The Health Service today is devoting more and more resources and time to caring for women and their particular health problems.There are Well Woman clinics, Family Planning clinics, breast and cervical cancer screening services, and full antenatal and maternity care for women having babies.
Yet seventy years ago and less, womens' health was a subject discussed usually only between a mother and her daughter, or the closest of female friends. Ante-natal care consisted of advice passed down from Grandma, with embellishments whispered by aunts or older sisters. Childbirth was an event which always took place at home before the last War, when the doctor was called in only if the midwife thought things were going wrong; yet for centuries,thousands of babies thrived in the cold, damp, unhygenic surroundings they were born in to. This week, our series on Health listens to old ladies recalling how maternity and baby care used to be in Lakeland hamlets and villages.
When a girl found she was expecting her first baby, her mother would be the first person to turn to. Most country girls married local lads, and remained living near their mothers.Not only was she there to help and advise beforehand, but the desolate isolation of the single mother caring for a new-born baby alone which is so common today was unheard of.
"I think a mother told a daughter, and all the neighbours added their contribution; you weren't ill, but you made a much larger thing then of having a baby...families were large, but there was a lot of open air and blank spaces. It was different in towns, totally differnt. In the country girls depended on their mothers very much, went to their mothers. They didn't go away for a job. After they were married women were satisfied to live where their husbands lived, mostly, if not with their mothers."
Learning the facts of life was easy enough for country girls living on farms, where birth and death were daily events; the subject was rarely talked about,and very much taken for granted:
"I wasn't officially told the facts of life, I seemed to collect them, I never worried about them. Then we had a farm and I accepted it as part of life. I remember being awfully angry at the idea that I had to have a doctor when I had a baby. I thought it was a frightful thing. I remember saying, 'I want to go into the middle of a wood and have it, and come out again!"
"I suppose I was rather shattered because it was all sort of taken for granted. I had several sisters and at first I was very proud, and then we thought, what an awful nuisance, we've got to do this for the rest of our lives. I must say,we must have been very shielded, it wasn't talked about much in families, more amongst friends when you got to school."
Women progressed through pregnancy usually with no medical attention at all. Checks on blood pressure, weight and even blood grouping of the mother to test compatability with the baby were never made, not that much could have been done to put things right anyway.Mothers did, however, know only too well the dangers of German measles during pregnancy although it was the mid-1940s before scientists officially discovered the dangers:
"Because they are a dangerous thing, are German measles, for a woman who is expecting a baby. The child comes deaf and dumb. I knew about that because there was a woman in our village whose daughter had German measles when she was expecting and her boy was deaf and dumb but a very clever boy after that. Passed his motoring test first time! But they wanted everyone to have German measles when they were young."
Whether a woman was rich or poor made quite a difference at the time of the birth. The very poor couldn't afford the midwife or doctor who could ease a difficult labour with ether or other painkilling agents; and a maternity hospital or nursing home was out of the question:
"Of course poor people had to suffer. I remember when my son was born I was in labour two days and three nights. I had two doctors, but never went to hospital; they had instruments, dreadful! Yes, they had to have instruments but they couldn't do the operations they do today."
The better off not only had the doctor as a matter of course, but many employed a living-in nurse whose job it was solely to attend expectant mothers and to look after mother and baby for several weeks or months after the birth:
"Old nanny, a darling person, a wonderful nurse I had. She6d been to my mother, she believed in all these (traditional) things so much, and she didn't believe in putting a baby in a pram to let it sleep. We had battles royal over that but you couldn't do anything because she was in charge, entirely in charge. She was wonderful, she walked with the baby in a long dress...with a little bow under her chin, a lovely frill round her face, spotlessly clean, her clothes were all white pique. She went from one generation of babies to their babies and to their daughters' babies."
When a woman went into labour, with a nurse in attendance, the doctor was informed and would pop in from time to time, or sometimes stay all night if the delivery was proving difficult. Pain relief was available:
"In those days it was ether, and then they got to some kind of gas. When I had my babies I just had a whiff of that just to get through because it was fairly tough, you know, big babies... and then you were kept in bed for ages, all strapped up."
Many women were kept in bed for three weeks after childbirth which not only caused serious weakness but even fatal thrombosis in some:
"You had strips of white cotton wrapped around the middle and pinned with large safety pins on the front, so that you couldn't fall apart. But you rather felt as if you might, because you were wrapped up like that. Whereas if you'd been able to get your muscles going you wouldn't have felt so bad about it. You were usually in bed for three weeks, time for you to throughly weaken."
Before the arrival of trained nurses in village life, many mothers were attended by the village 'nurse', and were unlucky enough to die of fever and infection if they hadn't called the doctor.
In large families, when a newborn baby died, the reason was often never even known:
"They had very big families, and after the baby was born, it died of things that weren't understood in those days."
Country women knew nothing about birth control, and even if they had, its doubtful whether they would have practised it. But as things changed over the years and district nurses and midwives were able to do more to educate women, the numbers of children in a family decreased, and infant mortality lessened..