Saturday, March 9, 2013

Childbirth circa 1926

      Next month will be the 2nd anniversary of my dear Mother’s death, and her room is still pretty much the same as it was the day she entered a nursing home eight years ago.  That’s the way my father wants it.  He always cherished the hope he’d be able to bring her home someday, and her room was waiting, but his own worsening health problems precluded that.  Yesterday I started cleaning the room up a bit and came to a box of miscellaneous papers.  It contained an array of ancient bank statements and tax receipts, report cards of mine she had saved, a dog’s tag, (she always had a dog or two) a few cancelled checks.  They make you ponder, these remains of a life do.  Here are all the ephemera but where is the person?  It’s quite profound to realize all this “stuff” outlasted her as it will all of us.
Mom (on the ground) and her older sister Marian
     A small yellowed envelope caught my eye and upon opening it I found her birth certificate and a revelation -- Mom was born at home!  It never crossed my mind that a baby born in 1926 would be born anywhere but in a hospital.  My mother’s family lived in a very rural area in eastern Wayne County, NY.  There were no cities around though there was a smallish hospital in nearby Lyons, NY.  I questioned my father about this but he could add nothing to the story.  My mother was the fifth of seven children, so childbirth was nothing new for my grandmother, her mother and probably a midwife assisted with the delivery while my grandfather occupied the younger children or sent them to a relative or neighbor.

     After looking around the net I discovered it was actually quite common, particularly in rural areas, for women to give birth at home during that era.  I also discovered that may have been a very good thing for everyone involved.  The mortality rates for women and their babies were actually higher in areas where physicians performed deliveries in hospitals, and it’s easy to see why.  A prominent American obstetrician of that time, Dr. Joseph DeLee, termed childbirth, “a pathological process from which few escape damage.”  He advocated routine sedation of the mother, episiotomy and forceps delivery, followed by removal of the placenta using a technique whose name alone sends a chill down my spine, “the shoehorn maneuver.”  Unfortunately, his recommendations did become the norm even in complication free deliveries and many women and their babies suffered for it.  A later study concluded that an increase in infant mortality rates at that time was due to injuries resulting from obstetrical interference during the birth.

     It was not until the 1930’s that maternal death rates began to recede, due largely to the introduction of sulphanamides, (sulfa drugs), to combat puerperal infections which were responsible for a large number of maternal deaths.  Thankfully the medical community today regards childbirth as the natural process it is and such draconian measures are no longer in use.  Midwives have even made a return though usually in a hospital setting.  I am reminded by this to never assume, even things that seem self evident may surprise you.

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