Writing in 1990 about her experience attending antenatal classes in the 1950s, British mother and childbirth activist Heda Borton recalled her husband squirming as he watched a film of a baby being born in their antenatal education class: “My husband came to the evening under protest, and sat blowing his nose and hiding behind his handkerchief.” In 2009, American artist Jessica Clements described what she hoped to get out of watching a film in her childbirth preparation course: “I could not envision giving birth. The idea of my vagina stretching wide enough for an infant’s head seemed impossible and horrific.”
Across thousands of miles and nearly six decades, these two mothers had something in common. Like millions of other expectant parents across Western Europe and North America, they watched a live birth on film to prepare for their own upcoming experience.
Birth films became a ubiquitous and indispensable component of prenatal classes, a veritable rite of passage to parenthood. They helped to teach women and their partners what to expect when expecting, but also what was expected of them—how they should comport themselves in labour and birth. These images and the narratives that accompanied them became a lens through which parents could make sense and meaning of their own journey into parenthood.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, many middle-class white women, especially in the United States, sought alleviation of labour pain using “twilight sleep”—a combination of the amnesic scopolamine and morphine. Through a haze of semi-consciousness, they thrashed about and wailed as they suffered through incompletely managed pain and confusion.
Childbirth education classes and the films used as teaching tools in them gained prominence as women sought a greater satisfaction and “dignity” in birth. With their husbands by their sides, they wanted to be “awake and aware.” They turned to various approaches to so-called natural childbirth to manage pain without resort to drugs. These techniques differed in detail but shared a belief that prenatal preparation was essential for women to experience labour free from fear and better equipped to cope.
Produced in the 1950s and 1960s to support preparation in natural childbirth, the first generation of childbirth films reflected women’s desires to give birth with quiet calm. Typical of this era, the 24-minute, black-and-white film The Psychoprophylactic Method of Painless Childbirth (c. early 1960s) lays out the historical roots of what is popularly known as the Lamaze method, explains how it works, and provides advice on diet and exercise in pregnancy.
To highlight the drama and significance of the live birth sequence, the film switches to colour. The woman bears down and is clearly making an effort, but does not seem strained by it. Suggestive of an active, engaged role in her own birth experience, the mother reaches between her legs as the baby is emerging and practically catches her herself. Despite his marginalisation in the final moment, the obstetrician had been front and centre throughout the birth, offering exuberant and constant direction. There is no doubt that he was in charge.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the tone of childbirth preparation films began to change with the times. The rise of second wave feminism and the mainstreaming of countercultural values transformed what women sought in childbirth. The goal of dignity in birth gave way to the aspiration for an empowering and deeply embodied experience, even as the (usually male) obstetrician retained authority and control. The popular and critically acclaimed The Story of Eric (1971) follows the birth experience of Wendy and Rich Johnson, a hip, mellow California couple. Working together “as a team” with her doctor, Wendy insists that, aided by her Lamaze training, “the pregnant woman feels more of an assistant to her doctor than a patient.” For certain the labouring woman was no passive recipient of the doctor’s aid, but nor is she in the lead.
Beginning in the 1980s and continuing today, natural childbirth’s popularity waned as women embraced epidural anaesthesia, which offered the chance to be both physically comfortable and fully conscious, something twilight sleep had not provided. Natural childbirth advocates continue to plead their case and win adherents. Natural childbirth might take more effort than birth with epidural anaesthesia, its partisans argue, but the psychological and physical reward to the mother, the couple, and the baby are ample. Tantalising claims of orgasmic birth add to natural childbirth’s continuing allure.
The films that women and their partners watched not only reflected changing aspiration but conditioned their expectations and became a yardstick against which they judged their experiences. On a 1985 television broadcast, one UK mother drew a straight line between the birth film she saw in her antenatal preparation class and her own disappointing experience. “I thought, ‘Right. This is for me.’” But then “there I was waiting for this sexual experience. I mean this orgasmic experience. If that’s an orgasm, god help us!”
Irrespective of when they were made, childbirth films over the last sixty years rarely align with women’s first-hand experiences. Whether touting dignity, empowerment, or something still more elusive, the historical record suggests that claim that these films prepare women for childbirth certainly merits skepticism.
Featured Image Credit: Havering Branch: antenatal class photograph by NCT/Wellcome Library, London. Public domain via Flickr.