The Complicated Birth Of Midwifery

Published February 9, 2015
Updated September 13, 2015

Twilight Sleep

Midwife History Victoria

Queen Victoria with her grandchildren. Source: Express

Word got out that the Queen herself had made use of ether to ease the pain of childbirth, and many religious figureheads were strongly opposed to it. Pain was the point of birth, because it was the punishment women endured on Eve’s behalf (eating the apple and all that). Queen Victoria thought that was hogwash, and many women followed suit. They began to regularly request not just the use of ether, but cocaine, marijuana and opium.

Obstetricians and occasionally midwives attended births at the homes of middle and upper class women, bringing along their drugs and tools. Given these women’s perceived delicate nature, many worried that if they were not relieved of childbirth pain, their babies would suffer because they would be too exhausted to parent. Thus, it was not the poor, inner city women of the lying-in hospitals who got the ether, but the countesses, duchesses and baronesses.

The decades wore on and women’s rights—particularly their reproductive rights—became a social focus in a way that they hadn’t been before. In the decades that would follow, women would essentially surrender themselves entirely to the childbirth process. They would kiss their husband goodbye, go into the hospital, be knocked out with a drug cocktail (called scopolamine) and wake up several hours later cleaned up with a pink, sleepy baby in their arms. This was Twilight Sleep.

What the women weren’t aware of, however, was that while they were in this “sleep” they were often strapped to the bed to keep from injuring themselves—or nurses—as they writhed about in agony. It wasn’t uncommon for them to be put in padded pens so that they couldn’t escape during the birth, which was often a problem considering the drug cocktail was known to cause vivid hallucinations. But since women woke up from Twilight Sleep with no memory of the birth, they had no complaints and hailed it as a revolution.

Natural Birth Movement and Lamaze

Natural Birth Figures

Source: WordPress

Childbirth became largely medicalized during the early to mid 20th century. Women went into the hospital, had their Twilight Sleep, and woke up fresh-faced with a baby in their arms. The baby went home and a woman had the wise words of Dr. Benjamin Spock to guide them in child-rearing. The supportive, female-empowering and maternal community of midwives had been somewhat forgotten—along with the entire childbirth experience, thanks to scopolamine.

As the Gestalt theory of psychology, being more in touch with one’s inner experience, became more prevalent, the idea that a woman should be an active and aware participant in the birth of her child soon followed. This was the basis for Dr. Lamaze’s work, which followed in the footsteps of Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov. Remembered largely for his studies with salivating dogs, Pavlovian psychology had one key offering to laboring mothers: the art of mental preparation.

Dr. Lamaze was convinced by the idea of “psychoprophalaxis”: if a woman could convince herself that she was ready to give birth, then she would be. By psychologically conditioning herself for the reality of giving birth, she could manage her pain without drugs. This idea was further ingrained into the minds of women everywhere when Dr. Grantly Dick-Read published his formidable tome, Natural Childbirth, in the 1970s. Dr. Dick-Read promoted the idea that childbirth itself wasn’t painful, women just made it painful by worrying about it.

Yoga Moms

Source: WordPress

This was the foundation for the Lamaze classes of the ‘80s, which have by contemporary standards almost become a trope: a room full of heavily pregnant women, their birth partners, and a lot of “hee hee hoo hoo” going on. The co-founder of Lamaze, Elizabeth Bing, also taught many of the courses and lauded the technique.

That is, of course, until she had her own children.

In an interview many decades later, Bing admits that she not just requested—but demanded—an epidural and drug relief when she gave birth to her son. Despite decades of debunking the necessity of either to thousands of women, she wasn’t even a little bit sorry.

Modern Times

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Source: Tumblr

In today’s world, women have more options than ever before when it comes to having babies on their own terms—at least when it comes to delivery (abortion restrictions in the U.S. continue to abound) and, assuming a woman has health insurance to pay for the costly services. They can choose home births, hospital births, hospital births with a midwife, doulas, water births, planned cesarean sections or, if they’ve had a c-section before, they can opt for a “VBAC” —a vaginal birth after cesarean.

Regardless of what the mother has in her birth plan, one thing has been true about childbirth since the dawn of time: the baby is the one that decides when it’s time to be born.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England . Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Bustle, Mental Floss, Atlas Obscura, and Quartz.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.