Meet Patricia Harman

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Patricia is the author of The Blue Cotton Gown: A Midwife’s Memoir and Arms Wide Open: A Midwife’s Journey, as the author interviews herself!

“So Patsy…you don’t mind if I call you Patsy do you?”
“Certainly not.  No one calls me Patricia but my banker or a host on a TV morning show.”

Arms Wide Open: A Midwife’s Journey“Tell me this, Patsy….Did you know you always wanted to be a writer?”
No, not at all.  I’ve always written poetry, kept journals and written for a few small publications, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I sat down and began to pen the stories my patients told me.  I was so impressed by their courage.  After awhile the women’s stories became a book with my story interwoven and that became The Blue Cotton Gown.  The success of my first effort and the many questions I got from readers propelled me on to my second book, Arms Wide Open: A Midwife’s Journey.

This book, also a memoir, goes back to the hippie, homesteading, homebirth days, then fast forwards to now.  It’s based on three journals, 1970, 1979 and 2009 and tells the tale of how I became a midwife, but it’s more than that; a chronicle of innocence, survival and hope that both the young and old can relate to…In these troubled times we all need hope.

Can you tell me more about your life?
“You know, I’ve been thinking about that since you asked me for the interview.  I’ve already written quite a bit about my self in the two memoirs.

I will tell you a little about my early days, though.

I was born 1943 in Sacramento, California … and grew up in the suburbs of the Bay Area until I was eleven.  My mother was a homemaker and a substitute schoolteacher, my father a manager of a trucking depot.  I had one brother, three years younger than me.  From the outside of our track home in Pleasant Hills, it seemed pretty much like a “Dick and Jane” childhood… But inside the house, alcoholism and domestic violence…My father, a likeable, heavy drinker would come home from work on payday, three sheets to the wind, half his check spent at the local Pub, with lipstick on his collar.  There’d be a fight.  My mother was a jealous hellcat and approached him without restraint!

I’d lie in bed with a pillow over my head, but it didn’t shut out the yelling, or things hitting the wall.  I don’t like to dwell on it…not because it was so horrible (it was) but because so many people have it worse.  Nobody hit me.  I never went hungry.  Never lived though a war or tsunami.  Stuff happens.  Your heart might scar but it keeps on beating, keeps on loving.   When my parents divorced, despite my mother’s devastation, I was glad.  We might be sad and lonely (remember in the 50s divorce was a scandal) but there was peace.   I have always craved peace.

Whoa!  I know you referred to all that a few times in your books, but you seem so strong…I didn’t realize…
I’d like to say…”No big deal”, but I still go to counseling when things get rough …
School was my safe place.  I was ambitious from a young age.  Honors came my way through grade school, Junior High and High School.  I wasn’t a genius…just a bright hard working student.

One thing I recognized, early on, about myself, even then.  I was more serious than other young people.  Though no one else in my family was particularly religious, I attended the First Presbyterian Church, in Carson City, four times a week.  Sunday School, Church Service, Choir Practice and Youth League.  I thought about the meaning of life and was from an early age, a true believer.

So where did you go to college?
I started at seventeen, a little younger than most.  Lewis and Clark, in Portland Oregon, was generous with scholarships and my mom, who was now teaching full time, scraped up the rest.  My major was Speech and Theater.  I had no big plans, to be an actress or a newscaster; I just knew that teacher’s kids were supposed to get an education.  I chose speech because I was the Nevada State Oratory Champion in High School.  My winning talk was about America…I forget the exact topic…something patriotic, I’m sure.
The first exposure I had to the Peace Movement was at L and C’s temporary women’s dorm in downtown Portland.  A group of pleasant hippie chicks were making banners for a demonstration.  I’m good at drawing and offered to help, then someone asked, “You’re against the war in Vietnam aren’t you?”   This would have been in 1961.   “Sure,” I answered.  (I didn’t even know where Vietnam was; let alone what the fighting was about!  But gradually they educated me.) I dropped out in 1963, moved to San Francisco, lived on Haight Street and became a flower child!

So what happened next?
As I said, I didn’t have much thought about what I wanted to be…and then with the War in Vietnam, the photo’s on the news of Vietnamese mother’s walking through the rubble of their villages holding their dead babies…nothing seemed as important as political activism.  Later we realized it was all one big package and began responding to what we thought was an impending environmental crisis, with pollution, the wanton disregard for the overuse of fossil fuels and the rape of Mother Earth.

You were about thirty years ahead of your time weren’t you?
Yes, unfortunately.   It was during the War in Vietnam that I left the city, joined a commune in northern Washington and went back to the land in an attempt to separate myself from the military-industrialist complex.  We were trying to be an example to others, to reduce our imprint on the planet, use muscle power instead of fossil fuels and basically save the planet, but the austerity of our lives were too much.  I moved from commune to commune over the next fifteen years and in the end went back to civilization.

Was that when you became a midwife?
Yes.  That’s what Arms Open Wide is about…I gave birth to three children, two at home, all boys, and wanted to help other women have happy health natural births.   I delivered babies for almost thirty years, at home, in birth centers and in university teaching hospitals.  I went back to school, became an RN and graduated with a Masters Degree in Midwifery from the University of Minnesota.

Any comments about the rising C/Section rate in the US?
It’s appalling.   33% of all babies are now born through the stomach.  If God wanted it that way, we would have zippers!  Cesarean Sections are major surgery.  They have risks for mother and baby.  When they save lives they are great, but in 1970 when I had my first boy, the C/Section rate was 5%. Despite the great increase in operative delivery, perinatal outcomes have improved very little.
I think part of the problem with childbirth in the USA is…we treat neither the environment nor the birth process with respect.  We think we can “man-handle” it, dominate it…  Most of the time, if we stop intervening, the natural childbirth process works very well.  It’s the sin of hubris.  Tom and I stopped doing deliveries a few years ago, because of the cost of medical malpractice insurance, and I though I still do some prenatal care, I miss it.

Speaking of medical insurance, what do you think of Health Care Reform?
Don’t get me started!  The Health Care System in the United States is broken.  Everyday, in our women’s health practice, we see people who need tests, procedures or surgery and can’t get them because they don’t have medical insurance and they don’t have money.  We give some charity care, but we can’t stay in business if we don’t cover our bottom line.  Year after year, payments to providers go down and operation costs go up, but the CEOs of big Health Insurance Companies make millions in annual salary and incentives.  Something is very wrong.

You are a very political person. What are the challenges you see before us?
Well, I’m not as political or radical as I once was.  I live pretty much like the rest of America, but I did print out a map of the Middle East and tape it to my fridge so I could figure out the players yesterday and the last time I went to the supermarket I remembered my cloth grocery bags.

The challenges before us are the same as they were thirty years ago.   We thought the country and the planet were in bad shape then, but it’s worse now.  We’ve got the big mess in the Middle East, Global Climate Change, a broken economy and a 33% Cesarean Section Rate.

I think we went too far when we were hippie homesteaders, but we had the right idea.  We need to look at how we live, each one of us.  What can we do better?  Grow an organic garden, recycle, buy locally, turn off the lights when we don’t need them, car pool…  There are a million things we can each do and we have to start now.

So at sixty-seven, do you think of your self as a Living Legend?
Are you kidding?  I feel about twelve!

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Patricia Harman

About Patricia Harman

Patricia Harman's books, The Blue Cotton Gown: A Midwife's Memoir and Arms Wide Open: A Midwife's Journey, published by Beacon Press, Boston, can be purchased at independent bookstores, chain stores and on-line at Amazon.com and other internet stores.

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