The agony and the ecstasy

Three generations of women from the same family talk to Celia Dodd about the changing nature of childbirth during the 20th century
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Jean Leask, 82, is a retired occupational therapist. She was a maid in service until her first child, Barbara (below) was born in 1933, when Jean was 19; the last, David, was born in 1946. Three of her babies were born in nursing homes, the other two at home.

My first baby, Barbara, was born in the Salvation Army nursing home in Dundee, which took in young girls who were on their own. The married ones like me paid their own fees, and that helped towards the ones who couldn't pay.

It was a very difficult birth. Afterwards the doctor said: "Jean, don't have another one in a hurry, if it had lasted another quarter of an hour you would both have been gone". There was no pain relief and I didn't go to any classes or learn any breathing techniques beforehand. I didn't know anything about childbirth.

Helen, the second, was born at home, and she was breech. The midwife said: "You're going to have it hard, the feet's coming first." It was agony. We lived on the top floor of a tenement, and Bill was downstairs, about four storeys below, and he could hear me crying out. The postman came and said: "Some poor woman's going through it." Bill said: "That's my wife".

I knew the midwife, but not well. But she was such a homely person you just felt it was your mother. I remember her on the bed helping me all she could; she was marvellous, a real comfort.

My husband was never allowed to be with me, even when the babies were born at home. I wouldn't have liked him to be there. You had to sort of grin and bear it alone.

The first time I had any pain relief - gas and air - was with my fourth baby. I had been nearly knocked out by a horse and cart earlier in the day and I went into labour very quickly. The nurse said to the doctor: "She's making an awful fuss, she won't have her bath". He examined me and found that the head was out.

The family doctor, who used to look in regularly when you were pregnant, always came to the nursing home to deliver the baby. That was a good thing, because all the nurses were strangers to me. But on the whole the nursing homes were very friendly. During the labour they were always looking in to see you were all right. And I didn't make too much fuss.

Barbara Davies, 62, gave birth to Helen, her only child, in 1957, when she was 24 and living in Bromsgrove.The experience was bad enough to put her off having any more. She went back to work part time when Helen was three and has since done a variety of administrative jobs.

I didn't have any rosy illusions about childbirth because I can remember my brothers being born when I was a teenager. I can even remember my sister being born at home when I was three and we lived in a tenement in Dundee, although I can't remember a terrible noise, so I must have been taken out at some stage.

When I was pregnant I went to classes in some relaxation method that was just coming in. I took it for granted that the hospital would know about these classes and take over from there. But I realised too late that there was no connection. I got no support in hospital.

I went for a check-up when I was 10 days overdue; our neighbour took me in his rattly old Austin Ruby. In those days you were laid out on slabs to wait so you didn't waste any of the doctor's time, he wanted to admit me but the sister said: "What do you want me to do, put two in a bed?" They were very overworked.

I went into labour that night, which was fortunate because friends had warned me that the hospital would make me eat castor oil sandwiches.

In the morning my husband had to go to work and my mother and I waited for the ambulance. When we got to the hospital I asked the nurse if my mother could stay, but she said no. My husband could have arranged to stay, too, but they just wouldn't allow such a thing. In my day you more or less did what you were told in most things. I didn't want to make a fuss.

At some stage the midwife gave me an injection, which I assume was pethidine. She didn't ask whether or not I wanted it. Apart from that they left me for hour upon hour. No one checked me; it was up to me to ask for help. I found out afterwards that they were watching me cold-bloodedly through a glass panel. As far as I was concerned, I was completely alone.

I got the impression from the midwives that some women made a lot of fuss in labour and they didn't like it. I thought, I don't want to be one of these screaming women. I was brought up to be the stiff-upper-lip- type and not to make a fuss or a noise if you were in pain. But years later I said to Helen, when you have a baby, you scream.

When I reached the second stage I hung on for ages and I got into a terrible state. Still nobody checked me or examined me. Finally, I knew something had happened and I rang the bell and said I'm having the baby. The nurse rushed me to the delivery room. There was this horrendous pain, then I heard a scream. I thought it was somebody next door, then I realised it was me.

It should have been an easy birth, but it was awful. The pain was what they inflicted on me with the episiotomy; everything else was controllable.

All I thought was never, ever am I going to put myself in this position again. It wasn't the pain - that was perfectly bearable. It was the experience of being just left, and the way I was treated, like a piece of meat. I didn't like having things done to me, and not being in command. The hospital was like a conveyor-belt; everybody seemed to go through the same thing and there was no question of what you wanted. It makes me furious even now, I wish I could start all over again and, in a way, do things naturally.

We never actually said we wanted two children, but in my mind I wanted two. I just couldn't bring myself to do it again; it was rather sad really.

Helen Davies is a management consultant. Her first baby was born when she was 31, her second when she was 35.

My view of labour was definitely coloured by Mum's experience. l knew that she had only had one child because she couldn't face going through it again. So for some time I expected it to be the worst experience of my life. My worst fear of childbirth was of somebody doing something to me without me being totally willing or totally informed.

I wanted to be informed to dispel any fears I might have, and once I started reading the books I felt better about it, I felt I could make choices, whereas if I knew nothing about labour, I would be completely in the hands of the doctors.

I went to two sets of antenatal classes, one run privately and one at the hospital. I also had a consultation with a homeopath, who prescribed a treatment to make the muscles of the uterus work more efficiently. And I used aromatherapy oils throughout pregnancy and during labour.

I see childbirth as one of the riskiest of life events and I was quite anxious. I thought a home birth would be more frightening than being in a hospital. I chose a progressive hospital where I felt I was working in partnership with the midwives and doctors and could have some say in what I wanted. They had a birthing pool, and although I didn't want to give birth in water, I did want to sit in a bath during labour.

I felt that where medical intervention is helpful you should use it. At least these days we're able to experience difficulties and survive. In Grandma's day I probably would have died, because although the birth itself went smoothly, my placenta was retained - which brings the risk of haemorrhaging - and it had to be removed manually.

Initially, my husband didn't want to be at the birth. But then he spoke to a friend who had recently become a father and changed his mind. For me, labour was a pleasant surprise and the midwives really helped to make it a good experience. The only thing I wasn't totally happy about initially was the pethidine. At first I was afraid of feeling out of control, but I talked it through with the midwife and then I was happy.

There was no question that she was going to administer an injection without my agreeing to it.

Overall, I couldn't really have had a better experience of childbirth. Literally, the minute the baby was born I thought I honestly could do that again.

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