Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent

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.

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17 responses to “Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent

  1. Having just finished reading your post, and being a strong advocate and close friend of several trans-people, I’m pleased and provoked by your comments. Thanks for sharing your insight, and for being able to reflect the good and the bad of this captivating book equally well.

  2. I am reading this book right now and am shocked that the positive reviews I read online did not mention the racist descriptions of women of color or the “tar baby” comment. Thank you so much for mentioning these! Not only is the author complicit in this, but the editors/publisher are too.

    • I was shocked too when I went looking for reviews and couldn’t find anything (although my search was not exhaustive) mentioning the things that I had noticed and been really unhappy to read. This is a book lots and lots of birth workers read and love – it’s incredible to me that somehow no one else notices (or is pissed off enough to talk about) the racism, classism, heterocentric and transphobic memes in this book. And the two examples I used above were two of many.

  3. Pingback: How to be a Good Ally to Queer Families « Birth and Bloom

  4. In my opinion, I think this was a little (a lot) dramatic. I just read the book and I never got the impression that she was being in any way disrespectful to any race, sexual orientation, or religion.
    And by the way, meconium is a dark color, not white, as you stated. It is also often described as being a “TAR-like texture”. The white substance you’re thinking of is called vernix. If you got something racist out of the word tar, you’re too sensitive…and racist if you ask me.
    Let’s put on our big girl panties.

    • Kay,

      First of all, when I used the term “white” in the above post I was referring to the race of the baby, not to the color of meconium. I suggest you re-read my post more carefully before making assumptions about my knowledge level regarding birth or what I meant to say.

      Secondly, I think it’s very important to view our world and the media we consume with a critical lens. I’d be happy to engage you in a conversation about my reading of Vincent’s book and the ways in which it falls short. Her frequent faux pas regarding race, sex, sexuality, gender, etc. detract from the telling of her birth stories and experiences as a midwife. However, it is neither appropriate nor productive to toss around insults such as the word “racist,” especially if you are going to use the word incorrectly.

    • I agree-can’t we say anything without someone screaming “racist” Peggy’s book is one of my very favorites!!! She shows a true love and acceptance for all of her clients!!

        • The question, Ashley and Taylor, is would you love the book less if the racially and transphobic commentary were removed or altered? I don’t think you would. Peggy Vincent tells a number of very engaging, interesting stories about her life and clients. It could only be made better by some critical self-examination and/or some decent editing by her publisher.

          And frankly, this awareness would only make her (and all midwives) a better midwife. It would allow her to serve her clients in culturally appropriate ways. It would improve her birth outcomes (read more about this here: http://radicaldoula.com/2008/08/14/one-main-cause-of-health-disparities-racism/). This unexamined racism is one of the biggest problems in midwifery today (for several examples of this, take a second to peruse the recent activity here: https://www.facebook.com/MidwivesAlliance)

          When people read this book and then read my post above and don’t have any inkling that something is a little wrong with Vincent’s narrative (nay, defend her even and deny that there’s any chance that she could be using racist or transphobic language), my response is to ask you to own your own privilege. It’s time to do a bit of self-examination, self-education, and step up to the plate. Take an anti-racism course (or several), read some books or blogs (anything by Tim Wise or Peggy McIntosh is a good place to start), start having discussions, and step up to the plate.

  5. Finally someone else who got the same thing out of that book! I do credit it as the thing that finally pushed me years ago to decide birthwork was for me, but yeah, there are so many huge problems like you mention, it makes me sad.

  6. I loved the book, regardless of anyone’s race, gender, socioeconomic standing or anything, however, I was really disappointed in the 911 call for not much help. It made a bad situation worse. Has she written anything else?

  7. Peggy seems like a pretty open-minded and liberal person. I highly doubt she was trying to be racist or sexist.

  8. While I agree that we should all be mindful of people’s race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, etc. I also think we should think clearly about when things were written and when things were experienced. This is her autobiography, not a novel. I think it’s important that she left her experiences intact and didn’t censer herself.

    • I agree with you that Peggy Vincent didn’t censor herself. That doesn’t mean, however, that what she wrote wasn’t racist and transphobic. It absolutely was. There is no statue of limitations regarding oppression and privilege. Vincent published this book in 2002, but frankly it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been written in 1702. As written, Vincent’s words are both racist and transphobic. Period.

      Of course it is reflective of the environment she practiced in. It is reflective of our current culture in the birth world where unchecked privilege, racism, and transphobia are seen as completely acceptable by a white, straight, cisgender majority. Where midwifery schools across the nation assign this book as required reading without a second thought. Where people don’t even realize the offensiveness of Vincent’s writing (are willing to defend it even! See previous comments on this thread for numerous examples.) and have absolutely no intentions of digging deeper into their own privilege to understand why we disagree on this topic.

      • And I agree with your plight to better the world for everyone. I agree that she made plenty of racist and trans-phobic comments, but I still do not think she should have omitted them in her book. I do think it would be a fabulous idea for schools who assign this book to have frank and open discussions regarding the racist and trans-phobic elements of the book, as schools have discussions about the racist language in books like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

        • It would have been nice to see some self-reflexivity in those comments – some understanding that she realized then or realizes now that perhaps she should have worded things differently and behaved/thought about things differently in the first place. As it stands now, we have tacit acceptance of this as an appropriate way of thinking/behaving by the great big deafening silence from the midwifery and birth worker world on the problems with this book.

          And I wholeheartedly agree that students should be reading this book and then having in depth conversations about it in class. Absolutely 100% yes!

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