Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there. Being a mom is hard work – that goes without saying. From temper tantrums to those helpless moments where you have to watch your child learn a lesson on their own. There are smiles and tears and everything in between. And it all starts with that little thing called birth.
In today’s world, we have the joys of private rooms in the maternity ward and the beautiful reprieve granted by epidurals and other fabulous modern inventions. Such was, unfortunately, not always the case.
One of the atrocities women had to deal with for several centuries was the awfulness of lying in. When the birth of her child was drawing near, a woman would be confined to her bed in a room designated as the birthing room (not always her bedroom). It was kept hot with a roaring fire and a plethora of blankets piled on the expectant/new mother with all windows were tightly shuttered. This was done in an effort to keep the mother from catching a draft and falling ill. Now we know that heating a room breeds bacteria and can actually cause illness rather than thwart it.
On the topic of germs, that was one of the primary killers of not only children, but also their new mothers. In 1840, a hand wash of chlorinated water and lime solution was implemented by physicians and resulted in a 30% decrease in death. Prior to that, it was expected that 66% of children died before the age of 5 and half were dead by the age of 5. Even a child’s wet nurse could pass infection to her ward with poor hygiene.
In addition to the perils of germs, women also faced complications of birth. There were accounts of caesarean sections done on mothers in history, though most involve a dead mother and the urgency to remove the child post-mortem lest the child die as well. Several attempts were still made on women who were alive, but the mortality rate ran about 85%. Not good odds.
The invention of forceps revolutionized difficult childbirth in that it allowed the user the firmly grasp the baby by the head and pull it from the mother. Prior to this, midwives would typically put her hands into the mother, grab the child by the head and pull. This took exceptional strength on the midwives part and was not only incredibly painful for the mother, it also exposed mother and child to germs.
Forceps were designed in the 1500’s, but were kept as a family secret, only to be brought out in an empty room with the mother blindfolded. One member of the family finally tried to sell the invention, but his public display of its use resulted in the mother and child both dying. Eventually, it was brought back out and finally caught on. Part of its popularity during the Regency time period had to do with Princess Charlotte’s death. After 50 hours of labor and a stillborn child, Princess Charlotte died under the care of Dr. Croft. The public had their faith rattled in doctors performing labor (and turned back to midwifery), they also were more inclined to try forceps rather than face the same fate. Dr. Croft was so ruined and disheartened by his failure, he ultimately took his own life.
In addition to the pain of death also came the pain of fear. Epidurals may be modern, not really seen until the 1940’s and even then not successfully, but the idea of foregoing pain during labor was not. For centuries, the church deemed it a woman’s fate to suffer childbirth for Eve’s sins. But that concept only held on so long. In the 1800’s, a chloroform concoction was devised for women to breathe. This would knock them out, they would wake up and lo and behold, they’d have a beautiful baby having never suffered through the pain of its birth. This was made enormously popular in 1847 when Queen Victoria used the anesthetic for the birth of her eighth child and raved about the experience. In 1914, a morphine/scopolamine mix was given to mothers, but this quickly lost popularity as the babies sometimes died from overdose and the mothers sometimes failed to wake up after delivery.
80% of Regency mothers made it through childbirth. She survived the laying in which lasted two weeks to two months after birth, the heated rooms with a liquid diet that slowed her digestion, the risk of having a chunk of placenta left inside (ultimately going gangrene in all that warmth) and all the risks of infection. The Regency mother (and all those in the centuries before her) was a survivor who lived to see another birth and risk it all over again. And all for the glory of motherhood. So, raise your glasses to the mothers of history and the mothers of today for all they went through during the birth and all the laughter and crazy times that come thereafter.