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.
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.
Another important category of books for me are those that I lend out to or 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, 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.
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!
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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.