Just thought I would share a photo of the backstairs leading to my kitchen. They are painted to look like the covers of my two books -- Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born; and Jackie After O -- and the middle three that my husband Anthony Flint wrote. If you look closely, you'll see that there's room for one more. Taking bets as to which one of us will claim it. Regardless, we're grateful to Boston artist Jane O'Hara for doing an amazing trompe l'oeil stack that makes our home even more special to us.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Earlier this month, the closing of Isis shocked families across all of its locations in Greater Boston, Dallas and Atlanta who had come to depend on it as a place that supported their transition into parenthood, from childbirth education, to lactation support and mommy-and-me circle time. But despite a steady class business, the company needed its retail sales to stay afloat, and online encroachment from the likes of Diapers.com and Amazon spelled its doom.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, a chain called Day One Center that also provided birth and breastfeeding classes recently closed, too. It seems as though few companies have figured out the right business model for birth-related support services in the digital age.
Even single-store independents are not immune to the struggle, from Crunchy Granola Baby in Salem, which closed in 2011, to Mothers and Co. in West Boylston, which shuttered in 2012 and whose owner, Jeanette Mesite Frem, now teaches in a cozy space above a pediatrician’s office.
While every business has its own nuances, do these failures say something about what they are selling or our willingness to buy it or perhaps both? What about the cultural shifts: more moms working who are too busy to devote their time to classes, or the seismic technology changes involving everything from online communities and YouTube pregnancy videos to apps for timing contractions?
Historically, women never needed childbirth or lactation classes because they would have been surrounded by other experienced women throughout pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period, providing support through each stage. In modern times, when birth moved from the home to the hospital, women were cut off from that network’s information, leaving a void.
The first childbirth education class in the U.S. happened in New York City, after American Marjorie Karmel gave birth in Paris attended by Dr. Fernand Lamaze, who was famous for his principles of painless, natural childbirth during a time when women were routinely heavily drugged during labor in hospitals. Karmel came home to the U.S. and teamed up with Elisabeth Bing in 1960 to offer childbirth classes in an apartment on the Upper West Side. A decade later, about 10 percent of hospitals sponsored prenatal classes. By 1975, most did – as they do today.
“It was a consumer movement,” Bing told me in an interview years ago in the very space where she taught thousands of parents how to handle contractions. “The time was ripe. It was a time when the public doubted everything their parents had done.”
That is a very different mindset than today, where consumer priorities seem to be less about questioning authority and more about having a fancy stroller. In fact, only about one-third of all moms (59 percent of first-timers) take birthing classes today, according to the Childbirth Connection’s Listening to Mothers III report.
To have a big impact, about 75 percent of first time mothers should have access to maternity classes, experts say. But even at a place like Isis, where the classes were fed by a hospital referral pipeline, they could not charge enough to keep the doors open. The lesson is that that either parents don’t want to pay all that much for education, or they expect their health insurance to cover it, like every other aspect of birth; and most insurance will only pay a fraction of it.
“Right now, the way it’s covered through insurance, it’s not highly valued either,” says Lamaze International executive director Linda Harmon. “It doesn’t provide full fee for service.”
In addition to concerns about cost, expectant parents are pressed for time. With many women giving birth later in life when they may be more firmly established in their careers, making time for classes spread out over several weeks may be too much.
And then there’s the internet. Blogs, websites, YouTube, twitter, Facebook groups. It seems everyone is an expert or has experience to share, which is great but can it really replace the personal touch that teaches women about things they may not even know they should be Googling for?
Frem says no: “It’s hard to learn online for something so physical and emotional.” While she has started a podcast and is considering video, she says her clients would rather meet wither in person.
At the national policy level, there are pressures to improve maternal and neonatal outcomes as well as lower costs by reducing cesarean section rates and pre-term birth. Broader access to education would help achieve all of those goals – but access to and interest in class-based education appears to be waning.
Which begs the question: In the age of ‘massive open online courses’ -- or MOOCs -- do we even need classes anymore?
Lamaze International, the nonprofit leader in childbirth education that Elisabeth Bing co-founded, has been watching the cultural shift and is now focused on “meeting women where they are,” Harmon said. That includes their Push for Your Baby campaign; mobilizing social media to help mothers connect, which is the channel through which many are asking for help; a blog that contains evidence-based information; a 40-week education email; and even webinars.
“We’re pushing out information to reach them whether they come to class or not,” Harmon said, adding that they are also committed to teach sound business practices to independent teachers who leading classes in converted barns, church basements and hospital meeting space.
Robin Elise Weiss, an author and heavily credentialed childbirth educator, lactation consultant, doula and mother of 8, agrees that embracing change is essential but says that there are benefits from face-to-face sessions.
“It’s hard to teach relaxation through Facebook or twitter,” she says, though she is an avid user of both and creates a Facebook group for each class so they can teach each other.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
1. Because I have two legs.
2. Because I am alive.
3. Because I don’t take #1 or #2 or so many other lesser things for granted.
4. Because it’s for the GREATEST possible cause.
5. Because Boston is my home.
6. Because I’ve been a spectator for long enough.
7. Because if not now, when?
8. Because I’d like to experience a marathon as more than just a metaphor.
9 9. Because I don’t want my sons’ most poignant marathon memory to involve a lock-down.
10. Because I need the exercise.
Please consider donating any amount here and join me in being an ambassador for peace.
Sunday, June 23, 2013
"Birth, Breath & Death:Meditations on Motherhood, Chaplaincy and Life as a Doula," a book by Amy Wright Glenn
It's a slim memoir, about 100 pages long, but Amy Wright Glenn's memoir "Birth, Breath & Death," has stayed with me log after I finished it. The book is about how, as a young woman, she eschewed Mormonism to find her own spiritual path. She sought to understand all religions, and their commonality. She also put herself in challenging situations to learn about the two most important and spiritual aspects life -- the birth and death parts -- which many of us find too personal and difficult to face with others (or even ourselves.)
Becoming a doula, even when she was unsure she wanted to be a mother herself, takes a wide-open mind and heart. Still, I can see why one might become a doula. To help a woman in labor is to be present at a miracle. But to help individuals and their family and friends meet the end is to surround yourself with sadness. That takes a kind of mettle that I cannot fathom, but am certainly grateful exists. Amy's willingness to confront death in many forms, with fortitude and grace, is mind-bending. The one exception to her willingness is when someone asks her to perform an exorcism. This scene becomes a form of comic relief in the book, though I don't think she wrote it to be funny.
"We dance between form and formlessness," she writes. These words made me pause. Yes, so much exists before we are born and after we die. If we're not dancing in between we are wasting time.
Saturday, December 01, 2012
Episode Four of Call the Midwife (see reviews of the other episodes below) was among the saddest yet, with a mother dying of eclampsia, not knowing her headaches were a classic sign of the affliction. Eclampsia remains one of the most confounding mysteries in childbirth. No one really knows why it occurs or how to prevent it. But the only way to end it is through delivering the baby before the mother’s life is threatened. Unfortunately in this case, the baby was delivered and the mom still died. The midwife who first met the mother – but never had a chance to care for her – sat by her bedside as the woman lay dying, a reminder that historically, midwives ushered in new life and ushered it out as well. They typically cared for the ill and dying – not just pregnant women. There are “midwives of death” – hospice workers and others who help people pass peacefully at home. I think we need more midwives at both ends of the spectrum of life.
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Episode Three of PBS’ 'Call the Midwife' was another great show, with two interesting points relevant to the history of childbirth. (You can read my takes on Episode One and Episode Two, as well.)
First, an exuberant expectant husband who is craving information about his wife’s pregnancy comes home with a book written by Grantly Dick-Read (below), a British doctor who, like the midwives in the show, rode around London’s poor neighborhoods on his bike in the fog to help deliver babies. This was after World War I. Having grown up in the country surrounded by farm animals, he watched many mammals give birth and approached a woman doing the same without the fear that many other first-time mothers – and even obstetricians – brought/bring to the process. He considered birth normal, not an accident waiting to happen.
His first book, Natural Childbirth, was published in 1933. His second book, commonly called Childbirth Without Fear, came out in 1942 – right at the time of America’s great migration of birth moving from the home to the hospital. Many women, however, were shocked by how they were treated in the maternity ward, and they embraced Dick-Read’s second book like a bible for how to have a natural birth.
He arguably set the stage for the natural childbirth movement in American in the 1960s and ‘70s, though doctors Bradley and Lamaze are more often associated with that time.
The second point of interest for me in the show was the midwife’s use of a Pinard horn (below), a low-tech but effective instrument for listening to the baby’s heartbeat.
Even today, midwives like to use these – or the fetoscope (below) – because they don’t pester the baby with bothersome noise like that which ultrasounds make in-utero.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Episode Two of PBS’ Call the Midwife gave us two births that most contemporary pregnant women don’t have to deal with. (You can read my post on Episode One here.)
The show included a woman with rickets, which is a vitamin D deficiency that was common among poor women who did not have a proper diet. The affliction can cause bones to bend – often noticeable in bowed legs, as in below – but can cause the pelvis to be misshapen as well. Sometimes the deformity could be so bad that there was no way for a baby to be born vaginally.
The mom in Episode Two had had a fatal outcome with a previous pregnancy but was able to have as c-section this time around thanks to the National Health Service covering the costs. If there is ever a time for a c-section, that would be it.
The other interesting birth was a breech, shown coming out “ass first,” as nurse Chummy (below) deadpans during the delivery.
The scene shows how breeches can be born safely if patience, wisdom, experience and the right birth positions are applied. Today, sadly, very few women with breech babies are allowed to give birth vaginally by their doctors – mostly due to a lack of experience in knowing how to gently guide the baby out. It’s an artful midwifery practice we are losing – and shouldn't. I’ll leave it to the sage midwife Ina May Gaskin to explain why.