Old Midwives' Tales

Childbirth, as any granny will tell you, was once a journey into the unknown. Rather than ponder which pushchair to buy or fret over toweling or disposable nappies, previous generations of women worried about what lay ahead. Sex education at school was unknown and some of those pregnant for the first time had no idea how the baby emerged from their swollen tummy. Medical staff rarely gave explanations and would push and prod with little offer of pain relief let alone sympathy.

Today, we hear of stories of over-worked midwives and short-staffed hospitals, but the truth is that childbirth has never been easier.

In Ancient Greece, doctors often refused to take patients because the risk of death was high and too many fatalities could ruin a reputation...

In mediaeval times, the Christian church had a Biblical explanation for the perils of childbirth. They put the blame firmly on Eve and her misdemeanors in the Garden of Eden. The church decreed that women were "Sisters of Eve", and the rigors of labor were God's punishment for her sins.

Any effort to relieve women's pain in childbirth was looked at suspiciously... In Sunday sermons, churchmen advised them to prepare their shroud, in case of death, and special prayers were said so that pregnant women would be delivered through the path ahead....

Royal women were given the church's highest prayers as they carried heirs to the throne. But this barely compensated for the fact that these regal women gave birth in rooms thronged with courtiers and churchmen who all felt duty-bound to witness that the newborn babe and heir came truly from the royal womb....

After centuries of avoiding childbirth, scientific strides in the 17th century gave doctors the confidence to finally enter the childbirth chamber. To help in difficult births, surgeons developed pincers or forceps that could be used to grasp the infant and pull it out form the mother's birth canal. However, some of the instruments were crude and grasped more than the baby. As a result it was not unusual for the women to be left with torn bladders or ripped wombs.

Surgeons, and their interventions did help many women with difficult births but letting men into the bedchamber was not a popular trend among husbands...As a result, doctors were forced to adopt a strict code of behavior to protect the modesty of their patients... Even the delivery was done under the bedcovers and the doctor was forced to feel his way blindly... Inexperienced doctors were never sure which part of the women's anatomy they had caught in their instruments. Even the cutting of the umbilical cord was done under the bedcovers and some doctors reported male infants losing their penis.

In the 18th century, the rich began using opium but addiction and death were both problems. Chloroform was the first great stride forward. A small amount was dropped onto a handkerchief and the laboring woman held it against her mouth and nose. But some doctors weren't keen and refused to offer it saying it loosened women's morals. Dr George Gream, a royal physician in the 1860s, claimed that women were inclined to use obscene language under chloroform.

Poor women couldn't afford the medicines or the doctors... Instead, they had to make do with alcohol or gripping a knotted sheet that hung from the bedpost....

In the early part of the 20th century, it is estimated that 17 per cent of mothers died in childbirth. Concern over the number of deaths was so high that the government set out regulations on the training of midwives. Many young women took the opportunity to train and the profession gained credibility.

...The women's movement in the 1960s and the '70s gave many pregnant women the confidence to demand a voice in childbirth. As women took on careers, they were no longer willing to lie unquestioning as mostly male obstetricians made decisions about the momentous event. Armed with information they said no to enemas, shaving, medication and instrumental deliveries.

The natural childbirth movement was helped along by the growth of female obstetricians who brought a more empathetic attitude to their practice...More importantly, the fear and superstition that once made childbirth a tortuous experience has been replaced by joyful anticipation.

The women whose stories are documented in this book went through pregnancy when it was known as confinement. Rather than show pride in their pregnancy, many had to hide all evidence of a bump. Few even discussed their experiences. And no one complained.

"We just had to get on with it. There was no choice," said a woman who raised three children when most working class homes still had outdoor toilets.

Dorothy (1940): I had a pretty good first pregnancy. I was just over 5 foot 1 inch and so carried the baby forward and quite high. I was uncomfortable but being a farmer's wife, I had plenty to do and kept going well until the first niggling pains came along. My husband drove me the 20 miles to the Radcliffe Maternity Hospital in Oxford. ...after a lot of pushing and struggling on my part, they put me to sleep... when I came to in the early hours of the morning, the night sister told me that I had a boy. I was thrilled to bits...He had a very pointed head because of the forceps that were used to pull him out, but it became more normal after a few weeks. ...I felt as though someone had twisted all my tender parts. It took at least three months before I could go to the lavatory in the comfort.

Marian (1958): Within months I was pregnant again. ...This was to be a home birth as routine cases did not go into hospital after the first birth. I bought a carrycot, a pram seat and a small electric fire for the bedroom. I collected the bed sheets, the draw sheets etc for the home delivery and life went on as normal until the expected date.

My waters broke as I was calling my husband for his night shift...We didn't have a telephone so he stopped at his mother's house to call the midwife, and I promised to send him a message on whether the baby was a John or a Margaret. A baby boy was born at 6:45 pm, and the midwife told me to start work again as there was another baby. I really thought she was joking. I wanted to rest. She convinced me I still had a job to do and the second baby, a girl, was born by breech delivery 10 minutes later. My mother-in-law was sent to find bedding and clothing for the second arrival. I shivered for hours with shock. The doctor made a lightening visit and a message was sent to the factory to tell my husband it was a John and a Margaret.

(Excerpts from 'Quick, Boil Some Water: The Story of Childbirth in Our Grandmothers' Day' by Yvonne Barlow; Published by Bookline and Thinker Ltd.; Price: '6.99;pp: 148)


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