I feel that it’s very hard to take what little we know of childbirth in ancient times and cross reference it with contemporary midwifery to construct some semblance of a historical picture. Ina May Gaskin’s efforts to bring birthing back to it’s natural state are commendable, but were women in ancient times as blissful in their pregnancies as Ina May’s patients?
Let’s look at what little we know about childbirth in the Roman world. Death in childbirth was much more common. Was this because of the nature of natural births or the remedies being prescribed? Pliny had some wild ideas for aiding childbirth. In Midwives and Maternity Care in the Roman World, Valerie French recounts some of his folk medicine remedies: “According to Pliny, fumigations with the fat from hyaena loins produce immediate delivery for women in difficult labor… A drink sprinkled with powdered sow’s dung will relieve the pains of labor, as will sow’s milk mixed with honey wine… Delivery can also be eased by drinking goose semen mixed with water or ‘the liquids that flow from a weasel’s uterus through its genitals'” (2). Imagine being in the throws of labor and having to drink vile concoctions on top of trying to push a baby out! While these alternative methods may strike contemporary humans as grotesque, they may have proven beneficial on the basis of placebo effect. But, even so, it’s hard to imagine the placebo effect would outweigh the disease and infection that surely spread with such unsanitary conditions!
However, there is something to be said about the placebo effect. I am a firm believer in the power of the mind. I imagine that the state of a woman’s mind has a lot to do with her pregnancy. 1st century BCE Greek physician Soranus recognized “that a woman’s attitude and state of mind can have an important bearing on the ease of her delivery” (9). A woman in fear is going to restrict her muscles in response to said fear, thereby making her birth even more difficult. What can allay a pregnant woman’s fears? It seems that women under the tutelage of Ina May and those of ancient times had something in common. A pregnant woman in Rome “had the constant company of some of her female relatives and the midwife to encourage her and to divert her mind from the pains of labor” (4). This setting sounds very familiar to the births depicted in the film Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & The Farm Midwives. Perhaps this is why Soranus suggests that midwives must be highly competent, free from superstition, and learned. A good midwife insured the safety of the mother and child, just as she does today. Her temperament can have a great effect on the mother’s psyche.
Valerie French posits that “well trained midwives were more likely to come from the Eastern, Hellenized end of the Mediterranean Basin” where midwifery was a more esteemed profession. Practitioners in the west were of a servile origin and were placed in a relatively low social status. Whether it is true or not that infant mortality in the Greco-Roman world depended on the socio-economic class of an individual (which appears logical) I think, comparatively speaking, those who were lucky to come under the care of a midwife who was trained by someone like Soranus would find themselves in better care than those drinking animal semen.
Were any of these ancient women really experiencing what a birth would be like on “The Farm”? Ina May’s community of midwives seems not only to be unique in the history of the world, but unique in contemporary times when the majority of women opt to give birth in a hospital. In Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Ina May talks about how “Ecstatic birth gives inner power and wisdom to the woman who experiences it” (xiii). Is this ecstatic birth, as she calls it, not achievable in a hospital setting? I have yet to experience a birth in a hospital, so I cannot personally speak to the matter, but I imagine it may not have the same effect. It seems logical to me that something as natural as birth should be performed in a natural setting. After watching the intriguing film Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & The Farm Midwives, I am personally ready to hand myself over to Ina May if I ever have a child. Her wealth of knowledge and confidence in her work is inspiring. I have admittedly harbored anxiety about birth since I was old enough to understand the meaning of the word. I always viewed it as a necessary event in the average woman’s life; an event that most cannot wait to get over with. To have my preconceived notions of birth turned on their head and to be reminded of the power of thought was comforting.
“The use of the will as the projector of mentative currents is the real base of all mental magic”
– William Walker Atkinson