Tuesday, July 8, 2014

book review: Birth by Tina Cassidy

The basics: Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born is a historical and anthropological look at childbirth.

My thoughts: Since I got pregnant (the nomadbaby is due August 9th), I've become more interested in books about pregnancy and birthing. As with many things in life, part of me is drawn to the natural way of doing things, while part of me is drawn to modern convenience. For example, I eat as much local and organic produce, meat, eggs and cheese as possible. But I have no desire to actually have my own garden, grow my own food, or kill the animals I eat. So I rely on local farmers and belong to a two CSAs, one for meat.With pregnancy and birth, these choices between natural and modern seem to have impossibly high stakes. For the first time in my life, my biology dictates many of my choices. As the one carrying this baby, I have responsibilities Mr. Nomadreader doesn't. How far those extend after birth is something I think about often, particularly as we tend to divide tasks more evenly in life than pregnancy allows (I have started opining how lovely pregnancy would be if we could only alternate weeks being pregnant.)

When it comes to birth, I've spent a lot of time thinking about options. Two options I never really considered were having a midwife instead of my obstetrician and having a home birth. Even with the choice to deliver in a hospital with an obstetrician, I soon learned the choices keep coming. So often in casual conversations about epidurals, c-sections, etc., someone will say "well women have been having babies without pain relief and without c-sections for years." And inevitably the response will come, "yes, and women have been dying in childbirth for hundreds of years." I wanted to know where the truth lies. Admittedly, I didn't seek out justification for my choices, or even start this book looking for a reason to change my mind. I'm fine with my choice to have an epidural and would welcome an elective c-section if it were offered. But I wanted to know more about what options I would have had in other times in history, in other countries, in other cultures or financial circumstances. I wanted to know how common or rare my choices are, and how my experience as a pregnant woman in 2014 fits into the history of humanity.

The first chapter of Birth is perhaps my favorite. Entitled "Evolution and the Human Body," it's an anthropological exploration of birth and the pelvis. It looks at what separates human pregnancy, birth, and babies from other mammals. If you only read part of this book, read that chapter. It's absolutely fascinating (and again made me want to have a c-section, which is probably not its intention.) From there, Cassidy takes a thematic approach to birth, exploring midwives, birthing places, pain relief, c-sections, doctors, tools and fads, and the role of fathers.

Birth is a fascinating book in its own right, and I learned a lot from it. What impacted me most personally is how little I really care about the birth experience. It's not a secret I haven't enjoyed pregnancy much (despite being very excited to finally, actually be pregnant!), and birth is just the last stepping stone to actually having the nomadbaby. I'm happy for that experience to be as quick and painless as possible (the anesthetized births of the 1960's sounded like a great idea to me--wake up with a baby!) I don't need that experience to connect me to humanity the way so many women throughout history have. I don't need it as a life experience. While I live at a time where I can't opt out of it, I am incredibly grateful to live at the time I do when I do have choices. And from a cultural anthropological point of view, I can't wait to see how the current birthing trends are viewed in fifty years.

The verdict: Whether you're pregnant or not, Birth is a fascinating cultural history of a process we're all a part of in one way or another.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: September 8, 2006
Source: library

 Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Tina Cassidy's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. This sounds fascinating and I can see how this is a perfect time for you to read it!

    No judgement over how anyone has their children, but I am with you. I got my epidural both times, thank you very much! :)

  2. Pregnancy and childbirth is both a sensitive topic for me (due to my years of infertility) but also something I am constantly obsessing over and am fascinated by (especially now going through IVF). Regardless, this book does sound really fascinating! I'm also one of those girls that's never been passionate about natural birth, etc. although if I ever do get pregnant I already know I have to have a c-section because of a past surgery I did and that thought also scares me. My mom did the whole anesthesia thing and woke up with a baby, haha!

    Did you ever read Far From the Tree? I can't remember if you did or not. Just curious because I know you said you might read it when you were pregnant. :)

  3. It sounds like a very interesting book. I will try to read it some time soon, even though I'm not planning to have more babies :)
    I had an experience with both types of births: natural (no epidural) and c-section (strongly suggested by a doctor when having my second baby). I definitely preferred the natural birth. You don't feel pain during the c-section (only very strange feeling of not being able to breath, even though you actually can do it), but there is much more discomfort after the baby is delivered comparing to the natural birth. When having your first baby the recovery might be easier. It's not that easy to rest when you have another young child at home. With the natural birth you feel more pain during the delivery, but after that is over, the recovery is very quick. I would never pick the c-section if I knew that my baby has high chance to be safely delivered in more natural way, but I know that a lot of women are scared of the labor pain. I wish you to have a quick delivery with as little pain as possible. Visualizing your baby being in your arms helps to go through that difficult part of delivering the baby :-)


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!