Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Hospital Birth Story from 1957 - My Grandmother's First Birth

In March of 2010 I interviewed my maternal Grandmother Ann (Nana) as a part of my birth Doula certification project. Now, many years later and a few years after her passing, I'd like to share her story. 

This really isn't a positive or uplifting birth story and it isn't meant to be. Rather, my grandmother's story represents what many women and babies experienced as routine hospital birth in the 1950s and 60s. I wish this was a positive story, but my grandmother gave birth in a country and time that did not fully respect the importance of pregnancy, birth, bonding and the experience of motherhood.

My grandmother was 26 years old in 1957 when she gave birth to her first born, my Aunt M. She re-lived this experience with me 53 years later at the age of 79.

Let's hear my grandmother's story...
Wedding Day!

I was 26 years old, pregnant for the first time and still considered a newly-wed (I married my husband less than one year before at the age of 25... I'd spend most of the next 7 years pregnant, all with similar birth stories).

The day I went into labor was like any other day. I got up, dressed my best and headed into Carbondale sometime around noon - I needed to run a few errands and planned to visit my husband at work. I remember arriving at his office during a meeting, there were a number of men sitting around the room, soon after I registered that I was very wet between my legs - like peed your pants wet. Remember, we were expected to dress well and always wear pantyhose... which at this moment felt like a saving grace as I figured I had peed myself and was thankful for the extra absorption!

Since it was considered unlady-like to be anything but prim and proper, I quickly left the office and headed home. It was at this time I realized it may have been my "water breaking"... but, I was very uncertain because no one had ever told me anything about birth and I had never taken a class about reproduction, let alone childbirth. In fact, it was considered taboo for anything related to woman's bodies and reproduction to be spoken of, so really, I had no idea what was going on with my body. 

My grandmother never received any sort of childbirth education from her mother, friends or the hospital. She feels as though it was assumed that if you were having a child then you must know what you are doing. When bringing her baby home, Ann had to learn from the beginning, alone, how to care for an infant. 

 Once home and cleaned up, I laid down on the couch and waited for my husband to come home. During this time my cousin, who I had considered back then to be an "old-maid", lived in the same apartment complex and she came to sit with me and keep me company. After work, my husband William took a cab home and then my cousin drove us to the hospital. I distinctly remember feeling very uncomfortable and experiencing lots of pain during the car ride; we even had to take a detour because the bridge was under construction.

We arrived at the hospital around 7pm and I was given a laxative, spent some time in the restroom, and then was admitted to the delivery room where they had me lay down in a hospital bed and they placed an ether mask over my face. There were many occasions where I was left alone, lying in the hospital room. I remember feeling very embarrassed by everything they were doing to my body. I also remember a friend of my husband's family, a woman, who entered the delivery room many times throughout the night to report my progress back to my husband and others in the waiting room. I was embarrassed by her visits because of all the 'inappropriate' things my body was doing and revealing; I was very self-conscious. I remember the most embarrassing thing was when the nurses would hold a bed pan underneath me and instruct me to "void". I didn't enjoy that.

I delivered laying on my back, breathing in ether, with my feet and legs strapped to the stirrup arms of the bed. The doctor cut an episiotomy and used forceps to "facilitate" the delivery of my 5 pound 5 ounce baby girl. The nurses were the only ones who spoke to me. 

My grandmother described her experiences with hospital procedure and professionals as unchallengeable; she had been raised to understand that you do not question authority and therefore, she did not question any procedure done to her while at the hospital.    

After she was born I was allowed to look at her before she was taken to the nursery. I remember her being all wrapped up in a blanket, swaddled, and just seeing her little face. She certainly was a beautiful baby. The doctors and nurses all said "you have the most beautiful little girl we have ever seen", I think this is because she was so petite.

My grandmother and her first born.
Shortly thereafter I was moved into a private recovery room - a room I was given because my husband was well known in the area and so I received some special treatment. I spent 2 whole weeks in the hospital, read lots of books, and remember being so bored and feeling "pent-up" and restless. I was able to see my baby a few times a day when the nurses brought her to my room. I remember feeling lucky because my room was close to the nursery and I was able to walk to the nursery and watch my baby. 

 Breastfeeding wasn't really encouraged and I decided to formula feed. I made this choice because I was scared of the public embarrassment of breastfeeding and didn't want to have to hide away to feed my baby. When I made this decision they gave me a pill to dry up my milk.  

When I asked her how she prepared bottles and what she fed the baby...

We would use evaporated milk and dilute the solution. The younger the baby, the more dilute the solution, as the baby grew you diluted the evaporated milk less and less. I remember something else being added to the bottle such as a powder, but I cannot remember... sometimes honey was added for a “sweet” flavor. 

Using evaporated milk as a formula!?!? Oh the health implications... I can't even imagine! 

My Thoughts: 

My grandmother's memories were very matter-of-fact and she attributed little emotion to the experience as a whole. When asked if she agreed with a procedure or policy or if she had a choice she replied, “You do not question professionals, you just do what they expect of you and trust that they know what is best.” For example, when describing the stirrups and recalling that her legs had been strapped to them, she was very casual and said that they did this to keep the legs up in case women tried to kick or squirm.

It seemed enjoyable for her to recount her story as she laughed often, would go back and provide more information as her memories awakened, and would compare her experience to what her own children experienced years later, when her grandchildren were born. For example, she remembers being shocked when her son was allowed in the delivery room for the birth of his first child.

As a public health birth professional I am saddened by my grandmother's experience because I know what her and her children deserved during this influential time and they certainly didn't get it... however, I am thankful she didn't reflect negatively on her births in this way and I never placed my expectations on her shoulders - these were her experiences and I was just there to hear them.

Most of those who will carry on Nana's legacy!
I am so thankful to my doula-trainer for this assignment. Years later and much farther down my path as a birth professional; I recognize the immense importance of having recorded my grandmother's first-birth experience, which occurred so many decades ago. Her memory lives on!

It was a pleasure to share my grandmother's experience... rest peacefully, Nana :)

With love and respect,
Your granddaughter,
~Wisdom and Birth


  1. I enjoyed your grandmother's story. Mine was similar. Lived in rural Oregon, no preparation for sex or childbirth. I don't recall ether or other pain meds, but my labors were fast. We put a little Karo syrup in the evaporated milk mix, made 6 bottles at a time, sterilized the milk in the bottles in a special sterilizer, then transferred the bottles to the frig. We'd heat a bottle in boiling water in a saucepan, test on our wrist. Making formula was a daily task.

  2. I must have been very lucky, for in 1956 I had a friendly doctor who acceded to my requests. Since I was French, I had been exposed in France to the popularity of natural birth, and he agreed to go along with it “up to a point”. I informed myself by reading books. I saw the doctor once a month and he answered questions willingly. When delivery time came, I wasn’t strapped to anything. I did receive a “saddle block” at the very end. But they gave me my baby as soon as he was cleaned up, and certainly cooperated with the breast feeding. This was in Oklahoma City, which I guess was surprisingly advanced for the time!

    breast feeding.