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June 1974

I want to tell you about the birth of Ira because it is a lesson in compassion.

One warm June night I got a call to go out to a birthing. It was a relief to hear that this mother had finally begun her labor, as she and I had been expecting the same week. My baby had been born three weeks early and was now six weeks old.

When I got to the bus where the birthing was happening, I could see that the mother felt the same way I did. Her eyes were bright and dilated. Although this was her first baby, she did not fight the energy of her rushes, and before long, her cervix was nearly all the way open. I decided that it was time to check her dilation and did so, discovering then that the baby's face was presenting instead of the top of his head. When the head began to move down the birth canal, we began to see the baby's mouth, all beautiful and rosy and delicious-looking. During a rush I would put my finger to his lips and he'd suck it. I felt that I had a special kind of relationship with this little one, to get to communicate with him so strongly even before his birth.

When his head came out, I couldn't integrate what I was seeing at first. His body followed quickly, broad-shouldered, lean and long-limbed-proportioned more like a full-grown man than a brand new baby. I pulled myself together then and looked at his head. What I was seeing was his brain, for no skull had formed over it. I remembered then having seen pictures of babies like this is a couple of obstetrics textbooks, with the caption "anencephalic monster" underneath. The question arose in my mind whether it was right to help him start breathing. I knew right away that I had to help him. He wanted to live. That was obvious. I couldn't withdraw my love from him because he didn't look like the rest of us. Then after the initial shock had begun to wear off, we began to see that he did resemble two of us: his parents. His mouth, for instance, was an exact miniature of his mother's.

I decided that I should take him to the hospital. His parents agreed. I knew he wouldn't live long as he was, but thought perhaps they could help us out, make him some kind of plastic skull cap or something. He was so strong he almost kicked himself off my lap when I was taking him in - he had a kind of power that newborn babies don't usually have. I gave him to a nurse who felt kind about him, and went home.

When I'd get up to feed my baby in the night, I'd find myself thinking about Ira. (His mother decided to name him because it seemed like he ought to have a name.) About five days later, the doctors were amazed that he was still alive, and I found out why they were amazed. His parents found out by chance that the hospital as a matter of policy had not given him anything to eat or drink from the time they'd gotten him. This was a common practice in hospitals in this country during the mid-1970s, and these babies usually died within a few hours. When we heard that they weren't feeding him it came as a shock to us because we had assumed that they were at least feeding him. His mother felt very strongly that she wanted to care for him herself-that he was still her baby.

I called the pediatrician and said that we wanted to bring the baby home. She said that she didn't think it was a good idea, but she signed the papers and we went in and got him. There were nurses in the nursery who were unhappy about not feeding him because they wanted to help him too, but they would have been countering doctor's orders, so they didn't do it. Some of the people at the hospital treated us like we were weird hippies come to claim our weird kid, and other of them were very glad and felt that it was the right thing to do.

When the nurse handed him to me, he was as light as a feather because he hadn't eaten or drunk anything in five days. We felt that it was a miracle that he was still alive, and it was with gratitude and relief and love that we brought him home. He and his parents stayed at our house, and we fed him with an eye dropper because he was too weak to nurse. Both of his parents spent all their time with him as they knew he didn't have too long to live. His mother made him little hats and they sunned him on the porch. He never cried, but now and then, he called us. Both mine and Margaret's babies (both six weeks old) picked up that same call and used it for a few days after Ira had died. He lived for five more days. He was no longer a baby; he was like a wise old teacher. We felt very privileged to have a Holy thing being like that in our house.

It was a teaching to Dr. Williams too. When he talked about these babies he would use the medical term, "anencephalic monster," and we'd say, "No, a baby, not a monster, a baby," and that you should treat them like babies, and I said, "Anyway, back in San Francisco when a lot of us were taking psychedelics, I saw a lot of my friends look weirder than that." He understood.

Ina May Gaskin

Reprinted with permission from Spiritual Midwifery, Fourth Edition, by Ina MayGaskin.
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Last updated April 5, 2019