Telling the upper crust the truth about labour

Liz Hunt talks to Betty Parsons, ante-natal guru to aristocratic mothers-to-be for more than 30 years
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When I met Betty Parsons, MBE, I wanted to get pregnant immediately and give birth there and then in her flower-filled conservatory with her holding my hand and calling me "honey". It seemed that only Betty could make the experience bearable.

Lots of other women have felt that way too: the Queen, the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York, other ladies of the royal household, celebrities such as Esther Rantzen and the actress Geraldine James - and most of Chelsea.

For more than 30 years "Betty P" was on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as ante-natal guru to the Sloane set and aristocratic mothers- to-be. She hates the tag but it's an accurate job description: her 80th birthday party in October last year was held in St James's Palace, with personal permission of the Queen, with Prince Charles was among the guests.

From her consulting rooms in Mayfair, Betty, a former nurse, helped more than 20,000 women through pregnancy and prepare for labour and birth. She retired in 1986 but continues to see "girls with problems" at her home in Surrey, often the daughters or even the grand-daughters of some of her original mums from the 1950s.

Mrs Parsons' approach is simple and direct. None of "her girls" goes into labour without knowing exactly what is happening, or may happen, to them. They are armed with her unique instruction in the art of relaxation to help them through the worst moments - and she insists, the rest of their lives.

"Giving birth is not an Olympic event for which you have to be trained up to get the gold medal," she says. "One needs to have a relaxed, positive attitude to life and that is what I teach. We all get into tizzies, usually over things we can't change. Labour is something you can't change. I teach women to accept the moment."

"Relaxing for labour; learning for life" is her mantra, and her catchphrase for when stress or a "tizzy" strikes - "drop your shoulders" (to release tension and improve breathing) is a phrase instantly recognised in well- to-do homes across the South-east.

Read her new book, Understanding Childbirth, and it is difficult to determine what makes the Parsons approach so popular. It follows the well- tried formula of other birth books - and is arguably less comprehensive - with advice on diet, smoking, alcohol, sex during pregnancy, how the body changes, and a trip through the stages of labour.

However, listen to the assured - and reassuring - voice on the audio tape that accompanies the book and the secret of her success begins to emerge. Meet Mrs Parsons in person, and all becomes clear. A tall, slender woman, she exudes maternal warmth, wisdom and a cut-glass English charm but retains the distance of a professional. Any pregnant woman would be only too happy to place herself in her hands, secure that Betty really did know best.

Mrs Parsons eschews dogma in favour of an unabashedly pragmatic approach to birth. There is no right or wrong way to do it: it can be in hospital, at home, in a bath or flat on your back, with or without an epidural, she says. She believes the vogue for natural births, the growth of birth plans which rule out epidurals, and episiotomies, have done women a great disservice. Those who cannot, because of the circumstances of the birth, stick to their plans, feel as if they have failed which is "utter nonsense", she says.

"You can never predict what will happen in labour. Women shouldn't go into it with the idea that it is a beautiful, mystical experience. Childbirth without fear, yes, but not without pain," she says.

When her fellow birth guru, Sheila Kitzinger, made the now famous comment that the moment of giving birth could be compared to an orgasm, Betty told her class that week: "Well, honeys, if that is an orgasm, then keep me out of bed." But she does encourage a positive approach to pain, telling women that each contraction is taking them one step further on to the moment when they will hold their baby.

Mrs Parsons was born in Pakistan in 1915 and brought up in Vancouver, where she trained as a nurse after her family decided they could not afford to send her to England to study singing. She met her husband Terence, a commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, in 1939, and they married a year later. She moved with him to Bermuda where she became pregnant.

Her husband was then posted to the Far East so Betty headed back to her family in Canada, where her son Michael was born in 1941. The attitude then was that giving birth was something awful that women had to go through. "It was an 'in sorrow you shall bring forth' sort of mentality," she says. "It was a long labour, 36 hours, and a forceps delivery but you had to 'be brave, be British'. If I had known then what I know now it would have lessened the pain."

At the end of the war, the family returned to London, where Betty took up singing again with a view to making it her career. A second son, Richard, was born in 1946 but died from pneumonia at three months. A "rather horrible" miscarriage followed and she was left feeling depressed and stressed. "I never planned to have an only child but these things happen," she calls.

But it was hard to bear and a friend referred her to an Indian doctor, a homoeopath. He changed her life with his holistic approach to health, his theories on relaxation and stress and the delicate balance between the mind, emotions and body.

At his instigation, Mrs Parsons began teaching the principles of relaxation to some of the doctor's patients, usually men suffering from high blood pressure. A talent for this soon emerged and eventually she was forced to choose between singing and counselling. When her pianist told her that she was "not enough of a bitch" to succeed as a performer, Betty stopped singing professionally.

Her interest in pregnancy and childbirth was triggered by a young woman who came to her suffering from insomnia. Betty soon discovered the cause of her problems: her dreadful experience during the birth of her first child. She wanted another baby and so did her husband, but she was simply too scared to get pregnant. "I thought, this isn't the way it should be. I joined the Natural Childbirth Association [newly formed and later to become the NCT] and started holding classes and teaching in people's homes, and it grew from there."

Betty Parsons saw her first delivery in 1936 but says that almost 60 years later, she has the same sense of awe when a child is born. "If the day comes when I don't feel like that," she says, "I'll stop because then I'll have no more to give."

'Understanding Childbirth' by Betty Parsons. Aurum Press, pounds 12.95 book and tape.

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