A woman stands on the threshold. She is about to enter her new life. The shot ends here; she is forever poised on the threshold. We never see the door close at the end of the last shot. We never see her walk into the house to begin her new life.
Queens, New York, 2006: When I find out I’m pregnant, I start buying discarded maternal ephemera on eBay—magazines, pamphlets, manuals, and films. I collect maternal-training films that teach women how to give birth and take care of infants, medical-training films that teach doctors how to manage childbirth, and home movies documenting new mothers with their babies—intimate and cryptic fragments from the lives of strangers. I study them carefully. I’m not yet sure if my project is archival research or quirky hobby: At first I am buying things simply to look at them. My search for maternal detritus feels personal, difficult to explain: I am trying to understand an experience that seems fraught and complicated by mapping its history in fragments. Because I am an artist who often works with archival materials, this is a mode of thinking that is second nature. My search terms cast a wide net: birth, mother, infant, baby, maternal, pregnant, pregnancy, prenatal, childbirth, childcare, breast. At a moment when I feel singularly vulnerable, when I am instructed as to how to do things properly, I wonder what other women were told in other historical moments.
Grosse Point Michigan, sometime in the 1950s: A couple leaves Cottage Hospital with their newborn baby. They walk down a manicured suburban path toward their car. She wears a blue-and-white plaid day dress with a sweetheart neckline, puffed sleeves, a ruffle at the hem, and an adjustable fabric sash tied at her waist, perhaps to hide her postpartum belly. Her pearl earrings and necklace are carefully coordinated, as are her coral lipstick and orange sandals. He walks proudly alongside, also dressed for the special occasion in a suit and tie. They are accompanied by a uniformed nurse who carries the pink-swaddled baby.
The camera cuts to a medium-wide shot: The nurse gives a quick, knowing glance to the camera. Then comes a close-up of the swaddled infant being pushed offscreen, handed over to the new mother. The couple gets into their car—a beautiful Kodachrome red—and he drives as she waves out the window, clutching the baby. The film cuts to their arrival at home: They smile as they walk across another manicured lawn with a tidy border of marigolds. The lawn feels expansive, like a runway; it takes them a long time to cross it. She is still clutching the swaddled baby; he rests a protective hand on her back, steering her forward. Just before the door, she has a fleeting hesitation: Overcome by something (a sneeze? a gust of wind?) she bends forward, away from the front door, and the camera cuts. In the final shot, he leads her to the threshold of their home, opens the screen door, then returns his protective hand to her back as she looks directly into the camera lens. The film ends abruptly, the last shot interrupted just as she lifts her foot to step into the house for the first time as a mother.
I watch this forty-seven-second fragment of film (with the nondescript eBay title “16mm FILM Home Movie 1950s BABY’S FIRST DAY HOME Grosse Point MI”) obsessively after it arrives in the mail. Again and again I contemplate the enigmatic details of this quiet domestic drama—the hunching over, the quick, vulnerable stare at the camera, the way the film ends just before the main event (“BABY’S FIRST DAY HOME”) actually begins. What does she feel as she stands suspended in maternal time, about to become a new person in some way she can’t yet fathom?
But the historian goes to the Archive to be at home as well as to be alone. … Alone in the Archive, in the counting house of dreams, the historian opens the bundles. … The Archive is this kind of place, that is to do with longing and appropriation. It is to do with wanting things that are put together, collected, collated, named in lists and indices; a place where a whole world, a social order, may be imagined by the recurrence of a name in a register, through a scrap of paper, or some other little piece of flotsam.
—Carolyn Steedman, 2002
The rusted film cans arrive in the mail from places like Indiana and Arizona, covered with packing tape, labeled by sharpie, their insides brittle and smelling sharply of acetic acid—an indication of the vinegar syndrome that signals the imminent decay and ultimate erasure of the images within. They have names like A Baby Is Born, Birth: Labor of Love, Ladies in Waiting, Becoming, and Childbirth: A Great Adventure. Many of the films don’t include any kind of production information or even a copyright date. A film called Have a Healthy Baby comes in an orange box labeled “Saved by the Bell. The 3 Stooges.” A film called Labor and Delivery III turns out to be mislabeled—inside is a film about mineral extraction. A film called Painless Childbirth under Hypnosis is a theatrical exploitation exhibition print with lurid, sensational titles framing graphic medical footage; the film is so warped that it won’t run through my projector.1
I catalog the films and put them in chronological order using the imprecise science of hairstyle dating: Does that bouffant look like 1965? Were collars that large and pointy in 1972? When exactly did women start feathering their hair? I make my own prenatal education curriculum by salvaging, assembling, and reconstituting these partial, incomplete, and forgotten histories. Each film can promises an encounter with a moment in maternal history. And each film is also an encounter with a woman, a stranger who, like me, is falling toward the terra incognita of motherhood.
After my pregnancy, I continue my gathering of maternal ephemera. My viewing expands to libraries and public archives as my collection becomes more capacious: in assembling my archive of training materials, I am also assembling a history of institutional motherhood.
The copyright and production information buried in the end credits attests to government, corporate, and nonprofit sponsorship: Childbirth Education League, Ross Laboratories and Mead Johnson (makers of infant formula brands Similac and Enfamil), American Medical Association, New York Department of Health, Pfizer, Sandoz (according to its website a world leader in pharmaceutical generics).
I learn in my research that the earliest maternal-education films in the United States that still exist in archives were commissioned by the US Children’s Bureau—founded in 1912 to promote child welfare by initiating public health programs including birth and infant mortality registration campaigns, milk stations (public dispensaries of board-certified milk tested for fat, dirt, and bacteria), well-baby clinics, and the Save the Babies circular (issued in English, Italian, German, Polish, Yiddish, and Slovak). The Children’s Bureau films were purchased by state-health bureaus and screened in local communities via touring Healthmobiles—traveling cine-trucks equipped with electric lighting, a motion-picture machine, a Victrola, a projectionist, and a live lecturer. These films were part of a broader push for the institutionalization of child welfare through government-sponsored programs for educating mothers; responsibility for the physical and mental hygiene of children was privatized as it shifted from state to mother.
Each maternal-training film is, at its core, a film about maternal ideology—a prescriptive roadmap for correct, successful, and scientifically endorsed maternal behaviors. In the 1919 Children’s Bureau film Our Children, maternal success is enacted through conformity to new government standards—growth charts, hearing and vision tests, milk sterilization, accurate population records. The unspoken anxiety underlying this euphoria of measurement, organization, and cleanliness is a population explosion among rural and urban poor—immigrants, factory workers, slum-dwellers. The maternal training film is always haunted by the threat of the bad mother who needs to be educated.
On their part in the events that follow they retain no more memory than a somnambulist might have of the roof he walked on at night. They woke happy and animated and well in body and soul; and found, with incredulous delight, their babies, all dressed, lying before them upon a pillow in the arms of a nurse.
—Marguerite Tracy and Constance Leupp, 1914
Few aspects of motherhood are as ideologically fraught as our changing notions of ideal childbirth. In Harvard’s Widener Library book depository, I find old issues of McClure’s Magazine from 1914; I am looking for this series of images of spectral children born under Twilight Sleep. These photographs, selections from a collection of two hundred images gathered by American feminist birth activists, first appeared in a series of two magazine articles published in McClure’s: “Painless Childbirth,” by Marguerite Tracy and Constance Leupp, and—in response to overwhelming reader interest—the subsequent “More About Painless Childbirth,” by Mary Boyd and Marguerite Tracy.
The two articles expound, in enthusiastic detail, on Dämmerschlaf or Twilight Sleep, a birth protocol administered at the Frauenklinik, the woman’s hospital in Freiburg, Germany, to an international clientele of wealthy mothers-to-be who arrived from all over the world to experience the medical miracle of childbirth without pain. Under the close supervision of the clinic’s doctors, Bernhard Krönig and Carl J. Gauss, laboring women received a small dose of morphine followed by regular injections of scopolamine, a drug that induced the “humane forgetfulness” of amnesia. Each laboring patient in the first-class maternity ward of the Frauenklinik was carefully monitored, using a series of verbal memory tests repeated at half-hour intervals, to ensure a precisely calibrated state of continuous forgetting. Women labored and gave birth in isolation and darkness; babies were whisked out of the room immediately following birth, and the soothing sound of running water muffled any newborn cries to prevent the formation of what were called “islands of memory.”
The magazine photographs, among the only remaining visual evidence from the Twilight Sleep movement, are accompanied by text describing women waking from their Twilight slumber refreshed, ravenous for hearty German lunches of boiled beef and roast hare, and amazed to meet the babies they had no recollection of birthing.
The photographs themselves are also islands of memory, tiny windows into a now-forgotten moment where feminist conversations about birth were completely different. Briefly, from 1914 to 1915, feminist birth activists pushed American doctors to implement Twilight Sleep in hospitals across the country, proposing that the “problem” with the pain of childbirth was not the experience of pain, but the memory of the experience of pain: If memory could be eradicated, then the debilitating fear, anxiety, and anguish of childbirth would disappear as well. Indeed, the language used by Tracy, Leupp, Boyd, and other Twilight Sleep activists is familiar to contemporary readers as the rallying cry of human-rights discourse. “Just as the village barber no longer performs operations, the untrained midwife of the neighborhood will pass out of existence under the effective competition of free painless wards,” Tracy and Boyd write. “It is, as far as we know, the first time in the history of medical science that the whole body of patients have risen to dictate the doctors.”
In the National Library of Medicine archives I am struck by the uncanniness of this long-take sequence featuring a woman’s torso with every other part of her framed out. As her body is prodded, handled, and assessed, explanatory notes for the viewer are literally pushed onscreen on a signboard, further obstructing our view of her body. In my notes from my research trip, I write, “It’s as if a woman’s face and her body are somehow divided, mutually exclusive images that can’t be reconciled onscreen within a single frame.”
This film is not intended for expectant mothers, but for medical students. It is part of a series of training films created in the 1930s by Dr. Joseph DeLee, father of modern obstetrics; it is designed to instruct a rising generation of educated physicians who are newly skilled in managing medical childbirth. According to DeLee, birth is correctly viewed not as a normal, routine process, but as a destructive and pathogenic process that frequently damages mothers and babies.2 In his films and writings, he proposes a series of prophylactic medical interventions designed to save women from the destructive properties of labor: mandatory and standardized hospital births for all women with routine use of sedatives, ether, episiotomies, and forceps. DeLee’s writings lay the groundwork for what ultimately become normative hospital birth practices in the United States.
With its oversized props and theatrical hands, this film reminds me of the kind of magic show where a woman is sawed in half in a closed box. In the visual conventions of the medical-training film, the female body produces knowledge, is an object of study, an orifice without a face.
Maternity Hospital Routine
An omniscient male narrator guides “you,” the viewer and expectant mother, through the stages of a hospital birth, which takes all of five minutes of screen time. The film encourages docile behavior, leaving all decisions to “your doctor,” and urges you to embark on a fitness program within the first postpartum hour so as to “regain your trim figure.” Meanwhile, “your husband” (there is always a husband in these films) sits comfortably in the waiting room until the moment he is called upon to greet his wife with a perfunctory postpartum handshake.
The camera is carefully trained on the emotive face (never the birthing body) of the protagonist. When I show this film to a friend, she praises the actress for doing such a great job of seeming truly frightened. Only then do I realize she isn’t supposed to look frightened at all. On the contrary, the film, with its soothing lounge-music soundtrack, is meant to reassure the viewer that everything she is about to see is perfectly ordinary and routine (even the film’s title reminds us that maternity is routine), that birth is nothing to fear.
I start searching in my watching for these breakaway moments of inadvertent resistance, moments where something happens—like this woman’s look of unconcealed fear—that is outside of the performative intention of the film. In these moments I find women holding themselves against the ideologies that try to shape them, pinned butterflies with beating wings.
Once you watch ten or twenty maternal-training films, you quickly see that there is a universal script: A woman trains and prepares; she gives birth following the protocol of the era; she returns home with her new baby, crossing the threshold into motherhood (even my home movie fragment follows this script diligently). The woman is white, middle class, thin, young, but not too young, pretty, but not too pretty. If it is after 1969, the film might instead feature four carefully curated, racially diverse women instead of one, bolstered by a supporting cast of appropriate, racially matched husbands.
In almost every film, a woman packs her suitcase. She decides which objects are necessary for beginning her new life: slippers, bathrobe, maybe a journal or a novel. To pack a suitcase is to attempt to anticipate what you will need in an unfamiliar place, to control the unknowable future. Haunting this work is the peril of failure. What happens if you pack the wrong objects?
Occasionally in my eBay browsing I find abandoned baby books—prescriptive scrapbooks where women record data about their new babies: birth weight, first bank account, date of first tooth lost. In these books I sometimes find someone’s tidy and diligent handwriting from 1911: ghostly physical traces of obedient women who are trying to do everything by the book. I imagine these women earnestly filling in the blanks, these women who are now dead and whose babies are probably also dead.
The work to readjust the minds of women requires as much skill as the counter measures against bombs from airplanes, gas attacks, magnetic and acoustic mines, and submarines.
—Grantly Dick-Read, 1942
I develop an affective relationship, which feels like love, with many of the women in my archive. The women in this film—wearing maternity sack dresses, their faces tentative, embarrassed, and sincere—I love especially. They are disciples of British obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read’s natural-childbirth method; they are trying to condition their minds and bodies for painless, unmedicated birth through repetitive sequences of movements.
Read published his first book, Natural Childbirth, in 1933, followed in 1942 by Revelation of Childbirth (later republished with the less explicitly Christian title Childbirth without Fear). Working against the prevailing current of increasingly routinized obstetrical anesthesia, Read writes with strongly religious overtones, urging women and their obstetricians to return to the ecstatic simplicity of prescientific, precivilized, unmedicated birth. Read was the first to propose the dichotomy that has shaped our current birth discourse by defining two opposing kinds of childbirth: natural and unnatural.
Scientific progress and the insidious fears of civilized existence, Read argues, have belittled the divine manifestation of childbirth, and produced generations of needlessly anxious women (as opposed to tribal African women, who supposedly give birth easily, painlessly, and without fear). According to Read, the experience of pain in childbirth is unnatural, and emerges from what he calls the fear-tension-pain cycle: In the labor of a fearful woman, her own bad expectations distort her naturally painless contraction signals, which creates a false representation of pain, a deranged experience of labor. This false pain signal travels through her nervous system, closing the womb and inhibiting dilation. As she resists the efforts of her muscle fibers, her body enters into a state of conflict. Her fear of pain creates a pathological tension, which finally produces true pain.
I find the images of women exercising uniquely moving. In Final Cut Pro, I cut them out of all the films and splice them together. I animate the still diagrams of women stretching. The exercises seem ridiculous, old-fashioned, pointless. The pointlessness makes the efforts of these women seem touching. And, like the old menus I find in my maternal manuals—urging pregnant women to adhere to a prenatal diet that includes beef juice, orange custard, and creamed liver—they reassure me that everything is historically relative and also that I can’t do anything wrong.
The Eagerness of an Athlete Preparing for the Olympics
When I used to think of being pregnant, I imagined it something like an uncontrollable illness—months of lying in bed concluding with a single, terrifying crisis. With only four weeks left, I really have yet to spend a single day in bed, and I look forward to my child’s birth not with fear, but with the eagerness of an athlete primed for the Olympics.
—Story of Eric, 1970
Exercise, like packing a suitcase, is another way to prepare for the unknowable. In the discourse of exercise, daily physical and mental training allows us to gain mastery and control of our bodies. The optimistic language of athletic endeavor focuses on self-improvement, conquest, victory, domination, and success. In Story of Eric (1970), a classic of the Lamaze genre, the labor contraction is a “one-minute adventure”; the uterus is rigorously conditioned to work with “freedom and efficiency”; and, not unlike marathon training, “every day you don’t practice is a step backwards.”
Lamaze, also known as psychoprophylaxis, is an involved study of patterned breathing and other physical techniques designed to conquer labor pain—not through any actual analgesic effect, but by distracting the laboring woman and thereby, hypothetically, disrupting the reception and interpretation of pain in the cerebral cortex. Instruction in breathing is accompanied by training in the physiology of pregnancy and childbirth, coupled with the message that “normal” childbirth is painless in women who have worked to conquer their fear and anxiety.
The international history of Lamaze—which originally emerged in the Ukraine in the 1940s out of Neo-Pavlovian Soviet scientific experiments with self-hypnosis and Marxist-Stalinist theories of labor pain—is largely forgotten in the United States. The training regimen was exported from the Soviet Union to France by the eponymous obstetrician Fernand Lamaze and, eventually, to the United States via the 1959 bestseller Thank You, Doctor Lamaze, a first-person account of an American woman’s miraculous French childbirth using psychoprophylaxis. By the time the technique was popularized in the Our Bodies, Ourselves-era of feminist women’s health in the late ’60s and early ’70s3, the “Lamaze-Pavlov method” was officially rebranded as the simpler-sounding (and more Cold War-friendly) “Lamaze method,” and little public cultural memory remained of the technique’s Stalinist origins.
Story of Eric was one of several films produced for a US audience by the American Society for Psychoprophylaxis in Obstetrics (now Lamaze International) between 1969 and 1982. Shot in Los Angeles, the film was born out of a collaboration between Hollywood producer David Seltzer and pop singer Harry Nilsson, who met in a Lamaze class taught by Ferris Urbanowski, an early crusader for the technique.
In the chronology of my collection, this film is notable as the first to be narrated in the voice of the protagonist. The cinematic style is intimate, familiar to viewers of ’60s and ’70s observational documentary. The opening line of dialogue—“the girl on the screen is me”—is startling after decades of passive women and patronizing male narrators. Here is a confident young woman embracing childbirth as a self-actualizing, empowering experience—a narrative recognizable from the contemporary language of feminist natural birth. In the post-Lamaze era of prepared, self-determined childbirth, we are all athletes in training: The more intensely we research, prepare, and curate our birth experiences, the less we will fear, and the better we can control the outcome.
The Birth Center
YouTube is a different kind of archive—an infinitely expansive affective map of our shared desires. Searches for “birth” and “maternity” call up millions of entries: I watch maternity-style tips, breast-pumping tutorials, 3D-ultrasound videos (an oddly compelling YouTube subgenre where uncanny floating fetuses are choreographed to pop music), homemade birth videos—a comprehensive inventory of contemporary motherhood. In particular, I watch corporate maternity-center tour videos. Produced by hospitals and free-standing birth centers, these videos are part show-home marketing tour (complete with real estate visual flourishes like 360-degree pans and Jacuzzi bathtub closeups), part latter-day Maternity Hospital Routine for the post-Lamaze natural-childbirth set.
The history of childbirth is a history of our evolving relationship with technologies (both fertility and medicalized birth technologies) and our shifting notions of the natural. In the contemporary, neoliberal maternal moment, we no longer simply give birth: We are now consumers of birth experiences (or, as this video breathlessly promises, “the experience of a lifetime”). The pain of “natural” childbirth is presented as a portal to a kind of meticulously curated “authentic moment.” Like the hotel room, the birthing suite is precisely production designed—its anonymous domestic details reassure the visitor and promise a predictable experience in a controlled environment. The empty birthing suite bears no trace of medical equipment, blood, or fluid: The messiness of birth is excised from this perfectly appointed home away from home. The birth-center video, with its images of tumbled-river-rock birthing tubs, throw pillows, and tasteful wall art, conjures up a space of projected fantasy—the imaginary perfect birth (complete with spa-like amenities and queen-sized beds) as the gateway to a perfect life as a new mother. And the birth center is also a space of unspoken collective anxiety and potential trauma—a space of secured entrances and emergency equipment cunningly concealed behind framed teddy bears, where frightening obstetric technologies are uneasily combined with the “comforts of home.”
I place the women in my archive in imaginary, anachronistic conversations with each other: What might the progressive-era suffragette have to say to the 1970s consciousness-raising, Lamaze-evangelist feminist or the contemporary mom-to-be on her birth-center tour? Each of the women in my archive is about to have a transformative encounter: with labor, with childbirth, with pain, with her own body.
This four-second fragment is another moment I watch again and again. A woman holding her new baby looks with shy intensity at the camera before returning her gaze downward to the baby in her arms. It is a look that haunts, a gaze that pierces through history. An end credit appears superimposed over her face and the shot ends.
We have met this woman before: She is the body without a face from the 1931 film The Science and Art of Obstetrics. Now we are permitted this single, fleeting glimpse of the disembodied woman restored to wholeness. The end credit tells us that we have reached the limit of what we need to know about this woman: She holds her baby, looks at the camera, has nothing further to teach us about obstetrics. We leave her as she crosses the threshold.
Apple, Rima D. “‘Mamma’s scientific–she knows all the laws’: Motherhood in the Early Twentieth Century,” Perfect Motherhood: Science and Childrearing in America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006.
Boyd, Mary, and Marguerite Tracy. “More About Painless Childbirth.” McClure’s Magazine, 43 (1914): 56–69.
Dick-Read, Grantly. Childbirth Without Fear: The Principles and Practice of Natural Childbirth. London: Heinemann Medical Books, 1949.
Randall, Minnie. Training for Childbirth from the Mother’s Point of View. London: Churchill, 1949.
Routzahn, Mary Swain. “Campaigning with Motor Vehicles,” Traveling Publicity Campaigns: Educational Tours of Railroad Trains and Motor Vehicles. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1920.
Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Tracy, Marguerite, and Constance Leupp. “Painless Childbirth,” McClure’s Magazine, 43 (1914): 37–51.
1 It was not uncommon for graphic medical footage originally filmed to train doctors to be later spliced into other films and repurposed for exploitation screenings in grindhouse theaters. Or sometimes, as in the case of this print, a full-length medical-training film might simply have been retitled for mass reexhibition in this shock-value context. For a detailed history of the exploitation film, see Eric Schaefer’s 1999 exploitation-film history Bold! Daring! Shocking! True: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959.
2 DeLee cites high rates of stillbirth, birth defects, and maternal morbidity, as well as well as widespread postpartum physical issues, including uterine prolapse and vaginal tearing.
3 First published in 1970 as a hand-stapled newsprint booklet called Women and Their Bodies, the retitled 1971 edition, Our Bodies Ourselves, went on to become ubiquitous on home bookshelves worldwide and an emblem of the consciousness-raising-inspired women’s health movement of the ’70s. Authored by the feminist group that came to be called the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Our Bodies Ourselves was groundbreaking in its frank approach to discussing formerly taboo topics including female sexuality, masturbation, and abortion (illegal at the time it was first published).