Rediscovering Birth by Sheila Kitzinger
Review written by Cristin Tighe
Sheila’s book is a wonderful contribution to the literature on birth, for moms and care providers. Its anthropological and historical perspective - as well as beautiful photographs, drawings and story telling - make it easy and interesting to read. It also gives women a chance to really put the modern day birth experiences and approach in a larger context, and helps reveal that today’s, approach to birth is socially created. Also, the current, often incongruent approach does not meet or recognize women’s physiological ability to birth well. Sheila’s “searching questions” summarize well that “choices are polarized”, and there are “…many ways that are known of keeping birth ‘normal’, allowing it to unfold physiologically rather then under medical control.” (p. 8) She makes a powerful, daring statement at the beginning of the book -
“Each woman having a baby in a hospital is transformed into a patient. She is a temporary member of a tightly organized, hierarchic and bureaucratic medical system. The admission procedure marks the point at which the institution takes control over her body.” (p. 8)
This reality, of women ceding power to the institution, provides the framework for her explorations into past and current ways women can birth, not as cogs in a wheel, but as powerful, spiritual and physical beings.
The books exploration of “the wide range of possibilities” (p. 12) for birth is refreshing. Taking an event, which does unfold over time (and is viewed that way by the typical hospital) and allowing it to be seen as one of relationships, transformation, and timelessness is wonderful. Remembering the “power of women’s bodies”, the support they give each other, as well as understanding the “vital importance” of midwives” are key (p. 12). The book has an immense amount of information, here is what stood out in varied chapters:
A Small Miracle – historical understanding of early risk (not announcing pregnancy until the third of fourth month (p. 19), paying attention during pregnancy to baby (quickening p. 20), power of visualization historically (p.22) and lessons for now, babies’ sensitivities and awareness in utero (p. 33-37).
The Journey to Birth – cultural perception of time during pregnancy and labor (dominant medical model creates trimester thinking p. 40), preparation for safe birth/father/foods/antenatal care, exposing a pregnant body, the role of media, and implications of modern technology (p 64-66).
Birth and Spirit – symbols, role of religion, midwives, and spirituality.
The Good-Sibs: Woman-to-Woman Help (“sisters in God”) – the “norm” of woman-to-woman help in most the world (p. 99), the ideal solitary birth (p.99), examples from varied places of women supporting women, the value of this support – “…not only are mothers happier when they have another woman with them; birth is easier and safer. Female companionship is the one element in care which has been shown to be most effective in keeping birth normal.” (p. 122)
Midwives – support historically and in modern times, during pregnancy and during birth: “Birth is… a journey for which the specifics cannot be projected… The task of the traditional midwife is to support the mother in this process giving her whatever reassurance she needs (physical, verbal, ritual), to give birth successfully.” (p. 142), and examples of place-specific midwifery practices.
The Birth Dance – where you birth, positions for birth, freedom to move, and birthing in water.
Birth and Touch – the historic and shifting use of touch, the value of touch during labor birth and after for mom and for baby, the lost art of touch as one of great value in this process.
Sanctuary and Renewal – the real value of “seclusion” (p. 226), role of men during the sacred time after birth, foods for mom, and breastfeeding practices.
Can We Learn Anything From Other Cultures? That is the last question the book explores (p.244-250). The answer is a strong resounding - Yes! The book’s explorations allow us to understand the distinction between the “technocratic model” of birth, really the modern model that predominates, and the “social model” of birth (p. 246), like that practiced more historically. The key points are that in the social birth model “women know how to handle pain, and do not expect birth to be painless” (p. 247) and that it is “woman-centered” (p.250), while the technocratic model is pathological and patient-focused (about solving a health problem) (p.246). This distinction is key and important; women’s power and healthy, natural birth (and babies) rely on us asking these questions. But, as pointed out, the technical interventions are needed when complications and emergencies arise. The next steps for women taking back the power of birth, will rely on someone to create a model that is not one of duality! There must be a way to bring together the medical providers - who must handle emergencies and work under liability and time pressure - and the women -who must handle birthing their babies - in a way that is respectful and congruent with all involved, in a way that is not corporate and economically based, but a way that honors women and babies and the normalcy of birth through the entire process. I look forward to a future innovator that takes the lessons here and merges these so-called models (also socially and culturally created) and gives us the tools to create a reality based on increasing positive possibilities for everyone involved in birth.
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