Sunday, December 28, 2014

‘Lamaze: An International History’ (Book Review)

If childbirth is known for something, it’s being painful. And many mothers give silent thanks to French obstetrician Fernand Lamaze for inventing a method to ease some of that pain. It’s pretty much a given that, if you’re having a baby, you’re doing “Lamaze.” The method is so engrained in American culture that few are aware that it has been around for less than a century…and that it has Soviet roots! (Cue scary music.)

Curious about the real origins of this popular birthing technique, historian and mother Paula A. Michaels, Senior Lecturer at Australia’s Monash University, combed archival material from four countries and even conducted personal interviews to learn more. In Lamaze: An International History (Oxford, 2014), she presents the stories behind the search for a painless delivery, from the Grantly Dick-Read method to I.Z. Vel’vovskii’s psychoprophylaxis to “Lamaze” as practiced today. There’s also much about the cyclical popularity of anesthesia, on the upswing more recently with the introduction of the epidural. What the reader will quickly discover is that these techniques didn’t materialize out of thin air, but were the products of social forces at work. Michaels’ story is not merely about obstetrics, but about Cold War tensions, political propaganda, psychology’s role in medicine, feminist movements, American consumerism, and the fads of “natural childbirth” with all its shades of meaning.

I don’t have much interest in medicine – my stomach churns when people talk about their operations – but I can honestly say I enjoyed reading Lamaze. It gave me a new understanding of and appreciation for the techniques, drugs, and machines available to new mothers today. I hope the book finds its way to the reading lists of many graduate-level history classes, particularly those in Gender History that want to discuss patriarchy, psychotherapy, and the control of women, and those covering 20th Century United States History that could benefit from an unusual perspective on Soviet-American relations. As for new mothers, I recommend only giving it to those who you know would appreciate a scholarly book. For the rest, they’ll have to wait until a PBS documentary is made.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.