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Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  2,584 ratings  ·  429 reviews
From evolution to the epidural and beyond, Tina Cassidy presents a lively, enlightening, and impeccably researched cultural history of how and why we are born the way we are.

Women have been giving birth for millennia, so why is it that every cultureand every generationseems to have its own ideas about the best way to get a baby born? Among the topics that Tina Cassidy
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published September 8th 2006 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published January 1st 2006)
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Average rating 4.04  · 
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 ·  2,584 ratings  ·  429 reviews

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Nov 29, 2007 rated it liked it
I just finished this book, and I was disappointed to recognize many sections of it as coming from another book that I am currently reading, Milk, Money, and Madness. I dont think the author exactly plagiarized, but its pretty close. For example, Cassidy says in Birth
At Dublin Foundling Hospital, of ten thousand hand-fed infants between 1775 and 1796, only forty-five survived infancy, an astounding mortality rate of 99.6 percent.

In Milk, Money, and Madness, it reads
At the Dublin Foundling Asylum
Aug 11, 2007 rated it liked it
I'm still reading this but there are important clarifications to be made for those just starting their exploration of the birth world:

First, homebirth is NOT illegal other than in a handful of states, and there are very legitimate ways of them becoming licensed, recognized, and counted. Cassidy writes that there is no way of knowing exactly how many of these renegade illegal midwives are out there. Actually, most states have recognized license requirements and these "licensed" "direct-entry" or
Whitney Canales
Jan 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011
This book should be titled Birth: All the Ways We've Screwed Up Over the Last 400 Years. Definitely not a book to be read by pregnant women or anyone a little fearful of childbirth and hoping to have a baby someday. That's not to say it isn't an extremely interesting book. It's quite gruesome and graphic, which helps. Very informative. Not for anyone looking to find a book with a positive outlook on birth. It does, however, note that when doctors came onto the scene, fatalities went up, and when ...more
Amanda Piotraschke
Nov 14, 2007 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who want a good excuse to never come in contact with the opposite sex and my friend julia
Recommended to Amanda by: the new york times
truth be told, i'm squeamish. it's the reason why my career as a nursing major was short lived, post-cat dissection.

i'm also a sucker, so when the new york times book review told me this was going to be a lighthearted romp through the single greatest pain your mother went through, i fell hook, line and sinker. plus, my friend is almost a midwife and i figured it's nice to know what your friends do for a living. what i got instead was a lesson on why your mom has every right to ground you...even
Anna (Bananas)
Feb 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
So, this was both fascinating and traumatizing in equal measures. A major theme of the book is how stunningly and arrogantly we've messed with childbirth throughout the ages. However, life saving measures have also emerged, ever so slowly and often despite doctors' misguided efforts.

Birth is a tough read at times, especially for me, being a new mom. One of the beautiful things about parenthood is that it breeds empathy. Anything involving harm to a child becomes unbearable to consider. Do NOT
Jun 26, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I learned so much about childbirth in this book, but I thought it was quite dry in parts and not structured for enjoyable reading. Also, the author's bitterness about her own birth experience is apparent throughout the book, and I think it colored a lot of the issues she was discussing. Despite all that, the content of the book was fascinating and I have a lot to think about should I ever choose to have children myself.
Feb 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
I LOVED this book! I'm not sure how she did it, but Tina Cassidy found a way to explain all of the details of birth in such a fascinating and entertaining way. It's easy for authors of nonfiction books to get caught up in the facts and references, leaving little room for enjoyable reading. However, this author definitely pulled it off. I'm not gonna lie, there were times where I cringed, and other times where I outright vowed never to get pregnant or have a child. I can't believe women survive ...more
Feb 29, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not done yet, but holy crap. Is there any field of medicine more gripped by fads than obstetrics? Frankly, we're lucky western medicine hasn't wiped us from the face of the earth! If you are unable to run useful studies (who wants to test stuff on pregnant women? you'd be crazy!), how can you make decisions and predictions for what is right? Why not just treat them as *healthy, pregnant* women, and not as someone who is sick who needs intervention...unless they actually DO? It turns out we're ...more
Dec 20, 2008 rated it really liked it
My favorite quote from the book was this:

"...birth reflects the culture in which it happens. In patriarchal societies such as Islamic Bangladesh, conditions are poor and there is rarely help and many women die. But in Polynesia where fertility is esteemed, new mothers are pampered and have skilled midwifery help. In Victorian times upper-class women were encouraged to be frail and childbirth seemed so unbearable they wanted no part of it, so they slept right through the delivery. In the 1940's
Jan 31, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
i was reallly excited about this book. but it turns out it sucks. i have several issues with it... 1) it reads like a hs history of science paper. it's just description after description after description of random, useless stuff. 2) it jumps all over the place time-wise. it talks about forcep use in the 1700s, and then about how the design of those particular forceps are similar to the ones used in the 1900s in chicago, and then several pages later randomly references the guy who invited the ...more
Booklover, Indianapolis
(June) (3.5*) A friend recommended this to me as an interesting read. It was definitely interesting, although even though it is only 12 years old it reads as somewhat dated (I'd love to see the author do an update - trends and stats have changed since 2006). Such is the world of childbirth - something that has been happening for literally tens of thousands of years yet for the last 500+ there have been trends, fads, and all sorts of changes that affect how a woman brings her child into the ...more
Jul 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
VERY interesting. I had no idea that 1) giving birth is so difficult for humans in comparison to other species and 2) people have made such a huge mess of it since like forever.

Here's something difficult that may fail and kill both the mother and child, so let's screw it up even more by adding superstition, religion and general idiocy to the mix!

The midwife vs. doctors issue in particular is very frustrating. I get the impression that back in the days when things were left to other women
Jul 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
Did you know that 18th century doctors wishing to observe an actual birth frequently sneaked into the labor room wearing a dress? Or that it's possible for a woman to perform a cesarean section on herself? Tina Cassidy's history of birth is filled with a wealth of fascinating historical accounts relating to how humans have been born, from ancient civilizations to the early twentieth century. Cassidy chronicles the plethora of superstitions, fads, and scientific theories (good and bad)that have ...more
Sarah Jane
Hmm. This book was a mixed bag. It's one of the many books I'm reading for research for a class I will be teaching at UCSC on the radical politics of birth and midwifery as feminist praxis. While I learned a lot from it about the general history of pregnancy and childbirth (everything from the origins of lamaze to induction to doulas), I found that the author had a rather fluffy analysis of why there has been such an incredibly harsh history of pregnancy and childbirth shaped by larger social ...more
Aug 01, 2015 rated it did not like it
Despite a 15 page bibliography, Cassidy's book misses some important information about the way birth is handled. For example, she repeated laments labors that were 16 hours long "with no end in sight", despite the fact that 16-24 hour labor is normal for first time moms. She writes at length about the size of our foremothers' pelvises (too small) and the effects of rickets on said pelvises. From there, she extolls c-sections, without discussing the serious side effects of surgical birth for mom ...more
Sep 15, 2010 rated it it was ok
The title is misleading it's more of a history of western medical intervention into the birth process with a special emphasis on the negative. While it was informative, I felt it was colored by the author's bitterness about her own experience and I would have preferred a more expansive history of birthing customs and traditions from around the world.
Feb 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fascinating, horrifying, and enlightening. I'm glad I'm a woman giving birth now, but it's so interesting to read the trends of how our birthing practices have come to be, and how some of them might not be so great after all. There were a few areas I would have liked more information and history that felt glazed over, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book overall.
Feb 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Ashley by: Amy
This was a great read! Covering the history of childbirth, Cassidy does a superb job of informing the reader but still keeping a somewhat light very non-textbook feel. Recurring themes include: a) when men show up on the scene, maternal-fetal mortalities increase and b) childbirth is rife with fads that leave the next generation wondering what the heck everyone (doctors, mainly) were thinking.

A few of the most interesting things:
- Cassidy touches on the fact that human and animal births are so
Mar 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed the history and anecdotes included in the book. I'm definitely glad I spent the time reading it. What I didn't appreciate were the times that Cassidy got into "the math", which was often misleading. I'll give two examples, though there are many others.

Cassidy mentions that out of approximately three million women in the US who give birth vaginally every year (a number that I think is actually lower currently?), "thousands" experience long-term incontinence. "Thousands" normally
Mar 19, 2009 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book because it is a subject I am very well versed in being a labor&delivery nurse who works at a freestanding birth center with midwives. What I liked was her journalistic, investigative approach to the subject. Sure, she sprinkled some editorial comments in here and there, but mainly it read like she did a lot of research. I liked how she divided the subjects up and followed them through history to the present in each chapter. I think more of an editorial/coinclusion would ...more
Munthir Mahir
Sep 15, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I bought this book interested in learning about one of life's two profound events: birth and death. Both are so significant and powerful yet they are fleeting events that usually are relegated, eventually, into the backrooms of memory. I was mainly interested in learning how our ancestors thought about and managed birth.
This book is exclusively about the medical history of birthing in the western world, predominantly, since the 21st century. But the author does not fail in weaving relevant
Jun 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
When we were trying to decide which book to read for book club this month, a friend brought this one up. I thought (and said out loud) what a perfect book for a bunch of women to discuss! Women (who have been pregnant and given birth) really love to talk about pregnancy and giving birth. And I was right, it was a highly successful book club discussion. Every part of this book was so interesting. It was so amazing to learn about all the ways women have given birth throughout history. I felt a ...more
Feb 22, 2011 rated it liked it
I learned a lot from this book and enjoyed it, but I do have a few issues. The actual history of birth is completely fascinating (and horrifying!) but the book itself is a bit meh. The timeline is all out of whack, so when I thought of a fad or strange practice (like craniotomies-- look it up) I could never remember during which century it was popular. The author didn't dive too deeply into home birth-- and seemed kind of flippant about it, honestly-- which was strange because I'm pretty sure ...more
Jul 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
Fascinating and horrifying at parts. Not for the faint of stomach, or anyone who is currently pregnant (it's pretty gory at parts - includes mental pictures you don't want in your head if you're trying to visualize a positive birth). The chapter on c-sections - yikes! It took me a while to stop thinking about the non-anesthetized symphysectomy. It's hard to imagine surviving that procedure let alone living with the medical aftermath. The things that women have had to endure throughout history to ...more
Apr 08, 2009 rated it really liked it
This non fiction book was an easy read with each subject usually just a couple pages long. The subjects included primitive birthing tools to caesarean section history to birthing positions. It is written somewhat like a book report with all the information coming from noted sources. It seemed the author wished to remain objective, but it would have been helpful to have more information. For example, a statistic like "4 in 1000 water births result in death," would have been more helpful if ...more
Jun 23, 2009 rated it liked it
Really interesting history of the horrors of birth. I read it at 8-9 months pregnant and it just made it more clear that I wanted to follow my birth plan and not let the dr/hostpital intervene if possible. I had been thinking about a home birth and this book didn't really sway me one way or the other. I thought it would. It just uncovered the history of the birthing experience. My only gripe is that it doesn't focus enough on modern birth experiences. I would have liked a bit more discussion on ...more
Apr 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I thought this book was great! Yes, there were some descriptions of horrifying practices that were used but those things are no longer done and as a pregnant woman at almost 7 months and getting ready for labor, the book didn't scare me so much as make me grateful for how far we have come. Also, the book was incredibly interesting! I rarely read non-fiction but I could not put this down and while reading I was sharing info with my husband who then became so anxious to read it that he was often ...more
Aug 07, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: book-club, nonfiction
The book was full of interesting facts. I learned a lot about the birthing process. I enjoyed learning about the cultural diffrences. I think my husband it grateful I am moving on to a new book. Will prob. reread when I have am pregnant. Gave it three stars because while it was a good book and very interesting I did not enjoy it as much since I have no children and the subject matter scares me.
Ever since I was a little kid, I've regarded all things to do with childbirth and children with fear and distrust, and a healthy dose of disgust. However, as a person who's recently realized that perhaps I might someday want children of my own despite all the apparently awful side effects of parenthood, I figured "knowledge is the enemy of fear," right? Also I just like learning about stuff.

So, when I saw this book at my local library, I thought I'd give it a shot. However, if I was expecting
Joyce Pearson
Jun 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I never realized what women endured.....

Wow, what a book. I've known that women throughout the ages have given birth, but I never honestly sat down and thought about what women have endured just to have a baby.

This book has truly opened my eyes to have been so lucky to have been born in the times that I was. Even to really be grateful to have given birth to my three children, and proudly admit that I'm one of these women that have endured the pain and wonderment of going through "natural
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