Sunday's Mad Men told me more than I ever wanted to know about childbirth in the '60s. Betty Draper is hushed away from her husband upon arriving at the hospital, forced to fill out paperwork midcontractions, and bossed around by an unsympathetic nurse whose bedside manner approximates a warden's — you made your bed now have your baby in it.
What did I expect anyway — for Betty to have her baby in the master bath while Don burned lavender and massaged her shoulders. Of course not. But I also did not expect to see Betty give birth in a semiconscious state. I thought you were either awake or out. This in-between state, more formally known as twilight sleep, is made of a cocktail of drugs to relieve pain and induce amnesia. Because who wants to remember the birth of her child!
Today natural childbirth is applauded, so it's easy to be appalled by Betty's semiconscious experience. But was it oppressive or an initial, if flawed, step toward a better childbirth? Probably both! Read on to learn more.
It was a female doctor, Eliza Taylor Ransom, who founded the New England Twilight Sleep Association in 1914 to ensure hospitals offer twilight sleep during childbirth. Considered more humane and even aspirational, it initially took off among wealthy women, who formed Twilight Sleep Societies and praised the procedure for the "healthy, beautiful, and intelligent" babies it produced.
Doctors quickly discovered semiconscious women made excellent patients, and women, assuming they had no choice, accepted the procedure as the norm. What was created to be an alternative to natural childbirth was used in every hospital delivery by 1938, and it continued until the natural-birth movement took over in the '70s. So who's to say the pendulum won't swing back? In 50 years women may look back and see choosing pain as pointless and barbaric, but at least they'll know it was a choice.