The Birth of Motherhood


Maya Gonzalez interviews Irene Lusztig The New Inquiry:

What has making the film revealed, and what are the things that surprised you?

The history of Lamaze surprised me. Lamaze is a very clear case study of how childbirth is propagandized. It exposes how it’s so clearly spoken about in a completely different way as it moves from Soviet Russia to France to the U.S. I was amazed to learn that there was this whole Marxist discourse of labor pain, which I hadn’t known about. And as Lamaze leaves this kind of Socialist-Marxist labor system and moves to the U.S., that language is completely erased—but it’s still the same techniques. It lays bare the way that these things are undergirded by nationalist ideologies, state ideologies.

I guess the most important discoveries I found were histories of obstetrics and obstetrical anesthesia. I was trying to think through how we’ve thought about pain at different points in time because that’s a ­really fraught space.

And twilight sleep was probably the most interesting discovery of the project. Twilight sleep is a moment in the teens where internationally, wealthy women began traveling to Germany to a clinic where there’s a drug protocol given to laboring women, an almost homeopathic dose of morphine that doesn’t really take the pain away in any significant way, coupled with scopolamine which induces amnesia. So the experience of laboring in twilight sleep may be intensely painful, but the women forget it as they’re experiencing it. The interesting thing historically about twilight sleep is that it became a real activist cause in the U.S., and the activists who were supporting and trying to bring it to the U.S. were all feminists and suffragettes. So the early 20th century history of women being really strong advocates for medicalized childbirth, for hospital birth, for drugs, for anesthesia, is an interesting forgotten history.