The history and anthropology of birth and parenting

I’m reading a ton of baby and pregnancy books right now, preparing both for the October birth of my daughter and an upcoming BoingBoing feature about evidence-based books for science-minded soon-to-be-parents. After reading this interview at The New Inquiry, I really want to check out The Motherhood Archives — a documentary about the ways culture… READ THE REST


Here’s the trailer:

the motherhood archives (trailer) from komsomol films.

Thank you!

That’s a daunting task, and a whole lot of books and material to go through. I wish you luck!

I’m looking forward to your book feature. Since my daughter was born, I’ve been surprised at how scientifically flimsy the literature on parenting can be. I’d be glad of some recommendations for serious parenting texts.


I read that interview, and I found it disturbing because she sets up a false either/or situation: either take drugs or suffer horrible pain. She does not mention that there are ways to alleviate pain that do not involve drugs. And many of the unnecessary interventions in hospitals can be painful: requiring a mother to stay in a bed, cutting an episiotomy, requiring an IV among others. I have had both a C-section and a drug-free birth and my drug free birth was more comfortable for me. I had an epidural for my C-section and the big needle hurt like an SOB. There are more shades of gray than than are mentioned in that article.


I’m really looking forward to those book recommendations Maggie! And, knowing your work, I also have a high degree of trust that you are competent at reviewing the science. Which is something I hardly ever think in relation to the majority of journalism.

I agree. Position alone makes a huge difference. Being able to move around in general. Going into it thinking “billions of women have done this before me” instead of “OMG pain”. Women in the US are trained to think they can’t handle childbirth without significant medical intervention, and it becomes a feedback loop.

I think you guys are kind of missing the point here, which is that our current ways of thinking about birth (which are largely based on debates about medicalization vs. non-medicalization and what does and doesn’t count as fitting into either category) are not the only ways to think about this … and, historically, haven’t been the ways we thought about this.

Case in point are the early 20th century feminists. They weren’t promoting medicalized birth, as we think about it, because that practice and that idea didn’t exist. Instead, they’re an example of a completely different historical perspective … one that doesn’t really look like anything happening currently. Without a medical industry telling them to feel that way, those women felt pain in labor. And some of them viewed the elimination of that pain as a human rights issue. I think that’s interesting.


Am I the only one who can’t figure out where or when I can watch this documentary?

It’s a bit early, but once you can talk to the child – which is by far my favorite part of being a parent – this book is essential. It’s the only book on parenting I’ve read that I return to again and again.

This book will also help you interact with uh… adult… children in a more productive manner, too. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It kinda blew my mind, and totally changed my perspective on what being a parent is.

The filmmaker’s choices of what to include regarding socio/historical aspects of childbirth seems personal rather than scientific to me, at least as much as I could tell from the interview. I’d prefer either a pan-global look at overall differences or else a truly local comparison to cut down at least some of the variables: say, a compare-&-contrast of childbirth expectations for white married women in Boston MA in 1600, 1700, 1800, 1900, and 2000.

If I might, I’d like to recommend two things for your husband: Be Prepared, by Greenberg and Hayden and Crawling: A Father’s First Year by Cooper. Probably the most helpful tomes I read while the wife was paging through What To Expect.

Congratulations Maggie!

Unfortunately, Lusztig seems to miss the point about the current trend towards “natural unmedicated childbirth being the correct, feminist way of giving birth” - we’re seeing a rise in midwives and birthing centers as the majority of births CAN occur without medical interventions. It’s not about (avoiding/experiencing) pain, it’s about the mother being present to bond with her baby, rather than strapped to an operating table, waiting to be stitched up after a 5pm C-section so the doctor could go home to have dinner with their family. If a filmmaker cannot fact check relevant statistics [“I don’t know what the statistics are, but there’s probably equal numbers of medical C-s­ections that save babies and save mothers”] then why are they making a documentary on childbirth? It’s interesting to learn about the history, however attempting to use a mid 20th century point of view, when cigarettes came with physician endorsements, to obfuscate the discussion around whether birth is a “medical situation”, is hardly scientific.

I highly recommend Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth for information on the history of medicalization of childbirth, and obviously the Business of Being Born too.

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I must add a great historical fiction novel that looks at the time when medical men were taking over from traditional midwives in the early 1900s, and the suspect tactics they used to “corner the market”: Ami McKay’s The Birth House. Full disclosure- I am lucky enough to be her husband :slight_smile: Still, it was a Canadian #1 bestseller and recently hit the NY Times e-books bestseller list as well so I am not alone in my opinion.

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Yes. As someone who had uncomplicated natural childbirth, in part because of my phobia of needles (IVs are torture for me), I concur. I suffered less from labor than I have from various surgeries, although the degree of pain was more intense.

I would love to see a study comparing the experience of pain in natural childbirth between women who are or have been serious competitive athletes and a “normal” North American sample group. The pain is extreme, for sure, but knowing that there is a goal (getting that baby out!) after which the pain will go away makes a huge psychological difference. Most athletes are familiar with the concept of pushing through pain to obtain a goal, and in my experience that is exactly what the pain of childbirth is like.

(And congrats and good luck Maggie!!)

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My husband and I are both scientists, so making the decision to attempt a homebirth (and VBAC no less) wasn’t one we entered into lightly. I highly recommend “Obstetric Myths Versus Research Realities” by Henci Goer. Many of the “scare tactics” that OBs and the medical community in general use on parents-to-be are not based on scientific evidence at all and have no basis for being propagated throughout the generations…


This one will be a good resource for your study, too (if you don’t have it already)
Childbirth and the Future of Homo Sapiens

(Bah, can’t get the link to work correctly)

Right. The advent of pain medication & analgesia in labor was a feminist driven concept, backlash against the biblical ‘she shall suffer in childbirth’ idea. Women were offended that these male doctors were making them experience pain and agony when there were perfectly good drugs to be had. This was, in part, because women had lost access to the midwifery care of previous centuries, where non-medical approaches to the pain were the norm.

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