If you’ve witnessed over a decade’s worth of home births, like Carol Leonard has, you’re bound to have garnered a few interesting stories. Lady’s Hands, Lion’s Heart is the memoir of a New Hampshire midwife so embittered by her own birthing experience that she dedicates her life to providing a more “‘natural” and loving environment for women who want an alternative to hospital births. At times thoughtful, other times in-your-face, her story may have you cringing, laughing and crying all at the same time.
The book’s 13 chapters each span a year in Leonard’s midwife practice, describing notable births, legal advancements for midwifery and personal tribulations brought on by relationships, mothering and long work hours with little pay. Other than having watched Ricki Lake’s The Business of Being Born, I personally know very little about the joys and perils of childbirth, so Leonard’s tale offered me a play-by-play of the whole experience–from prenatal care to after-birthing the placenta.
At the birth of her own son, Milan, a callous male doctor strapped her wrists to the table after she tried to massage herself to ease the pain. This disheartening experience led her to apprentice with Francis Brown, a man 40 years her senior and the only doctor in New Hampshire attending home births. Eventually she took over his practice. Leonard also befriended Ken McKinney, an obstetrician at a local hospital, and both men exemplify the positive and powerful roles men can play during pregnancy and birth.
On the other side of the coin, Leonard also describes abusive male partners, such as the inebriated man who proclaims his disappointment over a girl baby, then passes out in the bathroom. This experience made Leonard reflect on bringing baby girls into a hostile environment. She laments:
We leave the birth, thankful that a new baby has been born safely, but regretful that yet another girl-child has been brought into a demeaning and belittling atmosphere due solely to her sex. How immensely sad, and there is nothing we can ever do to change that part of her future.
Her romantic affair with McKinney, after separating from Milan’s father, adds light to the high-stress birth stories, but …. spoiler alert!!! … the lightness ends in the last chapter when McKinney descends into depression after a lawsuit regarding the transmission of HIV through a blood transfusion at his hospital. He commits suicide and Leonard is left heartbroken. (The epilogue, however, reveals that Leonard eventually remarried, left midwifery and started a tree farm in Maine.)
As a founder of MANA (Midwives Alliance of North America), Leonard spearheaded a movement that contributed to publicly recognizing home births as a valid alternative to hospital births and helped legalize midwifery in many states. Lady’s Hands, Lion’s Heart is both a memoir of that movement and a useful reflection for anyone considering a home birth.
Cover photo from Lady’s Hands, Lion’s Heart: A Midwife’s Saga.