5 Books: Non-fiction by Women

This is something new I want to try. I really love recommending books (it’s what I liked most about my brief stint in a public library), and I want to do it more. So! I decided to do a monthly themed recommendation post. Since March is Women’s History Month, I thought I would start off with non-fiction books by women. I am excluding memoirs from this post (they’ll get their own post at some point, I’m sure, I love memoirs), and going with straight, researched non-fiction. Here are five titles I wholeheartedly recommend:

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang. This book is especially relevant these days with the controversy over Mike Daisey’s story on Fresh Air about the Apple factory in China. Chang lived in China and followed a number of women (as best as one can in a very transient society) through their experiences working at various Chinese factories. You will get a real sense of the working conditions of the factories and also the effect that this “internal migration” of young women from rural areas to factory towns is having on China. It’s a very dramatic shift that happened very quickly.

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler. The subtitle of this book really says it all, and it is quite the heartbreaking read. Living in the age of open adoption (and legal abortion), I had never really considered the emotional damage done to women forced to give up their children (and forced to bear the children in the first place), and it’s really quite severe. Sadly, given the current attack on women’s rights in this country, this book is more relevant than you would hope.

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed. Annette Gordon-Reed has written a masterfully researched history of perhaps the most famous slave family in America. (Seriously, if you don’t want to make out with Gordon-Reed a little after you read it, just because she is so SMART, then, well, you are less nerdy than me). This is a fascinating look at slavery, privilege within slavery, early American history, and gender relations. While Sally Hemings is the most well known because of her relationship with Thomas Jefferson, this book traces the known history of her entire family (mother, siblings, children, etc.). Did you know that Sally Hemings was Martha Jefferson’s half sister? I am still boggled by the repercussions of that (what is it like to own your sibling? how strange and yet somehow understandable that Jefferson’s two relationships were with women who were related…) This is a long book – I had to check it out of the library multiple times to finish it, but it is definitely worth reading.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This book is both a history of one woman (Henrietta Lacks) and her family, and an exploration of medical research, and the ethics surrounding that. It is a nuanced look at the scientific advances achieved from using the cells taken from Mrs. Lacks while she was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins, the obligations (or lack thereof) to Mrs. Lacks and her family because of the use of those cells (taken without her permission), and finally the broader question of who owns your bodily tissue (the answer appears to be – not you. At least not once the tissues are no longer attached to your body). Lots to think about.

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins. Collins writes an incredibly readable history of women’s rights in the last 50 years in America. It was astounding to me how much had changed in just 50 years and indeed how much had changed just in the 30 years since I was born. At the time of my birth, for example, a single woman could not buy a home in this country, a male cosigner was required! Insane! In addition to being simply interesting, this is a book that will make you feel good about the progress women have made.

5 Books: Non-fiction by Women

Frances: A Birth Story

In our childbirth class, our instructor encouraged us to write down our birth stories (and share them with her), but when Frances was born, I figured I didn’t really have a story to tell. After all, Frances was born by c-section. I have no tales of triumphing over the pain or the joy of pushing my baby out into the world. I didn’t even go into labor. To be perfectly honest, I’m still struggling with feeling like I somehow failed by not having the natural childbirth I wanted or that other women have had (and then I feel guilty for not feeling 100% positive about the mode of Frances’ arrival. Guilt, I do it well). But the fact of the matter remains that Frances was born, I carried her for 9 months, and then, one day in January, she left my body – so there is a birth story in there somewhere.

As someone who was very nervous about having a c-section, I really craved positive, non-traumatic c-section birth stories. I wanted to hear from other women who had given birth this way and felt okay about – and for all my ambivalence about having had a c-section philosophically, I feel very positive about the actual physical experience. So this is our story – of how Frances was born and how it was better than okay.

The story of how Frances came to be born by c-section starts long before Frances was born. At every midwife appointment since 28 weeks, our midwives would check Frances’ head position, and she was always heads up – BREECH. At first, I wasn’t worried about this at all, I figured Frances (or as we thought of her then – Baby Ansell) had plenty of time to flip. I figured she’d surely be heads down by the next appointment. Or maybe the next appointment. Or the next. But she never was. So I started trying all the baby-flipping tricks – laying upside down doing “inversions”, putting cold things on the top of my belly, playing music to the bottom of my belly, walking upside down on my hands in the pool, going to the accupuncturist, having Jami continue that treatment at home – waving smelly burning herbs over my small toe (this works for something like 60% of women), going to the chiropractor. If someone suggested it, I tried it, but still our baby never turned.

Finally we were to the last drastic step – an external version. This is when two doctors grab hold of the head and butt of your baby from outside your belly and manually try to turn him or her. It is not comfortable. On January 3rd we headed to the hospital for the external version. I got my desk cleaned off and made sure everything was in order at work, because there is a slim chance that your placenta can separate from your uterus during the external version and you have to have an emergency c-section. Luckily that didn’t happen for me, but they also weren’t able to turn the baby. I had to accept that the great likelihood was that this baby was never going to turn head down, and that that meant I was going to have a c-section.

Breech babies are born vaginally more commonly in Europe, but in the US, most breech babies are born by c-section. In the DC Area there is ONE OB/Gyn who routinely attends vaginal breech births and he is in Northern Virginia. Switching to a provider in Northern Virginia was not an option for us, because Jami would not be able to be on the birth certificate (and with our marriage unrecognized she could have even been kept from the delivery room). I felt grateful that I wouldn’t have to be transferred from our midwives care (midwives do not perform c-sections), but I knew that when I arrived at the hospital in labor, our midwife would mainly be playing cheerleader/supportive friendly presence in the operating room, while a doctor delivered our baby via c-section. So that was the new plan: I would go into labor naturally and then present myself at the hospital for a c-section (or a vaginal birth if by some miracle, the baby had flipped on her own).

On Monday, January 9th, I showed up at the midwives’ office for my regularly scheduled 38 week appointment. I had been feeling a little off and I was worried about my blood pressure which had been a little elevated at my last two visits and the fact that I also had had some protein in my urine. Both of these things are signs of preeclampsia, which if untreated can turn into eclampsia (seizures during pregnancy) which is pretty serious. After 37 weeks, the treatment for preeclampsia is to deliver the baby. The midwife I was seeing (my favorite – the one who had made me feel most okay about having a Breech baby, and about delivering that baby however it happened) was pretty worried about this too. She said she was going to send me over the hospital (just a block away) for monitoring, but that it was highly likely that I was going to have my baby today. WHAT? TODAY? I was totally not prepared for that. It was just a midwife appointment. I had thought they might put me on bed rest because of the blood pressure, but have the baby? Whoa. I started crying. I was just so overwhelmed.

So we headed over to the hospital, calling our doula on the way and letting her know she might have a birth to attend. Jami sent texts to our family and close friends giving them a heads up that Baby Ansell may well be on his or her way. I got hooked up to a blood pressure cuff and a monitor that tracked the baby’s heartbeat, which was nice and strong – which took a load of my mind right away. The triage nurse was really nice and personable. Some blood was drawn for bloodwork and I just sat on the bed and got used to the idea of having a baby. Oh, and I called my work to say, I think I’m having a baby today. I won’t be in after that midwife appointment after all.

After an hour or so, the midwife on call came in to say that my liver enzymes were elevated and that my blood pressure had remained high throughout the monitoring, so they wanted to go ahead and deliver my baby. Oh, and although there were other patients there that morning for c-sections (including another midwife patient with a breech baby), I was the only person who hadn’t eaten breakfast yet that morning, so they wanted me to go first. (Doctors prefer to operate on an empty stomach – less chance of you choking on your own vomit. Lovely, right?) Speeding right along.

The anaethesiology resident came in to introduced herself and to give me the standard spiel about possible side effects and complications of the epidural. She was the same resident I had met the previous week during my version (my midwife was very good about making sure that you met all possible providers, which definitely made the process more personal and less scary), so that was comforting. I met the chief resident who would be performing the c-section with the attending physician, and I had also met her the previous week (she was one of the two doctors performing the version), so things were looking up.

It was explained to us (by whom, I cannot remember now), that I would be taken into the OR and given the epidural and then Jami would be allowed in for the rest of the time. So off I went to the OR, which was cold and bright, just like everyone says. I just want to take a moment to sing the praises of the anaesthesiologists (I had two – a resident and the attending – because GW is a teaching hospital.) who were just the right mix of down-to-earth, funny and totally competent. It really helped me to relax because I both liked and trusted them – and I had been very scared about getting an epidural. As scary as it sounds to have someone put a needle in your spine, it was not painful (mild discomfort going in – something that I don’t think I would have even noticed if I was in labor. The attending anaesthesiologist joked that he was at a disadvantage because usually when he put in an epidural women were in a decent amount of pain and really glad to see him, whereas I was feeling fine.) – and it worked! Not only as a pain killer, but when I started feeling nauseous, I just told the anaesthesiologist, she did a little medication magic and 30 seconds later I felt fine! (There are benefits to having a direct line into your spine!)

Once I was all set with the epidural, I lay down, and my arms were covered with blankets (in addition to the OR being cold, IV fluids can (and do for me) make you cold). A sheet was place below my boobs to keep me from seeing the surgery (you could probably request to not have your vision blocked, but I didn’t really want to see them cut me open). Jami came in and I was very happy to see her. My midwife was there too, and lots of other folks (pediatrician, two surgeons, two anaesthesiologists, untold medical students). Everyone was pretty excited to learn that we didn’t know if we were having a boy or a girl, so that meant we would all find out together! The anaesthesiologist confirmed that I couldn’t feel anything, and they started cutting.

Time is tricky, especially when in such an emotionally intense situation, but I think it was about 10 minutes later that Frances was born. Jami told me while they were working that the baby was a boy because they kept referring to the baby as “he”, but it turned out that they couldn’t tell yet and were just using a default pronoun – because when Frances emerged, and the doctors told Jami to look over the sheet and see the baby, Jami said “She’s a girl!”. I was so shocked. I was so sure Frances was going to be a boy, that I said “She’s a girl?” in tones of absolute disbelief. It was definitely the best surprise I’ve ever had. I heard her cry and was so relieved that she was okay.

We told everyone in the operating room that this was Frances Gloria, and she was whisked over the the warmer (which I could see from where I lay) for the pediatrician to perform the Apgar tests. Jami was able to stand right there beside her and marvel over her perfectness – and we were both amused how her feet were up by her head – you could definitely tell she had been breech! Once the 5 minute Apgar was done (score of 9!), Jami was allowed to pick her up and bring her over to me. She was just the most beautiful baby girl.

I was very happy to see her, but my surgery wasn’t over yet, and while the doctors were sewing me back up, I got nauseous and threw up a little (another one of my c-section fears). The anaesthesologist continued to be my favorite person by holding the little bucket for me to throw up in and assuring me that it was totally normal and that I was doing great. She also took the first picture of Jami, Frances and I on her phone. Seriously, she was the best. I was so happy that Jami was there to hold and love our little one, while I wasn’t feeling up to it. Even though I couldn’t hold her yet, I was so thrilled that she was born and healthy and so in love with her and with Jami’s reactions to her. She couldn’t stop talking about just how awesome Frances was. Sewing up took longer than getting Frances out, but still not very long. I think all told, I was in the OR for about an hour.

As soon as I was out of the OR, I was able to hold Frances and start breastfeeding, and with the epidural still in I felt pretty good (although I wasn’t moving much). You often hear how women who have had c-sections aren’t able to hold their babies, but that wasn’t a problem for me at all. I was worried about recovering from the c-section, but it wasn’t bad. The pain was worst the day after the surgery, after the epidural came out, but it was definitely manageable, and by the time I got home I was just taking over-the-counter pain meds. Walking was difficult for a few days, but got better quickly and by about two weeks postpartum I felt mostly normal. Now 9 weeks later, the only reminder of my c-section is the scar.

I am really happy that everything moved so quickly (my midwife appointment was at 8 AM and Frances was born at 12:39 PM), because I didn’t have time to stress out  or obsess about things. And speed is definitely a benefit of a c-section – you get to meet your baby very quickly – much quicker than most vaginal deliveries. I don’t feel like my recovery was any harder than most vaginal deliveries either. My pain was in a different area, but I don’t think it was really more severe (I can’t ever know that for sure, but that’s my impression). Basically, if I could tell my pregnant self one thing, it would be that the c-section wouldn’t be anything to fear (and also to stop trying to turn my breech baby – doing all that stuff took a lot of time and was stressful. I wish I had just relaxed and pampered myself a bit more.) And, hey, I grew a baby and then I gave birth to her. That’s pretty kickass however it happens.

Frances: A Birth Story

February Round-up

I read 6 books in February, 5 fiction, 1 non-fiction. 5 on the Kindle, one in hard copy.

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. Gorgeously written book, set in the former Yugoslavia. The protagonist is a young doctor, whose grandfather just died. In between her present-day trip to vaccinate some orphans and locate her grandfather’s personal effects, Natalia weaves in two stories that her grandfather told her – the Deathless Man and the Tiger’s Wife. The books was on lots of year-end Best Books lists, and I think that was deserved. Definitely recommend.

Miss Tonks Turns to Crime by Marion Chesney. This is the second book in the Poor Relations series. Pure Edwardian fluff. Perfect for when a baby has fried your brain.

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. Continuing with my Kurlansky kick, I enjoyed this book more than Cod. The history of salt is oddly fascinating.

They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie. Another Miss Marple, just as enjoyable as all the others.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. This is the first book that I’ve read by Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, and I was wowed. The Cat’s Table refers to the table that the protagonist, 11-year-old Michael, dines at during his three week ocean voyage from Sri Lanka to England. As you can imagine, an 11-year-old boy can have some grand adventures on a cruise ship unaccompanied, especially after befriending the two other boys on the voyage. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson. I got this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program and it took me about 9 months to complete it, which should say something about my enjoyment. In the end I found the mystery well constructed (and well researched – it is based on actual historical events), but I was put off by the baby killing (I knew that was the subject when I requested the book, but got pregnant between request and book’s arrival and suddenly found the subject too upsetting to want to read about). I wasn’t very in to the personal relationship drama of the book, but all mysteries seem to have them. Just okay to me.

February Round-up