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Birth in the 1950s and 60s: Interview with My Grandmother

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Almost three years ago, I took a doula training workshop through DONA. As part of the preparation for this workshop, we were required to interview a mother from an older generation about her birth experiences. I'm not sure I ever would have thought to do this if it weren't for this assignment and I am infinitely glad I did. I interviewed my maternal grandmother, Mary Kay, about my mother Susan's birth and about my aunt Barbara's birth as well. She was eager to share her experiences, and I, in turn, am eager to share them with you.


Susan's Birth

Mary Kay gave birth to her daughter Susan in 1957. For the first seven months of her pregnancy she lived in Ames, Iowa while her husband, Martin, was in college. She moved to Washington, DC for the last two months of her pregnancy, so she needed to find a new obstetrician. She lucked out, and really liked her new obstetrician. She and her husband Martin had thought about natural childbirth but the obstetrician did not think a first time mother should try it, although he seemed supportive of her trying it with subsequent births.


When Mary Kay was two weeks past her due date, her doctor suggested she try castor oil and reassured her that it would "give it a little nudge" and wouldn't cause her to go into labor if the baby wasn't ready. She took the castor oil with orange juice. She was very calm even though her stomach was quite upset. She told me that "none of this bothered me in the slightest bit. Finally [after the second or third dose] it worked."


She called her obstetrician to tell him she was in labor and he advised her not to eat or drink anything except for clear liquids. She had a martini. When she arrived at the hospital the doctor seemed surprised about the martini but said it had done no harm, and it actually probably relaxed her.


She delivered at Doctor's Hospital in Washington, DC. When she first got there she hung out in a small room with her mother, Martin, and her doctor. They just sat around and chatted for a bit. The doctor noticed a bit of bloody show and decided to take her to the labor room. This is where she parted from her mother and her husband.


The labor room was a small dark room. There was a nurse who sat in there with her, not doing much. Things moved along and one point Mary Kay thought "I've just had about enough of this" and the nurse offered her something for the pain. Mary Kay said yes, got a shot, felt the next contraction, and then--nothing--she was out. She does not know what exactly was in the shot.


The next thing she knew the nurse said "wake up and see your little daughter." Mary Kay recalls: "I opened my eyes, and this is strange, all I remember seeing is this little round face. Perfectly round. It was sort of surrounded by light. Almost made me think of heaven. This perfect round baby face and all this light." Then she went to sleep again.




When I asked her what the hardest part of the labor was, she first said that moment where she said "I've had just about enough of this." Later, upon reflection of her labor support, she amended this. It had helped her greatly that someone was there "even though it was this nurse who mostly just sat there." But the nurse left once and she felt very frightened. "She wasn't gone long-probably to the bathroom-but it was the worst part."


The best part of the birth experience was seeing Susan's round, shining face.

I asked about support she had with breastfeeding. She reflected on this with a lot of sadness. She breastfed for the first month and "failed miserably." She said this was the "saddest thing in her life." The first visit with the pediatrician wasn't until Susan was a month old and she was put on Similac. She remembers remaining calm during the visit, but when she got the car she "just cried and cried." She got a chance later to be with her daughters when they had had babies and "they had so much help and encouragement," and she "didn't have anything; and no one nursed in those days." Her mother disapproved. Mary Kay told me: "Now new mothers are taught how to do it and given so much encouragement and follow-up."



Barbara's Birth

Mary Kay had her second daughter, Barbara, in 1960. She had the same obstetrician she had had with Susan's birth. This time he had given her the okay on trying natural childbirth. All she had done was read "Childbirth Without Fear" and that was her total preparation. There were no classes or anything.


Again, she needed castor oil to bring on labor.


Washington Hospital Center had opened and it was the only center at the time that had "labor rooms" where husbands could be there. And they had rooming in. This is why they chose this hospital.
Barbara took a little longer to be born. They arrived at 7:30 PM and she was born at 2:17 AM. Recalling those hours, Mary Kay said "mostly I remember it as a very very pleasant time." They were in a large room that looked more like a bedroom than a hospital room. She said "Martin and I just had a very nice time. It was very relaxing with no distractions. We talked and talked and talked and whenever I had a contraction he would press on my back. The next day he said how sore his arms are." When I asked her what she did during labor, she recalls mostly lying in bed. She doesn't remember walking around much. Possibly she was sitting in a chair.


The only problem in the experience was that she heard a woman down that hall screaming and that "really unnerved" her. But they shut a few doors very quickly. She recalled "we had a very pleasant time, until it was time to go into the delivery room. I remember being outside the delivery room and thinking 'How did I ever get myself into this?’ and I felt very emotional and unhappy."


We discussed how this was a fairly universal reaction to the end of the first stage of labor.

For the birth, Martin stood at her head, and her doctor stood down below; and "Out came Barbara." This is when she remembered "automatically reaching for her and the nurse said 'No, no I have to clean her.'  And they let the three of us stay in the recovery room for awhile just to admire Barbara."


Eventually she went to her room-and couldn't sleep at all because she was too wound up. The doctor asked her why she hadn't asked for something to help her sleep.


When I asked her about breastfeeding she said that she was "very successful nursing Barbara." She got to nurse her right after she was cleaned off.


Personal Reflection

I was so pleased that she had shared her stories with me. I felt it confirmed a lot of what I had read regarding support during labor. Even though the nurse didn't seem to do much, she was aware that her presence had helped her. When the nurse left her alone, it was the hardest moment of Susan's birth. This shows how important continuous support is for the laboring woman.


I was also impressed that even though Susan's birth is hardly what I would consider idyllic, that moment when she first saw her baby was blissful. I think this is probably true for many moms, regardless of their birth experience.




Her experiences breastfeeding exemplified how important it is to establish breastfeeding early and to provide the new mother with lots of support and encouragement. Mary Kay was very glad that her daughters had that kind of support and really wished someone was there to support her.

The things that struck me the most, though, were how she had thoughts and urges almost identical to what I remember experiencing with the birth of my son. The first of these was her desire to reach out and catch Barbara. One of my vividest memories of my first birth experience was seeing my son swimming out and just reaching for him. Later, my husband confessed that he felt a little short-changed in catching him because I snatched him up so quickly. The other was how she had trouble sleeping after Barbara's birth because she was so excited. I couldn't sleep either, even though I hadn't slept in 3 days because of long prodromal labor.  


Hearing the similarities to my own births and to other birth stories I have heard was amazing. I felt very connected to my grandmother while she described the births. I was also amazed at how vividly she remembered certain things. It reinforces how important it is to help women have satisfying birth experiences, since they will remember them for years to come.


I am so glad to have done this exercise and would encourage all women to ask their mothers and grandmothers about their experiences. These stories are now priceless to me.






Olivia Hinebaugh is a stay-at-home-mom to a three-year-old boy and baby girl. She is an aspiring novelist and steals time whenever both kids are sleeping to clack away at the keys. She tweets about mothering and writing @OliveJuiceLots



Photograph by Lauren Preti

Comments (8)

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my mother's birth experience in 1951 was completely contrary to my birth center experience.  she was "knocked out" and eventually woke up to see her baby.  her breasts were bound to prevent milk production and circumcision was expected and never questioned.   after having  attended the natural births of my children, I think my mother was profoundly affected by the experience of witnessing her grandchildren's births and realizing what she had foregone. 
Interesting article, thanks. My mother had her first child in 1947 and her last in 1971.  I heard a lot about her birth experiences growing up, especially mine, since I was her first c-section.
It's wonderful that your mother shared that with you! I'm really grateful to my mom and grandmother for being so open with their experiences.
I really enjoyed this article.  Now that I'm expecting my own, I wish either of my grandmothers was still around so I could ask about their experiences.  Thank you for sharing (and the bit about the martini ;) ).
 i am so happy that your grandma shared those stories with you. my dad's mom shared my dad's birth with me, saying she didn't remember much because of the twilight sleep and how she wasn't allowed to hold him for hours and how they kept him away from her except little bits every 4 hours for days! she didn't even have a chance to nurse him. this was back in 1950.
Thank you for this article. It is a typical American experience.
My great-grandmother birthed my grandmother and her twin sister, a fraternal twin, at home in 1905.
My grandmother had twilight sleep in 1931 and 1941. 
My mom had unassisted homebirths from 1949-71, except for a vaginal hospital breech delivery in 1961; she returned home four hours after the birth. My dad was a chiropractor - they used the Grantley Dick Read book and hypotism for pain relief.
I had homebirths from 1980-92.
My grandchildren are born at home. 
I would wish this were a typical experience, but it is not.
It is amazing that you have gathered that information! I hope you write it all down for your grandchildren :)
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