Marie Mongan, Who Developed Hypnotherapy for Childbirth, Dies at 86
When Marie Mongan was pregnant with her third child in the 1950s, she made an unusual demand. She told her doctor that when it was time for her to give birth, she didn’t want anesthesia — and if he didn’t agree to her terms, she would find someone who did.
She had declined anesthesia during her first two pregnancies, too, but in each case the nurses had not listened. They held down her wrists with leather straps and forced an ether cone onto her face.
After her second child was born “the same sad way,” Ms. Mongan said, she vowed, “Never again!”
Ms. Mongan had spent years preparing for an unmedicated birth. During her first pregnancy, she devoured the works of Grantly Dick-Read, a British obstetrician who popularized the phrase “natural childbirth” and espoused relaxation to lessen pain. After studying his book “Childbirth Without Fear,” she learned how to bring herself to a state of deep relaxation.
She finally experienced an unmedicated labor and delivery in 1959, when she had her third child, Maura; it was, she said, “the most beautiful birth that I could have imagined.” She delivered her fourth child the same way, and it was just as “spectacular,” she said.
Ms. Mongan, having been a longtime educator in New Hampshire, went on to become a certified hypnotherapist. But it wasn’t until 1989, when Maura became pregnant, that Ms. Mongan started holding classes in hypnobirthing, a series of techniques using hypnosis, positive affirmations, visualizations and meditation to ease the pain of childbirth naturally.
“I think this was her gateway,” her daughter, now married as Maura Geddes, said in a phone interview.
The Mongan method, first taught to Ms. Geddes and a few other couples, began spreading by word of mouth in the early 1990s. Although hypnosis had been used in obstetrics for more than a century, it had not been widely studied as a tool for childbirth. Ms. Mongan soon began receiving requests to train not only parents but also nurses, doulas and hypnotherapists. A subsequent book, national press and, eventually, Ms. Mongan’s own institute helped hypnobirthing gain popularity around the world, and her methods were used and endorsed by celebrities like Kate Middleton and Jessica Alba.
Ms. Mongan was 86 when she died on June 17, 2019, at her daughter’s home in Bow, N.H. Her death was not widely reported at the time, but it gained wider attention when it was reported by The Washington Post last month. Ms. Geddes said the cause was complications of Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease.
Growing up, Ms. Mongan often heard about her own birth from her mother, who would describe the labor and delivery as so traumatic that she believed that it had caused permanent damage to her body.
“I felt tremendous guilt during my growing up years,” Ms. Mongan wrote in the fourth edition of her book, “HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method,” originally published in 1992.
When Ms. Geddes became pregnant, Ms. Mongan — who had by then become certified in hypnotherapy — guided her daughter through a tranquil birth experience, complete with what she called “rainbow relaxation” music.
“The nurses were coming in and saying, ‘I can’t believe how calm she is,’” Ms. Geddes recalled. She had a boy, Kyle.
Mothers who are guided by hypnobirthing are “breathing their babies down to crowning in deep relaxation,” Ms. Mongan wrote, in contrast to the pant-pant-blow breathing rhythms characteristic of early iterations of the Lamaze method, which became popular in the 1960s.
Hypnosis does not put women in a trance or make them fall asleep, Ms. Mongan told The Washington Times in 2000. “It is similar to the daydreaming or focusing that occurs when you are engrossed in a book or staring at the fire — you lose track of what is going on around you,” she said. “You can be fully relaxed yet fully in control.”
She added, “In birthing, when the mind accepts the belief that without complication, birthing proceeds naturally, no pain exists and no pain is experienced.”
In 1999, about a decade after Kyle’s birth, the NBC News program “Dateline” ran a segment about an OB-GYN in Florida who used hypnosis on his patients, introducing it to viewers as a “remarkable technique” that some say “can make labor easy — even fun!” Ms. Mongan was not mentioned in the broadcast, but she was in an accompanying online article that carried a link to her website.
Afterward, she said, she received almost 5,000 calls and emails. The Boston Globe reported that her book, “flew out of stock” in nine weeks.
Marie Madeline Flanagan, who went by Mickey, was born in San Diego on Feb. 1, 1933, to Marie and Patrick Flanagan. Her mother was a seamstress, and her father was a Navy chief petty officer who became a foreman at a fabric mill after the family moved to Franklin, N.H.
Mickey married her high school sweetheart, Gerald Bilodeau, in 1954 and graduated from what is now Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. She then taught English at the high school she had attended.
The couple divorced in 1966. In 1970 she married Eugene Mongan, who died in 2013. In addition to Ms. Geddes, Ms. Mongan is survived by her three other children, Wayne Flanagan, Brian Kelly and Shawn Mongan; three stepchildren, Michelle Shoemaker, Steve Mongan and Nancy Kelley; 17 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Before her name became associated with hypnobirthing, Ms. Mongan had been dean of Pierce College for Women in Concord, N.H., appointed in 1965. It closed in 1972. Six years she later received a master’s degree in education from Plymouth State. In Concord she opened the Thomas Secretarial School, which is no longer in existence.
Her hypnobirthing classes led her to create the HypnoBirthing Institute, now HypnoBirthing International, based in Pembroke, N.H., of which Ms. Geddes is the chief executive. The organization has trained and certified doctors, doulas, midwives and laypeople to become hypnobirth educators in 46 countries, said Vivian Keeler, a chiropractor and doula who is the president of HypnoBirthing International.
Despite the popularity of hypnobirthing, in 2016 the Cochrane Collaboration, a well-regarded network of independent researchers, reviewed nine clinical trials involving nearly 3,000 women and found that there was not enough evidence to determine with certainty whether hypnosis helps women feel less pain during labor, or whether it helps them better cope with labor.
But a clinical trial published in 2015 in BJOG, an international peer-reviewed journal of obstetrics and gynecology, showed that hypnobirthing can help women feel less afraid and anxious during labor than they might have been.
The participants “had started off as being skeptical, but they ended up being really positive about the technique, as did their partners,” Dr. Soo Downe one of the study’s authors and a professor in midwifery studies at the University of Central Lancashire in England, told The New York Times in 2019.
Ms. Mongan’s grandson Kyle Geddes, now 31, recalled having been hypnotized by his grandmother when he was younger and needed help falling asleep. He and his wife are now expecting their first child and have been attending hypnobirthing classes.
Hypnosis training even helped Ms. Mongan when she fell ill several times in her last years and at one point needed open-heart surgery, Mr. Geddes said.
In her last months, even after losing eyesight, she continued to work on a new book about hypnobirthing, dictating her thoughts to her secretary.
“She was really good at putting her mind to something and seeing it through,” said Ms. Keeler, the president of HypnoBirthing International. “One thing I said to her was, ‘You lost your eyesight, but you never lost your vision.’”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
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