As you might know, I love to tell you about books written by other people that I think are worth reading.
This blog post contains many of the book reviews that I have written over the years, details of books that I have been involved with but haven’t authored, and links to some of my favourite birth and midwifery books.
A quick note: This post contains Amazon affiliate links and any purchases made after visiting these links generate an affiliate fee (with no increased cost to the buyer) which goes directly towards the running costs of this website and helps keep the information free for all – so thank you in advance if you find something that interests you and decide to click and buy.
The book I want to share today is called Freebirth Stories, and it is edited by my long-term colleagues and friends, Mavis Kirkham and Nadine Edwards.
But edited is the key word here.
As long standing, respected researchers and advocates for women and families, Mavis and Nadine have used their skills and experience to craft a book which focuses on the women’s voices.
Not on themselves. Not on the midwives or doulas or anyone else who might have helped on their journey, but on the experiences of the women themselves, sharing their stories about why they decided to give birth without professional attendance.
If you enjoy birth stories, or want to explore what matters to women, you’re going to want to either grab yourself a copy or put it on your Christmas list.
Freebirth Stories is an amazingly woman-centred book which, if you’re anything like me, will make you laugh, cry, and despair – but also hope.
Because these are strong, feisty women who are standing up for what’s right for them and their families.
And if you’d like to connect with Mavis and Nadine, the book has a Facebook page here.
I really hope you will enjoy Freebirth Stories. It’s a book that REALLY needed to be written, and I for one am delighted that it’s out in the world.
Am I Allowed
If there were a Nobel prize for birth activism, then Beverley Beech would surely have been given one by now.
Formerly Honorary Chair of AIMS, legendary campaigner, brilliant speaker and supporter of women’s rights in pregnancy and birth, Beverley is also the author of ‘Am I Allowed’.
Before I go on, I have to confess a slight bias here, in that I worked closely with Beverley for many years and I commented on a couple of sections of this book and its previous editions as they were being written.
But you can decide for yourself whether or not that negates the value of my opinion on it. I’m certainly not going to let that stop me highlighting this resource. I once said that, if it were up to me, ‘Am I Allowed?‘ would be given to all women at booking. Or, even better, with the purchase of a pregnancy test.
A treasure trove
Another reviewer describes this as ‘a treasure-trove’, and I agree.
Beverley writes as clearly as she speaks, and she gives straightforward information on many questions that a woman might have about her rights in many situations.
These include discussion of a woman’s rights in relation to tests, procedures and interventions, the law as it relates to place of birth, attendance at birth (including giving birth without a midwife or doctor) and a woman’s rights around who is and is not allowed to enter her home.
Even better, Beverley offers suggestions as to how a woman can take steps to reduce the chance of finding herself reported to Social Services as a result of deciding not to accept the usual package of care.
She also clearly differentiates free birthing as a conscious decision from the decision not to call a midwife because the woman believes that she will not get the care that she wants. Such nuances are a vital component of the discussions and debates that we need to have about the problems raised by the modern approach to maternity care.
The rights of women who give birth in hospital get just as much attention. Beverley discusses the right to privacy, and topics such as positions, pain relief and time limits in labour. She lets women know how they can go about changing their midwife or doctor, and gives information on the ownership of the placenta.
I learned loads from Beverley’s work over the years.
I never knew that pregnant women in some areas are allowed to sit in first class train carriages if all the second class seats are occupied, and I am also better informed for reading the section on how women can get hold of their notes.
All in I would recommend Am I Allowed to any woman embarking on a journey which involves the maternity services.
If memory serves me, I remember once seeing Beverley presenting Baroness Cumberledge with a bouquet of flowers and saying, ‘this is for Changing Childbirth’. Beverley, I realise these flowers are virtual, but these are for ‘Am I Allowed’.
Birthing Your Baby
The journey of birth is one that has been undertaken by women and babies for millennia, and yet in the last couple of hundred years has been monitored, managed and manipulated because of the advent of the obstetric, medical, technocratic approach to birth.
Has that approach been beneficial? It depends on how you look at it.
Some lives have been saved, but others have been damaged, by over-intervention and from an approach that focuses on short-term physical outcomes and fails to look at the emotional and social aspects of birth, or at the wider, longer-term consequences of the interventions and technologies that are now almost routinely applied.
Many of us are looking at and challenging this area, from different angles and in relation to different aspects of the birth journey. Nadine Edwards’ latest offering – which I am delighted to have commented on while she was writing it – is an updated version of ‘Birthing your baby’; her popular book on the journey of birth itself. In it, she has applied her considerable knowledge and analytical skills to look at physiological birth and the different approaches to the birth journey.
One of my favourite aspects of ‘Birthing your baby‘ is how Nadine shows that, unfortunately, there are many things that we cannot clearly know or see, because of the high-tech, standardised, hospital-based approach to birth that has taken root in many countries. It is my hope that her work on this will help more people see the importance of questioning what we are currently offering and consider whether a different approach might better serve us.
‘Birthing your baby‘ will be so useful to those who want to understand how routine interference with labour and birth came about and why our modern approach to ‘managing’ this journey isn’t necessarily the best idea for women and their babies. Even better, Nadine breaks down some of the different aspects of this journey, looking at the evidence and laying out the options for those who will need to make decisions about what they might want to put in place for their own birthing journey. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about this area and consider the evidence from a woman-centred perspective.
Informed is Best
I’ve just finished reading ‘Informed is Best: How to spot fake news about your pregnancy, birth and baby‘, by Amy Brown, Professor in a Department of Public Health. And I loved it so much that I began writing this review of it within minutes of reaching the end. Important fact before we go further: I received a review copy from the publisher. Important additional fact: I only actually review about one in ten of the books that publishers send me. That’s because I tell publishers that, while they are welcome to send me books, I’ll only actually highlight and write about those that I truly love.
And I loved ‘Informed is Best‘ within the first few pages. So much so that I messaged the author when I was in the middle of chapter three, saying, “I bloody love your book.” I did go on to promise that I would write a proper review and not just post that, although it turns out that she quite liked that summary, so I have left it in.
One of the reasons that I love this book is that I have always meant to write something like it. So I can’t tell you – or Professor Brown – how grateful I am to be able to cross this off my to do list and recommend this one instead. Now, it’s possible that my love of this book is all about confirmation bias (which you’ll read about in chapter 1 of Informed is Best) as she and I clearly believe many of the same things. For example, that RCTs aren’t the be all and end all; that it’s very helpful to think about the source of the knowledge you’re reading; that expert knowledge is still valuable, despite our modern cultural obsession with googling. Having seen how much thought has gone into this, I was also delighted that my website made the cut of those that are recommended as sources of further information. But I don’t think you have to agree with either myself or the author to benefit from a book which unpacks the way in which information is presented and discusses research design, funding, promotion and the cultural and wider context in which all of this sits. Even better, it’s presented in a very readable way and the text contains many real-life examples to which I think any reader will relate.
Professor Brown has gone a step further than this, though. This isn’t just a book about how to understand information which comes from research. It also shares lots of really useful discussion on how different people approach information, whether or not we trust information and – my personal favourite bit of new learning – why some people behave like sea lions on social media. This is a book that I have already recommended to students and others and it is, in my view, a vital addition to the library of anyone who works with pregnancy and birth knowledge or with people who seek or use this.
Untangling the Maternity Crisis
“Women and midwives are unable to form the protective trusting relationships in a system that has adopted a business model based on outmoded factory principles that prioritise tasks and rules over nurturing and caring. This is wholly inappropriate for maternity services and results in unbearable emotional and physical costs to mothers, student midwives and midwives, as well as untenable financial costs to the state.
Women’s, student midwives’ and midwives’ spirits and aspirations are ‘broken’ by the pressures to conform and ‘fit in’ and trapped by the corrosive standardisation, fear and blame that pervade current maternity care. It is horrifying to ‘see’ how the long fingers of neoliberalism increasingly stretch out and take hold of our day-to-day lives and the devastating consequences this has for maternity care on women, student midwives and midwives.
The system itself is broken. It can only change if trusting relationships between women, student midwives and midwives are enabled to flourish.”
Nadine Edwards, Rosemary Mander and Jo Murphy-Lawless.
This quote is from the insightful new book, Untangling the Maternity Crisis. Like any good book which unpacks a problem, it’s not always a comfortable read, but it is SO important for its analysis of the problems that the maternity services currently face.
The problems aren’t simple.
They aren’t caused by any particular professional group, or by women or by any of the single things that it is all too easy to blame.
They are deeply rooted in some of the cultural values that underpin our society, and this book helps demonstrate how that works and will help anyone interested in the problems that we face to understand them better. The book also looks at woman-centred and community-based approaches which work better, and some practical responses to the problems that we face.
A Midwife in Amish Country
There is a simple way through which I can quickly measure my love of a book in which a midwife shares her story; the number and length of sittings in which I read it.
When I realised that what I had intended to be a quick first glance at Kim Woodard Osterholzer’s book, ‘A Midwife in Amish Country’ had expanded to a ninety-minute dive into Kim’s story of her midwifery apprenticeship with a homebirth midwife serving Amish women in the USA, I knew that this was a book that I would want to tell others about.
This book will be different things to different people. It will be balm for the souls of women and midwives seeking confirmation that birth can be a sacred, personal, family-centred journey, even though many do not experience it as such at this stage in history. But Kim’s work is also a vital education for anyone thinking of entering midwifery as well as for those interested in midwifery education on a wider level, for it shows the reality of what it means to become a midwife by apprenticeship. Kim tells the stories of her midwifery experiences within the context of her own life, birth and parenting, her faith and ministry, her joys and health challenges and the amazing love story she shared with her husband Brent while on her apprenticeship journey.
But all of this is much more than backdrop for birth stories. Kim’s gift to her reader is that she tells us the story of her apprenticeship as it happened and within the context of her own life as it was at the time, showing us how birthing, midwifing and relationship are integrated elements of women’s everyday lives, rather than being separate experiences. We learn about Kim’s relationship with her midwifery mentor Jean; a humble, wise role model whose gracefulness as she serves women and her own family makes the story of what happened to Jean’s stockings during one birth so much more delicious. (I can’t possibly tell you more about this here though, because I want you to read the book and find out for yourself!)
‘A Midwife in Amish Country’ is a masterclass in respectful, woman-centred midwifery, written by a woman whose faith and humility are apparent on every page. Kim shows us the value and depth of women’s knowledge and peppers the pages with juicy titbits of midwifery wisdom, but without being so unrealistically romantic that she fails to share the realities and some of the less evidence-based old wives’ tales that she encountered on her journey. I heartily recommend this book.
Birth in Focus
I get sent lots of books, because of what I do. I always tell people who ask me, you’re welcome to give me your book, but regardless of whether I know you or any other factor, the independence of my work is of primary importance to me. This means that I only ever write about a few of the books I read, because I have to really love a book to want to write a blog post about it.
This month, I got my hands on a book that I truly love, and it has gone straight to the top of the list of things I want to share with you. It’s called Birth in Focus: Stories and Photos to Inform, Educate and Inspire, and what’s inside is exactly what it says in the title, except about ten times more amazing than you hope when you open it.
The book’s author, Becky Reed, was a founding member of the renowned and fabulous Albany Midwifery Practice in Peckham, London, which was opened in 1997 and controversially closed down in 2009. The Albany Practice provided holistic, woman-centred care to a non-selective and culturally diverse population and had at its heart a central philosophy based on the belief in women’s innate ability to give birth.
The images in this book, as Becky explains through her own and other’s words in the introduction to the book, are useful and powerful for many reasons. They have helped instill confidence and knowledge in women, families and birth attendants. A lot of people learn visually, and we know that a picture is worth so many words. These pictures remind us of the value of the arts of birth-giving and midwifery and I am certain that, if we can get this book seen by as many people as possible, they will help to undo some of the damage done by the modern media representation of birth and promote birth as a normal, life-affirming, positive happening which showcases the power and sisterhood of women.
And then there are the stories! Each set of pictures is accompanied by the story of the birth, often told from several perspectives … the birthing woman, an older sibling, their midwife. There is so much in these stories that I know I am going to go back to them over and over again, and I can see this book becoming a permanent fixture in my own library as well as something that I will want to recommend to every woman I meet.
Thank you, Becky, and all the women, families and midwives who have shared their images and stories for this book. Thank you for the fabulous work you have done to share the knowledge of what birth can be like.
Quite a few years ago, I wrote a piece about my favourite midwifery books for Birthspirit Midwifery Journal: I love that certain books stand the test of time…
What a fun thing to be asked to do: choose five of my favourite birth-related books to write about in an article! But what a difficult task too, as I discovered when I began. Should I choose the five books that have had the most impact upon my own midwifery journey, the ones I would recommend to midwives beginning their journey, the books that I would take to a desert island, those that have been the most influential in my thinking about research or the five tattiest (and thus well-loved in a physical sense) books on my shelf? Along with many women and midwives, I hold many different roles within the patchwork of my life, and I value different things – and books – in each of these roles. It seemed only right, then, to look at different kinds of books and consider which would be my favourite in a number of categories, and I offer here, in no particular order, the results of my own personal “Midwifery Book Oscar” ponderings…
Firstly, I decided to look at the books which have been with me since my midwifery journey began and which I have chosen to ship rather than declutter each time I have moved to a new area or country. Having perused my shelves, my award for tattiness and long service in relation to both theory and practice goes to Sally Inch’s Birthrights: Parents’ Guide to Modern Childbirth. It might sound like a cliché, but each time I open this book I really do find something I had forgotten. Sally’s research into different aspects of birth was ahead of its time and what makes this book even more remarkable is that it was written primarily for parents rather than midwives. I recall it being somewhat unusual – especially amongst consumer guides of the time – in that it discussed actual research studies and contained reference lists for each chapter. Such an approach wouldn’t raise an eyebrow now, but, if memory serves me, this wasn’t the norm at that point, and this book predates many of the professional texts that promoted a movement towards the use of research and evidence-based practice in midwifery. I have been particularly influenced over the years by Sally’s discussion of the third stage of labour and, while it is true that some aspects of our knowledge of different areas have changed since the copy that I have was published, I still hold onto it for the gems that it contains.
Understanding Diagnostic Tests
Having awarded a classic book Oscar, I decided I needed to give some thought to my favourite modern reference text as well, with the caveat that a more recent version may be available by the time you read this. Like any midwife, there are lots of things that I either haven’t yet learned or that I forget because they only occur occasionally and thus need to be looked up, and my award for most helpful, well-thumbed and trusted midwifery reference book goes to Anne Frye’s Understanding Diagnostic Tests in the Childbearing Year. I love that Anne begins the book with a brief re-telling of how this book was born out of her own need and desire for information which was helpful for women and in her practice. Even more than that, I love that she continues to devote so much of her time and energy to the ongoing research and thinking that is necessary to keep publishing up-to-date reference texts that we can all benefit from. The level of detail and clarity in this satisfyingly fat book never fails to astonish me: among literally millions of other things, the current edition contains all sorts of information about both holistic and Western treatments for different conditions, a really interesting discussion about the theoretical debates around the HIV=AIDS hypothesis, detailed information about almost any test you can name and all manner of interesting and useful facts, one of my personal favourites being the six different ways in which one can cook an egg in order to destroy salmonellosis. Truly, Anne Frye deserves a medal!
I often think that I am very lucky in that I have been a midwife at a time when I could literally watch the growth of birth-related research; an area that I find immensely exciting. I wear the hat of ‘midwifery researcher’ myself as well, and have many wonderful books that discuss either single studies or collections of studies. One of them, however, stands out for its clarity, insightfulness and incredible unpacking of what I see as one of the key issues of the moment, and thus my Oscar for fabbest book based on a research study goes to Nadine Edwards’ Birthing Autonomy: Women’s Experiences of Planning Home Births: Women’s Experiences of Home Births. Nadine undertook research in which she talked to thirty Scottish women about their experiences of planning a home birth and her book explores the themes that arose within these woman’s stories alongside some of the key issues, debates and tensions that exist in relation to modern maternity care. I am especially fond of citing her work on how the women she talked to perceived notions such as risk and safety, which explores these concepts into a very different light from the way they are viewed by many birth attendants in the modern culture of the maternity services. In fact, I wish that everybody involved in maternity care was made to read this book before they were allowed to practice, because in its entirety it provides one of the most compelling arguments for listening to women and ensuring that their care is woman-centred that I have ever read.
Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth
Another important category of books for me are those that I recommend to women, especially when I am working with women who haven’t read widely around childbirth. All of the books on this list are inevitably influenced by my own cultural background – which has led to a focus on those from the UK and US, where I have spent the majority of my time – and this is something that I take into account when thinking about which books might work for particular woman.
One book stands out in my mind, though, as being accessible enough to transcend this in many situations, and I therefore award the Oscar for the book that I would be most likely to encourage a pregnant woman to read to Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. Yes, the spelling and focus of the discussion is North American, but the stories are universal. This book encompasses so many of the things and ideas that I would like all women to know about; the importance of movement, the rethinking of the concept of pain, the mind-body connection and the way in which what happens during birth can be profoundly influenced by every element of the woman’s physical, interpersonal, psychological and spiritual environment. Ina May provides in-depth information and references for those women who would like to find out more, while retaining the friendly and accessible tone of a great storyteller. More than anything, I love how this book continually reminds women of how fabulous their bodies are; a message which I believe to be really necessary in our modern world.
The Birth House
Finally, I decided I was allowed to be self-indulgent in one book Oscar category, and choose the book that I have most enjoyed reading. This award goes to The Birth House by Ami McKay, which I first met when it arrived at my house unannounced one sunny morning. Having read the letter that the author had enclosed, I opened the book, intending only to glance through a couple of pages before putting it away in order to continue working. Several hours later, my partner arrived home from work to find me parked on a rug in the garden, accompanied by our cat, surrounded by tea mugs and chocolate wrappers and having such a thoroughly lovely time that I hadn’t done a scrap of work since the post arrived! I literally read the book from cover to cover that day, and was compelled by the story within. Ami had managed to spin a tale which, for me, sparked the most wonderful metal images, conveyed some of the wonder of birth and of women’s lives and dealt with some of the darker issues that midwives face without getting bogged down in them. I know that we have no evidence to suggest that there really was a ‘golden age’ of midwifery, where midwives like Miss Babineau stirred up folk remedies in cosy kitchens and wore necklaces onto which they wove a new bead for each baby they helped bring into the world. I also know that the ending of this book is not necessarily how it was for all of the midwives of Dora’s generation in reality, but, to be honest, I don’t care! Being a midwife in the modern world can be tough, draining and complex, and we deserve to have more books like this which tell lovely stories about women and their midwives and which make us forget that we have work to do in favour of plonking down on rugs with cats and chocolate!
This post contains Amazon affiliate links and any purchases made after visiting these links generate an affiliate fee (with no increased cost to the buyer) which goes directly towards the running costs of this website and helps keep the information free for all – so thank you in advance if you find something that interests you and decide to jump off and buy it!
Edwards, Nadine Pilley (2005). Birthing Autonomy: Women’s Experiences of Planning Home Births: Women’s Experiences of Home BirthsLondon: Routledge.
Frye, Anne (2007). Understanding Diagnostic Tests in the Childbearing Year Portland: Labrys Press. www.midwiferybooks.com
Gaskin, Ina May (2003). Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth New York: Bantam.
Inch, Sally (1982). Birthrights: Parents’ Guide to Modern Childbirth London: Hutchinson.
McKay, Amy (2006). The Birth House London: 4th Estate.