the history of childbirth and things you’d never believe are true

getmeoutDuring my drive to work today, I heard an amazing, fascinating interview on NPR (NPR always has the best stuff, I swear) with author Randi Hutter Epstein about her book Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, in which she chronicles all the different tried methods and beliefs surrounding childbirth that have surfaced through the ages. Things like medieval doctors who put semen into womb-shaped vases and hoped to produce a baby. Or that a century ago it was believed that ‘civilized women’ should only have cesareans because they did not have enough “energy” to go through labor (this is why they should also not be educated because education drains our limited resources of energy towards the head and away from childbearing). Poor women on the other hand were “well-equipped” to make babies.  The interview itself is amazing, and you can listen to it here.

I bring special attention to the interview because two themes emerged (that I think would be of interest to Women Unbound readers or to anyone interested in issues surrounding childbirth, or indeed female solidarity). One theme was the importance of a social support system and methods that help put a woman’s mind at ease when she goes through childbirth. One caller reported her family had a history of traumatic childbirth experiences where her grandmother, for example, was forced to have her legs tied together until the doctor could arrive to prevent the child from being born before he got there. Her mother experienced a traumatic miscarriage involving a lot of blood loss. Meanwhile her own experience was quite the opposite. She went to Lamaze classes and found techniques that helped her breathe and remain calm…and so when she ended up delivering in the back of their minivan, she felt at peace and empowered. But he mother and grandmother insisted (because of their own history) that childbirth could not possibly be a positive experience. So it’s very often that women have very strong beliefs about how childbirth should go, and sometimes don’t always allow each other room to create their own experiences or allow for different ones to be legitimate.

A second theme that I found interesting is that, while we may not have a full handle on childbirth yet, a lot of advances have been made (part of the process where OB-GYNs emerged as specialists and created a push for midwives to become licensed) in areas running from having a birthing room where mother and baby could be together right after labor to finding out that DES, which was supposed to be beneficial, ended up to be linked to causing vaginal cancer in the baby. These findings were supported by science and the doctors who produced the findings were much lauded…but oftentimes the impetus to conduct the research came from an observation by the female patient. An enterprising and empowered woman would suggest that something might be better or maybe there was a link between a drug and outcome, and the doctor would go through records and literature and discover, hey, she was right!

This is such a sensitive topic, I am certain this book and interview will raise not a few eyebrows. I have yet to read the book myself, but I can definitely highly recommend listening to the interview.

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8 thoughts on “the history of childbirth and things you’d never believe are true

  1. This sounds like a really interesting book. Both my mum and sister are nurses so I am often asked why I'm not, my answer is that I don't do sick people :D But the only medical field I would go into is midwifery. I am so glad that in Sweden most births are attended by midwifes not doctors. It just makes me feel like there will be less medical intervention. I've put this book on my TBR and will be listening to the segment as well. Thanks.

  2. How interesting. NPR just has the best, best interviews/topics. I look forward to picking this book up and will now listen to the interview. Thank you for sharing! I may just have to pass this along.

  3. Childbirth is definitely a sensitive topic. And I have my soapbox, but I also get that everyone is different, has different perceptions and perspectives about how they feel most comfortable. And in that aspect, there is no "right" way to give birth. I hope our society continues to make progress in treating women with respect and helping to educate them in the pros and cons of the variations in childbearing. I hopefully will get a chance to listen to the NPR piece this weekend.

  4. I'm glad you all found this of interest too! Kirsten, I'd love to hear your soapbox – as you know, I'm thinking a lot about this issue these days, getting ideas and woolgathering for when we're ready, to figure out what will be right for us.

  5. I, too, enjoy listening to npr. As far as childbirth–I've done it twice and the experiences were as different as night and day. In my case, it had everything to do with the competence of the respective doctors. The first never showed up during the whole of a long, complicated labor and appeared only after my daughter had crowned–the experience was so horrible I didn't think I'd ever have another child…but three and a half years later, my son was born…with my doctor sitting on the bed next to me and my husband, sister and I laughing through the birth–it was wonderful.

  6. Wow that is definitely a testament to how important it is to have someone you can trust by your side through the ordeal!