He, He, He, He, WHO, WHO (Ode to Lamaze)

Early that Wednesday morning, I was standing in a doorway, one hand fiercely gripping its metal frame, the other arm cradling my 9-months-pregnant belly. I focused through a very painful contraction, breathing deeply and rhythmically.

He, he, he, he, WHO, WHO.

As the waves of pain receded, I looked up…only to be greeted by an entire roomful of people staring, wide-eyed and panicked, at me. The communal thought, clearly, was, “Oh, SHIT; she’s having that baby HERE. Right NOW.”

While I didn’t have that baby there in the emergency room waiting area, I barely made it into the birthing room. Within 30 minutes of arrival, I held my middle child and second daughter in my arms. There was little time for prep and no time for drugs.

What there was time for, however, was a whole lot of Lamaze.

Elisabeth Bing Changed My Life (and I’d Never Even Heard of Her)

The New York Times has a wonderful obituary for Elisabeth Bing, who died, at the age of 100, on May 15, 2015. That right there is purely awesome — living to be 100 and having a front-page write-up in the Times — but Bing, author of Six Practical Lessons for an Easier Childbirth, is known for an even bigger accomplishment. She is “the mother of Lamaze.”

Yes, I hear you muttering, and you are right; Lamaze is eponymous, named for its founder, Dr. Fernand Lamaze, a French obstetrician who developed the technique in his practice during the 1950s and ’60s. But two women–Bing and Marjorie Karmel, author of the bestseller Thank You, Dr. Lamaze — introduced the technique of “prepared childbirth,” the term she preferred to “natural childbirth,” to America by jointly founding an educational society.

Originally called the American Society for Psychoprophylaxis in Obstetrics, that group is now known as Lamaze International and has two branches, one for parents and another for professionals. Let’s face it: as hard as it is to get spouses to go  with Mom-to-Be to Lamaze class, just what luck would she have with, “Honey, let’s go practice some psychoprophylaxis with strangers”?

Yes, I went to Lamaze classes during my first pregnancy, dragging my hubby along. We practiced positions and breathing exercises with the group, and everyone compared due dates. We even brought our baby girl to the last class, where I breathlessly touted the incredible relief of the epidural right before my emergency C-section to the rapt audience (and the instructor’s chagrin).

Bing wouldn’t have pursed her lips and judged. According to The Times, Bing wrote, “You certainly must not feel any guilt or sense of failure if you require some medication, or if you experience discomfort or pain.” A dipping fetal heart rate combined with my baby’s inablility to descend led to my emergency surgery, but it was Lamaze, not medication, that had gotten me through some 12 hours of agonizing labor.

Bing, it seems, had held my hand the entire time.

Becoming an Educated Consumer

With my next pregnancy, I wanted to minimize the medical aspect of childbirth. Awakened early that June Wednesday, I’d walked the dark house for hours, breathing with contractions and watching the clock. I woke my husband to notify family, who would babysit our oldest, and then we drove to the hospital. Realizing how quickly things were progressing, he’d dropped me off at the hospital’s emergency room while he went to park the car. And barely made it back in time.

The entire experience of that prepared birth, without any drugs and minimal medical intervention, was magical. I recovered quickly, which was important with a  2-year-old daughter and working spouse (there was very little recognition of any need for paternal leave in ye olden 1980s).

I got to experience yet another variation on childbirth with my final pregnancy. Our son was taking his time in utero — my due date came and went. With two kids under the age of 5, childcare to wrangle, and my OB/Gyn heading out of town for holidays, we opted to schedule his birth.

Even though my son’s arrival was a whole new ballgame, Bing’s guidance empowered me to take charge of the birthing process. I insisted on walking, trailing my drip line, knowing that movement helped make labor more bearable. Out of bed, I squatted for as long as the nurse would let me. I opted for as little pain medication as possible, remembering how different my recovery had felt without drugs in my post-partem system.

Induction was by far the most taxing birth process, as the pitocin drip slammed my body into heavy contractions with little of the gentle warm-up I’d experienced previously. Hysterically, the one shot of pain reliever I received didn’t really kick into effect until afterward, simply making me wildly entertaining for later visitors.

Baby album open to pages showing family visit to the hospital and new baby.
Everybody got a chance to visit the new baby. The photo at bottom, far right, is one of my all-time favorites.

Throughout all three of my children’s births, whatever the circumstances — lengthy labor and C-section, quick natural childbirth, scheduled induction — I breathed.

He, he, he, he, WHO, WHO.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve used my Lamaze breathing throughout the rest of my life, during hundreds of athletic events (marathons, ultra marathons, an Ironman) and after breaking my ankle on a sub-freezing day in Huntsville State Park. (And I’ve never been so happy to receive pain medication than I was that cold day, lying  in the warm ER in wet, dirty running clothes, drunk-dialing my friends to regale them with the story of my failed 100 miler.)

After all, if focused breathing can make passing a bowling ball through the vagina seem manageable, it’s gotta be good for life’s other painful moments.

Thank you, Elisabeth Bing, for teaching me how to breathe.

Additional Reading about Lamaze:

“Elizabeth Bing Dies at 100; ‘Mother of Lamaze’ Changed How Babies Enter the World,” by Karen Barrow, The New York Times

“Lamaze Breathing: What Every Pregnant Woman Needs to Know,” by Judith A. Lothian, PhD, RN, LCCE, FACCE

Lothian, with co-author Charlotte De Vries, has also written the definitive book, The Official Lamaze Guide: Giving Birth with Confidence (now in its second edition)

Cover of Elisabeth Bing's book, Six Practical Lessons for Easier Childbirth

Cover of book, Thank You Dr. Lamaze by Marjorie Karmel

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