Arms Wide Open is both prequel and sequel to midwife Patricia Harman’s first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, which recounts events from a tough sixteen-month period of her life through the collective stories of her patients. In contrast, Arms Wide Open is her story, is told to the reader based on three journals that take us from Harman as a young mother living a sustainable, isolated life with her lover and son in a log cabin in the wilds of northern Minnesota; to Harman’s life as a wife, mother and passionate birth advocate living in the hippie Commune on the Ridge who finds her calling as a midwife; to that of a mature, successful midwife and co-owner of a women’s clinic living in a suburban, gated community in the Cedar House on Hope Lake in West Virginia. In her clear, strong voice Harman explores how she journeyed from point A to B through nature, birth and motherhood.
Harman’s connection to the natural world is evident throughout the memoir. An early encounter with a bear on her front porch leaves her with a lasting connection to the bear as totemic symbol and future guide. Deliberate celebrations of summer and winter solstices throughout the years reveal her belief in the power of the earth. Harman has a curious wonder and keen eye that sees, appreciates, and captures the small wonders that might go unnoticed by others. These qualities bring life to her work, especially when writing about her interactions with nature.
As a midwife’s memoir, the profound effect that caring for birthing women has on Harman’s life is unmistakable. Arms Wide Open points to the connections between the work of birthing a child and the work of life, as both physically and emotionally challenging. At first, Harman is engaged in the hard physical work of chopping wood and trekking through the wilderness of rural northern Minnesota, turning the soil with bare hands to plant vegetables. Later, her work evolves into the work of birth, hands slick with olive oil welcoming babies into the world. Further still, she engages in her life’s work with an open mind and heart to wipe away the tears of women patients who are floundering, to hold the hands of her spouse and children, to love them unconditionally and ease their suffering, and to encourage and reach out to others even when she herself is hurting.
In labor what might work to ease one contraction, won’t ease them all. Women must move, change, and adjust in birth. Just as in life, Harman’s book serves to remind us, the ideals or lifestyle in one phase of our life might not sustain us throughout. We have to be malleable, to be able to break ties, however painful, and to move on. Though this is hard, it is necessary. Harman shares several times, most poignantly when she leaves her lover and son in Minnesota to pursue her own dreams, in which she transforms herself in order to enter the next phase of life’s journey.
As all mothers learn, this changing and shifting doesn’t end with birth. It is only the beginning of a phase where we must learn to constantly adapt to the changes within ourselves, partners and children. As mothers, we must learn to let go. Harman struggles with this, as we all do, when her eldest son moves to Russia with his family and when her youngest son works to find his place in the world and moves back into the empty nest. We quietly hold our own pain and support our children with amoeba-like grace, stretching ourselves around our loved ones and surrendering to change.
Harman’s memoir stands as an example by presenting moments of joy and pain, mistakes and successes, a life laid bare. If we read between the lines, her hope for us, as readers, mothers and human beings, is clear. May we be passionate about our lives, loved ones, and the earth. May we embrace our work, learn to surrender, and remember to enjoy the fruits of our labors. May we live with our hearts on our sleeves, care deeply and love fiercely. But mostly, may we ride the waves of life and embrace the journey with arms wide open.