Book review: Labor of Love: A Midwife’s Memoir (Mulhahn, 2009)

18 September 2009 at 1:06 am 2 comments

I just finished reading Cara Mulhahn’s new book Labor of Love: A Midwife’s Memoir (New York: Kaplan, 2009). Mulhahn is possibly the most well-known–and controversial–midwife in America today (yes, I’d say possibly even beating out the incomparable Ina May) due to her guts, her style, her featured role in the film The Business of Being Born, and the various articles and features that have appeared about her in the popular press in the past few years. With a foreward by Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake, this book is Mulhahn’s side of things–all at once a personal life-journey narrative and a testament to the safety, power, and inspirational qualities of homebirth with a midwife.

I really wanted to like this book, and ultimately, I’m glad I read it. But first things first: Mulhahn is not an elegant or moving writer, and her tone at times feels overly aggressive and self-aggrandizing. Mulhahn describes early experiences–watching a friend get hit by a car as a teenager, for example–as signposts along the way that pointed her toward midwifery and revealed her calling: “For some reason, I instinctively knew how to take care of this girl both physically and emotionally, while everyone else was freaking out” (18). Later, she describes herself at the first birth she ever attended: “I had never attended a birth before, but. . . I found serenity within myself. . . I said to the mother, ‘Everything is going to be okay. I’ve got the water boiling. Johanna [the midwife Mulhahn was apprenticing with]’s on her way You’re going to be fine.’ Even though I had never attended a birth before, somehow, I found the right words to reassure the birthing mom” (34).

Humble Mulhahn is not. She also seems to take pride in being–for lack of a better way to put it–cool. A single mother of an adolescent son, she boasts that she and her son are best friends; she talks often about what she was wearing at a given moment; she extols her own skills at talking on a phone while driving; and she allows Epstein and Lake’s description of her, in the foreward, to stand as the image she projects throughout the book: “downright sexy. . . not the first image that comes to mind when you say ‘midwife.’ One normally tends to picture a graying, matronly woman with loose batik clothes and Birkenstocks. But Cara not only wore low-rise jeans and high-heeled boots, but also intuitively felt like a person you could really trust and confide in” (ix).

Yes, Mulhahn, Epstein, and Lake, we get it: Midwives are people too. Some wear Birks, some wear heels, some wear sneakers. I dislike, however, this conflating of personal style–which can of course vary–with the qualities of trust and confidence–essential qualities for a midwife. 

Mulhahn’s book is a fast read, and not altogether an uninteresting one. She talks about her time as a Moonie and her parents’ forcible de-programming of her; she discusses her jobs (there have been many) and her hobbies (again, many) and her son, and of course–thankfully, because I think this is why most of her readers are actually here–she discusses births, both the easy ones and one tragic one (not the same tragedy referred to in the recent Today Show segment–that is actually a different family).

The author goes out of her way to depict herself as Everywoman, even to the details in the description of her own birth of her son: 

Things seemed dire to me during the labor; I look back now with humor and compassion. I was in quite a state. . . . I remember hiding in the bathtub. . . . I wanted out. I had put some Stadol, an opiate painkiller, in the fridge for just this occasion. . . . At that moment, the idea of a C-section seemed pretty good, or at least an epidural. I promised not to be one of those women whining at an International Cesarean Awareness Network meeting about my unnecessary C-section. No, mine would be justified. There was just too much pain! (104-105)

Ignore, for the moment, Mulhahn’s use here of the word “whining” in her characterization of ICAN meetings. She goes on to explain that she suddenly realizes that she actually is going to have her baby and has to keep going, abandoning “any notions of being dainty” and finally saying “Goodbye, vanity!” (106). This is a tough description for me to read: I know that midwives don’t always have easy births, but Mulhahn appears more than a little hypocritical here, and honestly, this is not how I would like my midwife to view birth. “Miserable pushing?” A loss of “daintiness”? Birth isn’t about misery or vanity–perhaps Mulhahn should reconsider those “high-heeled boots” next time.

In short, read the book–skim over the melodramatic teenage sections, ignore the aggravating tone and the Cool Factor, and focus on the nice descriptions of what it’s like to be a midwife (CNM) in New York today, backed up by doctors, moving between the hospital and the home, and caught in the middle of a culture that is undeniably anti-midwifery. 



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Dear Healthcare Reformers, a word about cutting costs.. More on the cost-cutting benefits of homebirth

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. lizzyd  |  20 September 2009 at 8:59 pm

    Very intriguing review. Now I definitely want to read it to see for myself how she finds a way to plug her driving skills while on the phone!

  • 2. Carol Leonard  |  7 October 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Now…can you please review my book for cryin-out-loud..I mean, honestly, I’m only 1 state over. jeeesh. Carol Leonard, NHCM, author of LADY’S HANDS, LION’S HEART, A MIDWIFE’S SAGA, Bad Beaver Publishing, 2008.


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