The Secrets of Midwives, by Sally Hepworth. 2015. (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, $25.99, 320 pages, hardcover.)
Who among us doesn’t come across a new work of birth-related fiction and joyfully anticipate a few days of reading pleasure? Oh, the excitement! Often, the delight is tempered with concern, wondering whether the author will prove to be one of those who really knows birth or whether she’ll be one who does the research but can’t convincingly win over a birth professional. Will she be dragging out familiar tropes, such as insta-birth (just add water) or a cord accident, to assure that the story has tension and drama? Will our hearts be ravaged for the sake of a plot device? Will the births be accidents waiting to happen in order to capture our attention?
I’m here to report that Sally Hepworth has done her due diligence. She has written a sensitive and midwifery-friendly novel whose tension focuses on some very relatable difficulties of real world midwives—three generations of midwives, in fact—and done so while avoiding the above scenarios!
This novel has quite a few moving parts, as Hepworth addresses single motherhood, marriage, adoption, mother/daughter relationships, sacrifice, trust, privacy, birthing choices, and family, while slowly revealing the secrets of the title. Hepworth’s midwives attend births at home, in birth centers, and in hospitals, though with varying degrees of skepticism and trust when it comes to working with nurses and doctors. Told in the alternating voices of three women, the novel contends with serious decisions yet doesn’t feel particularly “heavy.” While I didn’t accurately guess the secrets, I did suspect the book would end neatly, tied with a bow, and I was correct about that.
The story engages the reader on many levels beyond the midwifery theme, with emphasis on plot, character, and conflict. There were passages about the strength of women, diatribes about doctors and hospitals, truths about midwifery regulations and obstacles, and many lovely births. When I thought about offering a quote I was undecided whether to laugh or cringe at one simile Hepworth employed; “When I wanted to launch into banter, my throat clamped shut like a preterm cervix.” If you laud (or forgive) that one, you will be fine with the rest of the book.
Born in the Bed You Were Made: One Family’s Journey from Cesarean to Home Birth, by Brooklyn James. 2018. (Austin, TX: Arena Books, $15.95, 274 pages, softcover.)
While the story of traumatic birth to healing homebirth is one that is often told in this era of intervention, this memoir sustained my interest until the very end. The author, who was a postpartum nurse when she had her first baby, started down this road with a limited choice of doctors, leading her to settle for one who had no faith in a woman’s body to give birth. As a result, the story starts with a cascade of interventions in labor (induction-epidural-unplanned cesarean), goes on to a parade of horribles postpartum (tunneling wound, several rounds of antibiotics, c diff. infection), and ultimately to the glory of a midwife-assisted homebirth.
The author’s style is both humorous and serious, incorporating in part blog posts that were written during and after a miscarriage that was bookended by her two, very different births. This book is a fantastic and accessible story that illustrates how preparation for birth is the bailiwick of midwives, and not obstetricians. It is also a tale of learning acceptance and surrender. I highly recommend it.
—Cheryl K. Smith