This piece was cross-posted on Jewesses With Attitude, the blog of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Click here to read it there.
New Yorkers know better than to bother an actor, celebrity or otherwise famous person when they see one on the street (or in a restaurant, store, or park – not to mention stepping out of a taxi). As a New Yorker for fifteen years, I upheld this unwritten rule – even when it came to a famous neighbor. And now, realizing I missed my chance to get to know better a woman who changed an important aspect of life for thousands, if not millions, of people, I regret my reluctance to rebel against convention. I also now know that I allowed my own insecurity (unrelated in any way to Big Apple etiquette) to get in the way of my understanding history from someone who changed it.
For ten of my fifteen years in Manhattan, I lived literally next door to Elisabeth Bing, a pioneer in educating parents for pregnancy and childbirth and co-founder of the the American Society for Psychoprophylaxis in Obstetrics (now Lamaze International). Bing, an immigrant of German-Jewish descent who was educated in England upon fleeing from the Nazis, lived for decades in an apartment building on West 79th St., where she operated a center/studio on the ground floor of the building, at which generations of Manhattanite new parents prepared for the birth of their children under her tutelage.
It is only today, years after I gave birth to my sons who are now teenagers and after doing some research, that I have come to fully realize the mark my elderly neighbor has left on social and medical history. As a young, busy, working mother, I was satisfied to leave my relationship with Elisabeth (she asked that we call her that rather than Mrs. Bing) at the level of friendly banter in the hallway outside the elevator and to an occasional visit by my children to her apartment to play with her cat. I knew that this compact, energetic octogenarian who always wore her frizzy white hair tied back in a pony tail and moved at a clipped pace, taught childbirth lessons. What I failed to realize was how influential she was, and how tenacious she had been in pursuing her interests and developing her field.
As a young woman, Bing saw what she perceived as a wrong and set out to right it. While training as a physiotherapist in England prior to, during, and immediately following WWII, she worked with bedridden new mothers on gaining strength in their muscles. This exposure to the then practice of obstetrics whereby childbirth was treated as an unnatural condition, women were drugged and asleep during childbirth, and new mothers were strictly confined to bed for ten days following delivery compelled Bing to seek out and study alternative approaches.
Having known her as an older woman, I can imagine how in those early years she used her confident air and intelligent-sounding British-German accent to convince doctors at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital (coincidentally, where my sons were born) to take the risk of allowing her to work with their patients and set up Lamaze Method pregnancy and childbirth education programs.
Bing’s success in New York led her to gain notoriety throughout the country and even internationally. She lectured widely, wrote articles, contributed to several publications, and published her seminal book, Six Practical Lessons for an Easier Childbirth in 1967 (available for your Kindle over forty years later!). Countless Lamaze instructors trained under her, and innumerable new parents learned from her. “Life just sort of took me into it. It wasn’t that I had decided once I was in this country that this was what I was going to do. Things just happened, and I was there at the right moment, and I stayed with it,” she once said modestly in an interview.
I was one new parent who chose not to learn from her. Wary of natural childbirth and afraid of being made to feel uncomfortable because of it, I shied away from Elisabeth’s classes (despite the alluring convenience of their being held in a studio off my building’s lobby). Already having received dirty looks in the pediatrician’s waiting room for bottle-feeding my first son, I – by the time we moved into our apartment on 79th St. and I became pregnant with my second son – was sure that my lack of earthy-crunchy credentials would just result in tsk-tsking (if not outright scorn) from the other couples in the class and worse yet, from Bing herself.
It turns out that I had been wrong. Elisabeth came over to our apartment to check on me after I arrived home from the hospital. I sheepishly told her I had had an epidural and that my labor had been augmented with drugs. She saw me lying there in bed bottle-feeding my newborn. The mother of Lamaze handed me a blow-up rubber donut to sit on, congratulated me and was nothing but reassuring and gracious. Elisabeth was interested in helping new mothers, not judging them.
I may not have taken Bing’s childbirth class, but I suppose that in the end I did actually learn from her. I learned that I could have gotten to know this fascinating woman better, and that going forward, I would never again let any self-consciousness stand in the way of my getting to know interesting people I might have the fortune to meet.
I have put Elisabeth Bing “On The Map” on the Jewish Women’s Archive website. I invite you to see her there, and to add your own landmarks relating to Jewish women’s history to JWA’s map.
© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.