Monday, February 6, 2017

Book Review: Birth, The Surprising History of How We Are Born

I had no intentions of reading a book about birth. But for a project I’m writing, one of my characters goes through a complicated birth in 1897 and I realized I had no idea about what it was like to give birth – complicated or otherwise – in 1897. So I started looking for a book that might answer my questions and I found a wonderful gem.

"Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006) by Tina Cassidy is a thorough, engaging, and unflinchingly deep look into the history of childbirth.

Forget 1897 – this book showed me that I really had no idea about childbirth from any era.

I suppose the thing that struck me the most about this book is that for as common as childbirth is – I personally know more women who have given birth than those who have not – I never gave any thought to the historical experience of childbirth or the idea that it was any different than modern times.

The range of history in this book is vast, some of the early dates are around 700 BC and the author picks through issues and happenings through all eras of history through modern times. Chapters such as “Midwives Throughout Time” and “The Cesarean Section” are self-explanatory. “A Father’s Place” talks about the role of fathers and men in childbirth and “The Hut, The Home, and The Hospital” discuss the many places women have experienced giving birth. Several other chapters cover doctors, tools, pain management, fads, and the female body.

The book covers history as well as sociological trends fashionable in certain eras. Though my particular focus of study was the late 1800’s, there was plenty of other eras discussed with interesting stories and details.

This book was hard to read at times. The gruesome, violent, and disturbing experiences that have befallen some women throughout history are especially difficult to think about in the context of childbirth. Of course, I want to think that women have always experienced proper pain relief and medical care during childbirth, but there are many glaring examples when this certainly was not the case. I liked that the author did not steer clear of these darker aspects of history.

Despite the passages that were difficult to read through, I overall enjoyed the flow of the book and the author’s narrative voice. I thought the book was well researched and packed with information without being overwhelming.

I learned a lot from reading this book and I anticipate flipping through it again in the future as I work on future projects. If you are looking for a book that gives a firm and brave look at this often overlooked topic, I definitely recommend checking it out.

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