Arms Wide Open: A Midwife's Journey
by Patricia Harman


Beacon Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-807-00138-7.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 03/27/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events

In the hands of a gifted storyteller, a memoir becomes more than a chronicle of the writer's life. It becomes the history of a time and a place. —Doris Kearns Goodwin

Arms Wide Open is the haunting story of Patricia Harman's personal journey from the rootlessness of her hippie life to the rooted, responsible life she leads now, as a nurse-midwife-educator. But it is much more than the story of her life: it is the history of a maturing philosophy and her counter-culture life during a period of remarkable cultural change.

Patricia Harman begins her story in 1971, in a log cabin on 80 acres in the woods of Minnesota, with her friend Stacy and their little boy Mica. The family was committed to living lightly and sustainably, without electricity, running water, power tools, or the financial cushion of work in town. The stories of this period are drawn, Harman tells us, from the Red Journal she kept at that time: stories of planting, harvesting, beekeeping, building; of winter isolation and summer visits to their commune friends in Duluth; of teaching natural birthing to the area women; of bears and river floods and terrible snows; of separating themselves as far as possible from the military-industrial complex that seemed to rule life in Vietnam-era America. But while Patricia loved life on the land, she also felt the need for community and the desire to work toward a social goal that was larger than the narrowly personal. The first chapter of her journey ends when she leaves Mica in the care of his father and sets off into an uncertain and nomadic future.

The second part of Harman's memoir, based on her Green Journal, is set in the late 1970s. Patsy has moved to a commune on a wooded ridge in West Virginia, into marriage with Tom, the birth of two more sons and a reunion with Mica, and the self-taught (and later fully credentialed) vocation of midwifery. She is living life on the land and in community, but the commune, like so many of that era, comes apart as people move on to another stage of their lives. Patsy and Tom move on, too, into what seems like an impossible ten-year plan that will take them into the medical profession.

But they persevere, and succeed. The third part of the memoir, based on her Silver Journal, takes place thirty years later, in 2008-2009. By this time, the Harmans are a successful husband-wife team of women's health care practioners, with a thriving practice in Appalachia, a lovely home on Hope Lake and a summer cottage on an island on Lake Erie. "I laugh at myself," Harman writes. "Once we lived in a log cabin, before that a barn with a dirt floor, then there was the butterfly tent. What yuppies we are, with two lakeside homes!"

But with success come the challenges of practicing medicine in rural America—challenges which are every bit as real and difficult as bears and river floods and life-threatening winters. Successful as they are, the Harmans don't live an easy life, especially since they have become uncomfortably aware of the looming climate change, the need for alternative energy, and the need to defend their practice against those who don't share their commitment to rural women. "I can't sing 'We shall overcome' anymore," Harman tells her husband. "I used to think I had the answers, knew how to make the world better." Now, the world seems unredeemable. But her husband doesn't agree. "We should move ahead," he says. "Nothing will change if everyone waits...We just need to do what we can."

Like Harman's first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, this one is rich with compassion, understanding, and—yes—joy. It is the story of a remarkable life lived with unflinching self-awareness and well and truly told.


Patricia Harman, CNM, has published in The Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health and The Journal of Sigma Theta Tau for Nursing Scholarshipa as well as alternative publications. She is a regular presenter at national midwifery conferences. Harman got her start as a lay-midwife on the rural communes where she lived in the '60s and '70s, going on to become a nurse-midwife on the faculty of Ohio State University, Case Western Reserve University, and West Virginia University. She lives and works near Morgantown, West Virginia, and has three sons. Visit her website.

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