamela gave birth to her first child on a bus in Rocks Springs, Wyoming after 48 hours of labor in -32 degree temperatures, kept warm by a wood burner stove. “But I was very happy and never once thought about going to the hospital.”
While in Rhode Island, a doctor who had gotten word of the caravanning hippies visited their buses. He gave lessons in emergency childbirth and donated instruments, medications, and an obstetrician’s medical book. “It helped us get to Tennessee,” she said, resting back in her chair. “We had a lot of babies to deliver.”
Once settled in Summertown’s rural fields, The Farm began building its community and midwifery practice. “We delivered at least 100 babies the first year. Then we started noticing that we were having good statistics and easy deliveries.”
In the United States, the percentage of all deliveries by cesarean is roughly 32.7% with an infant mortality rate of .61%, maternal mortality rate of .03%, and a preeclampsia percentage of 5-8%. (Preeclampsia is a devastating disease that can lead to life and brain threatening seizures.)
Pamela pulled her shoulders back, sitting up straight. “By the end of the first year, we had seven midwives and were delivering about eight to ten babies per month, but we had zero cases of Preeclampsia.”
The Farm today sees rates of preeclampsia at 0.4%, cesareans at 1.7%, and zero cases of maternal mortality. Neonatal mortality? Only two out of 1,083 labors between the years of 1970 and 1979. Pamela has also spent 25 years working in the nearby Amish community where she saw similar results from their midwifery. “The thing about [the Amish] is that they’re not afraid. Birth is normal to them. They take care of their women, and they take care of the environment.”
But why such low percentages in comparison with the national level?
“We didn’t have any cigarette smokers, no one strung out on heavy drugs, and no drinkers – we had healthy women. We were eating tortillas, soy beans, pinto beans, black beans, green beans, lentils, whole wheat, tofu, dark leafy greens from our gardens, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. Sugar was rationed; we got a quarter cup per person per week, and we didn’t have any packaged food. None.” She shifted her body weight to the left, rubbing the ends of her tie-dye scarf. “Of course, the women still had to work hard, but they were indescribably happy. So Ina May and I realized that if the vibes were good and the woman was being loved and cared for, she felt relaxed and had an easy baby. That’s what makes it spiritual.”
I sipped my tea which had begun losing its steam and asked Pamela how she got so many people to follow her.
“Oh, we didn’t try to get people to follow. Women wanted to.”
Shortly after arriving in Tennessee, the midwives began piecing together a book of personal testimonies, which would be published as Spiritual Midwifery. After its publication in 1977, women from all over the globe began contacting them. “We actually had to get a couple of people to answer mail for us because women everywhere wanted this,” she laughed.
Today, they deliver about 10 to 12 babies a month and have seven midwives with five practicing. Two are registered nurses while all are Certified Professional Midwives through the North American Registry of Midwives, which involves documenting initial and continuing education, passing a written test, and maintaining certifications in neonatal resuscitation and CPR. “We work very closely with Vanderbilt,” she explained. “We want to stay up to date on any new medical developments.”
But despite its ancient roots, the United States has a history of criminalizing midwifery after the medical market overtook it in the 1930s. While Nurse-Midwives are legal in all 50 states, Certified Professional Midwives are only legal in 28 and Certified Midwives practice legally in a miniscule three. “You lose some babies – it’s low, but it’s the reality of delivering babies. If a midwife gets blamed for that, they take a nice, gentle woman who has done nothing more than deliver a baby, and they put her in jail. That’s why we need the law, and it’s why all midwives need certification so there’s a standard of care.” On The Farm, these midwives monitor the women throughout their whole pregnancies, labor, birth, and postpartum period, recommending appropriate actions in the event of complications. This, of course, involves consulting healthcare providers if needed.
Unfortunately, midwives have yet to reach the quality of reputation that is sought after in the medical community. “A lot of OBGYN’s think we’re a bunch of country bumpkin witches because some midwives have given us that reputation, which is too bad. Our goal is to make birthing safe for all women. To achieve this goal, we need to have these three entities working closely together: the midwives, the doctors, and the nurse midwives.”
She picked up two small bottles in the middle of the dining room table. “I was trained in medical medicine by doctors, but I still keep these herbs and tinctures for certain things because I know they work. We combine medical medicine with natural medicine.”
The Farm has several birthing cabins cozy with queen sized beds, small kitchens, and back decks. “We remember that this is for the parents, so we’ll monitor the baby and the mom but then we’ll leave her with her partner in early labor. Later, during her active labor, we monitor the mother and baby every few minutes. Any other time, if she wants us there, we’ll be there, but it’s up to her. It’s whatever she wants.”
Pamela flipped opened her Mac to show photographs of women giving birth at The Farm – down from Nashville, up from Alabama and Georgia, way down from New York, and far over from Indonesia and West Africa. Sweat forms in tiny beads along their foreheads matted with messy hair. They smile as if their baby is already in their arms; they don’t look like they’re in pain; they’re not scared; they’re not squeezing their husband’s hands so tightly that their fingers crack like in the movies. They appear in utter peace – as if they’ve achieved the ultimate nirvana, as if the birth is as pleasurable as the conception.
“When I’d help a woman with her first birth, she would look, in a way, like a young girl. But during that labor, I’d watch her bloom into a woman. It’s one of the most magical things you could ever imagine, and it’s an honor to be a witness to that with so many people.”
I drained the last of my ginger green tea, which had long since chilled. The ceramic mug thudded against the wood as I set it back on the table. Pamela tugged again at her tie-dye scarf.
“Why does it mean so much to you to help these women?”
“This is how I had my own babies,” she said. “I knew that if I could do it, pretty much anyone who was healthy and well could do it. So I wanted to help women. Of course, I never thought I’d be in the type of job where I was working mostly with delivering babies, but in the process of helping women, I fell in love with women. Women are brave. We’re absolutely beautiful creatures.”