Arms Wide Open, a Midwife’s Journey
by Patricia Harman, 2011
In her first, highly praised memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, Patricia Harman recounted the stories that patients brought into her exam room, and her own story of struggling to help women as a nurse-midwife. In Arms Wide Open, a prequel to that acclaimed book, Patsy tells the story of growing up during one of the most turbulent times in America and becoming an idealistic home-birth midwife.
Drawing heavily on her journals, 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 in living a fully sustainable and natural life. In the 1960s and ’70s, she spent over a decade with her first partner living in rural areas in Minnesota and Ohio before eventually purchasing a farm with Tom Harman in West Virginia.
Patsy recounts the hardships and the freedom of living in the wilds of Minnesota in a log cabin she and her lover built with their own hands, the only running water hauled from nearby streams. She describes long treks in the snow with her infant son strapped to her chest, setting up beehives for honey, and giving chase to a thieving bear. Eventually, yearning for more connection, Patsy moves into communal life, forming alliances with the eco-minded and antiwar counterculture that was both loved and reviled in those days.
As a young mother on the commune, Patsy offers her personal experience and assistance to other women who, like her, wish to have safe, natural births. In time, she becomes a self-taught midwife, delivering babies in cabins and on farms, sometimes in harrowing circumstances. But her passion for the work drives her to want to help more, to do more. And so she begins the professional training that will fully accredit her to assist in childbirth. In a final section, Patsy takes us into the present day, facing the challenges of running a women’s health clinic with her husband, mothering adult sons, and holding true to their principles and passions in the twenty-first century.
More than a personal memoir, Arms Wide Open paints a portrait of a generation’s desperate struggle to realize their ideals as they battled against the elements and against the conservative society that labeled them “hippies” and belittled their ecological and pacifist beliefs. Her memoir is a beautiful recollection of the convictions of the baby boom generation, a riveting account of surviving in the wild, and a triumphant story of living responsibly in our over-consuming society.
“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