Was it really so bad?"They put women on gas as soon as they arrived at the hospital."
"Believing that new mothers did not produce enough milk, nurses immediately gave newborns a bottle of formula."
"Men were allowed nowhere near the delivery room."
Childbirth classes were interesting, but I especially loved the stories that people shared with us about the conditions into which they came into the world. So much has changed in a generation that our experiences will be substantially different from those of our mothers and fathers. I guess we all had conversations with our parents, and they told us how childbirth was a cold, hazy, sometimes alienating, experience--nothing of the 'naturalness' and intimacy for which we are prepared. Even my own mother apologized to me for what they "didn't know" at the time.
Sometimes I found the stories a bit one sided. The short durée of childbirth--of hospitals, physicians,anestheticss, unnecessary Caesarians, etc.--is, well, short. Hospital births are really a twentieth century phenomenon: Jimmy Carter was the first American president to have been born in a hospital. These stories were highly gendered as well: the doctors were all men; the nurses women who were under the doctors tight control; and midwives were nowhere in sight.
Was childbirth really so bad then, and was it better before? My gut says no. While I am alarmed that medical professionals would have treated childbirth as a medical problem, there were at least some advantages not just to medicine's entry into childbirth, but the professionalization of midwifery as well.
Consider the practice of laying in following childbirth. Women would remain secluded with their children, perhaps with the help of neighbors, for a month. Not only was it an extraordinary curtailingt of a woman's movement, it was a profound misunderstanding of the new mother's recuperative abilities. Moreover, according to Lyndal Roper, this period of intense isolation was the perfect vehicle for generating accusations of witchcraft.
When I have some time (after I stop dissertating for the summer this weekend) I'll look into the history of childbirth some more.