Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Paula A. Michaels's "Lamaze: An International History"

A specialist in twentieth-century Russian and Central Asian history, Paula Michaels is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Institutes of Health. Her first book, Curative Powers: Medicine and Empire in Stalin's Central Asia (2003), won the Association for Women in Slavic Studies' Heldt Prize and was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. Michaels is a Senior Lecturer in History at Monash University.

Michaels applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Lamaze: An International History, and reported the following:
“Lamaze” is a household word in the United States. Also known as psychoprophylaxis, the Lamaze method combined psychological conditioning with prenatal education to alleviate women’s fears and help them to manage the pain of labor with little or no resort to drugs. Few know, however, that the Lamaze method actually originated in the Soviet Union.

Lamaze: An International History tells the surprising story of how of this non-pharmacological means of labor pain management migrated across the Iron Curtain amid the Cold War. It recounts the interlocking political, medical, and gender histories of this technique, which serves as a window onto shifting ideas about the mind-body dynamic, pronatalism, companionate marriage, consumer activism, feminism, and the counterculture.

We pick up the story on page 99 just as the Lamaze method arrives on shores of the United States in the early 1960s. American consumers were beginning to hear about psychoprophylaxis, but were already familiar with the concept of natural childbirth through the work of British physician Grantly Dick-Read, whose own, similar method had been around since the mid-1940s. In 1962, “natural childbirth”—meaning either the Read method or psychoprophylaxis—was described as “the most-dropped phrase among America’s pregnant women today.”

Though in retrospect it might seem rather odd, the idea that women wanted a satisfying birth experience, in which they participated fully and actively, was not without controversy.
Critics depicted Dick-Read’s partisans as zealots and cultists, and called into question advocates’ mental health. Encouraging frail or mentally weak women’s desires to give birth with little or no pharmacological pain relief could precipitate a psychological crisis, they argued. Women “are convinced that to endure childbirth without the sedation of so much as an aspirin will, by some nebulous psychologic process, inspire” a closer bond with their babies and allow them to achieve “that precious lodestone of the female sex: true femininity.” A 1961 Harper’s Bazaar article against natural childbirth invoked the language and authority of Freudianism to make its case that the adherent “anticipates that the lifelong wound she feels—the wound of womanhood, of not having been a boy—will be paradoxically healed by having a child.” The author then stereotyped the woman who was interested in natural childbirth as “the fairly aggressive, masculine-oriented, nonconservative woman.” Fielding and Benjamin reiterate these arguments about women seeking “psychic masculinity” through natural childbirth and go so far as to assert that not only are “disturbed women ... often attracted to natural childbirth,” but they also “are the very women who are likely to be the most intensely enthusiastic volunteers.” When the woman in labor either experiences more pain than she anticipated or, in the face of that suffering turns to anesthesia, her birth experience becomes a trauma from which, Fielding and Benjamin, among others, claim she does not soon recover.
In its description of opposition to natural childbirth, page 99 highlights the mid-century hegemony of psychoanalytic thinking, a major theme in the book. Objections were made to the Lamaze method on medical and even political (anti-Soviet) grounds, but the psychological critique was perhaps the most potent and, arguably, the most enduring. Even today one hears echoes of these arguments in the high polarized debates over natural childbirth and epidural anesthesia in American maternity care.
Learn more about Lamaze: An International History at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue