A Passion for Birth: My Life, Anthropology, Family and Feminism, by Sheila Kitzinger, Book review

It is a book that will make the uninitiated hungry to seek out her earlier work, and a perfect eulogy to a life well lived.

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The Independent Culture

There’s something poetic about the timing of Sheila Kitzinger’s autobiography, A Passion For Birth, which comes a month after the indomitable campaigner, mother, feminist, and childbirth advocate died. What better epitaph than to pen your own, colourful romp through your life? She even provides an obituary.

Kitzinger may divide those for whom natural birth is, well, natural, and those that believe painkillers were invented for a reason, but everyone should applaud her quest to turn childbirth from a domestic issue – she reminds us that birth, cookery, and flower-arranging used to be lumped together in libraries and bookshops – into a political one. Just don’t call her a childbirth “guru”. “That’s the last thing I want to be,” she insists, what with her lack of “mantras, creed, high priestess pronouncements or mystic incantations.”

“Mothers can’t be single-minded,” she writes, explaining how she wove anthropology, family, and feminism into her 86 years, and 24 books, including her first, The Experience of Childbirth. It says everything about Kitzinger that she churned out this ground-breaking tome in the pre-dawn hours while breastfeeding her fourth child: “An ideal opportunity to write before everybody else woke up.”

For parents, A Passion for Birth is rife with pointers for raising a child, from remembering “a baby is not a clean slate on which we etch the pattern we want, nor a feral animal that must be tamed,” to warning that somehow children “bring you up” instead of vice versa. Many will shudder at her “five maxims for happy living” with five children (“Mattresses are for bouncing. Water is for pouring. Sand is for scattering. Walls are for drawing. Paper is for cutting”) but the anecdotes are entertaining.

Because she is Sheila Kitzinger, the stories about those she has helped span the global spectrum, from asylum seekers and prisoners in chains in this country, to women in any one of the 30 countries she has visited to conduct her research or to lecture. She isn’t afraid to name drop, revealing that Princess Diana, on her advice, gave birth standing up, clutching Prince Charles for support in what was the “first active royal birth”.

Her five children, all girls, run free and fearless through childhood – key, Kitzinger believes, to emerging strong and confident to tackle adult life. Not for her the prescriptions of modern helicopter parenting. “The pleasures of motherhood come from being flexible enough to retain a spirit of adventure, and being able to grow through the mother-child relationship into adult friendship. For that to happen, it is futile to try to train our children into obedience or impose on them our own beliefs. They should not have to live their lives on someone else’s terms .... Then they can become their own free people.”

Though she spent a lifetime campaigning for women, not all feminists were fans of her work. Especially those who saw birth in “simplistic terms of women’s right to labour without pain”. For Kitzinger, this misses the point, which was an over medicalised system that denied women freedom during the most basic of female functions: giving birth. Or in her words: “When women give birth they are controlled by a male-dominated, autocratic, hierarchical medical system.” Thus when Spare Rib, that organ of radical Seventies’ feminism, called for more pain-free, hospital births, Kitzinger describes her horror “at how my sister-feminists could fail to support woman-centred birth.” “Birth is a major life transition. It is – must be – also a political issue, in terms of the power of the medical system, how it exercises control over women and whether it enables them to make decisions about their own bodies and their babies.” Enter the birth plan, that oxymoronic concept that although much mocked, means women can at least try to push for the birth they want (no pun intended).

Her life was so hectic – she recounts being too busy even to get supper ready for her own children – that merely reading about it will likely make you feel inadequate. But remember, this is Kitzinger: she of the psycho-sexual births with a topping of “wave-like orgasmic” urges to push. (No, me neither.) I defy anyone, however, to argue against her life goal of “taking birth back for women”. And yet there was more to her life. One chapter describes how she ran an aid agency from her home at the time of the Yugoslav crisis – Lentils for Dubrovnik – when Croatia was overwhelmed with Muslim refugees from the massacres in Bosnia. She writes also about her three lesbian daughters, cut from the same campaigning cloth as their mother, and about becoming a grandmother. It is a book that will make the uninitiated hungry to seek out her earlier work, and a perfect eulogy to a life well lived.

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