Book review by Emma Ashworth
“Reclaiming Childbirth as a Rite of Passage”, by Dr Rachel Reed, is available from her website (rachelreed.website) as a ebook for £6.49, an audio book for £7.99 or from various bookstores as a printed book for £10.99 (prices may vary by outlet).
“Rites of passage are words and actions that mirror and support the woman’s transformative process.”
Not since reading the classic (and for me, life changing) book, “Midwives and Medical Men” by Jean Donnison have I felt so moved and inspired by a birth book. And I’ve read some really good birth books over the years. “Reclaiming Childbirth as a Rite of Passage” delves deeply into the concept of birth as being a turning point in our lives, a time of change; changes within ourselves, our families and our baby or babies. Rites of passage are integral to all of these change times. They help us to prepare, they guide us through the process of change, and support us in our new identity. They bond us with others and enable us to, in turn, be the support for the next woman or person who goes through this change.
Recognising birth as a rite of passage takes us away from the medical/mechanical models which simply focuses on the movement of a baby from a uterus, through a pelvis and vagina or through an abdomen, to the outside world. We know within us that birth changes us, we become someone new when we become parents. We know that we are more than just our anatomy, and that birth is so much more than the passage of the baby from within to without. “Reclaiming Childbirth as a Rite of Passage” reminds us of the transformations that happen when we birth our babies, and opens our hearts to the ways that we can respect and honour this change. At the heart of these rites is the support of each individual pregnant woman to find her own power. However, Dr Reed also points out that while our rites of passage may include informing ourselves about pregnancy, birth and the postnatal period, “Women don’t need to understand menstruation to menstruate, or understand menopause to experience it, and women’s bodies already know how and when to give birth.”
Dr Reed explores the ancient rites performed for women, by women, for millennia. These rites of passage tended to be focused on supporting physiology, increasing and maintaining oxytocin levels and recognising and honouring the needs of the pregnant, birthing and postnatal woman. Rites of passage are defined as each of the individual deeds of those who attend a woman or person in birth, and so Dr Reed also recognises routine medical interventions as a form of rite of passage. This, I felt, was one of the most important points that I took from this amazing book. Routine vaginal examinations, fetal monitoring, growth scans; they all measure, quantify and assess the mechanics of the baby and mother. Recognising each them as a rite of passage reminds us that they also have the effect of expressing the concept that medicine can save all, that we must rely on it as the most superior way of judging wellness, and that the medical model of care can tell us more about our bodies than we can know ourselves.
While medical machinery can give us insights that are hugely valuable, the information that they give us is very far from infallible, yet it is often – in fact usually – considered to be information that is more reliable than the woman herself. The pregnant or birthing woman herself may feel less inclined to trust her own instincts if the machinery around her is telling her that she’s wrong, and even if she does feel that her own internal knowledge is in conflict with the machines, we are often “socialised to hand over responsibility to experts.” Recognising the tests, checks and routine interventions that happen from the first booking in appointment (itself a rite of passage!), through pregnancy and beyond as rites of passage help us to understand their role in the socialisation of women, even as some of them may sometimes be valuable to us. What I found extraordinary about the topic of medicalised childbirth in “Reclaiming Childbirth as a Rite of Passage” is that at no point does it demonise medicalisation. Instead, Dr Reed skilfully shares her insights into ways that we can retain our body autonomy, respect our physiology and, when required, welcome necessary medical intervention
The main problem with writing a book review on “Reclaiming Childbirth as a Rite of Passage” is that Every Single Page is packed with a “wow” moment. Trying to summarise this book does it an injustice, so all I can really do is to urge you to stop what you’re doing right now, head over to Dr Rachel Reed’s website and buy a copy immediately! You will thank me.
Emma Ashworth is the Nurturing Birth blog curator. She is a doula, breastfeeding counsellor and birth rights consultant.
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