By Patricia Harman
Beacon Press, 2011
324 pages, paperback, $16.47 (Amazon)
Reviewed by Molly Remer, MSW, ICCE, CCCE
I very much enjoyed Patricia Harman’s first book, The Blue Cotton Gown, and was delighted to learn about her new memoir, Arms Wide Open which is, in a sense, both a prequel and sequel to her first memoir. The first half of Arms Wide Open chronicles Patsy’s experiences with homesteading and communal living as a young hippie mother in the 1970’s. It also explores her thoughts and experiences with peace activism and her passion for an eco-friendly life. During this time, she attends her first birth and dives into her midwifery journey and eventually becomes a CNM practicing with her hippie-farmer-turned-OB/GYN husband in West Virginia. Her experiences with their years in a joint women’s health practice are described in The Blue Cotton Gown. Readers who, like me, wondered what happened where The Blue Cotton Gown left off, can find out in the second half of Arms Wide Open, which is a narrative of Patsy’s ongoing work with women through 2009 and includes her emotional painful moments in her marriage, as her husband struggles with fears of another lawsuit as well as with chronic pelvic pain patients who abuse his trust (chronic pelvic pain is a specialty of their practice).
I did feel as if there was a large chunk of story missing as the book somewhat abruptly skips from 1978 to 2008. We miss learning about any of Patsy’s experiences in nurse-midwifery school, nor do we learn much about her practice when she was a CNM attending births. The book transitions from her years as a self-taught midwife considering going to school to become a CNM, straight to her present-day years as a CNM in a private women’s health practice.
Harman’s writing style is lyrical and engaging as well as candid. The book is based on personal journals and reading it feels like eavesdropping on someone’s very private thoughts and feelings. The book is much more of a look at a woman’s feelings about her life, than it is a “manifesto” about birth or about the practice of midwifery. In this manner, I feel like you receive a much more complete picture of a midwife’s life and journey, rather than reading a sequence of birth stories. Patsy has a lot of life in addition to birth. While definitely not a “feel good” book, Arms Wide Open is a deeply touching and very honest exploration of one woman’s personal journey in life, love, motherhood, and midwifery.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.