My Dissertation and First Book
By the time I had to pick a dissertation topic (I had thought it would be shamanism), I had married Robert Floyd, an Austin architect, and we had given birth to a baby girl, Peyton. What I had planned and hoped would be a natural birth in the hospital turned into a highly traumatic cesarean, leaving me full of questions about why hospital birth is the way it is—so technological and interventionist. I began asking other women about their birth experiences, got fascinated, and went on to interview 100 women about their experiences of pregnancy and birth, which first was my dissertation and then, after various articles and years of work, became my first book, Birth as an American Rite of Passage (1992). As I struggled with each page in one of the greatest labors of love of my life, I had no idea whether anyone would even read it. So I was stunned and overjoyed when, shortly after it came out, it was given a glowing review by Sarah Ruddick in the Sunday New York Times Book Review and many other places, and it went on to be widely used for teaching in anthropology, women’s studies, sociology, American studies, and midwifery education courses, and to be called a “classic in the field.” Much to my ongoing delight, a famous anthropologist, Charles Leslie, wrote an overview of medical anthropology in which he called my book “a mountain in the landscape” of the field. Wow!
One of the reasons for the success of Birth as an American Rite of Passage was that right after I finished my dissertation (which had the same title) in 1986, I sent it to Brigitte Jordan, author of Birth in Four Cultures (1978) and at the time the premier anthropologist in the country, indeed the world, in the study of childbirth and midwifery. Her work, and that of Sheila Kitzinger, had been my primary inspirations as I wrote. A week later, I received a letter from “Gitti.” She wrote that when my dissertation arrived, she still had 250 papers to grade and was leaving for Europe in three days, but she started to glance through it and then couldn’t put it down. She said it was “the best thing she’d ever read about childbirth,” and had I thought about publishing it as a book, and would I be willing to submit it to the University of California Press for a Series on Comparative Health Care Systems, for which she was a member of the editorial committee? I carried that letter in my wallet as a talisman of hope for a year, until it dissolved in tatters.
I have taught both general and specialized forms of cultural anthropology for over 20 years, at various universities. I love teaching and working with students, which I continue to do as advisor for independent study projects, dissertation committee member, or external examiner. For the present I am retired from teaching more than the occasional course from time to time, but I am still open to that “perfect job”—the one that might be waiting for me somewhere at a wonderful university or small college, with interested and committed students, congenial faculty members, and the opportunity to teach a wide range of courses, from introductory to advanced. Should that job ever materialize, I will commit my life to doing it well. In the meantime, I am fulfilled and busy with writing and traveling to conduct research and to give talks all over the world.
My latest co-edited collection, Birth Models That Work, came out in 2009. I had the inspiration for it at an international congress of the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM), when I realized that so much of our work is focused on what is wrong with the obstetrical treatment of birth, and that somebody needed to write about what we can do right. I am extremely proud of this book, because it contains marvelous chapters written by people who are committed to helping women deliver their babies in compassionate and evidence-based ways.
My ongoing research addresses postmodern midwives in Mexico (see “Daughter of Time: The Postmodern Midwife” on this website), the ideologies and practices of holistic obstetricians, the use and abuse of scientific evidence in medical practice, global trends and developments in midwifery, and the movements in many countries to humanize childbirth and medical practice. While holism remains scorned by most technocratic physicians, and fully practiced by only a few, humanism as ideology and practice is gaining groundswell support around the world (see my article “The Technocratic, Humanistic, and Holistic Models of Birth” on this website, and From Doctor to Healer for more complete explanations.) While I am a proponent of holism, I see humanism in health care (which includes public health initiatives) as the most viable hope for the development of health care systems that respond to people’s actual and most pressing needs.
A Personal Note
Since September 12, 2000 I have had to cope with the death by car accident of my daughter, Peyton Elizabeth Floyd. Although I have lost to untimely death my parents, various relatives, and some of my dearest friends, I find that none of this compares to experiencing the death of a child. I have recorded something of what that has been like in an article “Windows in Space/Time: A Personal Retrospective on Birth and Death” (available here) and eventually hope to write a book, Grieving and Grace: A Deep Description, which will tell hard truths about what it is really like to lose a child. I also offer on this website a short primer called “The Art of Grieving Gracefully” for those in need of some advice about the grieving process.
Before Peyton died, I lived in the ethos and ambience of a wellspring of happiness that bubbled up inside me, disappearing for short times when troubles arose, but always springing up again to permeate my life and define my state of being. Since my daughter’s death, I have lost that happiness, finding it again only for moments or hours at a time. I hope and pray that wellspring will one day bubble up inside me again, as it did before. In the meantime, as many who have written about loss and death discovered, there is (much as we hate to admit it) enormous value in suffering—it dredges you out, carves you deeper, forces you to save your limited energy for what’s really important and let go of the rest. Living now in ongoing pain, I find solace and fulfillment in my family (most especially my 26-year-old son Jason (born at home in 1984), his wife Ashley, my significant other Alan Huber and his daughter Lonnie and granndaughter Shayla, my friends, and my work. I have had to learn to grow around the pain, to give it its place in my being while becoming, anyway, more than my pain. I wish for all of us who suffer thousands of moments and hours of happiness; may we grow around and beyond our pain so we can continue to be fully present to Life.