Not long ago, a Boston anesthesiologist witnessed a childbirth milestone. In the operating room, a mother, awake while undergoing a C-section, lay on a hospital bed. A sheet was draped in front of her, protecting the sterile field while shielding her eyes from the cutting below, none of which she could presumably feel, except for vague sensations. In the woman’s left hand, she held a cell phone—which she was using to text her mother just as the baby was lifted from the womb. The anesthesiologist documented the woman’s real-time documentation with a photograph, which he then submitted to The International Journal of Obstetric Anesthesia.
We’re familiar with the trends that led to this new frontier: up-to-the-minute tweets tracking cervical dilation; Dad holding his phone by the foot of the bed so faraway Grandma can feel like she’s right there; Facebook pages updated from the recovery room with video of the new arrival. And we’ve seen what happens when those impulses are checked: In November, a Maryland medical center joined other hospitals in banning photography—potentially a dangerous distraction, not to mention evidence in the event of a lawsuit—until several minutes after the baby is born, only to spark a backlash from indignant parents. (“They are not your memories to steal,” wrote the 889th signer to the ongoing petition drive.) For today’s families, instant documentation and communication about labor and birth has become culturally embedded, to the point where it feels like both a rite and a right.
While that can seem a little wrong, another example of compulsive oversharing in the social-media age, the truth is that in this case, technology is just facilitating the natural order of things. Until about a century ago, births mostly happened at home, with expectant mothers surrounded by their sisters-in-god, or “godsibbs”—the relatives and neighbors who talked their way through birth and gave us the word gossip. These women intuitively knew that their mere presence helped the mother. In fact, studies have shown that mammals get a boost of the “love” hormone oxytocin when they feel protected by those they know, and oxytocin works to speed labor. The opposite happens when they are surrounded by strangers in white coats, which could be why many of those giving birth in a hospital wind up having their labors stall and needing doses of Pitocin, an artificial version of the same hormone, to restart their contractions.
If anything, the compulsion to stay connected during labor seems to be heightening as contemporary childbirth becomes increasingly impersonal. You’re handed a nightgown, assigned a wristband number and a bed (often in a room shared with a stranger). Family can visit, but only during designated hours. Parents are merely pushing against that, making birth, once again, part of the social network.
Cassidy is author of Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born
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