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Mad Birth: Are Today’s Women Better off than Betty Draper?

September 22nd, 2009 by avatar

I’m a huge Mad Men fan. For readers who aren’t familiar with the show, it depicts the goings on at a New York City advertising company in the 1960s. The show has earned critical acclaim not just for its stellar acting and story telling, but for the show’s authentic depiction of the styles, trends, and attitudes of the era.

Don and Betty Draper, with Baby Gene

Last week, the main character’s wife, Betty Draper, gave birth to her third child. While her husband, Don, sits in the waiting room drinking scotch with another nervous expectant dad, Betty is subjected to 1960’s “standard of care” obstetrics. Left alone in a labor room, she is shaved, given an enema, and then receives the crown jewel of her modern childbirth experience: medications to induce twilight sleep, which also induce a mad stupor and land Betty in restraints because of her erratic, combative behavior. As a midwife and a mother, the most difficult part for me to watch was when Betty awoke from her stupor, swaddled baby in arms, with no memory of the experience. You can watch all of the birth-related clips from the show at Jezebel.

This season, there are several feminist blogs keeping tabs on Mad Men and the various depictions of women’s rights and abuses thereof. It’s not difficult for feminists to recognize that birth in the twilight sleep era was nothing less than violence against women. But I have seen very little chatter on the blogs about the aspects of the childbirth experience that remain paternalistic, misogynistic, and violent half a century later.

Are today’s women better off than Betty Draper? Clearly, most of us are. But I believe we’ve traded a visible, blatant form of labor ward paternalism for a new paternalism and a “standard of care” that presents to women bogus assurances of safety and autonomy.

I was recently asked by Jill at The Unnecesarean to nominate one of my favorite blog posts for “Best of Week” at her blog. I sent her my choice before I had even watched last week’s Mad Men, and the timing is serendipitous. Rather than select one of the many Science & Sensibility posts I am proud of, I decided to nominate the very first blog post I ever wrote. In it, I write about my own births and those of the three generations of women in my family who birthed before me. If anyone wondered how I became so radicalized about childbirth and women’s health, just have a look at my sorry family history. And ask yourself: What will our daughters think of today’s style of “modern” maternity care, once they have the benefit of hindsight?

"Best of" Week

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  1. | #1

    That was serendipitous! Even down the the old typewriter image.

    Everyone reading this needs to go over to Jezebel and watch the reenactment of twilight sleep. I wonder if that brought up any feeling for older viewers.

  2. | #2

    INCREDIBLE!

  3. | #3

    Both this and the post at The Unnecesarean are great posts. My mom had what seems like three Twilight Sleep like births in the 1970’s, two of which were forceps deliveries. How I alone escaped forceps might expplain why I am such a black sheep in my family – I have bucked the trend from the beginning.

    I know some sources seem to indicate that Twilight Sleep deliveries were relics by the 1970s, but my mother must have had an old fashioned obstetrician. When I was born, my mother, who has never indulged in mind altering drugs and doesn’t even drink heavily, was so altered that she thought I was a lizard, and then thought I was Chinese and told them to give me back to my real mother.

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    Jenni Shaver
    | #4

    Wow, thanks for sharing. We must not forget…and hopefully at least some of us are wary enough of our past to not be naive enough to forge on for the sake of our future…and future generations

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    Jenni Shaver
    | #5

    I meant to write..naive enough to not persevere and find the strength to forge on..sorry

  6. | #6

    But twilight sleep was something that women DEMANDED, right? I’ve read that it wasn’t available in the US (doctors didn’t want to interfere with the curse of Eve), but was available in Europe. Wealthy women would go to Europe for this, and then began to demand that this be available to US women. The only other option was unmedicated childbirth, which, for some women, was horrible to even consider. Be careful what you ask for, cause when the Gods want to punish us, they sometimes grant our requests. Glad I was born in a time when I could birth at home in a tub.

  7. | #7

    Great review. I’ve never heard of twilight sleep before–what a bizarre thing to have happen.

  8. | #8

    @Elizabeth Allemann
    This is something that has long been a curious observation — that the early feminists demanded drugs in labor and medicalized childbirth (including twilight sleep), as a way to equalize the sexes and to keep women from having to “suffer” during childbirth. Now, many feminists are demanding undrugged births and no medicalization of childbirth, to keep birth in the realm and sphere of women (home birth, midwives, or unassisted births, rather than male OBs and male-trained female OBs).

    It is true that women demanded drugs and twilight sleep — but it’s also true that doctors would go to women’s groups and pitch twilight sleep, or doctors would encourage women to go to women’s groups and pitch it as some great thing, so that more women would have hospital births and fewer women would stay home. It was part of the “demeaning home birth and midwives” campaign of the 20s.

    What happened, though, is that women lost control of the process, when they went to the hospital, and while some may have liked a “painless childbirth” (or at least, being unable to remember the pain of birth), many others didn’t like being on the assembly line. It’s one thing to choose something; it’s another to have it forced on you because you have no other choice. It may be that originally, twilight sleep was a choice; but once it became standard in hospitals, just like other drugs and procedures even today, many women had no choice BUT to submit to it, even when they did not want it. My mom was given general anesthesia with all 4 of her births, all without consent, and with her last (me) she literally begged them not to knock her out because she was planning on getting her tubes tied, and she wanted to know what birth actually felt like. They still knocked her out. And gave her a pubic shave and an episiotomy. All without consent.

    You are right, be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

  9. | #9

    @Kathy
    “It’s one thing to choose something; it’s another to have it forced on you because you have no other choice.”

    Exactly. Words to live by, no?

  10. avatar
    Vonda
    | #10

    This is absolutely crazy! I heard my aunt talk about not knowing a thing when she had my cousin, she went to sleep and woke up several hours with a baby boy. S A D!

  11. avatar
    Jackie Levine
    | #11

    Twilight sleep became an extreme and inhumane convention, but many didn’t suffer silently. In 1957 the Ladies Home Journal, a magazine given to recipes, fashion and the latest in home appliances, published an anonymous letter from a L&D nurse who described and decried the heartless treatment of women that she witnessed on a daily basis. Once they were “under” they were tied down and their legs were tied apart for many hours; they were left entirely alone while their bodies struggled with labor. She reported that some doctors ordered that womens’ legs be tied tightly together to retard delivery while the doctors went out for a meal. There was a great response to that letter… mothers and other
    nurses wrote to the magazine as well, and there was a great scandal. But how far in the direction of real mistreatment of women things had to go before the harm was exposed.

    There was another extreme as well. In 1963, ’66 and ’69 when I had my babies, there was that incredible grassroots movement to be “awake and aware” and to allow fathers into the labor room. Where I gave birth, in Brooklyn, NY in ’63, if you could produce a marriage license and a certificate showing that you had taken a Lamaze course, the dad could come into the labor room, but not into delivery, which was, of course, an operating suite. By my 2nd and 3rd babies, fathers could come to delivery as well. I know because I took the Lamaze course with one of only three “monitrices” (the Lamaze teachers of the day)in the NY area, of whom Elizabeth Bing was one. Had I not come across Marjorie Karmel’s famous book “Thank You, Dr. Lamaze, which was sort of in the news during my first pregnancy, I would no doubt, have had childbirth experiences common to the day. I had amazing births with some docs whose curiosity got the best of them, I guess, and I was allowed to pursue my labors freely…but I sure was shaved for the first two. It was those birth experiences way back then that led me, after retirement from my industry, to my life now as Lamaze educator, doula and lactation professional; the Lamaze Six Healthy Birth Practices are for me the basis and rationale for providing a continuum of care for the birthing women that I teach and support. And yes, the ill-treatment of women, and the condescending delivery of same makes us very, very angry.

  12. avatar
    Rachel Ballard
    | #12

    So good Amy! My mom had twilight sleep for my oldest sister and my grandmothers had it for all their children…their description of the experience is heartbreaking and infuriating at the same time. The story about your family is so sad, it makes sense that it is the fire that fuels your passion for women and birth. :)

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