Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born, By Tina Cassidy, Atlantic Monthly Press, 288 pp., $24
Folks expecting a baby or even contemplating starting a family in the near future might want to hold off reading Tina Cassidy's engaging new "Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born" until after the blessed event. Cassidy's vivid descriptions in the introduction recalling her mother's, her grandmother's, and her own experiences of giving birth are dismayingly grim. Even in the 21st century, there is so much that can, and often does, go wrong.
Those experiences spurred Cassidy, formerly a reporter at The Globe, to delve into the fascinating history of childbirth. Why is this still such a traumatic, often perilous event? "It is astonishing to me that we can touch the moon and predict the weather, map the human genetic code and clone animals, digitize a photograph and send it from Tokyo to Tehran with the touch of a button, but we can't figure out how to give birth in a way that is -- simultaneously and consistently -- safe, minimally painful, joyful, and close to nature's design." Amen.
Cassidy explores a wide variety of factors affecting how we bring new life into the world, from the physical and anthropological to the spiritual and political. She traces the evolution of where babies are born, analyzing the trend from home to hospital and back to home again. The chapter "Pain Relief" chronicles some of the innovative and bizarre ways people over the years have tried to avoid and/or mitigate the pain of childbirth, from drugs/herbs to hypnosis and Lamaze. Anyone who has had a caesarean section may feel a little better after reading the grisly accounts of some of the earlier procedures used to extract babies. We have, in fact, come a long way.
"Birth" looks at why this universal experience is so physiologically difficult for humans -- the chapter on tools and fads sports some shudder-inducing graphics and photos. Cassidy also shines a light on waterbirth, freebirth, hypnobirth, and doulas, as well as the trend toward scheduled inductions and caesareans . She explores the dawn of obstetrics and gynecology, including some surprising stories about the lives of ground breaking doctors. The role of fathers in the birthing room is examined, as is the critical, emotionally fraught postpartum period.
One of the most fascinating chapters examines the checkered history of midwives, from their reputation as witches in medieval times to their recent resurgence and certification as a profession . Through the ages, midwives have had representation in some form in virtually every culture. Largely self-taught and unregulated, midwives were often major figures in their communities until formalized medicine became the norm. They not only aided in childbirth and served as pediatricians for a baby's first year, they often took care of the sick and dying and nearly everyone in between, including the domestic animals.
"Birth" is a power-packed book, based on information from interviews and exhaustive research. Cassidy's scholarship shows. However, despite the bounty of information, "Birth" is also a lively, engaging, and often witty read, a quirky, eye-opening account of one of life's most elemental experiences.