Ed and Diane Lawrence were best friends with my husband Stewart and me. The four of us had arrived in Raleigh about six months before—the Lawrences from Korea with the Peace Corps, Stewart and I from Atlanta. Diane and I were both pregnant. The Lamaze classes we attended, along with three other couples, became a social occasion for us.
If we hadn’t all been so earnest, we surely could have seen how ridiculous we looked. Each of the five women, exceedingly pregnant, arrived at the teacher’s home carrying a pillow for use in doing the exercises. We all looked as if we were wearing pillows, too. We lay on the rug in her unfinished basement room and practiced tensing and relaxing on command.
“Why is it that after one of these meetings I always feel like I’ve been to a coven?” Ed asked one night.
Diane giggled, a little embarrassed.
“A coven?” I asked. “You mean like witches?”
“Yeah. You know, the enthusiasm, knowing the secrets everyone else in society has missed, the fanatic battle with doctors over drugs and delivery rooms closed to fathers.”
“I see what you mean,” I responded, although I hadn’t thought of it that way before. But in 1971, Lamaze classes were relatively new in the US and brand new in North Carolina, the whole notion of trying to minimize the use of drugs during delivery was a novelty, and the only hospital in Raleigh where babies were delivered had an iron-clad rule banning fathers from the delivery room. That would all change within a few years, but at this particular point in time, we felt as if we were on the front lines of a cultural battle, almost the way we had been when we had marched for Civil Rights and against the war in Vietnam a few years earlier.
My husband Stewart, a Presbyterian minister, did not agree. “You’re exaggerating,” he said. “The Lamaze teachers are just excited about something they’ve experienced and really believe in. They’re frustrated with the conservative medical establishment here.”
Our Lamaze instructor, Sis Mizell, was a nurse and a psychiatrist’s wife. She had two young children. I couldn’t see calling Sis a witch, but she was something of a fanatic about prepared childbirth. Sis showed us charts and diagrams and taught us how to breathe during the various phases of labor.
“Let’s review now,” Sis had said earlier in the evening. “The first stage of delivery has three phases. During the first phase the cervix effaces, or flattens out, and dilates to three centimeters. Husbands, here you begin to time the contract.” She drew a diagram of the rising and falling breaths during a contraction. Her blue eyes sparkled. Her tone was very definite. This was exactly the way it would be: one, two, three.
“During the second stage,” she added, “you may experience some discomfort—notice I didn’t say ‘pain,’ just discomfort. Don’t listen to other women talk about the ‘pain’ of childbirth. With proper training, thirty per cent of all women have no pain at all; the rest, only some discomfort. Above all, don’t go to see movies like that horrible one with Katherine Hepburn screaming all the way through it. What was the name of that picture?”
“A Farewell to Arms?” I asked. (I had read the book but not seen the movie.) I had never felt real physical pain, having made it through childhood without a toothache or a broken bone or surgery. So I didn’t really know what they were talking about.
“Yes,” said Sis. “Horrible movie. Anyway, in this second phase you may accelerate to panting as the contraction builds, then decelerate. Like this.” Here the up-and-down curves in the diagram developed jagged little teeth.
Sis went on. “The third phase, you recall, is the hardest. During transition use your fast shallow breaths, and blow out if you feel the urge to push. Husbands, remember that your wife may feel persecuted and tired. Wives, you may feel as if you just can’t make it. You may call for drugs or just want to go to sleep. But remember, this only lasts a short time, and then the baby’s almost here.” She clapped her hands like an excited child, and we took it all in.
In her lecture on drugs, Sis pointed out the disadvantages of each method. Of the caudal, the local anesthesia most widely used in area hospitals, she could only say that sometimes bladder function was slow in returning and you might have to be catheterized. (She made that sound horrible.) It was clear to us all that to be really successful you had to make it all the way through the delivery without anesthetics.
The babies of various members of the class were delivered, and the husbands came back to the group to report. Ed and Diane’s baby arrived before Christmas, and Ed came to tell the class about the experience. “If this was just discomfort, it was pretty severe,” he insisted, “like the intestinal cramps of cholera we had in Korea.” But along with the others in the class, I was already too de-conditioned to heed the warning.
Why had Stewart and I decided to approach the birth of our first child with the new-fangled methods of the “coven”? I was abysmally ignorant of anatomy and physiology, and I wanted to understand as much as possible about what was going to happen. And having always excelled as a student, I believed that the best preparation for anything involved getting the most up-to-date information.
Stewart and I had talked to friends who were ecstatic about their experiences with this form of childbirth. “It was the most incredible, wonderful, terrifically joyful, sexual, sensual, loving times of our lives,” according to one Christmas letter we had received. A little offbeat and very satisfying, something to talk about (maybe brag about)—this method seemed to offer me a way to make childbirth an achievement. And I had been trained from childhood to collect achievement medals any way I could.
Also, Stewart very much wanted to be a part of the birth experience. He had felt rather left out of the pregnancy. This life he had engendered was growing quite separately from him, in my body. Through the classes and by coaching me during delivery, he would be included this life-changing event.
Sis was working toward full accreditation as a Lamaze instructor. Because she was required to observe several births, she had asked all the members of our class to call her as soon as we left for the hospital. She would just watch silently, she explained. Since no one was paying a fee, Stewart felt that we should invite her to come with us. I was hesitant, although I could never quite say why. This was supposed to be a shared experience for my husband and me. The doctor would be there, of course, but I didn’t think I wanted Sis there, too. Besides, Sis had such a strong personality and so much authority that I was afraid of getting railroaded by her. I was pretty sure I couldn’t yell or scream of ask for pain medication with Sis in the room. But I swallowed my feelings of foreboding and agreed.