The typical birth narrative that you read online is a tale of harrowing disappointment. The mother had “spent months—if not years—dreaming” about her baby and her pain-medication-free birth. Often, it’s at home, where the mother fantasizes that she will be “surrounded by my family, in an environment where I was free to walk around.” Ideally, the mother would even be able to reach down and pull her baby into the world herself. But, by dint of fate and unhappy circumstance, these moms are forced by medical professionals—sometimes even midwives or doulas—to have C-sections or epidurals. They are “treated disrespectfully or without compassion at that most vulnerable time.”
Read enough of these narratives and you’ll be convinced that the baby-industrial complex is a cold and harsh machine, where epidurals are pushed like marijuana from an aggressive street vendor and individual agency is dismissed.
But the reality is quite different. A new book, Lamaze: An International History by the historian Paula A. Michaels, explains that the vast majority of modern American women are satisfied with their birth experiences. She doesn’t get into specifics on this particular matter, but she notes that according to a 2013 national survey of women’s childbearing experiences, “Mothers generally rated the quality of the United States maternity care system very positively.” 47 percent said it was good, and 36 percent said it was excellent.
Indeed, it’s my experience that even at big, impersonal city hospitals, the language and protocol surrounding maternity care is sensitive and catered to a woman’s desires. I recall the birthing plan that I was encouraged to fill out before I delivered at NYU Hospital. Would I like to move around during labor? Did I want pain medication offered to me immediately, or never? Did I want to delay umbilical cord clamping? (Studies show that this has benefits for the baby.) I remember looking at the crisp white sheet of paper with its cheerful check boxes and being mystified. Before receiving it, my “birth plan” consisted of going into the hospital when I started having contractions and leaving, at some point, with a baby in arms.
“We invite you to participate in the planning of your birth,” the NYU hospital’s website warmly announces. “We ask you to consider your preferences and beliefs that will make your birth experience meaningful to you and your family.” That’s a long way from the birthing gulag conjured up by disappointed new moms, and it’s a result, in part, of the adoption of Lamaze techniques in the U.S. in the 1970s.
Michaels’s book offers a fascinating and detailed history of childbirth over the past century-plus and how what we refer to as Lamaze, but what is more technically known as “psychoprophylaxis,” fits into it. Michaels defines psychoprophylaxis as ”a way of giving birth that attempts to manage labor pain primarily through psychological conditioning and without reliance on drugs.” The patterned “hee hee hoo hoo” breathing that is a staple of sitcom depictions of a Lamaze birth is intended to relax and distract a woman from the pain signals in her brain.
Though Lamaze was spread widely in the late ’60s and early ’70s by American feminists who were pushing back against a medical establishment that they saw as paternalistic, its roots go back to the 1930s, when a British physician named Grantly Dick-Read published a book called Natural Childbirth. Dick-Read’s Natural Childbirth was itself a kind of reaction to the established norms for middle- and upper-class birth. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, new state regulations about who could attend a woman during childbirth placed the majority of pregnant women in hospitals when they gave birth. Once birth became a formal, medical process, middle- and upper-middle-class women began asking for pharmacological pain relief. In 1915, Michaels notes, first-wave feminists were not agitating for a return to the home birth; they were arguing for twilight sleep during labor, because they thought it would liberate women from the discomforts of childbirth.
In Natural Childbirth, however, Dick-Read stated that childbirth is not inherently painful. “Women’s minds, not their bodies, were at the root of pain in childbirth and fear was ‘the greatest evil,’” Michaels writes of Dick-Read’s beliefs. The way to help women get out of their heads was through childbirth-education classes and greater support from husbands. Dick-Read promoted some insanely retrograde ideas—that birth pain is psychological; that women of the upper classes should be the ones having lots of babies—but other parts of his philosophy sound like they could have been cribbed from crunchy mommy blogs. Birth, Dick-Read wrote, is “an ecstasy of accomplishment that only women who have babies naturally [i.e., without anesthesia] appreciate.”
While Dick-Read’s methods were proliferating in the U.S. and the U.K. in the ’40s and ’50s (though they never defined the dominant approach), a similar technique was devised in the Soviet Union. But there the impetus was different: a shortage of pain meds and a concomitant, statewide push for fecundity in devastated post-war Russia. There, psychoprophylaxis was developed and encouraged to improve the experience of the working classes. Like Dick-Read’s methods, psychoprophylaxis also relied on education for expectant mothers as a way to cut down on pain, which was, of course, all in their heads.
A French obstetrician named Ferdinand Lamaze picked up psychoprophylaxis when it was presented by Russian doctors at the 1951 International Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Lamaze promoted, on an international scale, the trained muscular relaxation and patterned breathing he learned from observing women giving birth in Russia.
When Lamaze was first imported to the U.S., it wasn’t synonymous with zero medication. In the mid-’60s, “a little Demerol or morphine to take the edge off pain and tension did not stand in the way of claiming success in achieving a ‘natural’ birth,” Michaels writes. It was only when countercultural ’60s values, which prized authentic experience above all else, took over Lamaze methods that pain medication was eschewed completely.
Also gone was the notion that childbirth pain was all in a woman’s head. Pharmacology-free childbirth was framed as empowering because the male medical establishment pushed drugs, and those drugs “desensitized women’s bodies and clouded their minds” during an experience that should be wholly natural. Despite the shift in framing, the language of Lamaze moms in the early ’70s was curiously similar to the language of Dick-Read. They wanted an experience that was “near ecstasy.”
Exclusive use of Lamaze without pharmacological pain relief fell out of fashion in the early ’80s as epidural anesthesia became widely available, and as scientific literature began showing that those complex breathing patterns didn’t really help mitigate pain. But Lamaze helped usher in a lot of birth practices that we now think of as commonplace, including childbirth-preparation classes, allowing the birthing mother to have a supportive partner of her choosing in the room with her, and the rise of hospital birthing centers, which provide things like hydrotherapy tubs and homey furnishings along with access to the regular maternity ward should anything go wrong.
Michaels's book is balanced and impressive, but, like almost everything connected to childbirth, it is not entirely neutral or impassive. Even as she admits that most women are happy with their childbirth experiences, she still pushes for systemic change in her conclusion. She believes that maternity coverage should be ordered by the “logic of care” instead of the “logic of choice.” Care is an open-ended process without boundaries, Michaels says, while choice is a matter of assessing the limited products on offer. The latter, she argues, gives women a false sense of empowerment. According to a “logic of care,” women would be able to have a doctor or midwife with whom they’d developed a rapport deliver their baby, instead of whoever is on call; doulas, a kind of birthing assistant, would also be available to whoever wanted them, instead of just to women wealthy enough to afford them. Doula rates vary depending on geographic location and level of experience, but range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
I don’t know that those measures are practical, or that they would even prevent the blogosphere from being “perennially abuzz with chatter of disappointing childbirth experiences,” as Michaels puts it. How do you guarantee that a certain obstetrician is available for every woman in labor? What if two women covered by the same doctor go into labor simultaneously at different hospitals? Isn’t a midwife allowed to have her own family emergencies that might supersede her job? What if your doula disagrees with your choices? Or the doula fights with the midwife? Will you still feel cared for and empowered?
I don’t mean to discount the bad experiences that women have during childbirth—those experiences are real and painful. But perhaps those are individual issues, rather than national ones, stemming, in part, from the unreasonably high expectations that we’ve put on the birth process. Our expectations are high because we choose to have children, and we have fewer of them. Before the pill and the sexual revolution, having children was socially expected and more difficult to prevent. As Jennifer Senior says in her new book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, "Adults often view children as one of life's crowning achievements, and they approach child-rearing with the same bold sense of independence and individuality that they would any other life project."
But the other part of our high expectations may have to do with all of the new information we have about pregnancy and how our actions and environment could influence our fetuses. In her wonderful book, Origins, Annie Murphy Paul discusses the burgeoning scientific field of "fetal origins." Paul writes that the discoveries of these researchers "have been cast as one long ringing alarm bell, one long line of doctors in white lab coats, shaking their fingers at pregnant women: No, Don't, Stop!" Your diet, your stress level, the air you breathe, and yes, how you give birth, can all affect your child. No wonder we are so concerned with how our children come into the world; we're told we could be screwing it all up just as they take their first breath.
As a result, we now emphasize our preparation in the run-up to the birth—all those birth classes to take and cord-clamping decisions to make—and yet, we leave the hospital almost entirely clueless about the mewling, fragile little bundles we’re spiriting home. Just like parenthood itself, birth is not always going to be something “ecstatic” or something that you can control, no matter how many boxes you’re allowed to check on your birth plan.