Thursday, October 19, 2006

Marvelous (and Maraniss) in Madison

Before it was my turn to sit before a microphone at the Wisconsin Book Festival, I dropped in on a talk by home-grown literary hero David Maraniss, author of the recent biography of baseball legend Roberto Clemente. One of the things that struck me was how Maraniss said he had lost sleep for months as he neared the end of writing a Bill Clinton biography a decade ago. Maraniss had trouble reconciling the conflicting aspects of the president's personality. What was the essential truth of Bill Clinton? Finding the essential truth, Maraniss said, is what drives all of his writing. And the truth is, there are many truths, and rarely is it black or white. This idea struck me again an hour later, after my talk, when someone asked what the best way is to give birth. "It must be at home, with a midwife, in an upright position," one earnest man said asking and answering his own question. The truth is...I believe the best way to give birth is however a woman feels comfortable. If it's at home or at a hospital, she needs to feel safe and supported, or else labor might not go so smoothly. Consider the case of monkeys who, when they feel frightened during labor (predators lurking?) actually stop contracting. The human equivalent of this is "white coat syndrome," where expectant mothers' labor stalls when they get to the hospital. Why? Because they are surrounded by strangers in uniform. (Perhaps that is why half of all women get Piticon after they arrive on the maternity floor.) But the same stalled labor could happen if a woman is home alone...
I shared the microphone with Laura Kipnis, professor of media studies at Northwestern; she just wrote The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, which looks at the state of feminism today. She, too, was asked the classic prescriptive question: What's a woman to do? Work outside the home or inside of it? Kipnis ducked and dodged, saying that while we have been so busy trying to do all the things that men can do, she neglected to ask the question about whether the things men were doing were actually worth doing. Of course, there's one thing men can't do: Give birth. Though if Kipnis had her way, neither would women. At least not vaginally. According to her, technology (a la cesareans) is the ultimate feminist choice. That may be, but unless a women really needs a c-section, three recent studies have found that the operation is more dangerous for mothers and babies than vaginal birth; babies benefit from labor and being squeezed through the birth canal helps clear their lungs and gets them breathing. To say nothing of the fact that major abdominal surgery can invite complications. This, I know, is true. And if more women knew that, they might not want a c-section unless they really needed one.

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