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Where Life Begins at the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

In an article published in the Guardian in 2004, Sandi Toksvig recalled a lecture she attended while studying anthropology at Cambridge. At one point, the professor held up a photograph of an antler bone with 28 markings on it. The lecturer told the assembled students that scholars considered the antler “to be man's first attempt at a calendar.” But the professor, a woman, wasn't finished. “Tell me,” she went on, “what man needs to keep track of when 28 days have passed?“

I came across this delightful story in Leah Hazard's new book Womb: The Inside Story of Where We All Began (612.627 HAZA), now available for check-out at the Talbot County Free Library. I have to admit, when I first saw the work sitting on the library's New Books shelf, my initial, perfectly male response was to look away, as if I had inadvertently caught sight of something I shouldn't have.

I had a similar response as a pre-med student, eons ago, when I saw my first illustration of the female reproductive organs. I remember taking one look at that cascade of complex anatomical structures—ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, vagina—and thinking that Ob-Gyn was not in the cards for me. All over the world, women sighed in relief.

But I'm considerably older now and, hopefully, a tad wiser. And so, bravely and forthrightly, I removed the volume from its shelf, held its cover to my chest, walked over to the desk, checked it out to myself, and then smuggled it, unseen, out of the building.

And I'm so glad I did. Hazard is a Harvard graduate who works now as a midwife in the UK. She is also an excellent writer with a wicked sense of humor. Reading her book, I discovered that I was not the only male to take one look at the inner workings of the female reproductive system and pale.

Since men came to dominate the field of obstetrics, their patients have been subjected to any number of pejorative diagnoses (“hostile uterus,” “irritable uterus,” “incompetent cervix,” etc.) that reflect this male discomfort with any anatomy other than their own: But it was not always thus.

Thirty-some-odd years ago I read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's ground-breaking history A Midwife's Tale, based on a diary Ulrich discovered in a long-forgotten corner of the Maine State Library. The diary was maintained from 1785 to 1812 by a midwife named Martha Ballard. Ballard used the diary as a sort of ledger, keeping meticulous, coded records of her methods, successes, and failures as she rode back and forth across the frontiers of New England delivering babies.

From Ulrich's book I learned that, when male doctors began to encroach in the early nineteenth century upon the heretofore feminine domain of birthing, infant and maternal mortality soared. It wasn't until the first decades of the twentieth century that “modern medicine” began to achieve the same success rate midwives had enjoyed for hundreds of years.

From Hazard's book I learned many of the reasons why. A midwife like Martha Ballard didn't just attend at a birth. She moved in with her patient, cooked her meals, administered soothing, effective herbs, delivered the baby, and then remained in place until she was certain both patient and child could survive on their own—her entire visit often lasting days, even weeks. The French word for midwife is accoucheur—literally “the person at the bedside.” But with the advent of male physicians, the caregiver moved from the woman's side to her feet. The word “obstetrics” comes from the Latin obstare, “to stand opposite.”

Male doctors first began “to stand opposite” women giving birth as the Industrial Revolution was getting underway, and unsurprisingly their approach to the process took on a decidedly industrial air. Speed was of the essence.

In 1807, Yale-trained physician Joseph Stearns admitted in a letter to a colleague that he had learned about ergot (a fungus found on wheat crops) from “an ignorant Scottish midwife,” but went on to report, “It expedites lingering parturition, and saves … a considerable portion of time …. Since I have adopted the use of this powder I have seldom found a case that detained me more than three hours.” Soon, in their rush to speed up the process, doctors were using—with increasingly deleterious effects—much higher doses than the “diluted thimbleful“ of ergot recommended by midwives.

But Hazard's book serves as more than just a corrective to the customary patriarchal view of the female reproductive system. In the images she conjures of the inner workings of the womb—the little unseen miracles of cervical crypts, blastulae, uterine milk, and even menopause—she returns to us the mystery and majesty of what a woman, being a woman, lives through and accomplishes. We men can only look on in awe.

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