Mark Sloan grew up in a Midwest town where the milky odor from a nearby baby formula factory permeated the neighborhood.
Perhaps it was that constant subliminal aroma ? coupled with his classic, postwar Irish Catholic upbringing where siblings arrived with regularity while their origin remained a mystery ? that fueled his lifelong fascination with babies.
?I remember my mom bringing home the last two and just sitting and staring at them,? recalls the Santa Rosa pediatrician, who has cared for thousands of kids over the past 30 years and attended some 3,000 births, including that of his own two kids, now teen-agers. ?But I didn?t know where they were coming from. The only way you could tell people were having babies was to count the cousins.?
Sloan?s boyhood fixation with the birds and bees advanced into an insatiable curiosity about babies? slow, circuitous, painful and sometimes perilous journey from womb to world.
His four-year quest for answers often dropped him down what he characterizes as a ?rabbit hole? of research that led to some fascinating discoveries, not only about the hard science of labor and delivery, but the history, anthropology, folklore, culture, morality and politics around childbirth. The result of his work is ?Birth Day? (Ballantine Books), an in-depth and often humorous look at labor and delivery, peppered with personal anecdotes.
?It?s partly memoir and woven into that is the science and history of birth,? says Sloan, who is on staff at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa. ?I thought there were plenty of how-to and advice books out there that are very good. With this I wanted people to learn something about a subject they think they know a lot about already. And I wanted to write it for the general reader, not just for people about to have babies.?
Even the avowed childless might be intrigued.
He unearths compelling research that suggests a man who spends a lot of time with his pregnant mate will experience an increase in his female hormones such as estrogen and prolactin, a phenomenon, Sloan says, that is probably scent-induced and biologically aimed at softening a he-man into a dithering, doting daddy.
He also answers the question why larger primates are such a ?study in childbirth efficiency,? blessed with small fetuses that all but glide out of their big, roomy pelvises through an efficiently designed cylinder, while human childbirth is more, as he puts it, like an ?Olympic bobsled run? slowed through a pinched and winding course?
Blame Lucy, our 3million-year-old australopithecine ancestor, whose early attempts to walk upright led to a whole lot more thinking activity, which in turn led to larger brains. The fetal brain over 1.5million years wound up evolving at a faster clip than the pelvis could widen to accommodate it. Ouch.
Early moralists pointed their fingers at Eve ? concluding childbirth pain was a punishment on all women for that first bit of gluttony in Eden. Sloan, however, uncovers a much richer story, not only of how childbirth attitudes have changed, but a whole intriguing history covering everything from birth positions to pain management.
He discovered that the practice by ?advanced cultures? of battling gravity by lying down during delivery harkens back to a weird fetish of King Louis XIV.
It seems the Sun King was a bit of a voyeur, who so fancied the idea of gawking at his mistress giving birth that he commanded a viewing table be built. Leading obstetricians of the day copied the king. Women gave up their traditional and more effective birthing positions like squatting, crouching and use of a birthing chair, in favor of the far less efficient practice of lying prone.