A true story of a birth in 1949 reminds us why freedom of choice must never be compromised.

I had my first baby in 1949. It was a very long and hard labour. From 9 am to midnight, I was told to push, push, push, until I very rudely told them all to shut, shut up, and just get the thing out of me. It didn’t help matters any when the doctor said, ‘Hurry up! You’re holding me up on my Easter holidays!’ Throughout this whole ordeal, I was scared stiff. Literally. No one had prepared me for such fiery, intense pain. I’m sure the birth classes available today teach techniques to cope with the pain and manage it. But in 1949, labour pains were not talked about. Not even between mother and daughter. The only way you found out about them was right there in the delivery room like all the other mothers.

To add to the trauma of such a long, drawn out birth, the baby was big and in the end forceps were used to yank him out.

I had to stay in bed for 12 days; no shower or toilet, just a sponge down each morning, that included a mixture of Detol and water being poured down the front of me as I sat on a bed pan. Sterile conditions were big back in 1949. My stitches were taken out on about the tenth day. I could sit a lot better with them out.

On about day ten, when I was finally allowed to put my feet on the floor, I couldn’t even feel them, and had to learn how to walk again.

Once I was able to walk again, the nurses showed me how to bath my baby and dress it, and change the nappies.

I only had 1 ounce of milk in each breast, which was not enough, so they dried up the milk I had left and put the baby onto formula with a bottle. Formula was sure big back in 1949.

I only saw my baby when they brought him to me for feed time, which was every four hours and always right on time. The nurses would then take my baby, wrapped securely in a bunny rug like a little coc.

Finally, on day 20, I was allowed to take my baby home. As the nurses and sisters waved goodbye, they optimistically called out, ‘See you next year!’

‘No thank you, not me!’ I called back.

‘That’s what they all say!’ said the sister in charge, but this new mummy didn’t see them the next year or any year after that. Even though the sisters and nurses had been lovely, the whole experience frightened the life out of me to have any more children.

Luckily, the pill became available, and this made my decision to not give birth again a whole lot easier as I didn’t have to give up my sex life just to avoid falling pregnant.

My ‘big baby’ is now 51 years old and 6’2”. For all the pain his birth caused me, I am glad he’s here. But I still feel strongly, that if my mother or another woman had discussed the details of giving birth with me, that it would not have been such a traumatising and painful experience. You mothers today, with all the choices you have and the openness around birth, are an enviable lot.

Back in 1949, the choices were made for us.

This is an excerpt from Katrina Folkwell’s book, The First Breath.

Published in Byronchild/Kindred, Issue 5

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