Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Love and Joy of All My Babies

I recently discovered a 1952 nonfiction film called All My Babies: A Midwife's Own Story. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, I really loved this film. It is a beautiful, touching, and instructive view into what it was like for black women in rural Georgia to birth their babies in the early 1950s. Less than an hour long, it was sponsored by the Georgia Department of Public Health and, according to the synopsis,

shows the preparation for and home delivery of healthy babies in both relatively good and bad rural conditions among black families at that time. The film is in addition both a deeply respectful portrait of "Miss Mary" (the featured midwife) who is revealed as an inspiring human being and a record of the actual living conditions of her patients.
There is so much love and so much joy in this film! And the one live birth that is captured on film – so peaceful, so beautiful. This mother is a woman of relatively good socio-economic status, as evidenced by her modern home, new shoes, and live-in housekeeper. She has successfully birthed two children already, and she is confident, calm, and quiet during her labor and delivery. Such an inspiring birth to watch. (I birthed my children in a hospital with a doctor, a choice I have no regrets about making. I chose to forego any pain medication and birth my babies as naturally as possible, and I can tell you I was not nearly so calm or quiet during either of my births as this mother was – not by a long shot.)

There is some fear and grief depicted. The other mother lives in very poor conditions and has little emotional or physical support. This is her second pregnancy – the first resulted in a stillbirth, and it is apparent that neither she nor her husband have recovered from the devastating loss. This mother has no confidence – she cannot get motivated to eat properly or start collecting the items she will need for the birth and the baby – she assumes this baby will also die. The baby is born premature, but healthy. It is a relief to see this mother four months postpardum looking healthy and stable, coming into her own as a mother. The baby is thriving and the father is so delighted with his young son he can hardly stand it. Although this father presents an unsympathetic character earlier in the film, with his anxiety and apparent lack of support for his wife, he expresses so much joy for his baby.

Which brings me to the portrayal of men in this film. Men are absent from much of the footage, but they are present in the background. There is the white male doctor at the clinic that the midwife takes her clients to see (this is 1952, let’s not forget). Then there are the fathers – waiting outside while their wives labor in their bedrooms, taking care of older children or chopping wood to keep the fire going so that water can be heated and instruments can be sanitized. In this world, although they certainly share in the joy of their new babies, the men have a supportive role. This is ultimately a film for and about women. Women birthing babies. Women attending to them. Strong women. Capable women. Loving women. Supportive women. Joyful women.

In a film like this, race must also be mentioned. This film specifically shows black midwives attending to the home births of black women. There is no indication that white women in the same area during the same time period gave birth in similar circumstances (at home, attended by a midwife). Also, the two white people in the film – the white male doctor and his white female assistant at the health department clinic – are people with obvious power and status. The white female assistant instructs the pregnant women on nutrition, and helps deliver and set up the incubator in the poor household in which the premature baby is born. It is clear that these two individuals have social status and power, and while relations between them and the midwives and families are polite and professional, there is a palpable dynamic between them.

You can watch All My Babies at If you want to learn something about natural childbirth, learn about birthing practices in a particular time and place (this film was selected in 2002 by the Librarian of Congress as a "culturally historically and artistically significant work" for permanent preservation in the National Film Registry) or just see an inspiring, beautiful film celebrating love, joy, midwifery, and babies, I highly recommend you go check it out.

This post was submitted as an entry in the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival. You can find links to the other entries here. Check it out!

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