Monday, February 06, 2012

Birth Around The World: 1950s London

The Telegraph's Anna Tyzach interviewed Monica Fitten about her midwifery training in 1950s London. Below are excerpts from her interview. You can read the complete version here.

In 1955, when I was a young nurse working in London, . . . nurses were expected to be able to deliver a child. And if you didn’t know your midwifery, you were considered no better than a lay person when it came to attending a woman in labour. It was a steep learning curve with little time off but within six months, I’d delivered more babies than I can count, and had become an authority on the subject of child-bearing women – and their husbands.

Birth wasn’t a medical event back then; it was a family occasion conducted on the marital bed. Only women expecting twins or triplets or experiencing complications such as toxaemia ended up in hospital; everyone else just got on with it at home.

I’d spend my days cycling between mothers-to-be in Hammersmith, my allocated district, making sure their homes were suitable for a birth. Most women – or should I say their mothers – would have cleaned the bedroom, but running water and indoor sanitation were still a luxury in those days; many people had outside loos or shared a bathroom with several other flats, which would make my job tricky. In extreme cases – when the surroundings were truly filthy, for example, or if we knew the father was physically abusing the mother – we would send the woman off to the maternity unit to have her baby in clean sheets and peace and quiet.

I never made any attempts to glamorise birth or play down the upheaval a new baby would bring. It was no use euphemistically saying “it’s all in the mind”; I’d warn the expectant mother that it was going to be damned painful. It didn’t always sink in, though. I got used to women kicking up a fuss as they went into the second stage of labour. It’s just human nature. Some of us – myself included – are born with low pain thresholds while others give birth almost effortlessly. Generally, though, pain was an accepted part of childbirth and we’d only administer painkillers – intramuscular pethidine – to women who had ceased to cope entirely or who were giving birth to particularly large babies. If there was tearing down below, I’d stitch it up myself, unless it was extensive, in which case I’d call the GP. Back then doctors were very good at midwifery.

Despite all this, it always surprised me how well most women managed in labour. Often it was what they did afterwards that was more of a worry. It’s a myth that everyone is a natural mother. Just because you want a baby doesn’t mean you’ll be any good at dealing with it when it’s born. I met several mothers who were hopeless to the point of neglect. The responsibility of motherhood just wasn’t for them; they got frightened. Later on, when I was a health visitor, I gave evidence in the juvenile court on three occasions about mothers accused of abusing or neglecting their children.

But you couldn’t really blame these women for getting pregnant. Birth control wasn’t as widely available – or morally accepted – back then. I often helped mothers to have their eighth, ninth or 10th child. These women were dab hands at giving birth. Their mothers would be in the kitchen making tea and minding the other children while their husbands assisted them in labour. Yes, you read that right. Many of the fathers I came across would have made excellent nurses.

This wasn’t always the case, though. I’ll never forget the first time a father stepped in to help me. Just as his child’s head started to appear, he fainted across his wife’s body. I didn’t know what to do – he was too heavy to move – but the mother found it so funny that she ended up laughing the baby out. “I knew he’d do that,” she kept saying. It was instances like this that made home births so much more fun than having a child in a hospital. . . .

And thankfully I didn’t witness too many tragedies. Women experiencing complications would go straight to hospital. But I did deliver a couple of premature babies who didn’t make it – in those days you could wave goodbye to any child weighing under 5lb.

During births I was supposed to be supervised by a senior midwife but she was always late. I got used to her turning up in time for a cup of tea after the baby was born and I’d finished cleaning up the bedroom but it didn’t bother me; she’d seen it all before, whereas I was just learning. When I told her about the fainting incident she gave me a look of unadulterated scorn. “Typical man,” she said. “A bloody good period would see them off. Men simply don’t do pain.”

Read the rest here


  1. love it!! :-) The fainting husband... oh man! hah hahahahhhahahhahahaaa!!!!!!!!!

  2. Hi Rixa, I am thrilled to see you post this . . . it's based on a GREAT new show on the BBC called 'Call the Midwife'. The 4th episode just aired a couple days ago and I am absolutely loving it. I don't know how easy it is to watch in the US, but maybe it will come out on DVD or Netflix eventually. Worth tracking down!

  3. The "Call the Midwife" series is based on a book, which is an interesting read as well.

  4. My Grandad said one of his favourite jobs as a policeman back in the 50's and 60's (lower income neighbourhood just outside southeast London) was escorting midwives to births. They'd hand him oxygen bottles and birth kits and they'd bike over to the house. I don't think police always provided an escort, but it was considered common curtesy at 2 in the morning.

    Interesting to see a midwife's perspective from the '50's.

    1. Gah! It signed me as one of my email addresses after the site wouldn't let me sign google+ or openID. I don't think blogspot likes me today. Can we change or that or delete it at all?


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