The History of the Family Life Center and its Role in Midwifery
and Home Birth in The Free School Community
from my Reminiscences Chapter 37 - q.v. at


... The (relative) success of Nancy and Howie's home birth, and Betsy's enthusiastic new ambition to become a midwife herself led to several new developments. The word got around in the hippy community, and I was asked to do several more home births. I gratefully agreed to let Betsy assist me, and we soon developed a good working partnership as birth attendants. After teaching in the school for eight years, she enrolled in nurse's training at the Nursing School at Albany Medical Center Hospital, at my suggestion.
The almost completely rehabbed building at 20 Elm Street now became the location for a new service to families. We decided to call it The Family Life Center, which would offer, initially at no or very low cost to anyone who wanted to use us, a variety of services such as medical and legal self-help education. Our main reason for doing this was to try to help solve the problem of the high cost of various kinds of support usually provided only for middle-class families to those with very limited incomes. The interesting thing we discovered as we went along was the fact that the more we worked with families to help them get what they wanted - leaving cost out of the equation - the more we realized how revolutionary our concept was, and also how much it was a logical extension of the concept of a school which belongs to the families who use it.
During the year we were still located in the old building at 45 Franklin Street, I had developed an organic foods store (which I had named the Down-to-Earth Natural Foods Store) in the front room of the school, and had moved it to the front room of the new school at 8 Elm Street. This was not really a very good place for the store, and so, when we had finished rehabbing the basement of the new building at 20 Elm Street, the store was moved into the back room. Nancy, who was now working as a regular teacher in our little upstairs day care center, had previously run a very successful natural foods store farther uptown for several years, and agreed to manage the new store for us. The front room of the basement now became the location of our weekly Wednesday group. I resume my narrative:
By 1978, so many young couples who were connected with us in one way or another were getting pregnant and coming up against the up-tightness and cost of obstetrical care that we decided to move the ad hoc pregnancy and childbirth support group that had been meeting in my basement at 196 Elm Street to our (now almost completely) rehabbed building at 20 Elm Street. Because the two of us were nurses, we were able to do a lot of labor coaching in the hospital as well with various school families, and a few home births - mostly with community families. During the 80s we decided to formalize this fact, and announced the opening of an actual birth center - which we called Matrix. This was a birthing center for which we found medical support among the few doctors who were willing to act as backup for midwife-guided pregnancy, with the prospect of good, midwife-managed birth - whether at home, in the hospital or at the new Center - as the principal attraction.
A few of these new couples even bought up old buildings to rehab, in order to live close to the now coalescing little community around the school. Over the years there were four community weddings, and ten babies were born to families in "the village." The babies in the school between the ages of birth and two years, many of them born into the community, have seemed to us a breed apart, so alert, outgoing, playful, active, and affectionate that it has been a joy just to watch them together. ...
Initially I felt some trepidation at my temerity at having just taken on the role of midwife solely on the basis of my affiliation as a student nurse at the Boston Lying-In Hospital plus finding encouragement from the work of Ina May Gaskin and others who had become "lay midwives" during the seventies. But I gradually realized that this role, like that of therapist, was one of knowing my limits - knowing when it would not be prudent or safe to play the role - and, in the cases of those for whom it was appropriate, letting the natural process proceed to its conclusion with as little intervention as possible, and with the shared knowledge that we knew the birthing mother could do it! It worked well for the few women whom Betsy and I began attending.
Betsy's and my work in the field of birth was to assume even wider implications and proportions during the 80s, as I detail below, when I decided to take a trip to England and Europe in 1984. One of my reasons for making this trip was to see for myself if what I had read in a book written by a French surgeon-turned-obstetrician/midwife named Michel Odent entitled Entering the World, and another, Birth Reborn, also by him, which was filled with many pictures of birth, was indeed true! Odent had a clinic in a small hospital in a little town named Pithiviers, some kilometers south of Paris, to which couples were coming from all over Europe and America to give birth in a "birthing pool" he used to allow them more emotional and physiological support for the birth. I wrote about this visit (in part) as follows:
My first effort to make contact with Dr. Odent seemed hopeless. The woman at the desk sent me upstairs to the obstetrical floor, but the attendant there was adamant in asking me to leave at once, even holding the door to the stairs open and gesturing with her head. The nurse working with her seemed less sure, seemed to think she should tell the midwife about me, and ended taking me to her. The midwife seemed friendly, and called Dr. Odent on the phone and told him about me. Evidently he said she should bring me down to his office. She did, and held the door for me to enter. Dr. Odent was talking on the phone in English, telling someone about his recent trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he had just given a talk. He gestured me to a seat. As soon as the call was completed, he reached out with a smile and shook hands with me, and began asking me questions.
I mentioned having read his article in David Boadella's journal, which seemed to please him, and gave him greetings from David. I told him I had also read both his books, that I had had some experience with midwifery, and had spent some time in London with Meloma Huxley at the Active Birth Center, and that I was interested in bringing home a better understanding of both principles of birth. Dr. Odent seemed struck by the fact that he had just been talking with a woman from the United States as I came in, and that he had just returned an hour or so before from his speaking engagement in the United States. The conversation flowed effortlessly. He seems a totally natural person whose feelings come out as they need to, and thoroughly benevolent. He asked if I enjoyed singing. I answered that I did, very much. He invited me to go and see the town and to come back at six in the evening to join them. I said I would, and left, walking on air. ...
Finally, quarter of six came, and I headed for the hospital. The young midwife (the French term for midwife is "sage femme," which I like!) met me at the top of the stairs and ushered me into the room where we were to gather. There were already four or five couples there, some with small children. There was a small upright piano with its back to the front of the room, a blackboard on the wall behind it, and some twenty folding chairs set up facing the piano. Beds lined one wall. More people kept coming in, and then a jolly, energetic-looking young woman holding a little girl of four or five by the hand, and a young man. He sat down at the piano, and she began speaking to everyone in the room. The first thing she had us do was to come up and place the palms of both hands flat on the wood of the piano while the pianist played octaves and arpeggios with the pedal down. She asked us to notice the vibrations in our hands. Next she had us place our palms against the wooden panels that lined one wall of the room while he played his octaves and arpeggios again, so that we could feel the vibrations there as well.
Then she had us sing various vowel and consonant combinations in ascending scales, over and over, allowing the vibrations to open up our sensibilities and the muscles of the scalp, face, neck, chest, diaphragm and belly. Sometime during this warmup period, Dr. Odent came in, and the little girl who had come in with the leader ran over and sat on his lap. She seemed a member of his family, and I decided the woman leading us must be either his wife or his daughter [I was wrong there!]. Now more couples came in, the women in dressing gowns with their tiny new babies in their arms, whom they kissed and crooned over repeatedly. Not one of these little ones cried throughout the entire evening, even though we continued for several hours! ...
The leader handed out a mimeographed sheet of traditional French folksongs, many of them the ones I used to sing as a small child! I felt delighted. She asked us to choose our favorite, and I chose "La Mère Michelle," which I have always loved, about the lady who has lost her cat, and is calling out the window to tell everyone. Actually, it has been stolen by the evil Monsieur Lustucru ("L'eus-tu cru? - would you have believed him?") who has sold it for meat!
In between songs, while the one we had just sung was being collected and the next one handed out, Dr. Odent introduced me to a German couple. The husband understood French, and seemed fairly at ease, but his wife did not. I spoke with them in my rudimentary German, and it seemed to please them to discover that someone else was to some extent an outsider. The wife was clearly at term, and they seemed delighted to be about to give birth there at the clinique. After a few more songs, Dr. Odent introduced me to an American couple, who also seemed pleased to see another "stranger" there. The wife was actually in mild labor. Knowing that these two couples were there felt like a bond to me, and heightened my pleasure and satisfaction at having come.
Dr. Odent disappeared some time during this part of the singing, although I didn't notice until the midwife tapped me on the shoulder and whispered to me that he wanted me to come with her. I rose at once and followed her. She led me through a room with buff-colored walls and a terra-cotta colored floor, cream-colored drapes over the window, and a large, square platform bed covered with a white sheet set off by a heap of intensely-colored cushions, a low table with an indirect light, and not much else I can remember.
The room beyond was also dimly lit, but otherwise felt different, being cool blue-green in tone, dominated by a sort of swimming pool six to seven feet across and two to two and one half feet high, filled with water. In the pool sat a dark-haired young woman, naked, holding a baby very tenderly in her arms just above the surface of the water, watched over by her husband, also naked, who sat behind her and a little to one side. Their heads were bent over the child, and they seemed hardly to notice my entry. I could not tell at that distance whether the baby was nursing or not, but I think it was. Dr. Odent stood at the other side of the pool, up to his knees in the water in his hospital whites, looking like a benevolent stork. The stillness, the palpable holiness in that room was so moving, I held my breath, nearly weeping. Dr. Odent leaned over to me and whispered, "The baby was just born in the water. Now you should go." I nodded and smiled, thanking him with my eyes, and followed the midwife back to the singing.
During the break between songs, I shared my awe and my joy at this sight, first with the German couple, then with the Americans. They both seemed delighted to hear of it. The American couple asked if I were planning to be at Pithiviers long, and if I could be at their birth. I was very touched, and told them that it felt very good to be asked, and that I would love to, but that I had to leave. It felt to me as though it would have been possible for me just to stay at the clinique and take part in their program for the rest of my life! And I should have liked to do it.
Soon Dr. Odent came back and we sang more songs. Then all the new fathers and fathers-to-be gathered at the piano and sang a song to their wives, which the wives answered. Back and forth they sang to each other. The theme was one of learning to speak to one another, learning to listen to each other's point of view. The songs from then on were about love between men and women, both joy and pain, about bringing a baby into the world and watching over them as they grew, finally letting them go. The last song was a berceuse with a rocking rhythm.
Then we danced! Waltzed. Dr. Odent grabbed my hand, pulled me to my feet, and before I could catch my breath, he was whirling me around and around and around! I really could hardly believe it was happening. How good it would be if all of life could be so beautiful, so simple and natural. We were all very high and joyous with the singing, dancing, and sharing. The leader and the pianist shook hands with me as they went out, saying they could see I enjoyed singing. I thanked them, saying how much I had indeed enjoyed it.
As the others filed out, I found myself alone with Dr. Odent, who was beginning to look tired - which is not surprising, considering the fact that he had just come back from a long plane trip! We conversed for a few minutes, he half-lying back on one of the beds against the wall. He asked a few more questions about our program, which I answered. I thanked him for his hospitality, and told him I would like to know if he could come to Albany to speak with obstetricians and other people involved with pregnancy and birth if I could arrange it. He said he could, and that we would work it out by letter.
Then it was time to go. Dr. Odent accompanied me to the door at the top of the stairs, and we said goodbye. Leaving the hospital, I felt light as a feather - which was lucky, because I tripped over a low curb in the pitch dark right over onto my nose, and scraped it! I was too high even to care! I let myself into my cold barn, peed, and unfolded four blankets to huddle under. I was asleep in no time.
Michel turned out to be the "French doctor" of whom Alan Vaughn at the Dick Sutphen seminar in Sedona back on the 70s had prophesied! The following year he came over to Albany to give us a well-attended workshop on birth. During the next few years, I also began making trips to England, on one of which I visited a wonderful birth support center in London being run by a young South African woman named Meloma Balaskas Huxley, whose marriage to Francis Huxley had broken up some time before. I believe it was Michel Odent who had suggested I visit the Center. Mel was a most cordial and affectionate person, and I stayed with her for several days, learning about the birth modality which she and her sister-in-law Janet Balaskas had started which they called The Active Birth Center.
Betsy's and my awareness of the scope of what we were doing expanded throughout this period of the mid-eighties. We had begun doing occasional home births and, having seen a description - or even a picture - of a portable birthing stool (perhaps at the Manhattan Maternity Center, which Betsy and I visited early on), we decided we should have one. Howie Mittleman and Frank Houde, Connie's new husband, had recently organized a small business which they called North River Boatworks, in our garage at 6 Elm Street, next door to the school. We showed them a picture of what we had in mind and asked them if they could make them for us. They said they could, and a new mini-indistry was born which lasted for over ten years - until, in fact, North River Boatworks finally disbanded. I'm not sure how many we sold to birthing mothers and clinics, but it was well into the hundreds!
Hearing in 1985 that Mel Huxley was planning an extended stay in America following the return from South Africa of her sister-in-law Janet to resume the leadership of the Active Birth Center, we invited Mel to give a workshop in the Capital District. The notice for this gathering gives a good idea of our concept of our proper role in the area of midwifery:
MEL HUXLEY is an internationally-known pre-natal teacher who conducts her classes at THE ACTIVE BIRTH CENTRE in London, England. She is in this country for six months, and will be speaking to groups concerned with the quality of childbirth in several cities both in the United States and in Canada. Her goal is both to acquaint Americans with what is happening in this field in England and on the continent, and to learn from us what is happening in this country.
Mrs. Huxley is the sister-in-law of Janet Balaskis, author of the best-selling book Active Birth. Along with Janet and her husband Arthur, Mel's brother, she is a founder of the Active Birth Movement in England. ABM is based on a concept of childbirth which trains couples in a process for undergoing labor and birth which gives the woman far more control of the course of her labor than has previously been thought possible.
The process involves a combination of physical, emotional and educational elements not unlike those promoted so effectively by childbirth teachers trained in Lamaze, Bradley and Reed methods of childbirth preparation, but takes these principles a step further in a manner which gives mothers-to-be an even stronger sense of their own power in the birth process. The active birth process, like the other childbirth methods mentioned, is not one which necessitates birth at home, but is readily adaptable to hospital conditions, given cooperative hospital personnel.
The principles of active birth are presently being practiced in two clinics abroad - one near London, under the supervision of Dr. Yehudi Gordon, and the other in Pithiviers, France, under the aegis of Dr. Michel Odent, author of Birth Reborn. In this country, the Birth Center of the Manhattan Maternity Association offers couples the same kind of active, parent-centered birth promoted by ABM. It is the same philosophy of birth practiced by any really humane and effective childbirth educator, midwife, and/or obstetrician, but the manner of delivering the message of control of labor involves the combining of new ingredients in that process. Thus, ABM could properly be called a philosophy of birth in the same spirit as that presented in books which emphasize the spiritual element such as Spiritual Midwifery,by Ina May Gaskin, Transformation by Birth, by Claudia Panuthos and Childbirth with Insight, by Elizabeth Noble.
Mel's Vita is also illuminating in its description, both of Active Birth, which is based on yoga, and on the climate of innovation in England at the time.
MELOMA BALASKAS HUXLEY is a Yoga teacher. Her interest in birth arose from her own psychotherapy and her work as an associate of R.D.Laing. In the ten years she spent around Laing she was involved with people going through 'freakouts' in therapeutic households and workshops called 'psycho gymnastics' by Laing and 'birthing workshops' by others. She went on to train as a pre-birth educator under the tutorship of Sheila Kitzinger.
She and Arthur and Janet Balaskas originated a new approach to birth preparation based on yoga, on historical ethnological and psychological evidence and incorporating their understanding of the profound effects of the birth experience on the newborn, the mother and the family.
The Balaskas books New Life and Active Birth; a Birthrights Rally attended by 5000 people and two International Conferences on Active Birth have brought about many changes in hospitals in England over the past three years, especially since the work of Michel Odent has come to public attention in a BBC Television film showing instinctive active birth in his maternity unit near Paris.
Meloma has run the Active Birth Centre in London for the past two years and is currently on a 6-month visit to the USA and Canada.
Squatting to give birth is not merely a bodily posture but an attitude os mind. Giving birth in this way a woman takes full responsibility for the birth of her baby. She is not a helpless patient having the baby extracted from her body; but is fully participating in the act of birth.
The sense of achievement and satisfaction, even excitement this brings to the mother is the feeling with which she greets her newborn; and the baby undrugged and alert responds to this greeting. This is the beginning of a lifelong bond; the closest, most intimate relationship of our lives.
Some women given the right environment at birth will instinctively move around during labour and stand, squat or kneel to give birth.
Others need to be opened to the possibility of giving birth in this way. We have become stiff and set in our ways and can no longer adopt the positions natural to birth. Stiffness is a psychological habit, an attitude of mind which has become set in the musculature of the body. By practising natural birth positions a woman can regain the range of movement the body is designed to make and change her way of seeing herself, the baby and the birth.This enhances her chances of giving birth actively, even if the atmosphere at birth is not optima, and increases her enjoyment of the birth.
With Janet's return to London, the timing for a new international Midwifery Conference in London, England was ripe. Receiving a notice of the conference, Betsy Mercogliano and I decided to go, and invited Cynthia Tomko, a friend who was interested in becoming a midwife, to go with us. It was a huge gathering of midwives and other people with involved with or advoating for natural birth. Everyone we had read about or spoken with was there, including Sheila Kitzinger, Elizabeth Noble, Ina May Gaskin, Drs. Michel Odent, Yehudah Gordon, and Marsden Freeman, the Commissioner for Public Health in the United States whose awareness of the high mortailty rate among newborn infants in the U.S. had led him to explore the much more favorable birth statistics for home birth. We also visited Michel Odent in London, where he had moved - now remarried and with a tiny son, Pascal - who was offering home births to London women.
We drove around England after the conference, ending up by visiting David Boadella's wife Elsa Corbluth again in Dorset. She took this picture of the three of us at the top of a ruined chapel dedicated to St. Elizabeth in nearby Abbotsbury.

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