Recently I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of Sheila Kitzinger's autobiography A Passion for Birth. What a gift! Even though it is quite a big book I have whizzed through it and would love to discuss it with everyone. Feel sorry for Husband, folks! I'm going to go ahead and refer to her as "Sheila," which sounds over-familiar, but I feel that she is my sister-mother, and I can't bring myself to use "Kitzinger" throughout.
For those who haven't come across Sheila before, she is a feminist and birth campaigner who passed away earlier this year, just as this book was coming to print. She has published a vast amount of material as well as spoken in public across the world, and you can find out more about her here. If you have given birth in the UK and avoided enforced lying on your back, routine shave, enema, and episiotomy, or benefitted from NCT preparation classes, then you have Sheila to thank.
I'm not going to go into great detail about Sheila's personal life, though it is fascinating. She had an unconventional, liberal upbringing that clearly shaped both what and how she thought. She was a woman who truly had the courage of her convictions and did something about them.
One thing that strikes me about Sheila's birth activism is that she herself experienced four enjoyable home births, one of twins. Many women come to birth activism through negative experiences (I myself have had one negative and one very positive experience), but for Sheila it seems to be her understanding that many women do not experience the joy she felt that has spurred her into action. She comments that "Birth has been empowering for me. I do not believe that childbirth is the only way that women can find fulfillment, but for me it has been a peak experience, one that has liberated the energy to strive for better birthing conditions for all women." (p91)
Sheila comments that in the early years of her birth activism she experienced conflict with some feminists, who felt that women should be released from the pain of birth and the obligations of breastfeeding and child rearing: "I was appalled at how my sister-feminists could fail to support woman-centred birth." (p156) She criticises this approach failing to analyse childbirth "in terms of institutional power and women's relative powerlessness." (p155) I completely agree that rights in childbirth is a feminist issue, and I think that contemporary feminism has come to embrace that. I even heard the term "birth feminist" for the first time recently. My own position is that women should be free to make informed choices about how they birth, and that no one "type" of birth has any moral standing over another, except in how the woman and child are treated in relation to it.
One comment that Sheila makes repeatedly in this book is to refer to episiotomy as the female genital mutilation of the West. For those who are unaware, episiotomy is the practice of cutting the perineum during birth with the aim of easing the egress of the baby's head, or preventing tearing. In the early days of her activism episiotomy was carried out routinely and without discussion or consent in many Western hospitals. Episiotomy hurts, is difficult to recover from, may not heal as well as tearing, and was (and still is) frequently performed unnecessarily. Sheila's language is inflammatory, but justifiably so. This kind of assault has been referred to as "birth rape," and is the source of much birth trauma. Sheila's work has been so important in improving the birth experience for women in this area.
Something I know little about, and have delved a little more deeply into through this book is the range of childbirth practices across the world, and the commonalities between them. Often she came across midwives using traditional practices but pretending to use the American obstetric model. Sometimes there is a beautiful tale of traditional midwifery meeting modern facilities where needed, upright birth, and community practice, but there are also horror stories, that I really cannot mention here because of the potential trigger factor for those living with birth trauma. What a rich perspective, to look at birth in an anthropological fashion. It makes me feel linked to other women across the world. This book has also connected and informed me about the lives of those who are facing prison and seeking asylum at the same time as embarking on motherhood.
If you are interested in birth or feminism at all, then you should read this book. It is a wonderfully written account of a life in the centre of fundamental changes about how we treat women going through this fundamental rite of passage, and an inspiration. Enjoy!