Looking back: Birth stories from our grandparents

This week in honor of Grandparents Day (next Sunday the 11th), we're featuring stories from our own grandmothers chronicling their birth experiences from years ago.

 Today, Associate Editor Tracy Brown’s mother and grandmother recount the birth of Tracy’s dad Stephen.

Ahh, the good old days. The days of no husbands in the delivery room (if there even was a delivery room), no Cesarean sections unless it was life or death, no private rooms only wards in the hospital, no epidurals, no pain medication, no ultrasounds, no antibiotics, and above all, no pushing.

The year was 1952, not bad weather for the month of November, when Virginia lost her mucus plug and went into labor with her first child. At that time, she lived in the coalfields of Berwind, West Virginia. She was a little woman, 5 feet 2 inches, only 78 pounds at the beginning of her pregnancy, 138 at the end. Each coalfield had their own doctor and—except for a bad cold at seven months for which she could not take any medicine—her monthly checkups had gone well.

Once her labor began, her husband went to get the doctor who came to the house. She expected to deliver at home just like her mother before her who had delivered ten children at home, six boys and four girls. When the doctor arrived, he confirmed Virginia’s worst fear. She was too little and would have to go to Grace Hospital, 50 miles away in Welch, West Virginia.

Virginia was young and frightened, not knowing anyone at the hospital when she arrived and was put in a ward with four other women. There was no delivery room and no private rooms. She was instructed not to push as the first day and night went by, not to push as the second day and night went by and not to push as the third day began. Finally, enough was enough. Her mother, Ella, who had been a midwife at many births said “We’re gonna get that baby out of there.” She instructed Virginia to put her feet against the end of the metal bed, took ahold of her arms and told her to push again and again until, around 5:00 in the afternoon of the third day, her son came into the world.

Now in those days, when a woman had a baby she had to stay in bed for seven days, so it was another four days until Virginia was allowed to come home with the following instructions, “Go home and put your feet up.” Still swollen from her days of labor, she spent a few days with her mother-in-law until she was able to ride and then she was finally able to stay with her mother for a few weeks. While she was in the hospital, they would put a heat lamp on her bottom at least two times a day and she could take a sitz bath. She was given the medicine from the hospital to continue the sitz bath at home. She put warm water in a bed pan, added the medicine which turned the water blue and sat for awhile three times a day. She returned to the hospital for her six-week checkup.

Back then, there were no pediatricians, just regular doctors who saw children and adults alike. There were no preventive vaccinations and there were only about two medicines to use when your baby got sick. One was called something like Creadite, a small black pill which smelled like licorice and was crushed in a spoon and mixed with water. This was given if your baby had a cold or fever. The other was Vicks Vapor Rub, the staple of any good medicine cabinet, then and now.

Times do change. Even though Virginia’s water broke early for her next two pregnancies, she was only in the hospital for one week for her second delivery in 1957 and only three days for her third in 1962. She was up washing clothes the very next day. By then, they did have a pill to help with early contractions but they did not have preemie nipples for the new baby.

Now we have prenatal vitamins, epidurals, pain medication, private rooms, delivery rooms, C-sections when needed, ultrasounds, antibiotics and husbands to help. So when someone says, “Ahh, the good old days,” say a silent prayer— thank God they’re gone!

Send us your birth story! Whether you had a home birth, hospital birth, 37-hour labor or emergency C-section, we’d love to read the tale of your little one’s grand entrance. Write up your birth story (click here for tips on getting started) and email it, along with a few photos, to birthstory@pnmag.com. We’ll share it on our Birth Day blog and may even print it in an upcoming issue!

By Virginia and Carol Bowden

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