After my traumatic experience in a private Sydney maternity hospital in 1968 I joined the band of pioneers for better conditions in maternity hospitals in the late 1960s and 1970s. Consequently, it was a source of great satisfaction and happiness to see my daughter, Chantal and my son-in-law, Laurent experience holistic antenatal care, a sensitive and safe labour and delivery, and caring and competent postnatal support with the arrival of their second child, Luke in 2005.
Their first child, Amy was born in 2000 at the same hospital where I had been, however by this time attitudes were more enlightened. Unfortunately, some obstetric practices were still deeply entrenched and some questionable interference took place rather than labour being allowed to progress unhindered. The outcome was a series of interventions which lead to an experience in which the emotional health of the parents was disregarded. After lack of support with breastfeeding and settling the baby on the evening of Day Three, Chantal came home and through her own efforts obtained advice and support for breastfeeding, and returned to her GP for postnatal care.
By the time Chantal was pregnant with Luke we had all moved to the South East corner of Queensland. While seeking obstetric care which would ensure a better experience than that of Amy’s birth, Chantal discovered a wonderful program at the local private hospital. She was advised by the staff at the Maternity Centre that their Care in Partnership program had been developed in response to women asking for increased midwifery care during the pregnancy, birth and postnatal period. The midwives expressed the belief that when women felt comfortable, respected, safe and nurtured they gave birth with more confidence.
As well as establishing a relationship with a midwife, Chantal also saw her obstetrician and was able to participate in childbirth classes and get to know the other midwives in the program should her midwife be off-duty when labour commenced. Home visits were available during the pregnancy as well as after the birth.
Both the midwife and obstetrician were aware of the distressing experience of Amy's birth and while maintaining professional discretion assured Chantal and Laurent that it was unlikely to occur again. Chantal was feeling very confident that the midwife would guide them through the process of labour and delivery, and she did! She was there to welcome them to the birthing suite at 4.30am and encouraged and supported them while Chantal laboured until Luke was born in the bath at 12.23pm. The obstetrician was on holidays however his partner arrived promptly when requested and also assisted Luke into the world. When my husband, Rob and I took Amy to visit them at 3.30pm the midwife came into the room to do her final check before going off duty, promising to return the next day!
There was consistency among other staff members who cared for Chantal and Luke and very intensive support given on Day Three (the notorious day known by most mothers!). The midwife continued her postnatal care and spent time with Amy.
When I saw this happy family I felt I had received a huge reward for my efforts from way back. It really was the culmination of all the little successes we had struggled for and the "thank you" notes I had received from parents. Before 1968 I had no intention of joining a "cause" - I just wanted to give birth to the baby, breastfeed him and enjoy our new little family.
During my pregnancy I had discussed with the obstetrician my wish for a “natural childbirth”. He replied that the confinement should be as natural as possible and added that “it worked for some and not for others”. He suggested that I attend the antenatal classes at the hospital where I was booked for delivery. The classes were conducted by a physiotherapist who taught us deep-breathing techniques for first stage labour and panting-breathing for transitional stage (when the urge to push is experienced but the cervix may not yet be fully dilated). She also demonstrated the use of the trilene mask which she indicated we would probably need.
Rob had attended the obstetrician’s antenatal visits with me and we asked if he could be present for the birth. The doctor replied that the hospital did not have facilities for husbands to be with their wives during labour and delivery. His personal opinion was that “husbands were in the way and that delivery was not the kind of thing they should watch”.
Eight days after the expected date of confinement contractions commenced around 1am. They were strong and came regularly at five-minute intervals. At 2.30am Rob went into a neighbour’s home to ring the hospital – we did not have the phone connected and there were no mobiles in those days! The sister insisted on speaking to me so I struggled next door, breathing through the contractions. She assured me I “had a long way to go” and said “ring back later”. We waited till 5am, after I had been experiencing contractions at three-minute intervals for some time – lasting between 60 and 90 seconds then woke our generous neighbour again (an 86-year-old lady) to call the hospital. The sister doubted that labour had progressed sufficiently for me to be admitted but said that if it would ease my mind I could come in.
As soon as we returned home the membranes ruptured and I felt the urge to push! The drive to the hospital took about 40 minutes which was a long time to pant and also control hyperventilation! When Rob heard me bearing down he took up the panting breathing to get me back on track!
We arrived at the hospital around 6.20am and by the welcome I received I gathered it was close to the end of the staff shift and I had “upset their apple cart”. I can certainly appreciate their tiredness but my arrival at that time was not my choice, and did not justify the hostile treatment I received which included the directive “shut up and turn over” when I said I would prefer to not use the trilene mask.
By the time the doctor arrived about 20 minutes later the contractions had weakened considerably. However, now dressed in sterile leggings, lying flat on my back with legs pulled up, I was finally permitted to push. The doctor decided he needed to do an episiotomy, firstly giving a local anaesthetic in lieu of the ether mask which I had also declined. By this stage I was really off-side with the staff!
After a few pushes and the doctor removing the cord from around the baby’s neck, Paul was held aloft by his feet. Soon the placenta was expelled and while the doctor was showing it to me the nurse brought Paul over to me to touch – not hold – then placed him in a cot which was left beside the delivery bed. At least I was able to look at him.
Meanwhile, Rob had been kept waiting in the corridor outside the delivery room. After the doctor finished suturing my perineum he asked the sister to tell Rob he had a son and that he could come in. However, Rob was apparently also in “the bad books” because the sister ignored him and disappeared down the corridor. When she returned five minutes later Rob approached her. She called over her shoulder “the doctor said to tell you that you have a son – wait here and the doctor will see you soon”. The doctor then went out and brought Rob in.
Rob spent about ten minutes with Paul and me before he was told to leave. About 15 minutes later Paul was taken away and, apart from having a very short cuddle after I was taken to the ward, I did not see him again until a five-minute cuddle at seven that evening. Feeding was out of the question!
On reflection, I realised how fortunate I was that the sister had discouraged me from coming into hospital. It was definitely not the environment for an interference-free labour. I also reflected on the attitude of the staff to a woman in second stage labour. I was certainly not hostile – I actually trusted them (till I got to know them!) and I was looking to them for help. In contrast, the doctor was pleasant, courteous and friendly to both Rob and me.
The postpartum care followed much the same pattern. Babies were kept in the nursery where they were given complimentary feeding if they woke before the prescribed feed time. These babies then came out at “feed time” sleepy and full of formula/cows milk (we didn’t know what they were given!). There were strict limitations on the time allowed for feeds and we were expected to be finished with our babies when the nurses came to collect them. There were no night breastfeeds.
I had no treatment for my very painful perineum and bleeding nipples. I did not know how to correctly attach the baby to the nipple (to prevent nipple damage) and neither did the mothercraft nurse. She held Paul’s face by both cheeks and pushed his nose into the breast. Fortunately for Paul he had an innate ability to overcome adversity, which served him well in later years, and he latched on with some determination. Other mothers were not so lucky and soon they were bottle feeding.
Other memories are of sharing one shower and toilet with 22 other women and some staff members. The matron did a daily ward round accompanied by her large dog. The food was quite good and the other mothers were friendly normal people. I was in an Intermediate Ward in a private hospital – probably equivalent to a present day shared ward. A change was definitely needed!
When I regained some sense of my self I sought out the Childbirth Education Association. Rob and I made friends with other parents in the group who had similar experiences to us. I was referred to the Sydney group of the Nursing Mothers Association of Victoria, now the Australian Breastfeeding Association – we HAVE come a long way! When it was formed we joined Parents Centres Australia. We read books on bonding and attachment and marvelled that any of us were bonded to our babies given the circumstances of their births and early days. Slowly, obstetricians and midwives began to support the quietly persistent requests of members of these groups that more humane conditions be introduced into maternity hospitals.
When Chantal was born almost two years later we had found a doctor and hospital supportive of our needs. The attitude of the nursing staff was so different to what we had encountered with Paul’s birth that it seemed as though we were in another country instead of only another Sydney suburb. I still had to beg and plead for rooming-in which, with the doctor’s support, I achieved by Day Two. In the meantime, the staff had brought Chantal to me regularly for feeds, including during the night. There was an atmosphere of mutual courtesy and respect.
This was an exceptional hospital so the struggle to gain better conditions in all maternity hospitals continued for many years. To have witnessed Chantal and Laurent’s happy experience with Luke’s birth made the hard work and perseverance of the early years well worthwhile.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem