Birth over the generations - An interview with my Grandmother
I had plans to write a blog on why things have changed so much in the birth world and at which point did the scales tip. When did women go from trusting their own bodies and their own instincts to being shifted into the medical system and being placed under the care of doctors with little to no choice in what was happening to them. How did this transition happen? What did it look like? Did it happen slowly over time or was there a series of events that triggered it?
What better place to start than with the matriarch of our family, my Grandmother, my Grandy.
I knew that this shift in society’s view on birth and the medicalisation of birth had to have happened at least 2 generations ago; I wasn’t sure if Grandy was born in hospital but I had an inkling that she herself would have given birth in hospital to her children.
I called her and opened by telling her that I wanted to ask her about her births, she was confused, as I expected, she asked me why and I told her that I am a birth photographer.
Crickets. She said “you…what?!?!” hahaha again, as I expected. But then she surprised me, despite growing up in an era where birth was taboo she responded with “how lovely! That is beautiful.”
Grandy was born in the 1930s, right when medical intervention in childbirth was just coming to the fore. Birth had recently moved to hospitals as there was a drive by the Government to increase the population of Australia after the economic collapse in 1929 and the depression during the 1930s.
Prior to this births had commonly taken place at home with an untrained but experienced midwife present. Midwives often also stayed after birth to help settle the woman in.
Initially, death rates increased rather than decreased… there are studies and firsthand accounts written by professionals in this era that state more babies were being injured at this time as untrained and inexperienced doctors used forceps, with some doctors even reporting to have used forceps in 80% of their births. Infections during childbirth were rampant, also due to inexperience and lack of training of hospital staff.
However, Grandy herself was born at home, she said that they lived too far out to go to hospital. Her Grandfather helped deliver her and her siblings at home. This is the only detail she will ever know about her birth. Her mother and Grandfather have since passed and with them has died that information.
I asked Grandy if, as a young woman, she was ever curious about her own birth and she said that she had once asked her mother, to which she replied “We don’t talk about dirty things such as this!” and she was instructed to never ask again.
Even writing this now my heart sank. I can’t imagine living in a society where I couldn’t rely on the knowledge and support of my own mother to go through such a life changing and monumental event in my life.
Having my own mother at my birth was not ever a question for me, and whilst she merely sat in the background knitting and observing for the majority of my labours I can’t imagine not having her there. Little did I know at the time that she was holding space for me. Just by being there. Just knowing that my mother was nearby was an immense source of comfort for me.
By the 1950s, the influx of births from the baby boom meant that hospitals began running like meat factories. Women were given enemas and were shaved upon arrival at the hospital. They were often strapped to delivery beds and use of forceps and episiotomies were common. Obstetric epidemiologist James King wrote of his training in Australia during this period:
‘I can remember watching in horror as women's wrists were strapped to the side of the metal delivery frame, so that "the patient would not contaminate the sterile field", prior to an operative vaginal delivery, which we were summoned to observe. Forceps rotations and other manipulations were the hallmark of the skilful obstetrician, the highest compliment for whom was "he is great with his hands".
There was a shift in maternity care at some stage in the 1960s; people were starting to see that the move of childbirth from home to hospital left something to be desired… They started to realise that a woman’s state of mind during childbirth had great bearing on birth and post-natal outcomes. Clinicians suggested that women should feel relaxed to give birth, rather than strapped down and stressed out. This is when the notion of pain-free childbirth through breathing, childbirth without fear and water-birth started to rise up…
Childbirth education started to gain traction and made its way into maternity care in hospitals.
Unfortunately, as I was to find out – these “revolutions” or as I like to think of them as ‘unlearning’s’, must have come after Grandy’s childbearing years. Grandy herself has 3 children, all born in the early to mid-1960s, my mother being the middle of those children.
When I asked her about her first birth, she told me a story rife with abuse, lack of respect and absolutely no support. She said that before she even gave birth she was already terrified of what was to come. She said the only stories of birth that she grew up hearing were horror stories passed onto her by her Mum and other family members.
We still see this trend today, it is commonplace for people to talk about how long, arduous and painful their births were and less about the good experiences. Women who dare to speak about their beautiful and empowering birth experiences are shunned and made to feel guilty for setting ‘unrealistic expectations’ how birth actually is. They are told that their experiences aren’t ‘normal’ and maybe they aren’t in today’s society, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t POSSIBLE. There is only one way to change what is considered to be the ‘norm’ and speaking about positive experiences is that way…
Of course there is space for people to openly discuss their negative experiences too; however, we should be filling pregnant women’s minds with stories of positive and strong births rather than the horror stories of pain that is most commonly heard and seen.
When asked what the process was for when a pregnant woman went into spontaneous labour, Grandy stated that you’d be taken to the hospital via ambulance and you would go alone. Men weren’t allowed so they wouldn’t bother waiting at the hospital.
You were then told to stay on the bed for the entirety of your labour and would have to ask for permission to use the bathroom. Despite this being her experience and the lack of education on childbirth available to her, Grandy commented that she believed her labour would have been much smoother had she been able to freely move about during.
Grandy said that pain relief was not freely available and it wasn’t given to you when you requested it. Pain relief was administered not to relieve the woman of pain, but to relieve the doctors and nurses (or Sisters as they were called then) of the burden of having to listen to the woman in pain…. Instead, she was given a block of wood to bite down on, to stop her from being able to scream as loudly.
She recalled that the babies were taken away as soon as they were born. There was no immediate contact between her and her baby and she thought that something must have been wrong with the baby at first because it was several hours before they came back to tell her what sex the baby was. A little girl.
I asked was post-natal care was like in the hospital and it probably won’t surprise you to know that it wasn’t much better than the care received during birth. The babies were kept in the nursery and you were only allowed to see your baby when it was feeding time, you didn’t get to feed on demand, there were set times for feeds and if your baby was hungry and crying before feeding time, then they would just be left unattended to cry until feeding time came around.
I found a photograph of a sheet of guidelines which was handed to pregnant women birthing in hospitals in QLD during the 1970s. It stated, amongst other things, that babies were fed at 8am, 11am, 2pm, 5pm and 8pm. I wonder what happened if the baby got hungry between 8pm to 8am…..
I was curious how this birth experience effected her mindset leading into her other pregnancies and she said that she was distraught when she found out she was pregnant again. Not because she didn’t want another child, but because she couldn’t bear to think of giving birth again in such a terrible setting.
Nowadays, postnatal depression effects 1 in 4 women. I find it hard to believe that the numbers would have been any less or the odds any better back in Grandy’s day. The conditions were worse and the support was severely lacking.
PND wasn’t recognised as an issue until the early 1980s; until that point women were left to fend for themselves and get on with the job, many women throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s received electroshock therapy to help treat any perceived “nervous conditions”, a term they used to describe any mental struggles in women during that time.
We got onto the topic of loss and Grandy went on to tell me that she had lost a baby, at some point during the births of her other children, something I was completely unaware of.
Her memory is fading and she couldn’t recall how far along she was when she lost this baby but she said she was close to birth. Grandy said that she birthed the baby and it was immediately taken away, she wasn’t told whether it was a boy or a girl and it was never spoken about again.
Having lost a baby myself, this broke my heart. To lose a baby and then never have the opportunity to even gaze upon them afterwards, I can’t imagine the pain that must have brought to her. Grandy sadly said that she would have loved to have been able to hold a funeral for her baby but that it was never an option. The matter was quite literally, never brought up again once she left the hospital.
This brought us to talk about support pre, during and post birth and she said that services were almost non-existent. These things weren't spoken about and you just got on with your day. Several times over the course of our conversation Grandy stated how surprised she was that she was even sharing some of these details with me, so far reaching is the cloak of silence on these issues. It really is ingrained in experience over the generations.
I explained to Grandy what a doula was; she lamented about her experience and said that she wished she could have had someone like that present for all of her births. She could recognise the importance of this support, having gone through it with no one by her side herself.
After our conversation, I could draw some obvious parallels between birth back then and birth as it is today but the major takeaway from our conversation was that whilst all of this abuse and neglect was considered the norm back then, that inevitably the culture changed and what we see today, whilst similar, is nowhere near as harmful as what it was back then.
This gives me hope. It gives me hope that despite the abuse and bullying that goes on in the birth world today, that the path we are on right now and the shift that I can see, that I can feel coming in the birth world, will bring us to a destination of better care and maternal outcomes for all.
Hindsight gives us the beautiful opportunity to look back at what was, and to hope that future generations can look back on what we are going through now in our maternal health care systems as a thing of the past.
It gives me hope that if my daughters choose to have children of their own, that what is considered the ‘norm’ in birth for them at this time in their lives, is greatly improved upon by what our options are currently.
It keeps the fire within me lit – the fire to continue to do my part to try to change the current climate. By writing, by documenting and by voicing my opinion.
As the quote says, you have to "be the change you want to see in the world..."