Critical Reading


My weekly issue of New York Magazine arrived. On the cover: “The High Priestess of Home Birth,”  a teaser for an article titled “Extreme Birth.”

The article, written by Andrew Goldman, is about Cara Muhlhahn, a midwife and advocate of home birth who is featured in the documentary “The Business of Being Born,” which I mentioned briefly a few weeks back on this blog.

I flipped to the piece straight away. Having learned that there are only 9 midwifes in New York City who attend home births, I was curious to learn more about Muhlhahn and to read the author’s take on home births.

But when I finished the lengthy article, I was left feeling troubled. The author, who did interview Muhlhahn, is trying to be objective about his subjects–home birth and, in particular, Muhlhahn–but it seems he’s really trying to work through some personal ambivalence about his and his wife’s own experience of giving birth (they were interested in home birth, he indicates in the article, but ultimately chose a hospital birth, primarily because his wife was high-risk; she has lupus).

And really, I’m not sure that a magazine is the right place to do that.

As a critical reader, it’s hard not to notice the impact of words like “proselytizer” (are we talking about door-to-door salesmen here?), which Goldman uses to describe Muhlhahn. Or to question what his motives are when he argues that home birth–described as a service that promises “niravana [and] perfect aesthetics”– has been “conflat[ed]…with garden-variety natural childbirth,” by which, I suppose, he means hospital birth.

Then, there’s the fact that Goldman takes pains to note that Muhlhahn looks “nothing like the hippie-midwife stereotype,” observing that she wears “low-rise jeans” (at the age of 51?! Gasp!). He then quotes Rikki Lake, who has described Muhlhahn as “downright sexy.”  Is this information intended to bolster or damage Muhlhahn’s professional credibility and home birth’s appeal factor? Don’t ask me; I’m still not sure.

There are other aspects of the article that were unsettling. Goldman interviews clients of Muhlhahn, both satisfied and not, but one’s left wondering if his interviews were at all a representative sample of her overall patient roster.

And this is the problem with Goldman’s article: it has the patina of objectivity if you’re reading quickly or distractedly. But if you’re not, you can’t help but be left with some niggling questions.

I don’t take umbrage with what seems to be Goldman’s purpose here: namely, to question the sudden popularity of home birth in New York City, spurred, in large part, by “The Business of Being Born.” According to Goldman, “BOBB” is “always popping up in the what-your-neighbors-are-watching feature on Netflix,” and the recent bookstore party celebrating Muhlhan’s memoir, Labor of Love, could “barely contain the crowd that came out to celebrate….”  I also don’t take umbrage with Goldman’s call for us to have a thoughtful, critical conversation about birth practices in general.

But it’s that his call is so awkward.

It’s only towards the end of the article that Goldman finally gets around to what seems to be his real point: to achieve catharsis and, in a sense, closure with his own wife’s birth experience. It’s a five paragraph section of the article that doesn’t fit seamlessly with the rest, but which Goldman clearly needed to write. But I couldn’t help but wonder how his wife might write this article. Would she come to this same conclusion:

“I began to wonder if ‘labor amnesia’–the idea that evolution has made sure mothers don’t remember much of the pain of childbirth–might apply to C-sections as well [his wife had a c-section]. When women meet their healthy babies, they are so overcome with joy that they forget about the horror and construct a memory of something far more beautiful.”

And what conclusion does the reader come to? Goldman may well sow seeds of doubt in the minds of women who are interested in home birth but who don’t know much about it, yet he doesn’t leave them with much hard data or even convincing anecdotes to help them make more insightful decisions about what kind of birth experience is best for them, their partners, and their babies.

And that’s too bad.


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