Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America

A good book is one that makes you want to keep reading. Lying-In has left me urgently searching for more books on the subject of American childbirth.

Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America (Goodreads link)

This book took me just over three weeks to read and I think I’ve been talking Ryan’s ear off since the first chapter. The book chronologically follows the plight of laboring women in America from the Colonial period through the early 1970’s (later expanded in the 1980’s). The book explores the developments of midwifery, medical doctors, labor demographics and how American standards compared with European contemporaries. The book also marks the pendulum swings of understanding pregnancy and childbirth in our culture — from a natural process where a woman finds her fulfillment as a midwife, supervises and supports to a pathological state which threatens the life of a woman and requires the intervention of medicine and specialists to save her. The authors also track the shift in American birth culture away from a social support system, where a mother is attended by many women who run her house for months as she lays-in recovering and nursing the baby, to the modern sterile hospital births of the 1970’s where labor is attended by hired, generic hospital staff and a mother is responsible physically and financially for her own recovery.

This is one of the more fascinating books I’ve read in a long while. While the author’s biases for natural labor and minimal interventions are obvious, a great deal of effort is made to balance perspectives. Certainly not all obstetricians are misogynistic sadists. Likewise, not all midwives were hygienic, well experienced caretakers. Despite the authors’ best intentions, one cannot help but become indignant at the American point of view on prenatal and postpartum care and the government and insurance systems that dictate them.

The book was written, I believe, as a text book and is, indeed, quite dense in material. I read carefully, but expect I missed a good bit by reading it straight through. It was originally published in the mid 1970’s and later expanded at the end of the 1980’s to include further developments, such as changes in maternity leave laws and the wholesale acceptance of sonogram technology and genetic screening. It was sobering to read about Twilight Labors of the 1950’s and 1960’s knowing that is when my own grandmothers were delivering their babies. It also made me chuckle to read about the increased, repeat Cesarean section rates of 1987 knowing that Ryan and I were among them.

Furthermore, it was fascinating to see how even modern practices and stereotypes have their roots in American history: male doctors and female nurses, voodoo midwives, prenatal testing etc. The book sparked quite a few ideas for further thinking and reading, like: how does childbirth affect a woman’s femininity, or rather, does a woman’s femininity affect her labor and childbirth? And why the hell aren’t I having babies in Scandinavia instead of America?! If I’m lucky enough to put my thoughts together, I will happily share.

This book reminded me of:

Madwives: Schizophrenic Women of the 1950’s (Goodreads link)

P.S. This book makes 22 read this year, 8212 pages!


2 thoughts on “Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America

  1. Pingback: The Chips are Down on 2013 | Being the Carruths

  2. Pingback: First Quarter Book Report — An Ode to the Audiobook | Being the Carruths

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