One of the books we need to read before arriving at school is Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife by Peggy Vincent. It’s a book I read before and had mixed feelings about. My school encourages us to read it because it will inspire and engage us for the coming year.
This second time through, I have to say that I liked the book better. Most of Vincent’s stories in the book are inspiring, many of them riveting. When she talks about the baby who wouldn’t start breathing until she began mouth to mouth resuscitation, or the birth her 6 year old daughter observed and fell in love with I find myself moved, no question about it. She is clearly an experienced midwife with plenty of seniority in the Bay Area midwifery and obstetrical communities.
However, I am also less willing, this second time around, to overlook some pretty hefty faux pas on Vincent’s part. When it comes to race, class, sexuality, and gender identity, I can confidently say that Vincent does not quite get it. Let me state here that I am, at heart, an incredibly black and white thinker. Any shades of gray I have added to my mental capacities have come from hard work and lots of sweat on my part. I’d like to think that at this point I’m pretty decent at seeing and understanding nuances and non-clear cut categories, but it hasn’t always been easy. So on this second read I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are definitely many merits to this book, but there are enough areas that give me pause that I would not recommend it as an all around inspiring, introductory read for a midwifery program.
Vincent loves using metaphors to describe situations, and typically uses these metaphors appropriately. For example:
When I awakened the day before my second child careened into the world, I waltzed around the house to songs from My Fair Lady. I could have danced all night, but by noon I’d decided that pregnancy was not at all my cup of tea. Pour the dregs down the drain, wash the cup, and put it away.
And then there are those times when the metaphors she uses to describe things that are entirely inappropriate, such as in this passage:
Nadine’s little fellow nursed happily, and then each child took a turn holding him while their dad used up a whole role of film. The baby showed admirable patience as they shifted him from one small pair of arms to another. Finally Sandi laid out her supplies for baby evaluation: tape measure, scale, thermometer, stethoscope. I unwrapped the baby from his cocoon of blankets – and laughed.
Nadine’s son had pooped so copiously that it squished between his toes. Wriggling around inside his flannel nest, he’d smeared the stuff so far up his back that it soiled the hair at the back of his head. In front, slimy meconium – the medical term for the bowel movement of fetuses and newborns – completely covered his genitals, legs, and feet. This little boy had viscous, black meconium plastered absolutely everywhere. I could have obtained a perfect footprint without using an inkpad.
He didn’t care at all, but his three older siblings screamed and fell on the floor laughing. His four-year-old sister, the oldest child in this close-knit family, declared, “Oooh, that’s yucky! We need to give him a bath right now.” I agreed. Leaving Sandi to supervise Nadine’s shower, I said “I’ll take this little tar baby into the kitchen.”
Tar baby? Really Peggy Vincent? You could say poopy baby, sticky baby, mucky baby, or dirty baby, but you chose to use a racially loaded term to describe this (probably white) meconium-covered infant? Really?
Ready to tackle a mess of sex, gender, and race with me? Read on:
… behaving calmly in the presence of San Fancisco’s flamboyant patient population often put an extra twist in my knickers.
When Vinnie and Rosebud waltzed into the exam room, I blinked rapidly and grabbed a blank chart to give me something to focus on. Vinnie seemed to sense my discomposure.
“Honey, you’re not in Kansas any more,” he said, his fuchsia boa nearly slapping me in the face as he tossed it over his left shoulder… I’m sure my astonishment glowed as brightly as Dorothy’s yellow brick road when he introduced me to his pregnant girlfriend, a four-hundred-pound black prostitute named Rosebud.
She’d gotten pregnant by Vinnie two months before he began hormones in preparation for a sex change operation. New breast implants already bulged on his bony chest. Vinnie wore tight-fitting gold lamé pants, purple high heels, a snug, purple-knit tank top, and that six-foot fuchsia boa that he just couldn’t leave alone. False eyelashes, impeccable makeup, and a short, androgynous hairstyle topped his flashy outfit.
… Only the telltale bulge in his snug pants revealed his original sex.
Rosebud, an enormous women [sic] whose skin and face you couldn’t help but admire, sat quietly smiling at his antics. Where Vinnie’s skin glowed so black he looked almost blue in certain light, Rosebud’s face and arms reminded me of coffee with lots of rich cream.
When Rosebud entered the hospital in labor five months later … an eight-pound baby slid from between her thighs with the ease of chocolate melting on a Chevy’s dashboard in August. Vinnie pranced and danced in the background, garbed in a cowgirl outfit that would have made Annie Oakley blush. With the short skirt flaring around his slim thighs, I couldn’t tell if he’d completed the sex change surgery. Although I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded my asking, it didn’t seem appropriate, given the circumstances.
Let me pause right here to scream a little inside. Vincent’s insistence on using a male pronoun to refer to Vinnie is deeply insulting and dehumanizing. Especially when, as Vincent describes, Vinnie left little doubt as to her public gender identity and chosen pronoun.
And what is with her obsession with Vinnie’s genitalia? She continues to mention her genitals and surgical transition several more times in this book. Not that Vincent is alone in her fascination, cisgender folks the world over are strangely obsessed with the genitalia of trans folk. The physical presence of male or female genitalia does not make someone male or female, it runs much deeper than that. Regardless of whether Vinnie physically transitioned (and Vincent’s account assumes that she has), it shouldn’t matter. It was almost as if Vincent needed proof of Vinnie’s surgery before she would use her preferred pronoun.
So I ask Vincent the question I always ask when it comes to things like this – would you have felt at liberty to describe in such detail the genitalia of any of your other clients? No? Well then don’t do it here. The same goes for Vincent’s bad habit of describing someone’s skin color only when they aren’t visibly white. We’re talking anti-racism 101 here
And yet, she delivers a touching, poignant, sensitive story about two interracial, married Muslim teenagers who choose to give birth at home with the father catching his daughter as she emerges from the womb. It is hands down my favorite story from the book and one of the most beautiful. Not once does she make disparaging or offensive comments about the parents’ age, race, or religion. At times like these she is at her best.
The bottom line: midwives need to be extra aware or race, sex, gender, and sexuality issues. If they want to operate outside of the typical top-down heirarchical system that is western medicine (and particularly modern obstetrics), they need to be able to work effectively and sensitively with groups that are marginalized by these same systems – people of color, queers, transfolk, immigrants, refugees, etc. Vincent’s book is not exceptional in her misunderstanding of these important issues, which is why it is so important that we educate ourselves and consciously work to create space within our practices that is welcoming and affirming to all of our clients.