I read Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife by Peggy Vincent this weekend. I felt crappy all weekend, unable to even concentrate on TV, headachy, allergy-ridden, and wanting to nap, and I still read the entire book without even considering that I could be doing something else. That's how compelling it is.
Vincent's story starts with one of the first births she attends, in 1962, as a nursing student at Duke. She spends several hours with a young black woman who wants to give birth without drugs (uncommon in 1962) and who has had two previous children at home, attended by her grandmother (also uncommon). Though the woman's labor is unlike the others Vincent has seen (she makes a lot of noise, sings, yells, and walks around), she can see it is working and tries to keep the other hospital staff from noticing so drugs won't be forced on the laboring woman. Of course, since Vincent is a mere student and the woman is poor and black, a doctor eventually forces her into what sounds like twilight sleep, but the experience changes Vincent forever.
The book goes on to trace, mostly through anecdotes of specific births she attends, Vincent's graduation from nursing school and move to Berkeley, her ten years as an L&D nurse in a hospital and role in starting the first in-hospital alternative birth center in the area, her enrollment in and graduation from midwifery school in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and her twelve years as a midwife in private practice, doing both home and hospital births, throughout the 80s and early 90s. The stories are not 100% happy, but most of them are, and they provide a very clear picture of how variable birth can be.
The book takes an unexpected (to me) unpleasant turn about three-quarters of the way through, when Vincent is sued by a client and even though there is clearly no wrong-doing on her part, her insurance company forces her to settle. And then her insurance company drops her. Without insurance, Vincent can't do the type of private practice midwifery she's become accustomed to and is forced to take a staff midwife position with an HMO, which she refers to as a birthing factory. At the book's end, Vincent is still working at the HMO three days a week and doing a couple of uninsured home births a month, mostly for women with whom she has already worked.
For the most part, Vincent keeps her book personal, talking about her own experience more than national birthing trends. However, her political agenda, one focused on woman-centered home births, is clear. It is not long after Vincent loses her insurance coverage that insurance becomes widely unavailable to all independent nurse midwives, effectively putting them out of business. The 80s, Vincent writes, was the heyday for U.S. home births, and the 90s was a big backlash.
The book is quick, easy read, but also provides compelling evidence of Vincent's political position with regard to birthing without beating the reader over the head. I'd highly recommend it to anyone interested in birth history in the U.S. or alternative births, or anybody interested in birth in general, just for the great stories Vincent tells.