In Arms Wide Open, Patricia Harman takes the reader on a fascinating journey of how she became a certified nurse-midwife. An honest and often poetic memoir, we move with Harman through several peace activist communes in rural America to a remote cabin in Minnesota, where she learns about natural birth, and eventually end up in West Virginia, where Harman opened a women's health clinic with her Ob/Gyn husband. Her experiences throughout the book are as educational as they are entertaining.Harman’s interest in midwifery begins while she is living in rural Minnesota, where there are few hospitals that allow natural childbirth or the father's presence during labor and delivery. Harman feels strongly that pregnant women should have more options and begins leading natural childbirth classes at the nearest library. She becomes known in the community and her introduction to being a midwife is trial-by-fire.
When women in her rural community are unable to get to the hospital in time to deliver their babies Harman steps in to assist as they are delivered at home. She describes in fascinating detail the births in which she has taken part, both as a midwife and a mother. She expresses the joy she felt delivering her second son naturally and the deep sense of pride that her first-born, Mica, was able to witness his younger brother's birth. She writes, "I asked Mica what he thought of the birth, and his words knocked me over. 'It is like you were fighting for your life, only it wasn’t your life, it was the baby’s.'”
Eventually, Harman takes steps to receive professional nurse-midwife training and certification. I was surprised to learn that certified nurse-midwives provide care to women not only during pregnancy, labor, and deliver, but also throughout their lives. The services they provide are broad and comprehensive, includes primary and gynecologic care, family planning, and assistance during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum for both the mother and the newborn.
A common thread throughout Arms Wide Open is the conviction that women have a right to be informed and empowered when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. The book winds down with Harmen's bittersweet admission that the fear of a medical malpractice lawsuit caused her to stop delivering babies. Home birth midwives are legal in West Virginia, but in the rare event that a baby is lost during a natural birth, the coroner’s office investigates and that brings the potential for a lengthy (and costly!) lawsuit. A silver lining does exist: Harman and her husband continue to run their women’s clinic in West Virginia, and they are committed to providing quality medical care to rural and low-income women.
Gita Tewari is a freelance writer and editor based in the Chicago area.