Monday 19 December 2011

It's Christmas, and unto us a child is born by Theresa Breslin

Yes, I did indeed have a Christmas baby!

My youngest child arrived earlier and more quickly than expected. Approaching midnight on Christmas Eve we made a fast dash to the maternity unit where she was born about half an hour later. I ran the gauntlet of a rather grumpy consultant who gave me a 30 second examination, muttered something to the midwife and left.

'What did he say?' I asked.

'That you've hours to go yet. You're nowhere near delivering and might have waited until morning before coming in.'

'How did he work that out?' I gasped between now very severe contractions.

'He's going by the book. The thing is...' the midwife sighed, 'the babies don't read the medical text books.'

Giving credence to my claim that my baby was on its way she took me to the delivery room, as opposed to the waiting room / ward suggested by the consultant. In attendance was a junior doctor (male) who engaged in such jolly japes as reading out the jokes from the staffs' Christmas crackers and inflating festive balloons from the canister of gas & air. How I laughed...

In the past, no matter their social status, the majority of women gave birth at home surrounded by relatives, friends and hopefully (?) a midwife. There's a question mark after 'hopefully' as, unlike in my case, the presence of a midwife was not always a plus. Their assistance often consisted of trying to speed up delivery by trying to physically haul the baby from the womb by any means possible. Women expected to die. Like many others of the age Mary, Queen of Scots made her will before going into confinement and delivering her son, the future King James.

Known from earliest times as poena magna, extreme discomfort has always been associated with childbirth. Despite it being acceptable to relive pain during surgery e.g. with alcohol or mandrake root, in 1591 Agnis Sampson was burned at the stake for, among other supposed transgressions, using opium to ease birth pain. A century later recipes to ease the pain were written down, although the feelings of the woman in labour who drank the following one is not recorded:

.......... a lock of vergin's hair... cut small to a powder, 12 ants eggs dried in an oven... all mixed with a quart of red cow's milk, or strong ale wort...

Let's hope the ale wort was particularly strong that day.

Natural remedies abounded. Ergot was commonly administered, as was inducing women to sneeze. Weird and wonderful applications included the ankle bone of a rabbit or the eyes of a March hare, extracted whole and tied to the belly. Certain stones were carried as amulets and laid on the skin. Jasper was considered beneficial, but for maximum effect one needed to hold it in the hand for the whole nine months of pregnancy. Sir John Mandeville extolled the use of aetites or eagle-stone as did Nicholas Culpepper, the famous eighteenth century herbalist.

..........held to the privities... instantly draws away both child and afterbirthen...

In the seventeenth century the Chamberlen brothers devised a set of forceps and were in great demand to attend births as the length of labour was shortened. Very unhelpfully the family kept their new invention a secret for about a hundred years. The use of these contributed to an increasing presence of men during childbirth, the midwife's place being superseded by a doctor. It's believed that the fashion for delivering lying on a bed was devised to suit male midwives and doctors, as it was only in the eighteenth century, when men were a more common presence in the delivery room that women began regularly to give birth lying down. Previously women squatted, knelt, or even sat on someone's lap and birthing chairs were very popular throughout Europe.

We have Queen Victoria to thank for helping to reduce the opprobrium surrounding the desire to have pain-free deliveries. She and Prince Albert summoned Dr James Simpson for the birth of Prince Leopold where he administered chloroform. Churchmen registered their disapproval, referring to Biblical texts as it being a woman's lot to suffer in this way. The Lancet chose to deny it had happened, approving that although an incalculable amount of agony could be averted by the employment of chloroform in surgery, yet its use could not be sanctioned during childbirth, which (they stated) was, after all, a natural occurrence.

Advancements in housing, sanitation, and a more nourishing diet improved women's chances of survival but even at the beginning of the last century childbirth was a hazardous experience. My copy of Black's Home Medical Companion from that time, still consulted by family members (with Hogmanay approaching there is nothing to beat the hangover cure) advised that the birthing bed should have ropes for the woman to pull on during duress.

Recently in the UK there has been a change in the guidelines re childbirth to allow women in England and Wales the right to choose a Caesarean Section. In Scotland this is not be the case. Quote from a Scottish Government spokesperson: "How a woman gives birth in Scotland is a clinical decision, which is fully informed by discussions between the woman and her clinician." Hmmm.

I have to own up to using an expletive to the jolly junior doctor, snatching from his hand the mouthpiece of the unit pumping out the gas & air and clamping it firmly over my mouth and nose. Shortly afterwards my beautiful Christmas baby arrived.

Happy Christmas everybody!

Theresa Breslin's latest historical novel PRISONER OF THE INQUISITION has won the teenage section of The Historical Association, Young Quill Award, is shortlisted for the Scottish Children's Book Award and was voted favourite book by the young people shadowing the Carnegie Medal Book Awards. A youth performance of DIVIDED CITY will appear at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, 2nd Feb - 4th Feb 2012


H.M. Castor said...

What a fascinating post. I had no idea that pain relief in childbirth was frowned on, pre-Victoria. Good for her for announcing her approval of it. And what a great account of your grumpy consultant & junior doc balloon experience! My 2 experiences of birth were greatly contrasting: one long, agonising & ultimately medicalised, the other miraculously swift & smooth. Glad I experienced the latter, to know it COULD be that way. Happy birthday to your Christmas child!

Theresa Breslin said...

Yes it can be swift and smooth Harriet and thankfully I did have that experience but I wonder what Queen Victoria's opinion would have been re woman's choice as to delivery method now? Modern maternity units now seem to be very understaffed.

adele said...

Good old Queen Victoria! This is fascinating and I am all for anything that helps mothers to deliver without excruciating agony. Happy Birthday to your Christmas baby! Lovely post.

Linda B-A said...

The experience of giving birth and coming home with a tiny baby is definitely a memory that doesn't fade. Hurrah for Queen Victoria. Happy Birthday and Happy Christmas!

Leslie Wilson said...

My daughter, having recently had a c-section, can't imagine why any woman would choose it! Major surgery and then a baby (or two in her case) to look after.
Ergot of rye is still used, or a synthetically derived equivalent - ergometrine, which speeds the delivery of the placenta. Unless that information is out of date, but I think probably not, sure they talked about ergometrine when Jo was in labour. Given that it's supposed to have caused mass poisonings and hallucinations (being a mould on rye) in the Middle Ages, I find that quite interesting.
Yes, midwives used to sometimes cut babies to bits in the womb, or drag them out with hooks, or both. However, the great advantage of the midwife over the doctor was, she wasn't coming from dissecting corpses. Once the connection was made between the dirt the doctors brought to the woman on their hands, and puerperal fever (postpartum septicaemia) which was a major killer, maternal mortality dropped. The availability of safe c-sections also helped, as did the above-menshed ergometrine, to avoid haemorrhage.

Such a crucial part of women's history, and till the dreaded ball-breaking feminists started to look at it, largely overlooked.

Theresa Breslin said...

That's fascinating info about the ergot, Leslie. I agree the subject is a crucial part of women's history. A woman's lifespan in the middle ages was about 24, due mainly to complications during pregnancy or childbirth. And that would impact on society in a variety of ways: men having several wives, rivalry between step siblings, motherless children growing to adulthood etc, etc. It makes you wonder if it contributed to the brutality of the times.

Caroline said...

I am the Christmas baby :-)

I think that women should have as much choice as possible on how their babies are born into the world. There are no rights or wrongs - the priority is always for a healthy baby and healthy mum. 

I have given birth three times myself, via natural birth and emergency and planned Caesarian sections, so I know first hand that there are no easy options - just pros and cons for different choices and often no choices at all as events take over! All types of birth result in very different experiences for different individuals and circumstances. 

 My first baby, my daughter Kyla, was healthy and well but I was very ill for a long long time after she was born. My second baby, my son Murray, was stillborn and it was the most devastating day of my life.  My third baby, my son Sean, was healthy and thankfully so was I following his birth.  

Although health has improved greatly in the developed world as has the care available to us, childbirth is a unique experience for us all and unfortunately still risky in many cases.  I know I am blessed to have two special, beautiful, healthy children.

Merry Christmas everyone and Happy Birthday to all the Christmas babies out there!