Over the long weekend, I read Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth. Randi Hutter Epstein describes some of the lowlights of maternity and childbirth in the Western world from medieval times to the present. As with topics in medical history, these lowlights also tend to be highlights at the same time because progress – albeit slow, sexist, racist, and almost always partially misguided – is progress, right? Eh, maybe. She details such topics as the use of forceps during delivery from the 1600s to the 1800s, the burgeoning of “lying in” hospitals in America, and the topic I found most intriguing, how a doctor in the American south used “volunteer” slave patients to perfect the operation to correct vesicovaginal fistulas, tears in the vaginal wall.
It’s a great read if you’re like me and enjoy a nice historical trounce through medical topics in culture. It reminded me of a book I read a long time ago, When Germs Travel, where Howard Markel describes the effects of several epidemics that terrorized America from 1900 onward.
There’s nothing like reading about healthcare in the past – even if that past is pretty recent – to make you appreciate the fact that you’re living now. Yeah, B and I are paying a ridiculous amount of money to get our baby out, and yeah, I do occasionally feel like I’m just a woman in the room rather than The Rockstar Haver of the Baby when I go to the doctor. However, I have no doubt that Bebe and I will literally survive delivery, which is a relatively recent sentiment among expectant mothers. Hundreds of years ago, you could not confidently hang your hat on your survival.
Women have been giving birth since Day One, and since then, people (not just the preggos among us) have moralized pregnancy and done as best they could to see that Day Two could be a reality for humanity. They recognized it as the imperative event that it is and used pertinent information they had at hand to usher babies into the world. By today’s standards, “pertinent” often meant “condescending to women” or “disregarding of common sense”, but hindsight is…well, you know. Depending on when and where you were living, the mothers of these babies may have been considered a help or a hindrance to the whole process. Only about four hundred years ago, a woman was burned at the stake for requesting pain relief when she delivered her twins. Nowadays, you may very well receive a thorough tongue-lashing if you question the choices a woman makes when it comes to her pregnancy and delivery. How far we’ve come!
The book describes pregnancy and delivery in such a way that makes you recognize that it’s all about trends. Trends in midwifery, trends in allowing male doctors into the birthing room, trends in introducing pain relief into delivery, trends in fixing the problem of infertility. With historical hindsight*, it’s easy to identify the many errant notions that reside in those trends. Nowadays, most of us probably wouldn’t feel too comfortable being knocked into an amnesic state with narcotic drugs and delivering our babies, but that’s exactly what many upper crust American and European women were doing at the turn of the century when they opted for dammerschlaf. “Twilight sleep” was a birthing option that many feminists of the time chose because it made them have no recollection of the toils and pain of childbirth after it had occurred. To be sure, they still felt the pain and had to be restrained and blindfolded during delivery, and their babies also suffered seriously impaired breathing.
But hey, they didn’t remember the pain, and according to doctors, twilight babies “never turned blue”. What better way to exert your feminine identity than to insist on drugs that would remove the curse of Eve and not turn your baby blue?
Seeing pregnancy and delivery through the lens of culture trends has left me a bit conflicted. I know. Me? Conflicted? Why, that’s never happened before!
I want to be culturally autonomous when I make decisions concerning my family. I want to base my decisions on their needs, not what everyone else is doing. But I’m not an island, so I’d be pretty silly to think that that this desire of mine is made in a vacuum; I mean, the fact that I know that my voice is pertinent and not merely supplementary to my husband’s marks me as a woman of my time.
Not that I’m complaining, though. I haven’t made any hard and fast decisions yet about how exactly I want to deliver, but I must say that despite the monetary cost of pregnancy, I’m so glad that I live when I live and (sometimes) where I live. At least I can make those choices. At least the variety of options available to me is vast and generally safe.
Now, on to the future!
*As if we’re doing everything perfectly now.
Epstein, Randi Hutter. Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank. New York: Norton, 2o10.
Markel, Howard. When Germs Travel: Six major epidemics that have invaded America since 1900 and the fears they have unleashed. Random House, 2004.