Monday, May 5, 2014

What to Expect When Great-Grandma Was Expecting

In advance of Mother's Day this weekend, some thoughts on childbirth and my great-grandmothers.

During the course of my recent first pregnancy, I spent a lot of time thinking about birth in prior generations. This was at least in part because doing any research about childbirth inevitably leads to discussions of both how much birth has improved over the past century (maternal mortality declined from 6-9 deaths per 1000 live births in 1900 to less than 0.1 deaths per 1000 live births in 1999) and how much current standard practices can impeded the course of normal labor, increasing complications and leading to still more interventions, preventing our bodies from working the way our foremothers' were allowed to.

Don't worry, gentlemen, I'm not planning to go into much more detail than that! You can stick around.

However, my thinking about the history of childbirth was also substantially influenced by my natural historical and genealogical perspective, and so I've been calling to mind the stories I've heard of my great-grandmothers' birthing experiences.

Of course, these are not the detailed birth stories you can sometimes find on mommy blogs or when talking to your girlfriends. These are soundbites, the most interesting bits of an experience, the parts that could be sterilized for public consumption and that are interesting enough to have been repeated 3 generations later.

Molly Quinn O'Hara
Molly O'Hara, one of my paternal great-grandmothers, had 4 sons, including my paternal grandfather. She was the one who said that when it came to babies, you need to "Get them before they are two, or they will get you." She lived directly across the street from the hospital, and by the time she was pregnant with her fourth child, she said, she didn't bother seeing a medical professional during her pregnancy, but just showed up at the hospital when it was time. "I had done it three times before, I knew what I was doing."

Anna Cianciotta Lanzillotto
Anna Lanzillotto had 7 children, of whom my maternal grandmother was the fourth. According to my grandmother, when she was being born, her older sister, at 18 months or so, wouldn't leave the room or stop jumping on the bed. The midwife tried to shoo her out but she wouldn't go, or at least wouldn't go quietly, so her mother allowed her to stay. "But," Grandma said, "I'm sure that when I was coming, they got her out of there!"

As the story of my grandmother's birth illustrates, her mother was accustomed to giving birth at home. However, one year at Christmas time, my grandmother recalled that she and her siblings couldn't find their mother anywhere. They looked all over, under beds, in closets, but there was no sign of her. Finally, someone came home to tell them that they had a new baby brother, and that mother and baby were in the hospital. I'm not aware of any particular circumstances that would have caused Anna to deliver Baby #7 in the hospital after 6 home births, other than changing conventions and the fact that hospital births were becoming more common as time went on (1930s as opposed to 1920s). There could have been risk factors I'm unaware of, or it could have been due to the simple fact that a mother is, by definition, older when giving birth to her seventh baby than to her first, and "advanced maternal age" can be a risk factor for many complications, though how strongly that was considered at the time I don't know.

Maria D'Ingeo Gatto
Maria Gatto also had seven children, of whom my maternal grandfather was the 6th, I believe. All 7 were born at home, my grandfather told me recently. "We never had a doctor. My mother was my doctor." Beyond that, I know that those seven children were not her only births. I had heard that she was a midwife, but my grandfather told me recently that that's not exactly accurate. She delivered 9 babies in addition to her own. According to Grandpa, she just happened to be there for some of them, and then was called by other women, too poor to hire the real midwife, because "she knew how to do it."

Veronica Mulvaney Mulcahy
Veronica Mulcahy gave birth to three children in the 1930s and 1940s. In this case, I know little of their actual births, although I have a hospital "birth certificate" (not the official municipal certificate) from Bensonhurst Maternity Hospital in Brooklyn for her eldest, my paternal grandmother Marilyn Mulcahy, so I know that at least one of her children was born there. This doesn't surprise me, as I remember a conversation among my aunts once about whether their parents had been born in hospitals or at home - they didn't know the answer, although clearly on that side of the family, hospitals were the norm - in which one volunteered that "I can't imagine Nana giving birth without whatever forerunner of the epidural existed at the time." (I tried to do some research into what pain relief options would have actually been available at Bensonhurst Maternity Hospital at the time, but found no specific information, and conflicting reports as to the general use of the most well-known early drug for labor pains, twilight sleep.)

What's interesting to me is the clear divide here between the birth  practices of the two sides of my family. The Italians had all or mostly home births. The Irish apparently had all hospital births. Was this a mainly cultural difference? Socioeconomic? Was it related to the fact that my Italian great-grandmothers were both immigrants, and my Irish great-grandmothers native-born New Yorkers? How did these factors interact during what was clearly a time of transition from birth at home, attended by a midwife, to birth at a hospital, attended by a doctor? Where do these "soundbite" birth stories fit into the historical context of the time (1920s-1940s) and place (New York City)? My brief online research didn't supply answers.

What do you know about childbirth in the early-mid 20th century, in general or in NYC in particular?

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