The Birth of Motherhood

It takes a lot of propaganda to make mothering seem natural; Maya Gonzalez interviews filmmaker and birthing archivist Irene Lusztig

MAYA GONZALEZ: What is your project exactly—The Motherhood Archives?

IRENE LUSZTIG: The Motherhood Archives is a history of childbirth. I would call it an ideological or institutional history of childbirth that repurposes a giant archive of maternal education, maternal-training films, industrial films, and medical-training films. These films are spaces of training and education for forming women as they become mothers, and I try to look historically at these films. Who’s telling women how to give birth and how to be mothers and why? For me, it’s been a way to think about childbirth and maternity using this deep history, to see it in a much bigger context and trace the history of the language and the ideas that we use to talk about these things.

The film project is almost all found ­footage. It comes out of an archive of about a hundred and something training films that I’ve found in different places. Some are from eBay; some are from real archives. And out of that material I built a film that episodically looks at certain moments in time where childbirth is discussed in a new way, or the pain of childbirth is discussed in a new way.

What was the reason you started this project? What’s your background and how did it lead you to work on this archive? 

I got pregnant. I’m a filmmaker; I’ve worked a lot with propaganda and archives—my background is in communist, post­communist stuff, and my previous work is a trilogy of films in China, Romania, and Russia that thinks through that set of historical questions and engagements, a lot of it through propaganda material. I’m very attuned to propaganda. So when I was pregnant it became immediately, abundantly obvious to me that almost everything I was reading or seeing or being exposed to was telling me how to give birth or how to be pregnant or how to mother or look after my child. It was clear to me immediately that all of this is an intense space of propaganda.

I have a very archival and historical turn of mind. I wanted to know, What’s the history of these conversations? Where is this coming from? Why is it such an intense space of ideology? So I started buying films on eBay. There’s a lot of weird stuff kicking around on eBay. A lot of libraries now sell off their 16mm educational collections. After a year or so of doing that, I started going into the archives, and it started feeling like it could be a real project rather than a strange hobby. But it came out of an attempt to think through that experience of being pregnant and encountering spaces of maternal training.

Did it change the way you perceived your own experience over those nine months? You were looking at things that are supposed to educate you, often in an autodidactic way, but ...

I guess I was sort of self-educating in a weird way. I just found it helpful and reassuring to think through the intense ideological space of “the right way to give birth,” “the right way to mother,” “the right way to do this or that with your child.” There’s a constant idea that you’re failing, you’re doing it wrong—so for me I just found it hugely reassuring to ­understand that these things are completely culturally bound, historically bound. There is no wrong way to give birth.

It both is and isn’t a personal film in the end. The question of voice came up a lot in conversations. As I was showing the film as a work in progress, at different points it was more explicitly personal, in the first person, and people would disengage from the film by saying, “You must have had a really hard time with your pregnancy or your birth” or “You must be trying to work through some problem that you’re having.” I was really troubled by the “you, you, you” of that conversation, because this isn’t about me.

They don’t even know you have a child.

Right. Sure, I have a child, I’m part of this conversation, perhaps. But this isn’t a piece of work about me. So I spent a lot of time struggling and puzzling through what kind of voice the film has, and I ended up with a sort of weird, transhistorical voice that the voice-over uses in the film.

Can you tell me about that? There are times when you use the word “you,” and then there are times that you use “we.” I felt like the “we” pertained to a “we who are being educated.” At the same time, the “we” was speaking to a community of women potentially “out there somewhere.” Yet “you” would be used to address an individual consumer—someone who might purchase a series of related commodities. The contrast is striking: It’s like the individual “you” is separating “us” from being a “we.” And still “we” is always ­problematic.

Yeah, yes. The “you” and the “we”—those films, the didactic films are constantly in the “you”: “You” will experience this, “you” will experience that. “You” will do this, “you” will be in the hospital, “you” will meet “your” doctor, “your” body can do this. So there are a couple of points in the film where it redeploys the “you” voice, but most of the time it’s this “we.” I did think of the “we” as like the woman who is being educated. It’s the voice that responds to the “you” voice.

The question of who’s included haunts every conversation about feminism. It was very deliberate to not use “I.” It’s not a film about me. I’m certain it’s about me on some level, or made for personal reasons, but the voice of the film is not “my” voice.

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.

What was the position for advocating twilight sleep? Was it for equality, mainly?

That the pain of labor is an abject experience of very intense pain. The language that’s used in these books and articles that feminists wrote advocating twilight sleep is basically human-rights discourse: Society has the obligation to give us women this thing that will take away this devastating pain that we experience. It’s a human-rights discourse of equality for women in the form of pain relief. Which is incredibly interesting set next to ­today’s feminist conversation which is all about natural unmedicated childbirth being the correct, feminist way of giving birth. For me that was a discovery.

It seems like feminists had to deal with this antinomy between “we” as equals to men in order to obtain equal rights, and at the same time “we” must also advocate for difference.  Childbirth is something that would clearly be a “difference” in this regard and yet is a socially constructed difference in relation to rights. I guess what I’m trying to say is that your film is really good at demonstrating that the seemingly natural is historical. 

And even that word is so problematic—that there is a natural and therefore also an unnatural way of giving birth. That medication is unnatural, that pain is natural. It creates a whole structure of thinking.

But also, that pain is unnatural—that if one were to accept a natural childbirth, one would not experience pain. 

It’s very complicated.

But there’s a number of different ways of opting out of pain or trauma, neutralizing it or through hypnosis, not experiencing it. In a social-historical way, this sort of loss can be re-­experienced as repression that comes back. There seems to be somewhat of a theme within the archive of an attempt to repress that.

I think the opposite of that is the discourse of natural childbirth. That it’s empowering and self-actualizing for a woman to be fully present in that experience of pain, that that’s a really desirable state. To me that’s really problematic.

Well, it’s punishing.

We’re talking about incredibly intense pain! So I guess for me, one of the animating questions going into this project was, Is natural childbirth really that great? Is it empowering? Is it self-­actualizing? I don’t think women were always speaking that way about pain.

The film makes clear that it is not at all natural, the experience of pain. 

What pain is is also very mysterious. The film starts where the history starts, and it could’ve gone back much further in history. But I chose to start the film in the late 19th century when anesthesia was discovered. Anesthesia comes into fashion, and that’s the first moment where there’s a conversation about pain because suddenly pain can be taken away. Pain is no longer inevitable but something you can choose to experience or choose not to experience.

That brings up all these ­really big questions about pain: Where does it come from? What does it mean? Is it wrong to take it away? There’s an argument in 19th century medical discourse against anesthesia that says if you amputate a limb without anesthesia and a patient screams, that’s really valuable information for a surgeon. Intense pain is important information for a doctor, and getting rid of it is a huge problem for medical practice.

We’ve all moved very far away from that moment, but it’s the first moment where there can be this conversation. If you can take pain away, what is the point of it?

The film doesn’t go into this that much, but this early conversation about pain is a very Christian conversation. There’s centuries and centuries of thinking and writing about labor pain, which is that it originates with God’s punishment of Eve. Grantly Dick-Read is the British obstetrician who coined the term natural childbirth and wrote the first books about it. His writing is a very explicitly Christian appeal to the experience of being inside the pain as a form of spirituality. It’s a Christian thing to do. That history has also been erased. It’s kind of ironic that the space feminists occupy now is a redeployment of this incredibly Christian and misogynist argument about women’s bodies.

The film also tells a narrative about the commodification and marketization of childbirth, culminating in these birthing centers. You say that in these centers “the messiness of birth is excised from this perfectly appointed home away from home. The image of the cache of medical supplies behind the domestic facade is the image of an era in conflict; an unresolved historical moment suspended between two ideas.” What is that unresolved historical moment?

The birth center is this phenomenon that’s on the rise where hospitals are building this kind of—it looks like a Super 8 Motel or something. I first saw a birth center when I was on a hospital tour. I was pregnant and it immediately struck me as this incredibly weird unresolved, compromised space that’s trying to be home, but it’s not home. It’s homey, and homey is signified by chintz bedspread and floral art. So it’s not a home birth, it’s a home-like birth. They have all this furniture where they’ve hidden equipment behind mirrors and picture frames.

The effort to erase the trace of the medical, erase the idea of pain ... it’s this kind of neutral hotel-like space, but the whole thing is that it’s in a hospital, or it’s next to the hospital, so you can go to the hospital if you have an emergency. It’s a very ­uneasy space of negotiating these two different ideologies or discourses around childbirth. It does feel like a space that’s very ­uncomfortable, where all the emergency equipment is there, but it’s behind a picture of Monet’s water lilies.

There was something so right about that image as saying something in particular about the way in which the home is brought within this unnatural sterilized space and then ­renaturalized. 

It’s such an unnatural home, right? Nobody’s home actually looks like that.

You continue in that passage, “The archive tells us that childbirth is both natural and pathological: two opposite things inside of one that intertwine through history.”

People have asked me about the word pathological. People think of that as a very bad word, but it comes directly out of earlier writings about childbirth. There’s a huge body of writing from the mid-20th century that precisely describes childbirth as pathological or a pathological process, a destructive process. It comes out of doctors struggling with incredibly high maternal mortality rates and high infant-mortality rates, incredibly high rates of vaginal tearing and bad maternal side-effects from birth, prolapse and all these things that still happen, actually.

Joseph DeLee, who was a big obstetrician in Chicago in the 1920s and ’30s—he uses the word. His basic position is that childbirth is pathological, it’s a medical situation, it’s one that requires intervention, it’s one that requires doctors. That position is really rejected now, especially in this pro-natural childbirth space, but it’s complicated. There are still women who die in childbirth, there are still things that happen that require medical intervention; the birth center is straddling the precise intersection of that really uneasy in-between space of not wanting to be aware of the medical, but it’s still there hidden. It’s true that there are also a lot of unnecessary C-sections. I don’t know what the statistics are, but there’s probably equal numbers of medical C-s­ections that save babies and save mothers, so I think disavowing this completely in a conversation about childbirth is problematic.

It was interesting to me also as a luxury experience. 

Well, class is the other thing that we haven’t talked about, but all of this is incredibly class-bound.

I think it’s class-bound, and it’s to give this middle-class experience. You bring out the normative fantasy: It’s not exactly just for the middle class, and at the same time it’s—

It’s an aspirational experience.

Yeah, or like a honeymoon experience. 

You give birth, and you have the celebration meal afterward!