Tuesday, June 06, 2006

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.

4 Comments:

At 11:31 AM, Blogger Sharon said...

Both I and my sister were born at home (late 1960s): unusual by then, but less so (if I remember rightly) in Britain than in the US.

There's a bibliography on early modern pregnancy and childbirth (mostly English) on my website. In practice, in England, I doubt many women stayed in bed for a month - it depended on how quickly a mother recovered from the birth rather than being a rigidly defined period. And they weren't really in seclusion: there'd be a regular flow of 'gossips' and food and gifts. It was all meant to be very sociable - for women, anyway. Men weren't welcome. (I think Natalie Davis argued somewhere in her classic 'Women on top' essay that this was a period of household role reversal, when husbands would be expected to do housework and childcare and could be bossed around by their wives, but I'm not sure just how much evidence she had for that one.)

 
At 7:28 AM, Blogger Brdgt said...

My advisor is the expert on the history of childbirth in America. The book she's working on right now is on the entry of fathers into the delivery room. She has an article on "twilight sleep" that is excellent - let's just say that the popular conception that "doctors medicalized and took over childbirth" is not accurate at all. Childbirth was incredibly dangerous and painful and women who could afford pain relief (after the discovery of things like ether) demanded it.

 
At 8:46 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

Thank you, both.

Sharon, I'll take a look at the links when I have the time. The practice I was describing was, I know, more specific than general. Everything I know about childbirth is going to have a continental slant, and after years of not actively studying it, become covered with cobwebs in my brain. It might amuse you to know that my mother-in-law caused a little scandal in her little corner of rural New England when she brought my wife-to-be out in public when she was (gasp) just one month old!

" ... women who could afford pain relief (after the discovery of things like ether) demanded it."

That puts a really different spin on things. Were modern women, therefore, more active shaping childbirth practices than commonly assumed?

 
At 11:07 AM, Blogger Brdgt said...

That puts a really different spin on things. Were modern women, therefore, more active shaping childbirth practices than commonly assumed?

Absolutely.

It's easy to paint the doctors as bad guys, especially with women's health - but all too often this erases womens' agency.

Oh, and Judy's book is Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950:
Based on personal accounts by birthing women and their medical attendants, Brought to Bed reveals how childbirth has changed from colonial times to the present.

Judith Walzer Leavitt's study focuses on the traditional woman-centered home-birthing practices, their replacement by male doctors, and the movement from the home to the hospital. She explains that childbearing women and their physicians gradually changed birth places because they believed the increased medicalization would make giving birth safer and more comfortable. Ironically, because of infection, infant and maternal mortality did not immediately decline. She concludes that birthing women held considerable power in determining labor and delivery events as long as childbirth remained in the home. The move to the hospital in the twentieth century gave the medical profession the upper hand. Leavitt also discusses recent events in American obstetrics that illustrate how women have attempted to retrieve some of the traditional women--and family--centered aspects of childbirth.

 

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