'My waters broke. I didn't know what happened. She just gave me a baby's nappy to wear and told me to keep going.'
Having their waters break was the most frequent introduction to labour, and which a number of women had no idea about. A few believed themselves to have ‘spent a penny’, another called upon a staff member of the home and was handed a baby’s nappy to wear while she finished her duties. The Homes were divided in their approach to the birthing process, some served only as a residence requiring the women to get themselves to hospital, check-in, give birth and return to the home on their own accord. Some were transported in an ambulance, with or without sirens depending on their state, while other homes had medical wings allowing the women to give birth in the labour ward of the home. Perhaps the most heart-warming was a particular residence which had its own maternity ward, and a bell which would be rung when a new baby was born, announcing the birth and giving a celebratory tone to the new life.
According to the 1968 study for homes that did not have maternity wards, which were the majority, expectant mothers were taken to hospital in a taxi or ambulance alone. Matrons regretted having them go alone, but felt too short staffed to send someone with them. This practice was condemned in a 1958 study by the Ministry of Health but seemed not to have made much impact a decade later as it continued. The report suggested that hospitals took care to call the unmarried women ‘Mrs’ and to treat them equally, however a number of the women in this project distinctly recalled nursing staff loudly referring to them as ‘Miss’ and making a point of their child being illegitimate. Some matrons from the study confirmed that this unfortunately did occur, and one participants recalled her father in his single show of support for her during her pregnancy reprimanding a nurse who continually referred to her as ‘Miss’ in a derogatory tone.
While the biological facts of birth have not changed with time, some of the practices applied during the birthing process have. A few of the women involved in my study recall being given nitrous oxide, or ‘gas and air,’ to aid in the delivery of their baby, a practice still in use as the most popular form of anaesthesia in the UK labour wards today, though virtually unheard of for this purpose in the USA or Europe. However, the majority of the women in this study mostly recalled being given nothing for their pain, and being left alone for long periods of time adding to their fear and anxiety. Given the sometimes long duration of labour it is unsurprising that hospital staff were not always in attendance, however part of the difference may be attributed to the fact the women had no family to comfort them during this time either. By and large the women in this study were left to labour on their own, gave birth and received their newborns with no one beside them. Some had their newborns swiftly removed from the room, generally for the post-birth checks that were conducted, though they were not informed of the reason and were left worried something had happened to their baby. One woman had her newborn daughter taken immediately from the room and was never allowed to see her as the hospital knew she was going to be relinquishing her baby for adoption.
Visiting hours seemed to be the most painful and lonely, as it was in these moments that the women were most keenly aware of their status. As the married mothers around them received delighted family and husbands to croon over their new babies, the unwed mothers were left solo with just their baby at their side. Without the same fanfare their status became apparent, and many felt the married mothers treated them differently because of this and were sometimes cruel. One participant was grateful for the kindness of a cleaning lady in hospital who was the only to speak to her kindly and offer up praise of her newborn, for others the only admiration and congratulations they received were from other mothers from the Home once they returned.
Labour and Birth
'I went into labour that day. I didn't know what it was, I just kept having backache. I was getting these pains and I thought it was constipation pains... The nurse sussed out I was in labour and sent for ambulance. And I was sent on my own, in an ambulance to the hospital.'
What happened the day she was born?
'Sent off to hospital in an ambulance with the sirens going. So, hospital I've never seen. Nobody knew where I was. Nobody with me. And I was quite frightened by this point because it was all a bit melodramatic.'
Did you go to hospital for the birth?
'There was a labour ward within the home. There were two rooms, how they managed if two girls went into labour at the same time I don't know... Course, my waters broke first. It was all so alien to me, I just didn't know what to expect and my waters broke. And they gave me a baby's nappy to wear!'
[Note: This clip has a phone ringing at the end, but I wanted to include it because it was a birth within the home's maternity ward.]