Book Review/Commentary: Your Best Birth (Lake and Epstein, 2009)
Just published, this book marks the next step in Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein’s collaboration on The Business of Being Born. The basic message here, as Lake and Epstein state, is that “Women have a lot of choices when they consider the births of their children. . . .because this is your baby, it’s up to you to decide what kind of birth is best for you—even if it’s different from the type your sister, cousin, or best friend had. It could even be a type of birth that your own OB-GYN hasn’t initially suggested to you. Your best birth is one where you feel empowered because you know all your options and are confident in the decisions you have made about the birth” (xxvii). After all, the authors continue, “It seems simple and obvious to say that a woman should have the kind of birth that suits her body, her baby, and her level of anxiety” (xxvii). These three variables are interesting ones to consider, and to ask pregnant women to consider; I find it surprising, actually, that the authors place so much emphasis on anxiety instead of consciously working (as in Birthing from Within, for example) to dispel it. On the other hand, Lake and Epstein also argue that women both need “to tak[e] responsibility for. . . labor and birth” and also “to surrender control”; I like this symmetry, and I think it’s a useful distinction to bear in mind (xxviii).
Those predisposed to dislike Ricki Lake or natural birth (or both) will certainly find things to criticize here. For one, there’s a lot of self-congratulating in the book: the foreword is by Dr. Jacques Moritz—whom Lake says later “is. . . known around New York as the ‘hairy midwife,’ so [she] knew [she] would be in good hands” (xx). Moritz also hypes Lake and Epstein’s movie as “a film that became the childbirth equivalent of Al Gore’s environmental exposé, An Inconvenient Truth” (x). For another, there is the complete absence of any footnotes, endnotes, or bibliography. While there are scattered references to New York Times articles, books by Ina May Gaskin, and a handful of other works throughout the text, a bulleted list of “Bad Reasons to Induce,” for example, has absolutely no reference to studies or even to secondary sources (128). This pattern is repeated over and over again in Your Best Birth, and it’s a serious oversight on the part of the book’s authors, leaving them open to accusations that their recommendations are not in fact research-based. There is at least a brief final list of websites, magazines, videos, and books (“Resources for Your Best Birth”); thankfully, this list includes classics by Pam England, Michel Odent, Marsden Wagner, Grantley Dick-Read, Sheila Kitzinger, Barbara Harper, Ina May Gaskin, Henci Goer, Penny Simkin, and Marshall and Phyllis Klaus.
It’s also true that Your Best Birth in general has a bit of the feel of a perky wedding-planning website, or a Glamour article about reorganizing your closet and choosing your spring wardrobe with your personal style in mind. I assume this tone is deliberate, and there are certainly women who will not find it as off-putting as I did. While Your Best Birth doesn’t even come close to The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth—it’s more accurately described as Henci Goer LITE!—it may be widely read by the type of woman who doesn’t venture far beyond What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and it may just make her look beyond the ob-gyn party line on birth.
Ultimately, Your Best Birth is an easy read, with lots of sidebars (“Are You High Risk?”; “The Top Ten Non-Narcotic Pain Relievers to Be Used While in Labor”) and profiles of celebrities who had, or attempted to have, natural births. The text also definitely has its empowering, evocative moments:
Creating life is goddess work. You are stronger, more powerful, and more focused than you’ve ever been. Life force is coursing through your body and you are living life in a heightened state of awareness. You are extremely sensitive to smell and taste and to the people, situations, and changes in the atmosphere that might do you or your baby harm. What might make you feel vulnerable also makes you fierce. People better watch out because you will do almost anything to protect your baby.
In this state, you are amazing. You are going to access parts of yourself that you didn’t know existed. You are going to face your fears. You have decided to face pain and handle it in a way that makes you most comfortable. Dealing with fear and facing pain are the kinds of things that most people run from as fast as they can, but not you. You are the birth goddess and you will do what needs to be done.
When you come out the other side of this experience, you will be a different woman than when you went in. You will know yourself better and have a much broader sense of what you are capable of doing. You will be smarter and stronger than you’ve ever been before. (31)