By Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Sir Isaac Newton, Letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675
The co-founder of Lamaze International (known first as ASPO/Lamaze), Elisabeth Bing, turns 100 years old today. Elisabeth was a leader and advocate for mothers, babies and families long before this type of advocacy had a name. Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski, past president of Lamaze International and long time friend and colleague of Elisabeth’s, shares some thoughts on this forward thinking woman who cared enough to take action, become a leader and then create an organization that has helped millions of families over the years achieve a safe and healthy birth. We salute you Ms. Bing and thank you deeply! – Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager.
When Elisabeth Bing first encountered childbearing women in the London of her twenties, she was a physical therapist with an assignment that sounds alien in 2014. Postpartum women were confined to bed for 10 days, without the ability to even put their feet on the floor! Physical therapists provided exercise and massage. The creativity, drive and passion Elisabeth demonstrated in the 40s and 50s became the foundation for the Lamaze method of childbirth education that is internationally taught and respected today.
Elisabeth’s memoir, My Life In Birth, details her journey from Nazi Germany to America, and provides insight into her many years of service to pregnant women. Giving birth between the 1930s and 1960s meant a woman had few if any choices about the way her baby was born. Mentally disoriented by “twilight sleep” and strapped down for “delivery” lest the sterile field be disrupted, a childbearing woman then was more a vessel for the baby than an active participant. In time women demanded an active role in the birth of their babies. Elisabeth was on the cutting edge of change. With Marjorie Karmel, author of Thank You, Dr. Lamaze, she was a revolutionary with the vision to see a consumer movement poised to create a very real difference in the way women gave birth. Elisabeth was the catalyst for that movement.
When I first spent a weekend with Elisabeth in her New York apartment, she was entering her eighties but was still teaching childbirth education twice a week. Her studio was perfect. Baby pictures were prominently displayed, childbirth posters lined the walls, and the atmosphere was relaxed, comforting and empowering. When asked, Elisabeth explained that pregnant women’s concerns were unchanged. Yes, she told me, the climate in hospitals had changed. Now Lamaze classes were common but medical interventions like epidurals continued to disrupt normal, natural birth. The obstacles were altered but the need for informed choices was ongoing. Women, Elisabeth said, still needed the truth.
Elisabeth turns 100 today, July 8, 2014. Consider her amazing reach. I am one small piece of her heritage. I’ve been honored to personally learn from this amazing, dynamic mentor for nearly 25 years. Her book, Six Practical Lessons for an Easier Childbirth, was my bible as I approached my first birth in 1976. That baby, my daughter Amy Podgurski Gough, is also a certified Lamaze childbirth educator. Between the joy of my first birthing experience and the births of Amy’s three babies, I’ve been blessed to teach thousands of women and their partners. Like most childbirth educators, I am deeply in Elisabeth’s debt.
Much has been written about Elisabeth’s contribution to childbirth education. A facet of her personality seldom discussed, however, is her insight surrounding collaboration. Her initial work in co-founding ASPO/Lamaze (now Lamaze International) in 1960 created a not-for-profit organization composed of parents, childbirth educators, health care providers and other health professionals. From the start, she discovered the strength of working with a group of people as opposed to standing alone. During the last keynote presentation Elisabeth presented at a Lamaze International national conference, I listened, mesmerized, as she prophetically discussed the need to talk with “insurance companies” as a way to continue her dream of teaching as many women as possible. Her commitment to excellence, to advocacy, and to childbearing women and their partners remains fierce in spite of the passage of time.
Elisabeth has been called the “mother of childbirth education” and she deserves that title. Her legacy guides all childbirth educators. When I picture her, I envision a physically tiny women with a spirit so powerful one forgets her stature. I look into her clear, bright eyes and see her pure white hair, pulled back into a pony tail with a blue ribbon. I sit in her kitchen sipping tea and drinking in her intelligence. Her cat purrs at our feet. My daughter Lisa is across the table, equally transfixed. I lean in, anxious to remember every moment of this encounter. She smiles, and her eyes light with purpose. I share my personal plans for starting a teen outreach. Elisabeth listens deeply, then offers advice I still adhere to twenty years later.
Elisabeth is an icon, a woman of vision and our true mother. To me she is a dear, precious friend. On July 8th, I will travel to New York City and enter her kitchen again, cognizant of the immense gift Elisabeth’s life has been to all who care about women, birth, and the future. One cannot measure her full worth; I know her wisdom echoes in the mission of every childbirth educator who follows in her footsteps. Thank you, Elisabeth!
Science & Sensibility and Lamaze International would like to let Elisabeth Bing know what a great organization she created, and how it has impacted so many. Please leave some wishes for a happy birthday in our comments section and if you wish, share what Lamaze means to you (as an educator, a birth professional, a mother, a father, or a health care provider). Lamaze International will make sure that every wish is printed and sent on to Elisabeth for her to enjoy! That will certainly touch her heart! Please, leave your wishes, stories and memories below. – SM
About Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski
Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the Director of The Washington Health System Teen Outreach and President and Founder of the Academy for Adolescent Health, Inc. Her undergraduate education is in nursing and education, her master’s work was in counseling, and her doctorate is in education. She began volunteering with pregnant teens in the 70s and has created numerous youth development and education programs using reality-based, interactive educational techniques that are evidence-based and empower youth.
Dr. Podgurski became interested in child abuse prevention as a way to lower teen pregnancy and authored the book Inside Out: Your Body is Amazing Inside and Out and Belongs Only to You, and runs a body-positive, child-centered, interactive, child abuse prevention program.
Dr. Podgurski has presented over 500 workshops locally, nationally and internationally. She is proud to be an adjunct faculty member in the Education Department of Washington and Jefferson College where she created and teaches the course: Teaching and Dealing with Sexuality in Schools in 2010.
Dr. Podgurski’s certifications include LCCE and FACCE (Fellow in the College of Childbirth Educators) from Lamaze International as a certification as both a sexuality educator and a sexuality counselor from AASECT (American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists), certification through Parents as Teachers, and certification as a trainer in the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. She is a past president of the Lamaze International Board of Directors.
Dr. Podgurski has received numerous awards, including the UPMC Dignity and Respect Champion Award in 2011, the Three Rivers Community Foundation Social Justice Award and the Washington County Children and Youth Champion for Children Award in 2009. She was the 2008 Washington County NAACP Human Rights Award recipient and the 2004 Washington County recipient of the Athena Women of Wisdom Award. She was awarded the 2004 NOAPPP (National Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting, now Healthy Teen Network) Outstanding Professional Award. In May of 2014 she was inducted into the Washington County Historical Society’s Washington County Hall of Fame for her contributions to the community through education of family planning and adolescent health.
Mary Jo and her partner Richard are the parents of three adult children and are blessed with three grandchildren.