“Sheila Kitzinger is a giant upon whose shoulders we will stand on as we continue our important work for women and their babies. She will be sorely missed.” – Judith Lothian
Sheila Kitzinger passed away on April 12th at her home in Oxfordshire, England after a short illness Ms. Kitzinger was 86 years old. My eldest son, the father of four, forwarded me the BBC announcement. It shouldn’t have been a shock because I had heard she was very ill. But it is. We have lost a birth advocate who “rocked the boat” and taught the rest of us how to do it.
Kitzinger was an anthropologist and childbirth educator. As a childbirth educator, she pushed educators to go beyond just sharing knowledge, beyond just educating women about birth. She believed that we needed to confront the system in which birth takes place, to advocate in powerful ways so that women could give birth without being traumatized physically or emotionally. She wrote more than 25 books, an endless number of articles in scholarly journals, including her wonderful “Letter from Europe” column in Birth, and a steady stream of newspaper and magazine articles and letters to the editors. Her latest book, A Passion for Birth: My Life; Anthropology, Family, and Feminism, her memoirs, will be published in the UK in June.
Sheila came to New York City in the 1970s several times. I was a young mother and new childbirth educator who knew nothing about Kitzinger before I heard her speak. Her passion, her knowledge, and her genuine interest in everyone she met inspired and motivated me, really all of us, to meet the challenges (and they were substantial) that we faced back then. I have spent the last 40 years reading literally everything Sheila Kitzinger has written. Many of those books and articles I have read over and over again, always learning something new. I consider Sheila Kitzinger one of my most important mentors, although we only spoke at length on four occasions in all those years.
With a handful of others, Kitzinger turned the world of birth upside down. Although we still have a long way to go, Sheila Kitzinger’s work has made contributions that simply cannot be measured. Kitzinger’s work going back to the 1970s on episiotomy and the value and importance of home birth were the start of what would become prolific contributions. Her books for women on pregnancy and childbirth, breastfeeding, sex and pregnancy, and the sexuality of birth and breastfeeding can’t be beat. Her work on post traumatic birth in the Uk was groundbreaking. Her books on the politics of birth, the culture of birth, becoming a mother, and becoming a grandmother are major contributions to the literature. Rediscovering Birth is a personal favorite. If that book doesn’t inspire women to think differently about birth, I don’t know what can!
The article that made the biggest difference in my life was “Should Childbirth Educators Rock the Boat?” published in Birth in 1993. At the time I was new to the Board of Directors of Lamaze International (then ASPO Lamaze) and was soon to become President of the organization. Kitzinger wrote powerfully of the need for childbirth educators to not just teach women about birth but to advocate within the system for change, to take strong stands in support of normal physiologic birth, home birth, and humane, empowering childbirth. Her call to action drove my own work within Lamaze. The result was a philosophy of birth that was courageous and groundbreaking and has driven the work of the organization since then. Advocacy is a competency of a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator and the mission of the organization clearly identifies the role of advocacy. Lamaze International’s six evidence based Healthy Birth Practices “rock the boat” of the standardized childbirth education class that creates good patients and hospitals that claim to provide safe care to women and babies. When The Official Lamaze Guide: Giving Birth with Confidence was first published in 2005, Sheila reviewed the book. In her review she wrote, “…It’s humane, funny, tender, down-to-earth and joyful. Essential reading for all pregnant women who seek autonomy in childbirth.” I wanted to tell her – “Without your passion and inspiration that book might not have been written.”
There are a number of other bits of wisdom from Kitzinger that I often quote. They have made a difference to me and, I suspect, to everyone who knows Sheila’s work.
- What breastfeeding mothers need most is a healthy dose of confidence
- Home birth should be a safe, accessible option for women
- Touch in childbirth has changed from warm, human touch to the disconnected touch of intravenous, fetal monitors, blood pressure cuffs
- Women know how to give birth
- The clock is perhaps the most destructive piece of modern technology
Kitzinger gave me a healthy dose of confidence in myself and in the importance of what we do in small and big ways as we go about the work of changing the world of birth. She convinced me that talking about birth and writing about birth, even if only to the choir, makes a difference. We know we’re not alone and we become more passionate and more committed. We develop the courage to “rock the boat”.
Sheila Kitzinger is a giant upon whose shoulders we will stand on as we continue our important work for women and their babies. She will be sorely missed. May she rest in peace. Our deepest sympathies go out to her family and friends.
Do you have a memory or story to share about Sheila Kitzinger? How has she or her work impacted you personally or professionally? Share your stories in our comments section. – SM
About Judith Lothian
Judith Lothian, PhD, RN, LCCE, FACCE is a nurse and childbirth educator. She is an Associate Professor at the College of Nursing, Seton Hall University and the current Chairperson of the Lamaze Certification Council Governing Body. Judith is also the Associate Editor of the Journal of Perinatal Education and writes a regular column for the journal. Judith is the co-author of The Official Lamaze Guide: Giving Birth with Confidence. Her research focus is planned home birth and her most recent publication is Being Safe: Making the Decision to Have a Planned Home Birth in the US published in the Journal of Clinical Ethics (Fall 2013).