Anon, Gloucester, 1954-67
I was born in 1931 and married in 1954. I am the fourth of five children, and we all grew up in Sheffield during the war, so things were never easy for any of us, what with bombing raids and evacuation and rationing! I left school when I was eighteen, after Higher School Certificate, and then trained in Liverpool to be a physiotherapist.
After I qualified, I applied for a job in Gloucester, as there was a good train service between there and Sheffield, where my parents still lived. Happily, I was accepted and worked in a general hospital, in every department in turn, including maternity. I shared a flat with a friend and we enjoyed being independent, going to parties and dances, just having a good time. Two years later I married an architect.
My husband and I rented a rural cottage in which there was no electricity, so we had Calor gas for cooking, refrigeration, ironing and some lighting – otherwise oil lamps. There was no mains water, but we had a pump over the sink, that we had to operate by hand. This brought up the water into a tank, so we could flush the loo and have a bath. Of course that meant a lot of pumping! There was a pond in the garden with ducks on it. Romantic maybe, but very basic, but then practically no-one lived in centrally heated homes in those days, and many had outside loos. As our loo was inside, that was luxury indeed!
Anyway, I became pregnant, no problem in getting pregnant in our family. The GP confirmed it when I started the morning sickness. Unfortunately that turned into morning, noon and night sickness! Hyperemesis gravidarum. I became so dehydrated that I had to be admitted to hospital to be put on a drip. That started as a rectal drip, and was followed by a drip in my arm. I had also lost a lot of weight. I felt there was little sympathy for me from the nursing staff, but I did improve and was able to return to work. One odd side effect was that I could not bear to drink tea! And I so loved my cup of tea normally.
It was normal to have your first baby in hospital so I was referred to the consultant obstetrician, when about five months. The baby was due in early January. He examined my tummy and then asked if I was sure of my dates. He then arranged for me to have my tummy X-rayed. Yes, really, X rays of the baby!! Two X-rays were taken, front to back and side to side and then I was told that I was having twins and shown the X-rays. Two little knobs for heads and two strings of beads that were the vertebral columns! That was a surprise! However was I going to manage two babies in our primitive cottage? No scans in those days! I just about managed to keep working till I was almost six months pregnant and then we had to start thinking about our future with two babies. In those days if you were pregnant it was assumed that you had finished working and had to resign. No Maternity Pay or the job kept open, and no Family Allowance for the first baby.
My sister and I shared maternity clothes and carry cots, so we just had to buy one and I could borrow hers. She had just had her first baby, a boy. I seemed to spend the next three months sewing baby clothes, knitting matinee jackets, buying dozens of terry towelling and muslin nappies, cot bedding etc. etc. We managed to get a second hand twin pram. I had to rest more and more, but it was all going to be worth while as we were getting two for the price of one! The babies were due early in January, but I was told to prepare for them to be premature. That seemed unlikely as I just got bigger and bigger. It was very cold that December, and for the first time ever we would not be enjoying a family Christmas with my family in Yorkshire. Those babies were not in a hurry to leave their cosy home to enter the cold world. Despite all the resting my ankles swelled up so that getting shoes on was very difficult. The bed was put up on bricks at the foot to elevate my legs at night. The local Midwife was also the Health Visitor, so she too was keeping an eye on me. She was the best nurse I have ever met. More about her later. I saw the consultant just before Christmas and he decided that I should be admitted just after Christmas for induction, and certainly for more bed rest and salt free diet!
So my husband and I had a chicken for Christmas dinner, went to watch the hunt on Boxing Day and I went into hospital on 27 December. I looked enormous and weighed in at 12 stone. I was told I had toxaemia – now called pre-eclampsia. As a former staff member I was given a room to myself.
It was imperative that the birth was induced. I was getting quite excited that soon I would see my babies. They had been very active inside me for months and I felt I knew them. Would I have a couple of footballers or ballet dancers, or perhaps one of each?
To induce the birth I was given a cup of castor oil with orange juice to flavour it. Apart from opening my bowels in a big way, nothing else happened. Continue the bed rest and salt free diet. The only doctor I saw was a junior doctor doing his six months experience on a maternity ward. On New Year’s Eve he decided to ‘break the waters’ so I was taken down to the theatre and he poked around for ages before saying he was not able to do it. It was very unpleasant, but in a way I was happy that I might not have one baby in 1955 and one in 1956! Castor oil again! Diarrhoea again. Still no babies.
Wednesday was the day the consultant did his rounds – the only day! On January 4, he came to see me and told me he would do the induction himself. Back to the theatre that same afternoon. He very quickly broke the waters of the first baby, and soon after that I went into labour. I was taken to a different room for this first stage and left there on my own. I had read all the books and practised all the relaxation exercises, so when it became very painful, I thought something was wrong. Occasionally a midwife popped in to see if I was O.K. and I was assured that all was well. At that time husbands or other family members were excluded. In any case, no-one could take time off work just because their wife was having a baby, either for the birth or other visits.
It was not too long before I was taken into the room where I was to give birth. I was absolutely thrilled that soon I would meet my much wanted babies. As far as I remember there were two midwives and the same junior doctor. I had taken off my glasses – I am very short sighted – and they had put them on the nearby locker. Unfortunately, someone knocked them off the locker and broke the lens, which was, of course, made of glass, so my vision was very limited.
At 10.15p.m. my first son was born, cried lustily and was immediately removed to be weighed and washed. I vaguely saw him before I went into labour again. The placenta came next. Just twenty minutes later his brother was born. As my glasses had been broken I could only dimly see that they were doing things to him and it was very quiet – no cry from the baby. Everything was a blur in every way. After a time, someone came to say that they were sorry but I was only going to have one baby. The first boy weighed 7 lbs 7 oz and his brother was just over 7 lbs. The second placenta came away and then there was the stitching up to be done. The same junior doctor had my legs put up in stirrups and proceeded to do the necessary stitching without a local anaesthetic! No wonder I was so shocked that my leg came out of the stirrup and hit him on the head. Serve him right!
I did not hold my healthy baby till much later and the second I never held at all. This has haunted me all my life. I had felt him move, I had seen him on x-ray, I had grown to love him and he was taken away when I had scarcely seen him. His name was Peter, after my grandfather.
I was wheeled back to my room. The soiled sheets (after the induction) had not been changed, but I was past caring. It was very late, and I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. I was alone. Some one phoned my husband and he was asked to come and see the consultant the next day.
Apart from when I was in the delivery room no-one expressed their sympathy. Perhaps none of the other nurses even knew that my baby had died as they handed over his brother for his feed. The babies were kept in a nursery. I had no problem breast-feeding him. My tummy had reduced considerably and I now weighed 9 stone, a reduction of 3 stone overnight! That was one stone under my normal healthy weight. With over 14 lbs of baby, the end of my sternum had been pushed forward and had to be pushed back by the doctor.
In those days the stay in hospital was two weeks, ten days of which were totally in bed. The nurses swabbed us down below twice a day. The baby was produced for feeds and then removed. One day my son was given to me for feeding with the binder round his tummy all bloody. By now I was sure he too would die, but whatever the cause it healed up fine. No-one mentioned the twin brother or seemed to be aware of how unhappy I was. The care was all about the physical side of things and was very good.
Meanwhile what was happening to Peter. Someone spoke to my husband (not me) and explained that a post mortem had to done to find out how a healthy full-term baby did not survive the delivery. He was also asked what his wishes were for disposal of the baby. Disposal was the word used! When he asked what was the usual procedure, he was told that an undertaker could put him in a grave somewhere when there was an interment, but we would not be able to choose where or when. He was also told he had to register the birth and still birth.
We discussed this together and decided that our son should be buried properly in our village churchyard in a proper coffin. It was all so difficult. Being happy that our other son was alive and well made it emotionally challenging. The Rector of our parish was leaving the village on the Saturday, so did not visit me. There was no service to the maternity ward from the hospital chaplaincy, and it did not seem that the midwives were trained in the necessary counselling. They had enough to do dealing with delivering babies and looking after the mums’ physical needs. It was decided that Peter should be buried on the Saturday, so my husband, with the undertaker and the Rector took the tiny coffin and Peter was duly buried in the churchyard, in the place where other babies had been buried in the past. There were no other mourners present.
The result of the post mortem was that there had been a tentorial tear. This was bleeding on the brain due to damage during the process of being born. This was probably because the second baby was pushed rapidly from higher in the abdomen to the birth canal and the soft bones of the skull were compressed rapidly causing the haemorrhage. Had the bleed been less severe he might have survived with brain damage – either cerebral palsy and/or learning difficulties.
The thought of one baby being fit and well and his twin being handicapped was certainly food for thought. I assume midwives are aware of this possibility and take measures to ensure that a second birth is not precipitate. My over-riding thought was that I would never again give birth in that hospital. The midwife I remember who showed kindness, was the one who realised I was producing enough milk for two. Even after I had expressed milk to be given to a premature baby, I could scarcely get my arms to my side. She arranged for me to have a few of the pills given to suppress milk production. So then there was milk for one and that was fine by me and my son.
The emotional challenge was profound. We needed to grieve over the death of Peter but at the same time rejoice over the survival his healthy brother. It still causes me problems.
Our first born son grew to be six foot three. He lives in London and has a very good job. Whenever we meet I see the shadow of his twin brother beside him. He too is very aware that he is a twin.
One other point. All multiple births were in hospital. That week there were three other sets of twins born. Two of the others had only one who survived and one stillborn. The mother who had healthy twins did not want them, did not see them, and had put them up for adoption. It was so sad. Had this happened in 2013, it is likely there would have been an inquiry. It just seemed to me that it was acceptable then.
We moved into the house we had built nearby when our son was about six months old. Now we had electricity and running water. When he was about fifteen months old I was pregnant again. More morning sickness, but not quite as bad. We went back to stay with my parents, my toddler and I. My mother ensured I was fed and my father entertained his grandson, or was it the other way round. Hyperemesis is accompanied by low blood pressure so that I could fall over if I stayed upright for very long. And I had the same dislike for tea. How stupid!!
As soon as I was fit enough we returned to Gloucester to the house we had built. The Health Visitor who had looked after me at home after the first baby, was also the Midwife for our village and surrounding area – Nurse Salisbury. She would deliver my second child – at home this time. It was she who took my blood pressure and did all the other ante-natal things including giving me iron injections into my rear – the most painful injections I have ever had. Apart from the pain, my bottom became brown from the iron! At that time the Community Services were managed from the Shire Hall. District Nurses were allocated a house. They were very much part of the community.
After those few weeks of sickness, I was very well. By seven months I felt I could play hockey for England! Not that I was any good at hockey! My firstborn was a very energetic boy, could climb up everything and open windows, even climb out of them and go off on an adventure, across the field or along the path by the road! Good thing we lived in a bungalow! We had bolts put at the top of all outside doors. He had been born in early January and his sibling would be born at Christmas, nearly two years later. The midwife (Nurse Salisbury) gave us a Delivery Pack of the things needed for the delivery. Around the corner a neighbour was also due to have her baby at about the same time. At about 6.0 a.m. on Boxing Day I was aware that I was going into labour so my husband duly rang up the midwife. However there was no response. I was putting the milk bottles out and I realised that there was a light on in my neighbour’s house – the one who was also having a Christmas baby. There are no street lights in our village so it seemed to me that it was possible that our midwife was busy there. My husband phoned their number and discovered that we had guessed correctly. Fortunately, that baby had been safely delivered and the Midwife was just finishing things off. Soon she arrived at our house but apologised that she did not have a clean apron to put on. There was no question that she would stay and deliver our baby, despite the fact she had been out much of the night. It was a very cold frosty night and morning.
Number one son was taken to another neighbour’s house until the birth was over. All was going well until it was realised that the rather large baby (for me) was somewhat stuck! He was not presenting with the narrow part of the head but the widest part. Nurse Salisbury phoned the GP to suggest I was taken to the hospital for emergency admission. His reply was that as it was Boxing Day morning everyone who was not drunk would have a hang over and that he would come out to our house right away, which he did. His surgery was three miles away, but there was no traffic at that time of the morning on Boxing Day. As the forceps were being boiled up in the kitchen, son number two eventually made his way into the world, somewhat battered, as was I, but he had avoided the forceps! He weighed in at 8lbs 12oz.
My uterus had had enough and was unwilling to push out the placenta. It seemed to me that the doctor and the midwife were jumping up and down on my tummy very hard to persuade it to come out. Success at last. Stitches again, but this time there was a local anaesthetic. It is a good thing that bed rest was still the order of the day because I could not have walked to our toilet. In fact I could not wee at all, so a catheter was used to make me comfortable.
Both the baby and I were somewhat exhausted, but at least we were alive and cared for by an excellent team, in whom we had confidence. And now we had two sons. The aftercare and Health Visiting were still by Nurse Salisbury.
In those golden days Social Services provided Home Helps who would come and stay in our home to look after existing children, and generally run the home for two weeks – a Resident Home Help. My mother up in Sheffield had a full time job and in those days husbands could not take time off work, so this service was invaluable. We had to pay a modest contribution to the County Council who provided the service, but it was much appreciated.
Two years later, I was pregnant again. There was the inevitable morning sickness for about ten weeks. The family rallied round again. Because the previous babies were large for my pelvis, nearer the time the baby was due, I was sent to see a consultant who agreed that there should be an induction, and that I should go to the hospital, have the waters broken and still have the baby at home. I had no intention of having the baby in that maternity ward! So about two weeks before the due date, on a Wednesday afternoon, my husband dropped me off at the maternity unit, the waters were broken with no problem, and I sat on a towel all the way home. We put the boys to bed and it was then time to call Nurse Salisbury.
At about 10.0pm our daughter was born and I could hear my husband on the phone to my parents with the exciting news that we had a girl! My sister had two boys and this was the first girl for the family. Actually my sister had had a third boy, but he died shortly after birth. She lived in the Midlands. Her baby was born with a severe heart problem probably caused because she had been exposed to German Measles (Rubella).
Nurse Salisbury pointed out that it was premature to ring the wider family as the placenta had not yet been delivered. Meanwhile as my uterus had gone on strike again, she had to ask the GP to come out and gave me the magic injection that enables the placenta to be delivered. I can’t remember the name [an oxytocic drug]. I was told that this had to be given by a doctor as there is always a risk of haemorrhage.
Again he did the stitching. At that time most GPs enjoyed being involved with the delivering of babies. Nurse Salisbury later told me that it was a good thing that the baby was delivered early as this was a face presentation, and again a fairly big baby – 8lbs. For both home births my husband assisted the midwife whenever she requested help.
Again I had a Resident Home Help. I was spared the iron injections but the baby was considered to be anaemic so she had to have iron drops by mouth. No brown bottom for me but now the nappies were brown! I had a job protecting the baby from the loving attention of her big brothers. One day I had put water in the bath (the big one, as that could not be knocked over) and the two year old helpfully brought the baby from her carry-cot for her bath carrying her by her feet!! It’s a miracle she survived the loving care of her brothers.
You can see how we liked Home Delivery in those days. Our own GP, our own midwife, all the comforts of being at home and someone to do the chores. Having a baby in the house with two energetic big brothers was exhausting, memorable and a wonderful thing. Six months later the eldest started at the village school and that is another story!
In 1967 when the children were aged eleven, nine and seven, and all attending the village school I was pregnant again. Again morning sickness and very low blood pressure, but again that passed with time.
The NHS had moved on. Home births were no longer the norm. I was over thirty five and so an Elderly Multigravida!! Nurse Salisbury had moved away. There was a new Maternity Hospital. Reluctantly I agreed to have the baby there. I had to go to the clinic at the hospital for check ups, which was not easy with a restricted rural bus service. It seems the Hospital had no access to the records held by the Shire Hall, so I had to explain what had happened on previous occasions. The consultant saw me and decided that the baby was not particularly big so induction was not needed. Unfortunately, iron injections were!!
Near the time of delivery I got bronchitis and coughed so much I had a haematoma over my tummy as it was so stretched. Antibiotics sorted that out. The Thursday of the week the baby was due was Local Election Day, so the children were having a day off school as the Polling Station was in the school. In the early afternoon, the second son had been down to the village shop on his bike, had fallen off and broken a front tooth. Then I realised I was in the early stages of labour, so rang up my husband to come home urgently.
He bundled everybody into the car and took me down to the Polling Station to vote. He then dropped me off at the maternity hospital and took son number two to the dentist. He then had to give them all their tea. I did not waste time in labour. I was alone until the delivery stage was reached, though a face looked in on me every now and then. Our third son was born at about 7.00 p.m. And I was immediately given the injection to ensure the placenta came away. This son weighed just 8lbs. One doctor and several nurses saw me when I arrived, and then there was a change of shift and different staff appeared. I was given a room to myself, which was nice and prepared for a good rest, which I felt I needed. I was then told that as an experienced Mum I was expected to look after the baby myself! And I was told to have a bath each day. That rest did not last long. I cannot remember how long the hospital stay was expected to last, but there were problems at home. Two of my children had tonsillitis, so I was not allowed to go home. Apparently Staphylococcus (cause of tonsillitis) is a danger to someone who has just had a baby. My eldest son was allowed to visit with his father. I was up and about, but not expected to get dressed. I was set to work taking round the teas and other little jobs. Very boring and frustrating.
At last it was considered safe for me to go home and I looked forward to presenting the baby to his siblings. Our daughter was vaguely interested, but my second son, a football fanatic looked at his little brother asleep in the pram, and commented, in disgust, that he was not much use for playing football. I’m not sure what he was expecting!
So there we have it. Eleven years between the first and the last, and how things had changed. I felt that being in a maternity hospital was just like being on a conveyor belt as you were passed along the line from person to person. It was impersonal and mechanical.
I have watched with interest the TV programmes based in Maternity Hospitals. All those probes and connections to machines. The staff seem to be extremely pressured except when they are having a well-earned cup of coffee in the nursing station. I am always surprised that the TV births recording stops when the baby is born! No messy afterbirths or stitching up these days apparently. No painful breasts. I am delighted that nowadays the mother is given the baby to hold immediately after it is born. No matter that the baby is messy.
IMPROVEMENTS BETWEEN 1956 AND TODAY
- More involvement of relatives in the delivery. The person in labour can have someone to talk to and encourage her. Midwives are freed up for the more skilled tasks. This has also meant a social change. Employers are expected to allow their staff off work to be present at the birth of their babies. Men are beginning to be fathers in the real sense. (There are exceptions!)
- Safer on the whole. Problems can be foreseen and understood.
- Doctors qualified in Obstetrics available all the time. At least I hope that is the case.
- Involvement of the Hospital Chaplaincy when needed.
- A bereavement room in some hospitals, I am not sure how that would work with a parents who have one live and one dead baby.
NOT SO GOOD
- There is the loss of the personal touch and continuity of care both at clinics and on the ward, but maybe that does not matter if the Mums are sent home in twenty four hours.
- Controversially, extremely premature babies are being kept alive, with high potential for permanent handicaps, which can destroy their parents and families.
Thank you for sharing your Birth Story.