June 04, 2024

Invisible Labor

By Rachel Somerstein
Review by
Invisible Labor is a sobering, provocative and deeply researched look at the history of C-sections and how they impact women’s lives.
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Author Rachel Somerstein experienced a traumatic cesarean section with the birth of her first child. When the epidural failed, she felt every moment of the surgery, which continued while she screamed and was restrained by nurses. After her daughter was born, Somerstein spent years trying to make sense of what had happened. 

No wonder, then, that Somerstein dove into the topic of the most common surgery in the world. The result is Invisible Labor: The Untold Story of the Cesarean Section, a sobering and deeply interesting look at the history of and debate around C-sections. Though they may account for one third of births in the United States, Somerstein’s research makes clear C-sections are still largely viewed as an inferior way to give birth. 

“When it comes to birth, the term ‘natural’ is at once fuzzy and imprecise,” Somerstein writes. “Does it mean vaginal? Vaginal and unmedicated? At home? In the water? Regardless of the definition—which changes depending on who you ask—it most definitely doesn’t include C-sections. . . . On multiple levels, the rhetoric around natural birth implies that C-sections are bad, and the mothers who have them are bad, too.”

While judgment and lack of support can impact a new mother’s well-being, in a later chapter, Somerstein explores an even more insidious side of C-sections: Women of color are more likely to feel pressure from their provider to have a C-section, given how birthing experiences and outcomes are worsened and complicated by systemic racism in medical settings. A Black woman who declines a C-section may be viewed as aggressive, whereas their white counterpart may be viewed as well-educated and decisive. 

This is a provocative and well-researched book. New motherhood can be a profoundly joyful time, yet it also can be isolating, painful and shameful, and Somerstein writes that she wrote it for mothers looking to “see themselves reflected in the story of birth.” But Invisible Labor also makes clear that we still have a long way to go in adequately supporting women’s health, and therefore, it is of value to us all.

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Invisible Labor

Invisible Labor

By Rachel Somerstein
ISBN 9780063264410

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