September 21st, 2011

planet

Brought To Bed: Childbearing in America 1750-1950

I finished "Brought To Bed: Childbearing in America 1750-1950" by Judith Walzer Leavitt. It was really good, I don't read much history but it's full of so many interesting personal stories, unique examples, and great anecdotes about, well, how crazy everything has been in the past. In fact I don't think I can review it without highlighting a few particularly AWESOME quotes from the book...

"[Dr. Edward Clarke of Harvard] blamed particularly the education of young girls at puberty for women's adult health problems, claiming that girls could not develop their brains at the same time their reproductive systems were forming. He favored separate schools for girls, with a curriculum that allowed for rest one week out of the month."

"At five o'clock Monday evening went to sister's to return washboard, having just finished day's washing. Baby was born while there; sister too young to assist in any way... washed baby at sister's house, walked home, cooked supper for boarders, and was in bed by eight o'clock. Got up and ironed next day and day following." [Polish woman quoted by reformer Michael Davis, arguing that poor women's busy lives were interferring with postpartum recovery time]

Susan Allison delivered her baby prematurely in 1869 before she could carry out her plan to leave her frontier home for her mother's house, forcing her to rely on the help of an Indian woman, the only woman in the area. "Suzanne was very good to me in her way," she wrote, but "she thought I ought to be as strong as an Indian woman but I was not."


When I first read it, I took from it a lesson that unattended homebirth with no medical technology whatsoever was incredibly dangerous... that's the first chapter. This was the setting where physicians were asked to intervene, and as decades passed they brought foreceps, they brought paid medicine, later they brought knowledge of how a clean environment was important. The community of women was asking them to do something, almost anything, but real progress was slow. As physicians intervened and birth moved into hospitals, the death rates weren't dramatically improving. In fact one of the great champions of the twilight sleep movement, Frances X. Carmody, died in childbirth, virtually killing the movement for years. And it was quite a movement; women were literally taking to the streets and holding rallies to convince doctors to offer them relief from the struggles of childbearing. They fought for intervention, then when hygene rules took hold and hospitals finally started reducing the maternal death rate, the interventions became overbearing. In the 1950s women started to fight against it. This dialog about "what women want", generally lead by the upper-middle class women, has been going on for 200 years.

But this book isn't about physicians or activists, it's about women giving birth, and that's what's so striking and such a reminder that childbirth used to be about the community of women. It was what "we" did, together. You'd go into labor and you'd call your mother, sisters, 10 neighbor ladies and who knows who else. They'd been through it, or would be through it, and they'd help you. And if the book has one message that's sticking with me, I don't think it's about the physicians and interventions and pendulum trying to find the right balance there. There's always been a back-and-forth and I bet there always will be.

What we've lost, I think, is the community of women who used to surround childbirth. I mean it's not just there, we're in the internet age where we're losing community everywhere, period. I recently talked to a mom about online birth communities, how dramatic they are, and she said she'd been in one since her first was born in 2002. She said, "It struck me sometimes, hearing about all these babies, that this was the only community these women had to ask questions about post-partum recovery and how their newborns were doing."

I was so lucky to have friends visit me after I had Josie, to have my mother and sister there for her birth, and we're just now getting to a time when hospitals allow all that, I think it's incredibly important. That's what I'm taking from this book... we can have this community back, no matter where we're giving birth. We tend to let our choices divide us in this day and age, we tend to look for differences rather than anything we have in common. I have a newfound motivation from this book to have female friends, to talk about childbirth, to offer help and support.

We have technology and I appreciate that, but we lost each other along the way. I think we're at a time now when we could get that back.