A century ago, almost every Australian woman knew someone who had died during childbirth.
Thus, when women fell pregnant, they were well aware of the risk. Some were, rightfully, terrified.
Once understood to be a natural life event, giving birth was now (at least to city women) thought to be an injury or crisis. And sometimes, for the first time in history, childbirth required medical intervention.
‘Experts’ like John D. West wrote extensively about motherhood, and said a woman knows she’s pregnant when she experiences a “depraved appetite”.
“The woman eats enormously, for her, and still is always hungry,” he explained. “This craving will sometimes compel her to get up at midnight and eat… if she refuses to satisfy this craving for particular kinds of food, the thought of it will haunt her day and night.”
LISTEN: Midwife Cath shares on Mamamia’s pregnancy podcast, Hello Bump, how you know if you’re going to have an easy birth. Post continues below.
As an aside, I am not pregnant, but West has managed to summarise my life in two sentences.
Furthermore, it was said that succumbing to such cravings would result in your child having an ugly birthmark. Jesus.
In the early 20th century, 90 per cent of doctors had no formal qualifications. They’d been trained on the job. With that said, there were a number of developments during the late 19th century regarding sanitation and infection, which would save countless lives.
Most women still gave birth at home, but for those who went to a hospital while in labour, the first thing a nurse or doctor would do was cleanse the abdomen, thighs and external genitals.
In order to adequately do this, they would cut or shave the woman’s pubic hair, before scrubbing her with warm, sterile water and soap, and after drying, bathing her in bichloride solution or Lysol, in order to render her surgically clean.
Women would then labour in beds on their back with their feet in stirrups, now known to be a “less than optimum” position for childbirth.
Nurses and doctors were overworked and often unsympathetic. Many women described being "slapped, verbally threatened and criticised for their performance in labour." Fathers were excluded from the process altogether.
The early 20th century saw the development of 'Twilight Sleep', thought to be a solution to the enormous amount of pain women went through.
The Twilight Sleep Association in the US deemed the aid a "safe and efficacious means of securing painless childbirth". In retrospect, Twilight sleep did neither of those things.
Doctors believed they were making childbirth less painful for women, and preventing tearing, which would reduce the risk of a bacterial infection. Delivery would also be more comfortable.
Twilight sleep consisted of dosing the mother with morphine, which has significant effects on the central nervous system and is highly addictive, and a disorienting drug named scopolamine. The pain was still significant, though they would fall in and out of consciousness. The combination of drugs offered the possibility that the woman would entirely forget the birthing experience.
But doctors reported horrific experiences of women becoming violent and thrashing in their beds as a result of the full force of contractions. They would try and claw out their own eyes and climb walls because of the intensity of their hallucinations. Their faces would go blue, and they screamed at the top of their lungs. Dr Patty Stokes, an assistant professor of women's and gender studies at Ohio University, says "The scopolamine induced amnesia, liberating women from normal self-control mechanisms, while cocaine took the edge off."
The result of such a cocktail was women so dangerous that they had to be strapped down in order to ensure they didn't hurt themselves or anyone else.
On top of not actually providing adequate pain relief, Twilight sleep also prolonged labour. The longer a woman was labouring, the higher her chances of bleeding to death, the baby suffocating, or requiring forceps (often not adequately sterilised) to extract the baby.
Simply, Twilight sleep meant the mother and the baby were more likely to die.
Some women were administered Twilight sleep without their consent, and woke up lost and confused, with no memory of what had happened. The level of sedation also greatly affected the baby.
The other major form of pain relief, developed in the mid 19th century and used up until the 1920s, was chloroform.
The Murphy's inhaler was made up of chloroform on cotton wool, and was inhaled by a labouring woman whenever she felt necessary.
Louis A. Spaeth had a different theory regarding pain relief, believing the nerves of the womb were directly connected to those in the clitoris. In 1907, he wrote, "we are enabled to lessen the pains of labour to a very marked degree. During the first stages, pressure is made with the fingers on the terminal filaments of the sympathetic nerves in and around the clitoris. The index and middle fingers are placed, one on each side of this organ, and firm, moderately hard pressure is made against the bone... a reflex result occurs... in which all unnecessary flying pains cease."
Following the birth, the woman was separated from her baby swiftly, in a bid to prevent infection. After a few hours, they were reunited.
It was advised that women rest for the weeks following birth, and one doctor advised that she does not walk, do shopping or visit friends for at least five weeks following the birth. But - as is the case today - women were normally up and moving fairly quickly, because their household wasn't going to run itself.
LISTEN: Bec Judd talks about the pelvic floor exercises she swears by on Hello Bump. Post continues below.
There is another thing that hasn't changed much in 100 years, and that's an acknowledgement that women are goddamn warriors. John Gunn wrote in the late 19th century;
"That women generally endure pain and sickness with more fortitude and patience than men, is evident. Few men could be induced, for any consideration, to suffer in a similar manner."
Childbirth has, and always will, take an enormous amount of courage, strength and mental resolve.
I for one am extremely grateful I exist in a century where chloroform and Twilight sleep are no longer acceptable methods of pain relief.