This is for Zelda…

I recently read Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent, CNM. It is an inspiring book that took me on a 40 year journey of obstetrics, nursing and midwifery. It is an emotional ride with slow buildups, screaming with excitement drops, unexpected turns and even solemn moments. The first chapter grabbed me by my heart and reached into my soul before I even knew what was happening. I was hooked.

It all began with Zelda…

In the 60’s birth was a medical event to the extreme. Drugs that made women hallucinate and do things they couldn’t remember or pass out and not know where they were. Fathers not present at all to defend or support their wives, or witness the birth of their child. Arms and legs strapped down, babies being pulled out and whisked away because they were ‘cold’ or ‘mom would drop them’, all were the norm of hospital birth.

This is what Peggy was learning as a nursing student…until Zelda. This skinny African American woman with her big tight belly was different. She had no drugs and literally walked along her bed shouting and praying to Jesus and God. Peggy didn’t know what to do with her and ended up looking like the silly one when lifting the guard rail on the bed up and down afraid Zelda would fall off. See, Zelda was doing what she innately felt was right. She walked, moaned, yelled, prayed and trusted birth. She birthed her previous two babies at her Granny’s house. All Peggy knew was this woman was crazy and that as a nursing student she was going to get into trouble if she did not get this wall-banging woman to lay down and cooperate.

They finally came to an agreement.  Zelda labored how she wanted and when the head nurse was coming, Peggy gave her notice so she could lay in bed and be a ‘good patient’. It was working for them and Peggy was blessed to witness a woman in the bliss of labor. A woman who surrendered to the pain and process of her body as it worked with her baby to enter this world.

Unfortunately, as she was close to meeting her sweet baby, she was heard. Within minutes she was attacked by vultures going for the kill. She was put on a gurney and they strapped her hands and feet down as they tried to gas her. She fought with all her might and Peggy stood there helpless. The doctor said horrible things, calling her names and saying women like her shouldn’t be able to ‘breed’. He finally pulled her baby out of her and they took him away. The birth was over and they still decided to gas her and knock her out. The abuse that Zelda endured after hours of precious laboring was horrendous. Peggy tried to speak up for her, but she had no authority. It was done. Zelda didn’t even know she birthed a baby boy.

I cried. Then, I pulled myself together quickly to move on to chapter two. I didn’t get a paragraph into it before I had to put the book down. I sobbed. I had to let it all out. I let the tears flow and flow until there were no more. Here I am nine months pregnant, in the bath, sobbing as if it were me that had just been through birth rape. After I let my emotions and mind process what I just read, I thought about my upcoming birth.

No woman should ever feel the betrayal and pain Zelda did. Every time a woman does, it feels like a part of me knows it. I feel it in my bones. My heart is burdened by her pain. As I wiped the tears from my face, I felt this sense of responsibility to birth this baby with a new found determination. Not just for me. I am going to labor my way, but to the rhythm of all women who have birthed before me, are birthing with me and who will birth after me.

African American baby overlooking mother's shoulder, birth

I am birthing for me, my baby and his/her generation, for all women, for Zelda. It is my small way to offer healing, encouragement and power.


  • Miranda

    Yup, I’ve got it on my list of to buy books, including The Silent Knife. Slowly building myself a birth library, here! Thank you for this post, I felt tears prick my eyes just reading about Zelda’s birth rape – I don’t know how doctors who are taught to “first do no harm” can possibly validate this kind of treatment of any person, let alone a woman in labour! Just goes to show how power corrupts a person, even when they think they’re doing the right thing…

  • Mary Bennefield

    I can relate to the level of emotion these types of scenarios evoke in you as I feel much the same. I will never be able to understand how any human being can treat a laboring woman in this manner …. my heart bleeds for all the women who have suffered at the hands of another. We only have one chance to birth each child; there are no second chances. It is literally our God given right to do so as our instincts tell us and no one has the right to interfere with that! Our instincts / intuition will also tell us if & when we need to seek assistance. I personally do not believe that any one person can truly consider themselves a “birth expert” as each and every woman, pregnancy and birth are completely unique and only that woman, in that moment can truly know how to birth that child. As barbaric as birthing in a hospital was in the 60’s, I am ashamed to say that 50 years later things are not much better. Still, women come in and are tethered to monitors, subjected to frequent (often painful and unnecessary) internal examinations and drugs are pumped (needlessly) into their veins. The medical establishment often tries to force women to labor before their bodies are ready and do so by chemically assaulting them and when that fails then they are whisked away to an O.R. – this to me is just as horrific as the happenings of years past. We, as women, must band together and work diligently to defend our right to birth naturally.

  • Rachel

    Yes, yes yes. I read this book 4 years ago and I’m still haunted by that opening story. Like you, I think of the millions of namelss like her. This is why we have to do better. Great post, thank you!

  • Katherine

    This story makes me so sad, I got the same feeling when I watched The Business of Being Born and they were revisiting the history of sleeper beds, were women were blindfolded, drugged, and strapped to the bed. It is terrible I cried so much. No wonder fear has been ground into the minds of the last several generations.

    I unfortunately did have to have intervention because of some real complications, but I was lucky in that my care providers worked with me and my needs, and I was able to labor natural for 16+ hours. I still felt in control, and I look forward to my next child being an all natural VBAC.

    I really want to read this book, I might give it a few months though. I feel like I am still emotionally recovering.

  • Kim Rangel

    I just went to, and I got to read the sample chapters, and it seems like an amazing (although infuriating) book about the changing face of birth. I myself gave birth to both of my children safely at home unassisted, so I have no firsthand knowledge of the harm done to women in childbirth, but I know that we can do a better job of supporting women to have confidence in themselves and their ability to give birth as God designed their bodies to do. I am encouraged that more women are educating themselves about the issues surrounding birth (where to give birth, with whom, how to relax and allow her body to open up to birth her baby rather than fighting what her body already knows how to do, how to avoid dangerous, unnecessary interventions, how to be in tune with her body to know when help is actually needed, dealing with fears ahead of time to avoid potential problems in labor and birth, etc.), but I wish all women would do so. Additionally, I wish that the medical system would fundamentally change, so that women would not be pushed into making decisions based on their medical professional’s convenience or fear of lawsuits. Women should realize that just because their particular dr (or even midwife in some cases) recommends some course of action does not mean that it is necessary or that their baby would die or be harmed by not doing it (e.g. ultrasounds, fetal testing, induction, external fetal monitoring, walking in labor, eating/drinking in labor, waterbirth, etc.). Most of what they discourage in hospitals is what women *should* be doing, not avoiding! Moving around helps baby to descend into the birth canal more easily and more quickly with less pain and less “need” for drugs with their increased risks to baby’s breathing and heart rate. Continuous external fetal monitoring takes away Mom’s ability to move around, and it has never led to babies being saved or protected. It forces Mom to behave in an unnatural fashion for the sake of monitoring baby, but it places them both in a more stressful, longer lasting situation that makes it more dangerous. (I could write forever about this, but I will end now.)

  • Joy

    Just read this book and Zelda’s story also made me bawl and made me so so so furious for her. I don’t even think Peggy herself was able to fully relay the raw emotions she felt during and after that birth but her journey into midwifery shouts from the rooftops, “This was NOT okay and I’m going to do something to change it.” She is a credit to the midwifery movement and I’m so glad she penned her experiences to paper. I hope MORE midwives do the same!

  • Imogen

    Great post, BWF.

    I read a story similar to the one you describe here in one of Ina May’s books when I was heavily pregnant, and I too bawled like a baby. It breaks my heart to think of what women went through all those years ago, and what they go through now. My first birth was in the hospital and was degrading and frightening, but nothing like what some women are subjected to. Thankfully the second was at home and it was friggin’ awesome.

    I have to read this book.

  • Amanda M

    Great post!
    I went to Chapters yesterday to buy this book and they didnt have it! Im going to have to go back and see if I order it. (when I have more time)

  • Carissa

    I am waiting for this book! I ordered it last week!!! I also want to read the silent knife, that will next on my list 🙂
    I do just want to say that not all hospital births are horrendous, I know there are alot out there but my 2 (VBAC’s) were beautiful, peaceful and very respectful and they were 2 different big public hospitals here in Melbourne, Australia. I just had to say that 🙂

    • Red

      I get the impression Australian hospitals are often (not always) more positive than many of the American hospitals I’ve read about on here and other sites. I have had 4 births in Colac (2h sw of you). The first was full on – a mix up with the midwife shift change left me for an hour after asking for water injections, followed by manual rupturing of waters and some unhelpful position suggestions when I was too exhausted to do anything. But #2 and #4 were amazing. #4 in particular was peaceful and quiet. The midwife sat on a recliner overlooking as a student doctor, terrified, followed my lead to deliver my baby. I never lost my cool and never had my right to birth exactly as I wanted to challenged.

      • Red

        Should clarify for those who don’t know, water injections are sterile water injected just under the skin in 4 places which confuses the brain so it no longer registers the pain in that area. Very useful in posterior labours as back pain can mean a mum can’t feel contractions clearly. It is non medicated and completely safe. If they mess it up the worst thing that can happen is that it won’t work, and they hurt like hell for half a second so you want them to work! I’ve had 5 sets over 4 labours. They don’t need to be done by an anaesthetist. The midwives did mine.

  • Sarah

    I read The Baby Catcher when I was pregnant… and Zelda’s story, along with others, brought me to tears. Thanks for reminding me about it, I think it may be time to go dust it off and give it a second whirl!

  • Krista

    I definitely want to read this book! The history of childbirth fascinates me. Mary Mongan’s story at the beginning of Hypnobirthing really made me step back and take a look at the hospital system. I would say that is what was the spark to my home birth advocate flame.
    When I ask my grandma about her births, although she’s old and doesn’t say much about them, none of them are filled with crazy medicine thankfully. In fact my aunt was born in the car. I remember the first time I heard the story I was surprised that she tells it so calmly and wasn’t panicking. She said she just covered her with her coat until they got to the hospital.

  • katie

    this is the first book I read on the topic of birth. I am SO glad it was this book because it open the door to a world that has changed my life… so I have peggy to thank for leading me to this blog 🙂

  • Marleina

    This is one of my favorite books, and definitely my favorite birth/pregnancy read. My copy is worn and very well-loved. I cry several times, every time I read it. And I always think of Zelda, too.

  • Kim

    When I was at the library looking for baby name books, there were none, but this book was in the area. I decided it looked interesting and I read it. From that point on, I did an incredible amount of research and decided on a home birth. The book was amazing, heartbreaking and encouraging at the same time.

  • S

    Wow, as soon as I read the name Zelda tears came to my eyes. What a powerful lesson. After I experienced birth rape I felt her name branded on my heart. My third birth was at home in the water. I would rather give birth on a subway than in a hospital or birth center. I think using the word rape might be too strong. For me, I’ve had two negative birth experiences. The first one I entered the birth center at 10 cm. Was made to lay in the semi fowler position, while I pushed for an hour with no natural urge. Then the midwife told me she needed to cut me. She said she could count on two hands the amount of times she’s ever preformed an episiotomy, I believed her that that was the only way the baby would be born alive. At any rate it is difficult for me to equate this with the horrific intervention process leading up to cesarean section. It’s hard for me and I’m sure for other women, to want to label this as birth rape because it seemingly takes away from other women who has been through more extreme experiences. But she did violate my trust and my body.

  • Debbie Frechette

    ladies blogs are great but we need a call to arms in this battle if you are inclined to read this you may be inclined to join the movement, we need midwives , doulas trained birth people assistants birth advocates breastfeeding mommas visable in our churches and communities telling other women that this is normal and they sont have to be abused by the system anymore.

  • Candice Del Vecchio

    I feel much the same as you and Mary Bennefield. My heart aches just thinking about the atrocities women endured back then. My heart is pained that things now really aren’t that much better. So many years, so little progress. It kills me. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Wendy

    I read this book when I was on the airplane on my way to my niece’s birth. Unfortunately, I missed the birth by half an hour because of a multitude of delays. Of course, that gave me the chance to read the whole book :).

    The birth atmosphere in the 60’s is the reason my mother waited so long to go into the hospital with bothmy brother and me (’67 and ’68) that they had no time to strap her down or anesthetize her either time (I was crowning as she waddled into the hospital)!

    Of course, Dad was still unable to be there for the births, but at least Mom wasn’t subjected to the horrible things so many women were. For some reason, however (probably to punish her for her audacity to give birth on her own terms) she was given a shot of Demerol after I was born!

    This led to her being horribly sleepy and dropping me on my head as she was holding me. The nurses treated her like a leper after that, giving her the evil eye and telling other mothers on the ward that she’d thrown me on the floor. She still suffers from the abuse- actually, when I was six or seven she heard a woman *whisper* “Look, that’s the woman who threw her baby when we were in the hospital!”!

    Mom also breastfed me, which of course was against the medical advice of the day. A friend of hers’ OB said to her “If God had intended you to give milk He would have made you a cow!”. Man, how messed up is that? If God had intended us to feed our children cow’s milk we wouldn’t lactate!

  • sky

    I’ll have to read this,it sounds very good.It is unbelievable & extremely sad what our previous generations of women had to go through.
    If i mention birth to my mother she shudders & shakes her head.She had my sister in 1970 & she was an unwed mother(she married my father 2 years later as he stuck by her) & she was treated abysmally .They left the placenta inside her for days & she nearly died but they treated her like she deserved it because she wasn’t married.After my sister was born & they took her away they just left my mother out in the hallway to bleed.

  • rachel loth

    “Every time a woman does, it feels like a part of me knows it. I feel it in my bones. My heart is burdened by her pain. As I wiped the tears from my face, I felt this sense of responsibility to birth this baby with a new found determination. Not just for me. I am going to labor my way, but to the rhythm of all women who have birthed before me, are birthing with me and who will birth after me.

    African American baby overlooking mother’s shoulder, birth I am birthing for me, my baby and his/her generation, for all women, for Zelda. It is my small way to offer healing, encouragement and power.”

    I feel the same way. you put it so eloquently, thank you. Every time I stay with a woman for 8, 10, 16 hrs and help them bring their baby into the world their way, in a safe way, it is worth it. I too am close to delivery and will think of Zelda and I birth her peacefully.

  • christie

    there are similar stories in the book “hypnobirthing” the authors own stories included, its truely horrifying. ive never asked her to go into detail but i know my grandmother suffered a birth like this, 4 days of horrific labour unable to do anything and her baby (now 50) has cerbral palsy as a result of her birth, she was never able to breastfeed and wouldnt have had any more children if it wasnt for an “accident” a year later that went a short way to helping her heal. i dont know if she was ever allowed to birth normally having all her children in the 60’s. im glad i have the chance to educate myself before going into birth i can stand up for myself and for all the women who come before and after me

  • DoulaB

    I read that book when I was pregnant with my second baby. It brought out a different emotion in me though. I was filled with anger. I wanted to jump back in time and protect her. I became a doula after my daughter was born. 🙂

  • peggy vincent

    Wow, I’m the author of the book being discussed here, Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife.
    It’s such a joy to me that my memoir of those midwifery years in and around Berkeley are still resonating with women today…and that home births are on the rise.
    Thanks for all the kudos!

    • Mrs. BWF


      I am honored you commented! Your memoir is inspiring to many. Thank you for writing it and sharing it with the world!


  • lisa walters

    Oh My Peggy, I read your book a few years ago when i was just starting out on my Doula journey. Thank you so so much for writing it. I remember Zelda so well. Thank you BWF for writing this blog, I think I will reread the book again xx

  • Tanya

    I can’t believe I waited so long to read that book, but once I started, I couldn’t put it down! It solidified my resolve to one day become a midwife.

    The most amazing thing was that a few weeks after reading it, I miscarried at 4.5 weeks. I honestly don’t know how I would have made it through were it not for the fact that I had just read that book. I still miss that pregnancy (I would have been 41 weeks now, which is usually when I have my babies), but I am comforted by the knowledge that my child is waiting for another chance to come Earthside and join our family.

    Thank you, Peggy, for writing such an inspiring, thought-provoking, and spiritually fulfilling memoir.

  • Cece

    That was the FIRST book I bought and read after getting pregnant and deciding on a homebirth. That first chapter gave me chills all over my body and brought me to tears! It is still the book I recommend first to anyone I know who is pregnant, whether they are considering a homebirth or not.

    Peggy Vincent, you changed MY world!

  • sarah j

    My mom asked me the other day how doctors could do things like that to another human being (I told her a story about birth rape) all I could tell her was that I don’t know. We should not have to be afraid of doctors or those charged with our health. :/ I’m glad medicine has improved so much but it still seems like it has so far to go.

  • Kathryn

    I loved this book! I think that I had I read this and learned more before I had my two children, I would probably would have given birth at home.

    Peggy Vincent, I’ve always wondered, whatever became of Zelda?

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