Posted by: emjb | June 20, 2005

Preggo Bookshelf

Here’s what’s on my pregnancy/parenting bookshelf.

_[Spiritual Midwifery]( and _[Ina May’s Guide to Natural Childbirth]( by Ina May Gaskin.

Ina May is the original Earth Mother, but although Spiritual Midwifery has a distinctly hippie vibe, she is a purveyor of truly useful information on natural childbirth. Through trial and error while living on her commune, [The Farm](, in Tennessee, she has become an accomplished midwife–who has even had an [obstetric procedure]( named after her. She travels quite a bit and lectures to open-minded and curious OB/Gyns and midwives around the world. Her success rate for healthy, unmedicated births by the midwives at The Farm is well-documented and exemplary, and she has done a lot to help challenge the high-tech tendencies of hospitals and OB/Gyns themselves. She is still, to my mind, not well-known enough; what she has accomplished is truly extraordinary.

Personally speaking, I take out her books every few weeks and re-read the birth stories (which aren’t all positive; she includes miscarriage and stillbirth stories, and stories of women with complications who did have to deliver in a hospital). She has an amusing bit in Natural Childbirth about “sphincter law,” which goes something like this:

The birth canal operates on many of the same principles–and uses many of the same muscles–as the digestive tract. And everyone has experienced difficulty in getting their digestive tract to work in fearful or stressful situations; we’ve all known people who cannot go to the bathroom in a strange place or with anyone else in the vicinity. So it is with women in labor; very often labor will stall or even regress when a woman feels intimidated, threatened, or uneasy. A brightly-lit hospital room, a painful IV, the lack of ability to move freely, and a stream of strange and sometimes brusque hospital staff constantly coming in and out create exactly that kind of stress. Like other animals, women prefer seclusion and privacy to give birth, someplace they feel safe and comfortable. Which is why so many otherwise healthy pregnancies in a traditional hospital setting “fail to progress” and end up requiring drugs, interventions, and c-sections.

Gaskin takes this further, relating stories of women who cannot finish labor until they tell whatever is weighing on their minds and making them tense, and of the power of touch and laughter to make them relax enough to let their bodies do the work. She doesn’t go off into psuedo-religion or recommend crystals and mystic rituals; her suggestions are very down-to-earth and common-sense ones.

And given her record and years of experience, I believe she knows what she’s talking about. I just wish I could go to The Farm myself and have one of her midwives deliver my baby, too. In the meantime I push her books to anyone who’s interested.

_[A Wise Birth]( by Penny Armstrong and Sheryl Feldman. Published 1990, may be out of print. I got my copy through

Armstrong and Feldman use both their personal experiences (Armstrong is a midwife) and interviews with many different women to compile this examination of how birth came to be the way it is today–how it went from a private event to a medical procedure. Along the way, they are scrupulously honest about the hard truths; that women in the age before good nutrition, contraception, and antibiotics often died in childbirth. That when obstetrics became more medicalized, women at first greeted it with relief, believing that being knocked out with scopolamine was better than enduring the pain of childbirth, which had lately been so dangerous. The authors do not set up the obstetrics movement as bad guys trying to steal women’s heritage and personal control, but as a well-meaning but misguided attempt to save women from themselves.

As those who made decisions about what was and wasn’t normal and bearable during birth were largely male, it is not surprising that things began to take a wrong turn in the 20th century. Compounding the problem, prejudice against the old forms of midwifery and those who practiced it mean that a great deal of hands-on, practical knowledge of birth was lost. Now we have a system where OB/Gyns receive their training in the most extreme forms of surgery and invasive procedures, instead of being schooled in what a normal, uncomplicated birth is supposed to look like. Consequently, they tend to use their hard-won skills at any opportunity, even when they might not be needed. An insurance/malpractice industry that demands that all possible interventions be made increases the pressure on them, and subsequently, on women giving birth. On the other side are the midwives, doing their best to increase women’s choices and regain the knowledge that was lost, while still taking advantage of technology’s progress.

Anderson and Feldman don’t actually have a tremendous amount of practical advice to the pregnant woman, but do encourage her to understand that things haven’t always been this way and that she has the right to demand or refuse certain kinds of treatment. Their book is a good introduction to the ideas behind natural childbirth, and takes a lot of the mystery out of hospital procedures.

by Naomi Wolf.

Wolf is a problematic author; I tend to think of her as a gateway to feminism for readers who haven’t done a lot of reading in that field. She’s not always as deep a thinker or writer as I’d like, but she does have a way of making a subject interesting. I actually read Misconceptions several years ago while working my way through all her books. Having read a lot more in this field ever since, I can see that she has done some generous borrowing from other writers on the subject, including Gaskin and Armstrong and Feldman. She does have one new thing to add to Gaskin’s and other writers’ approaches to birth; she recommends teaching women that they will have to be “warriors” in regards to the pain, rather than only seeking to flow past it or avoid it. I liked that a lot, because acceptance and strength are both something I’m going to need a lot of in the delivery room.

_[The Pregnancy Book]( and _[The Baby Book]( by William and Martha Sears.

The Sears’ are two of the most famous propenents of [attachment parenting](, which focuses on understanding and responding to the baby’s needs, and emphasizes lots of touching and holding, carrying the baby in a sling, letting the baby sleep and eat on its own schedule, extended periods of breastfeeding, sleeping in the same bed (or same room) while very young, and potty-training later in toddlerhood. This is in contrast to a more disciplinarian approach (scheduled feedings, letting babies cry themselves to sleep) that is still popular but not as much as in our parents’ day. The Sears walk a pretty mild line on the controversial bits (co-sleeping, how long to breastfeed) but make a convincing case for treating the first three months of life as the “10th trimester” and easing the baby into the world with lots of touching and carrying. It’s kind of like treating babies as tiny agoraphobics, who need help dealing with a tremendous amount of new stimulation..and being close to mom or dad is the best way to make them feel safe while they do it.

This part appeals to me a great deal, because it makes sense to me–I can imagine how hard it must be to be a newborn after 9 months of warm dark comfort. And while I know I won’t have endless saintly patience when the baby’s cranky, I like that I won’t have to worry about “spoiling” them; one of the AP principles is that you simply can’t spoil an infant with too much love and attention. At the same time, they talk about ways to help the baby learn to “organize” himself with consistency and perserverence while you’re teaching them things like how to eat from a spoon or what their routine is at bedtime.

Most of this is addressed in *The Baby Book*, of course. *The Pregnancy Book* focuses more on helping the woman through her 9 months, and is a good basic source of information as far as that goes. It has helpful sections on drugs, and covers the stages of pregnancy well. However, I think they really need a new illustrator, because the woman in the diagrams seems all out of perspective, making it a bit harder to judge how well you’re growing. Even better, they should get photos of pregnant women of various body types, because how your baby sits and sticks out depends on how you’re built in the first place.

The only other thing that I don’t always care for is that the Sears tend to come off as a bit patronizing, and seem to gloss over their own problems (like the birth of their Down syndrome child) as well as over the difficulties faced by working parents getting leave and daycare. It was hard to pin down, but I kept getting the feeling they were about to pat my head and say “there there.”

There have been some other excellent books I’ve read that I’ll mention in passing, because they are more about politics and personal experiences than baby-makin’:

_[The Price of Motherhood]( by Ann Crittenden.

_[Operating Instructions]( by Anne Lamott.


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