At Cascade HealthCare Products we are often in awe of the incredible midwives we work with. These are women who have not only played an integral role in the lives of hundreds of families, but who have often led exceptionally interesting lives of their own. One such woman is Patsy Harman - midwife, mother, author, wife, childbirth educator and life explorer. Sit back and join us as we journey through the intriguing life moments that led extraordinary women like Patsy into the passionate world of midwifery.
How did you get started as a midwife?
I began my life as a midwife and childbirth educator in 1972, in Duluth Minnesota. At that time there were no Lamaze classes or any way to have a father at the birth. My partner and I took the Greyhound bus to Minneapolis for 6 weeks to learn how to breathe! After that, we found a small hospital about thirty miles away that would let us be together. Twenty-four hours of back labor and a forceps delivery of my first boy made me want to help other women. It wasn’t an awful birth, it was just hard. That’s why they call it hard labor, right? Nowadays, I would have had a C/S, no question.
A few years later, I began attending hospital births as a labor coach and began to read everything I could about natural birth. I read Varney’s Midwifery, Spiritual Midwifery, Childbirth Without Fear, Bradley [author of Husband-Coached Childbirth] ... everything from cover to cover.
In the late seventies we moved to a rural commune in West Virginia where childbirth was even more behind the times. I started teaching childbirth classes to the other hippie homesteaders and soon found myself delivering babies. At one point I hitchhiked with another woman to Texas and did a two month rotation with the home birth midwives in Austin. Sometimes, it feels like I’m making this up! I didn’t plan to be a midwife, but I was called.
*For more on these incredible stories, read Harman's second book, Arms Wide Open: A Midwife's Journey1.
What were the barriers you had to face as a midwife?
I didn’t find many barriers, I just went out and started delivering babies. At that time we were young, strong, fearless and healthy. We didn’t know anything about 'living off the land', but we got books and we learned. It was the same way with delivering babies - get a book, deliver a baby. It all seemed straight forward and natural, but keep in mind the women I was helping were all in their twenties - lean, strong, had no risk factors, could drag a log out of the woods and carry two 5 gallon buckets of water a 1/4 mile and weren’t afraid of pain. In 100 deliveries we had one C-section.
As a CNM I also didn’t have many barriers, because my hippie, bee-keeper-string bass player became an OB-Gyn and we practiced together.
You were doing so well as a self-taught home birth midwife, why did you go back to school to become a CNM?
I had a part time job, through the War on Poverty, to visit the poorest of the poor in West Virginia. With 3 years of college experience, I would go to homes of women who had been identified as eager to help their families, and I would teach them skills in sewing and nutrition. We would get to talking about childbirth and I realized I wanted to help them in that area too, but they were too high risk and needed to be in a hospital setting. So began my journey of going back to school to get certified. That was the only reason. I knew I needed to get credentials so I could work in a medical setting that helped the poor as well as the hippie elite.
Where did you get support?
I got support from my husband, my commune and the families that I had helped. I also got support from the WV Coalition of Home Birth Midwives that we founded. We would meet every few months to share stories, thoughts and feelings. I miss those meetings. The midwifery meetings I go to now are more research-political.
How long did it take to get through your training?
I started as an LPN, because the War on Poverty was giving out grants to go back to school. Then I got a two year RN. I worked in a low-tech hospital labor and delivery in Ohio, while I got B.S. in Health Care Administration on-line. I never thought of being an administrator, I just needed some kind of 4 year degree to get into a nurse-midwifery school. A year later I got into the University of Minnesota graduate program which took two years to finish. So all told it took about five years. Keep in mind, I also had 3 little boys and a husband who was going back to school too.
What was the most memorable moment you had as a midwife?
Too many to remember! Maybe the first baby I delivered in a commune by candlelight (see Arms Wide Open: A Midwife's Journey for more on this story). I was only supposed to be the coach, but I ended up delivering the baby during a snow storm and that's where I found my true calling.
What are you passionate about besides delivering babies?
Saving Mother Earth. Everyone in the world having enough clean water and food. Everyone having warmth and love. Everyone!
What motivated you to start writing?
My husband, Tom, became in OB/Gyn in 1987 and we delivered babies as partners in the hospital and the birthing rooms for 20 years. Then about 10 years ago, there was a big medical liability insurance crisis, our premium doubled to $140,000 a year and we had to stop doing OB. It was a great loss to our patients, our city and to us, but it gave me more time and energy to reflect on the human condition and the state of childbirth. I began to listen more to women’s stories and I wanted to share them, so I wrote my first book, The Blue Cotton Gown2. It is a memoir about the courage of ordinary women.
What is it like to be an author?
It is great fun to write, especially fiction, like my first novel, The Midwife of Hope River3 and the sequel, The Reluctant Midwife4. A surprise benefit is that I go to book clubs, book festivals and book stores where I talk to people about midwifery and the state of childbirth in the United States. I feel I’ve become a spokesperson and that’s vey gratifying. I was honored that The Midwife of Hope River was chosen as The Book of the Year in 2014 by The American College of Nurse Midwives and it was also a USA Today best seller. Not to mention, it has also been translated into eight languages!
Have you faced any difficulties writing about midwifery?
The trickiest part is protecting each patient’s privacy. In my non-fiction books I had to deeply disguise everyone and most of the time, I also let them read the chapters they were in so they could give their consent. I also try not to make anything too gross when I write about childbirth or illness or death. Not everyone is as comfortable with body parts and secretions as midwives, doulas, lactation guides and doctors.
Can you describe the essence of your books in one sentence?
My books are about the power of childbirth, family and community, as well as healing, hope, love and courage.
Written By: Samantha Darling for Cascade HealthCare Products
3William Morrow and Company
4William Morrow and Company