“Of Woman Born” aims to make a name nationally for Asheville Documentary Film Scene”
Emily Graham Interviewed by Kristin MacLeod-Johnson
Try this on for size. You are 40 weeks pregnant. “Ready to pop,” to use a favorite American colloquialism. A documentary filmmaker is going to film the climactic finish of this journey, the labor, and whatever may transpire,which is truly unknown, because birth is treading in the waters of the great mystery. Hopefully there will be sweat, tears, dilation, grunting, nakedness, rawness, and ultimately, the opening and receiving of new life. Let’s also do it unassisted, and that does not mean just without drugs. It means without medical intervention. This is what 35 year old Emily Graham agreed to do back in February 2015 in collaboration with filmmaker Scott Kirschenbaum.
Kirschenbaum is a Yale graduate and producer/director of “You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t,” a documentary about Alzheimer’s and aging, that was profiled in the New York Times in March 2012. Today, Kirschenbaum is also a male doula. At first passing judgment, “male doula” feels suspicious. It seems almost implicit that doulas are women. Is this notion sexist? Absolutely.
But it calls for further investigation. After meeting Kirschenbaum in person and having a dialogue with him, it seems clear he is genuine. He sincerely cares about women and feminist issues. He posed a provocative question at the 2017 Indie Birth Conference: “When did the sacredness of birth become tantamount to the explicitness of porn?” (His response: “Fuck that” was met with cheers from the audience.) Kirschenbaum seeks to assist in propelling change in birth practices in America, as does his muse/star Emily Graham, who is a birth attendant by trade. Their combined moves to dispel negative stereotypes associated with childbirth–the violence, the slapstick, and the rampant censorship of it online–are bold indeed. Both wholeheartedly believe in normalizing birth, and as Kirschenbaum points out, the best way to do this is through the big screen.
When Scott Kirschenbaum recently spoke about his film, “Of Woman Born,” he made this statement: “The culture of birth, the culture of entering this world, is ludicrously rife with negativity and fear-mongering.” Studies have shown that the first 2000 days of a child’s life are paramount in predicting an individual’s future success, emotionally, socially, physically and interpersonally. This all begins at birth; therefore, we should be striving to make these impressionable times as positive as possible for both woman and child, taking into consideration what that means for all parties involved. We must be prepared though, because this is going to mean wildly different things for different people, under different circumstances, but really it all boils to one word and one concept: autonomy. And maybe also: acceptance.
For now though, let’s talk about one woman, one baby, one birth and one documentary film. Emily Graham, now 36, is the mother of four. She is doe-eyed and has cool tattoos. Ramona, her youngest, arrived in December 2016. The world is now forever changed. The following is an interview conducted with Emily via email.
Why did you agree to participate in this project and film?
What was the end goal in allowing your birth to be filmed? The first time I heard Scott talk about this project, I knew I wanted to be involved. I am the kind of woman who goes deeply inward during labor, and my surroundings disappear, so I thought I’d make a good subject in that way. The premise of the film, capturing undisturbed birth, is immensely important to me. As pregnant parents, when we move towards our birthing time, we seek out understanding of the process, and so much of the media available is interrupted by gloved hands and external commentary from midwives or partners. It’s rare that we only hear from the person giving birth. What are they going through? What are they thinking? Are they scared? Are they hurting? Are they transcending reality? This is what we want to know. We don’t need to hear someone say “Here’s your baby!” to a new mother.
Was there ever a moment when you thought, no, turn it off?
Of course! But not when people expect that it happened. Never during the
birth. I was actually grateful to be witnessed by such reverent and kind people. They were all so amazing, really. Perfect doulas. It was in the week leading up to birth that it felt like too much. They were setting up all the equipment, and testing out the cameras. We talked about my house and what I imagined for my birth. They had to remove all the reflective surfaces in the living room. I was in a hard-core nesting phase, and it felt like anti-nesting. I knew it was necessary, and I wanted to participate; it’s not that I was upset by it. And yet I was, in that late-pregnancy way, when everything is upsetting. I’d just go into my bedroom and shut the door and take a nap. And to credit the crew, no one mentioned it. No one knocked on the door. They respected my space.
What is your relationship to Scott? How did you two meet and why did you
want to work with him?
I met Scott through a mutual friend; she and I studied midwifery together. She heard about the project and knew she had to hook us up. I immediately loved his vibe. He’s creative and somehow intense and chill at the same time. He’s got a great sense of humor but he takes his work very seriously. He was so confident about this idea, even though it seemed like the rest of the world was skeptical. He met my partner, Jason, who loved him as well, and he was on board after that first meeting. He listened to my birth stories and attended circles with me. He was one of few people who knew about my series of early miscarriages during the year leading up to Ramona’s pregnancy. We’ve met one another’s families, we’ve traveled together. He was never afraid of my tears, nor was he afraid of my empowerment. He just respected me as I was, and let me do my thing. My relationship with Scott has really evolved over time. He’s become a brother to me.
What do you view as some of the biggest challenges women face during pregnancy, specifically in this final stage, labor?
Giving birth is full of unknowns, and the doubt that brings up is easily mistaken for worry or fear. Transformation always includes struggle, and when we don’t accept that, we suffer. And sometimes, transformation includes suffering, and that’s OK too. I think perhaps the biggest challenge is not being OK with what is. Acceptance. We don’t accept that we might not birth the way we’d like to, that it’s harder or louder or longer than we’d hoped. So we give away our autonomy to others. We let them make our choices so we don’t have to feel the heaviness of responsibility. It’s hard work, feeling that weight, but for me, it’s necessary.
As a <birthworker>, surely you have witnessed complications during births; some people may pass judgment and say your choice to birth your daughter “alone” was risky and irresponsible. How do you respond to criticism like this? Who was present for the birth, and what roles did they play?
I don’t have a response for people who believe my choice was risky. It wasn’t risky for me. It was just birth. I’m not open to debate about it; we all have our own truths. For those still seeking theirs, I hope this film can be a catalyst for introspection. I had loved ones at my birth; I always do. This time; my partner, my mother, a friend/neighbor and her baby daughter, my birthwork partner, and at the end, my daughter. They all had the same role, essentially. Be there, be quiet. If I ask for something, please provide it quickly.
Can you talk a bit about your spirituality? Are you religious? How does your faith and spirituality effect your midwifery practice and your pregnancies and births?
I’m not religious, but I do believe that birth is an experience that takes us to a place that humankind has always sought. There is an otherworldliness to it, and I find pieces of my soul there. I don’t think there is a way to separate spirituality and birth. Even in medicalized birth, we can always remember to be holy. We often don’t, but we can.
What do you view as successful strategies for de-fetishizing pregnancy, labor & birth in our culture?
Watching this film, hopefully! Really, though. Normalizing birth is the only way to de-fetishize it, right? We need to stop seeing undisturbed birth as a “hippie” or “counter-culture” thing, and just see it as normal. The norm. The default. We can stop belittling pregnant and birthing people. Birth is a personal event, a bodily event, a family event, not a medical one. Even when the act of birth itself is medical, the essence is not. We can take back our births, and refuse to allow them to be fetishized. Women are
fetishized, and trans* and gender nonconforming folks are. So it’s no surprise that when we fetishize bodies, we can’t accept the work and processes of those bodies. Like most worthwhile change, it starts with an open mind.
Why is the big screen the best medium for normalizing birth?
We haven’t started inviting young people into our birthing rooms yet, not often enough. Until that happens, we’ll have to invite them in virtually.
Do you view your decision to make this film as a political statement? Do you have anything you would like to say in response to our current political climate and also the possible label of this film as a “feminist” documentary?
Oh, hell yes, it’s political. And it’s also feminist. For me. Remember, we started working towards this moment in January 2015. Things were different politically then, but this story still needed to be told. Birth was, and is, being co-opted by the medical system. It didn’t belong to the people doing it. It hasn’t belonged to families in a long, long time. And I feel a deep pull to work to change that. Participating in a project like this, I’m saying “This act of birthing, this quintessentially feminine act, is my seat of autonomy. I don’t ask permission. I don’t need saving. I don’t need anything.” The possible criticisms headed my way don’t bother me. This is my story and it’s being told the way I want it to be told — authentically.
Can you talk a little bit about why you think birth is so censored in our culture, the effects of this, and our culture’s view on these sacred events?
Aren’t we as a culture a little afraid of authentic, self-directed women?! We dismiss them in so many ways, big and small, to prevent them from infecting others with autonomy. Patriarchal Capitalism (I know…we’re all sick of hearing about it) encourages women (and every other marginalized group) to feel disgust at and mistrust of their bodies. It requires divisiveness to function. There is an assumption that it’s a problem when people doing things differently, and creates an Us vs. Them scenario whenever we celebrate ourselves. It keeps us attached to labels and defending those labels rather than celebrating humanity’s stories. Birth is the story of all of us, it reminds us of our commonality, and a sense of one-ness is very dangerous to a competitive society.
Why do you think so many women are riddled with shame after giving birth? How can we prevent/remedy this?
In part I think it’s due to what I call “birth plan culture.” Expectant parents are encouraged, implored to create elaborate birth plans, but no one ensures they fully understand the physiology or mental/emotional/physical processes of birth, nor the system in which they’ll be birthing. There’s a sense of failure about the whole thing when the unexpected arises, but honestly,
that’s one of the things we DO know about birth: it’s unexpected and wild.
Tell us about Ramona. What’s she like?
This little gal is so pleasant. She’s never met a stranger. Her favorite things are: nursing on the left, nursing on the right (in that order), and her least favorite thing is a car ride. She’s in contact with another human about 22 of 24 hours, so what’s there to be upset about? She’s sleeping on my chest as I type this.
Lastly, how are you doing now, post partum?
Typical postpartum. Days are hard and long, or smooth and easy. I’m an old pro, or I have no idea how to take care of all these kids at once. I’m eating huge piles of food, or forgetting to eat for hours. I’m pretty good at doing anything with a baby to breast. I sleep enough and I’m loved. Of Woman Born – Vimeo – film maker Scott Kirschenbaum