By Deena Blumenfeld
This is the first in a series of historical fiction birth stories. The people are fictitious, but their experiences are common for the time period. The series will continue monthly until we reach the end of the 20th century.
Birth Stories of the Past: Albert Jr., Born May 12, 1900
• Mother - Nellie Elizabeth, homemaker
• Father - Albert James, Sr., factory warden, Heinz plant
• Baby – Albert James, Jr., 6lbs 4 oz, 19 in
• Date of birth – May 12, 1900
• Gestational age – full term, exact age unknown
---Elizabeth ("Lizzie") Margaret, age 3
---John Paul (deceased), Dec. 2, 1898 – Jan 8, 1899. Cause of death – Pertussis.
All babies born at home
Location – Allegheny City, Pa
April 2, 1900
My husband, Albert, wants me to have this baby in hospital instead of at home where our other two children were born. He’s been reading in the papers about these maternity wards and the lying-in hospitals in the bigger cities like New York. From what he’s been reading, he tells me that doctors are better trained and better equipped in-hospital than midwives at home. He tells me that the baby and I will be safer there than with the midwife who has caught our babies, Mrs. Ellie Mae Stone.
I am unsure how to proceed. On the one hand, I want to respect my husband’s wishes. He does want wants best for me and for our children. On the other hand, Mrs. Stone was lovely during both of my births. She came when she was called. She brought her bag of supplies with her, including chloroform*** and a mask, if I needed it. She was like a mother to me during my labor, sitting on my bed and using a cool cloth on my forehead. In the quiet times, we’d gossip a bit about neighborhood news. Before she left, she’d help change and clean the bed clothes and she’d make sure I’d eaten a good meal.
I am as yet undecided, but I believe I’d prefer to have this baby at home too.
April 11, 1900
I sent a letter to my cousin in New York, who had recently given birth in a lying-in hospital. As it was her first baby, she had no previous experience with which to compare. So, I take her response in context.
She wrote, “When my pains started, my husband took me to the hospital. I was then taken, alone, to the labor ward. Each bed had a woman ready to deliver, with naught but a curtain between the beds. The nurses were kind, but stern. When it came to push, I was removed to the delivery room. I was placed upon the birthing table, my legs trussed up in stirrups, and sheets were arranged about my body such that only my lady parts were available to be seen. I was given, what I believe to be chloroform, but I am unsure. The next moments are dim memory. I held my son briefly before they retired him to the nursery. I was then very unwell with childbed fever***. My fever lasted four days before it broke. I don’t recall much of my fever time. I then spent another six days in the hospital before returning home with my son.”
There are some things in her brief tale that vex me. I do not wish to be in a room with many women laboring. My own house and bed offer more comfort than does a large and un-private space. Her childbed fever raises fear in my mind. If the hospital is to be safer, then how did she fall ill, when I having, given birth at home did not? I have no answer. I also am hard pressed to imagine being away from my child and my husband for ten days. How would they fair without me? I believe I must again speak to my husband regarding the matter of giving birth at home instead of in hospital.
April 19, 1900
Although Albert is a mite discontent with my preference to stay home and deliver our child into the hands of Mrs. Stone, he has relented to my pleadings. I believe my cousin’s account of her childbed fever has swayed his opinion to my favor.
May 15, 1900
I have not written in quite some time. Lizzie had a fall and needed to rest and allow her leg to recover. She is doing well now. With all the hubbub, I almost forgot I was nearing my time to welcome our new baby. On May 12, 1900 at half past eight in the evening, our son, Albert James Jr. was born. He has a full head of brown hair and blue eyes. He took to his sister straightaway, as if he already knew her.
As he was my third baby, his transition to the world was smooth. My pains started at breakfast. Albert sent for the midwife just before lunch and she arrived posthaste. Mrs. Stone, set the bed to be ready for the baby’s birth. She placed the newspapers over the mattress and some old towels atop the newspaper. A clean sheet was placed for me to lie upon. I paced the house, while Lizzie sang and played with her two dolls. Albert fussed in the kitchen trying to prepare dinner. I admit, he does not cook well. I was no longer hungry by the time food was ready, but Mrs. Stone encouraged a bit of broth into me for fortification. When Albert Jr. was ready to come, he made no delay. I worked to push him out only a short time before he emerged squalling and pink. He took to the breast straightaway. He fills my heart with joy.
Learn more about chloroform use during childbirth and about "childbed" (puerperal fever) on Deena Blumenfeld's site The Silent Mother.
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