May 10

I got to thinking about the differences between being born in my mother’s generation, and compared to my generation and my son’s. When I called my mother to say that her first grandchild had been born, the first thing she said was, “And you’re awake?” Here I am, just today, 70 years later, wondering how a woman back then gave birth without being awake. I found a fun website that shares what childbirth was like from year to year. Here’s one that’s interesting:

“Maternal mortality hit a dire low in 1934. That year, women had the same chance of dying in childbirth that they would have had in 1860, despite leaps in sanitation, technology, and medical knowledge in the intervening decades.”

Birthing was probably taking a nose-dive during the Depression, so somehow that must correlate to the high mortality that year — which is how I think we read the above, despite it appearing weirdly worded. In fact, there’s this:

“In 1936, the birth rate in the United States fell to an all-time low. Public health experts have attributed this record low to the stock market crash of 1929, which made many families believe that they could not afford to support a large number of children—or any at all.”

A milestone in giving birth came in 1938, when half of the women in the U.S. gave birth. That number, so they said, would never again drop below 50%. Never again seems like a long time. Then, in the 1940s …

“In the 1940s, women were kept in the hospital for extended periods after giving birth—up to 10 days. At the beginning of these long stays, women were pushed together in large rooms to go through labor, then sequestered in sterile solitary rooms to actually give birth.”

Imagine being in a room with other ladies all groaning in time to their contractions. Or were they all just being put to sleep?

“Befitting the new baby boom, more babies were born in 1946 than ever before. The 3.4 million American births marked a 20% increase from the previous year.”

I’ve not yet found anything about medicating women and putting them to sleep for the birth, but did find this:

“Reflecting the nation’s newfound interest in natural childbirth, a new method was pioneered in 1947. The so-called Bradley method emphasized relaxation, breathing, quiet, and comfort, and taught that a medication-free experience is best for both mother and child.”

So why didn’t my mother go for that? I was her second child. I wonder if she tried natural for her first? That’s something I doubt even my aunt, her sister, would know. I could see my mother wanting her second birthing process to be painless, though. Here’s what I found:

“The theory of painless childbirth was given a major boost in 1952, when the popular French magazine Regards devoted 29 pages to the concept. The theory stressed the primary of psychology in pain and pain management and denied that childbirth had to be painful.”

All I could find in 1953 was that people began bringing cameras to the birthing process. Okay, maybe the first photo was taken, but this wasn’t a thing even when I was giving birth, while having the husband there with you was. My husband didn’t want to be, but I reminded him that he helped cows give birth so how hard could this be?

I wanted to know more about medicated child birth, so I had to look elsewhere. At another site I found that in the 1930s women began to complain about medical intervention in the process, that they couldn’t remember anything about giving birth. They even gave it a name: Twilight Sleep.

“While Twilight Sleep was still terrifyingly common (and just terrifying), Dr. Grantly Dick-Read published a book in 1942 on the benefits of natural childbirth, which gave new scientific credence to less invasive methods previously dismissed as old-fashioned.”

I began to think about my siblings, and my parents, and what medicated childbirth could do to the child being born. Has a whole generation — the Babyboomers — been somehow mentally or physically made defective by that process? I know in my family, one of us is possibly mildly Autistic, one (me) is perhaps ADHD, one is dyslexic, one died at age 4, and then there’s my sisters.

From the first website, here’s a guy who must have thought much the same way:

“Frederick Leboyer, a controversial obstetrician who believed that the first few moments of a baby’s life outside its mother’s womb had a profound impact on the rest of the child’s life, graduated from the Université de Paris in 1937. Leboyer’s theories would go on to be debated and employed for decades.”

Seems to me Europe is always ahead of the game in health. Now they ban foods that are carceno-toxic while we’re still encouraged to buy them on sale. I wonder if my sisters know anything about their childbirth. Mom would have clung to the absence of pain as long as she could. Slowly, in the 50s …

“But as more women protested being unconscious during the entirety of childbirth and more details came out about the terrible conditions some women were kept under (shocking pictures of unconscious women tied to beds and soiled with their own feces emerged during this time), Twilight Sleep slowly fell out of favor.”

What surprises me about Mom wondering how I could be awake right after CarrieLynn was born is knowing that Mom has known other women giving birth in the meantime. I believe another trend was to stand the labor as long as you could and then ask for an epidural, something I was still offered in the late 1970s — not knocked out, but numbed. Of course it meant the baby couldn’t smile for about a week.

But I’ve found this little journey fascinating and hope it inspires you to have that conversation with your mom about your birth day, before you can’t, anymore. With Mother’s Day coming up, what better time!?

In Mom’s defense, I was born on Mother’s Day, so maybe she just hated the thought of all that pain that day. Finding records of what risks the baby suffered with Twilight Sleep, well, apparently that just hasn’t been done — or is just not online yet.




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