Birth and Marriage

I’ve just finished a book on birth (for pleasure) and marriage (for work). Neither book is great, but both are interesting for the way they treat subjects about which we are all “experts.” Everyone has lots of ideas about birth, it seems, how it should best be done, who should be present, what it ought to mean (or not) for mother and child. So, Tina Cassidy’s engaging (and surprisingly not-too-political) book, Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born excites all kinds of thoughts, reminiscences, and opinions.

Birth and marriage are interesting. I remember how I used to blush when my mom would say that sex is interesting—usually as a cue, I think, to keep me from running away from an embarrassing conversation. But, of course, sex is. All of these big things are. What makes Cassidy’s book effective is that it’s simply a journalistic history of how we get born: there’s a chapter on C-sections, a discussion of forceps, etc. (She tells the same sorry story that Atul Gawande told in The New Yorker recently of the history of forceps: the inventors kept their tool secret for generations—profiting mightily from their monopoly.) What makes the scholarly book on marriage less successful is that it attempts to put forth an argument about how marriage has or has not changed with reference to a very small handful of novels.

Marriage has changed, I have no doubt, but charting that change needs large samples punctuated by salient in-depth examinations. Novels are obsessed with marriage. In fact, you could argue that the genre flourished through its dependence on a modern idea of romantic, companionate heterosexual coupling. But novels are idiosyncratic, strange, amazing, and individual. This makes them a bad foundation for a sweeping generational argument.

Birth has changed in a different sense, but it has changed nonetheless. The Times review found Cassidy's book gory. I love medical writing and I found it pretty tame. It is, however, overlong and plagued by an irritating tic: each chapter ends with a little scene involving that chapter's topic (say, c-sections) and a coy anticipation of the next (say, the role of the father). So, we get a little perky uptalk along the lines of [I'm making this up--it's not a quotation] "Prepped for her c-section and strapped to a table, the modern mother turns to her husband, who may be green at the gills at the sight of his flayed wife. Who let the husband into the room in the first place?..."

Reading along in both books, my mind continuously wandered off to other birth stories—especially my own—and marriage stories—especially my own. I imagine many, many other readers of these books will have the same response, all of which leads me to feel rather cynical about the books. They gain so much of their interest from anticipating our own interest and expertise in the topic.

I’m having trouble getting at the nub of what I’m trying to say here—what interested and bothered me in both of these books—but it seems like neither one fully got to their point, either. The one, too broad, the other, too narrow, both relying too much on the way that these two huge words, so applicable to all of us (even in our non-participation in the latter), neither sufficiently acknowledging that it's in the wholly personal version, the unique and crazy individual story of one little family's life, that these words take on their weight.