Exclusive Interview with Mary Johnson

HP: Mary Johnson, it’s such an honor and delight to spend the afternoon with you today! Tell us about the birth of your groundbreaking book, Spiritual Midwifery.

IM: I knew people would be excited to read it when I was putting it together, it was the kind of book I wish had been available but I never dreamt people would be inspired from all over the world, that it would be translated into so many languages, that was a surprise to me!

Back then we hardly had any Cesarians, but most deliveries were done with forceps, with both mothers and babies suffering nasty consequences in too many cases. I knew that couldn’t be right, I didn’t know the extent of it, but when I started telling my story, amongst women who gave birth within the same two year period, I found that my story was, unfortunately, far from rare. I found out later, that a whopping two-thirds of women giving birth in the 60s had forceps deliveries. I don’t think this happened in any other country; it was a direct consequence of the ignorance that followed half a century of the eradication of the midwifery profession.

HP: So, what you call “spiritual” is this essentially a holistic approach to birth?

IM: At the time, the view of birth, as most often expressed, was that the birthing woman was a very badly engineered machine, and her body was impossibly flawed, and that no woman would be able to give birth without severely damaging to her perineum, and possibly crushing the baby’s skull. This is nonsensical, but the doctors in those days didn’t have the opportunity to see anything else, because this was a time when episiotomies were mandatory. Of course if you never see a phenomenon, you can’t imagine how it could happen, unless perhaps you were lucky enough to be raised on a farm and you knew how mammals give birth and that there are similarities across 5000 or so species!

I used the word spiritual to point to the belief that there is a special energy that is released, or that comes in, when a new person is being born. It can be drained away and wasted if we aren’t aware. Any person in the vicinity of a woman giving birth can be disruptive just by observing, talking, making noises at all.

The birthing woman has feelings, and her feelings matter. I couldn’t have told you back when I chose this word that negative emotions surrounding the birthing woman would raise her adrenalin levels, and she might have a fight/flight reaction, which will disrupt the birth process, or at the very least, cause her unbearable pain that she was not feeling before. Or her labor absolutely stops. I was seeing these things empirically: I learned that a woman couldn’t dilate until something appropriate was said to her, or until she voiced a fear she was having, or until a person who was disturbing her was asked to leave the room…

These kinds of things can make a tremendous difference, so I was basically saying that there needs to be a safe space, a sacred space, within which a mother can give birth easily. I guess, what we would call a “holistic” approach to birth today, recognizing and honoring the emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of birth.

HP: Speaking of sacred space, please tell us about your husband’s (Stephen’s) death. Did you see a similarity between gentle birth and gentle death?

IM: I remember from the 70s, we had some people come to The Farm in their old age, to live the rest of their life, and to die there. Death is definitely similar to birth. A person passing through this life has similar needs to a newborn, because it’s an extremely vulnerable time. And so, we applied the same principles as to birth: making them comfortable, avoid anything disruptive to the process, not letting any negative energy and emotions enter the room. People who are afraid or angry, people who are talking about irrelevancies, all these things are disruptive and disturbing for the person in the dying process. Anyone who works in hospice care knows this well, and this is something that we practiced.

It was surprisingly hard to establish that for Stephen, when it became apparent a year ago that his health was taking a faster decline. I’m still coming to terms with the fact that he and I, his primary caregiver, didn’t get to fully enjoy and benefit from the kind of gentle care that we offered to so many others in our community. I did create the safe space, but had to move in order to get it. He died in a neighborhood where many of the people are Amish, and they understood and respected my dying husband’s needs. And I received the right kind of support from them too. The dying person’s spiritual and physical needs should be placed above all, even when that person has been a leader and visionary within a community. These should not be overridden just because the community is not able to view their leader in this capacity.

HP: Is there anything you’d like to share on how his death reflected his beliefs and the way he lived his life?

IM: Well, he was an amazing person, a brave person, and he showed that in his last days. A fond memory I have is of four days before he passed, my son suggested to him that he carry him out to the porch to enjoy the beautiful sunset. He said yes, and we shared a beautiful 20 minutes just enjoying this earth’s beauty, knowing that it was probably the last time we’d do this together.

HP: What a beautiful memory for you to hold! Thank you for sharing that. Tell us, how did Stephen contribute to your journey on becoming a spiritual midwife?

IM: First of all, I wouldn’t have become a midwife without his creative support. I attended my first birth on one of the caravan buses on our road trip. Thankfully it was a perfect, straightforward birth, and I was amazed by the perfection of our bodies. Stephen was there too, unobtrusively present. After the second birth on a bus, the baby needed resuscitation, and it was Stephen who gently puffed into the baby’s mouth and got it going. Everyone else, including myself, was paralyzed with fear and ignorance. This was a strong lesson for me in the responsibility of caring for a woman and newborn, in learning as much as I possibly could about childbirth. I studied hard over the next few years and picked my helpers carefully, so that no one would be too lazy to learn, or too proud of her skills to learn more.

HP: How do you view the role of fathers in childbirth? Drawing from your quote, It does a man good to see his lady being brave while she has their baby… it inspires him, how can fathers best support their woman before, during, and after birth?

IM: Stephen recognized that he had no place at birth, that it is a women’s place. He was very helpful when we settled in Tennessee in persuading the doctors we occasionally worked with, that a woman needed to be with her midwife when we brought her into the hospital for some complication; That it would be better for her and the outcome of the birth not to be separated from her midwife.

Remember there was a time when even doctors were barred from the delivery room when their own wives were giving birth. It was such a revolutionary thing to have homebirths! There were a couple of women in those days who felt so strongly about having their partner with them in the delivery room that they presented themselves at the hospital handcuffed together. This movement changed the delivery scene for a whole generation, and the next one cannot imagine giving birth without their partner.

I wrote my book Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth as much for men as I did for women, since birth can be hard for men to understand because of what I call the mystery of women’s bodies. There’s a protective function that men can serve in childbirth. They get the mind-body connection. We live in an era where some of the routine practices in hospitals aren’t scientifically based, such as the immediate cutting of the cord, there’s nothing better than a male voice asserting that they wish delayed cord clamping so the baby doesn’t become anaemic. For a dad just to be there, loving, patient, flexible, and observant, this is a good support to his woman.

HP: What is your advice for the future of holistic birth and parenting?

IM: Keep storytelling alive, be aware and alert to issues that can develop. Mostly it’s important for women to understand that birth is unique, no one can know and predict what birth is going to be like. We’re not machines, we’re not factories. It is our duty to bring back midwifery, a very important and necessary profession, and when midwives can’t be at every birth, to have a doula supporting every woman. At this point we’re recreating a birth culture. Even in societies where midwifery wasn’t interrupted like it was here in the US, there is the risk of birth becoming factory-like. Homebirth is the model for normal birth and its benefits can expand into hospitals, which should be nice places for people to give birth too!

In order to reduce fear, I would recommend a YouTube video called The Dramatic Struggle for Life, http://youtu.be/qoDE2jwHof4. It’s of an elephant giving birth in captivity, which for our species reminds us a little bit of a hospital birth. Her baby doesn’t breathe spontaneously, and she has to resuscitate it. That’s powerful to watch.

Another I’d recommend is Chimp Birth at the Attica Zoo, (in Athens, Greece) http://youtu.be/9bF_T3wBE14, and there you see a chimpanzee laboring in a very unusual position with the help of a doula, her grandmother. You watch her expertly give birth without any damage to herself, with definite calm and perhaps even pleasure.

You realize when you see these that neither of these mammals are afraid. Hopefully, what people will begin to ask is, “What could we learn from this?” Because as a culture, we’re terrified of birth, and this makes us extremely vulnerable to exploitation. You can make a lot of money off scared women.

The third one is HappyBirth.mp4, http://youtu.be/1ED2l4yMpO4, in which you watch a French woman have a lovely, pleasurable birth. Viewing this can take away a lot of fear. It’s a convincing testimony that there’s nothing wrong with our design!

HP: Yes, a good reminder! Thank you for spending time with Holistic Parenting magazine this afternoon. Any last thought you’d like to share with our readers before we conclude this interview?

IM: I will quote Stephen. He said, The wisdom and compassion a woman can intuitively experience in childbirth
can make her a source of healing and understanding for other women.

Mary it be so.