Thursday, March 8, 2007

All My Babies


I arrived late to the screening of All My Births, and was graciously ushered in by the woman in charge. She said, I'm so glad you came, and you haven't missed the birth! The bit that I missed apparently set up the story of this rural midwife, practicing in Ga. in the 1950's. Part of the story (it's a scripted documentary, which is apparently pretty rare) was to follow one woman, who was actually a part of the community that Miss Mary served, and received good prenatal care. There was another woman who did not come for prenatal care, had had a history of stillborn premature babies and this character was portrayed by an actress.

The birth was incredible. The lead in was stunning. Long shots of Miss Mary scrubbing fingernails to elbows, and then still shots of her supplies laid out carefully around the bedroom on newspaper. She made this delicate little trash bag out of folded newspaper that she dropped her sterile gauze pads into after wiping the mother's vulva. Metal butter dishes filled with water and nailbrushes and more sterile gauze that had boiled on the wood stove. It was quiet, so quiet. There wasn't much moving around, either by Miss Mary or the laboring woman. The birth happens in real time on the film, from the crowning (which amazed me, because the head kept showing and then retreating, peeking out and then sliding back in, over and over!) to the delivery of the head, then shoulders, then slip the rest of the body, and there's a baby!

I cried as much about the tying of the cord as I did about the actual birth. Miss Mary said, "We're going to go on and cut you loose now, little one". I'm processing all the cardiovascular stuff we've been learning this week, about the rapid changes that occur as babies switch to breathing air from receiving the maternal oxygenated blood, and it had a much more emotional impact. Sometimes, learning the details of a process make it less real, more memorizable, more detached and clinical. To see this birth, and really understand what was happening within that child's heart while she's worked on him was astounding. I had to talk to myself about this very logically, because my first instinct was to think of the time in the birth canal like a code that would need to be called if it went on too long.

The sound was apparently all dubbed over, and that intrigued me. Was the filmmaker trying to make it easier to watch? Trying to emphasize that good births are quiet? Or trying to allow the visual to override the auditory? I was expecting more talking by Miss Mary, more chatter to calm the mother - but the chatter in my birthing room certainly didn't calm me, now that I think about it.

I had somehow gotten the impression that this film was intended as a cautionary tale, to show how backwards rural midwives were. And what the flyer that I picked up afterward said was that All My Births was intended to be a teaching tool for midwives of the time. The gracious woman from the Center for Documentary Studies said that the film has been deemed a work of art worthy of preservation into perpetuity, and seemed to think that a DVD might be available. Apparently, the filmmaker had made another film before this with a dry title like Contemporary Obstetrics Today that featured only white laboring women and clinicians. I'd be interested to see that, and see if they were hospital births, and how the two portrayals differed.

In other news, I think that my friend hung up on me today because I responded to her reports of nausea with a dissertation on borborygmi and the reflexive navel-clenching reflex.

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