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Has birthing gotten longer and harder over the decades?

(169 Posts)
emonslemons Wed 06-Aug-14 09:13:50

Do you have any stories of mothers, aunties, grandmothers and how their births went.......I don't know how true it is but many of the women I have spoken to from the last generation say they had much quicker and easier births!
This has always fascinated me! And I wonder why their experiences seem so different......admittedly most women I talk to have been middle eastern although my own mother had a much quicker first birth than me and she's English.

DrankSangriaInThePark Wed 06-Aug-14 09:21:49

I think women's ideas of what it is supposed to be like have got more demanding.

My Mum's generation very much just got on with it, I think. You knew it was going to hurt like hell, it was a means to an end and you just did it.

Now, you get pregnant, read eleventy billion books, sign up to Mumsnet and talk about it for 9 mths, not doing/buying anything whatsoever until you've canvassed the opinions of another 4,977 people. You write a birth plan (IMO utter tosh) which then you spend the next 10 years moaning about if it doesn't go to plan, you fall out with every friend and family member over everything.

Something functional and natural has become relentless and exhausting, and that's before you even start on the night feeds!

Greenstone Wed 06-Aug-14 09:56:20

Weelll, there's probably an element of truth in what Drank says about our modern hopes to be able to control certain things around the birth. But to be perfectly honest, I don't think that birth has ever been easy. I think the whole 'millions of women give birth every day' thing is a convenient line to trot out to keep women in their place. Birth has always been risky and knackering and a big deal. Always. I reckon it's just that society never bothered to listen properly to pregnant women and new mothers before - not that it really does now.

My mother had some easy births and some very long and painful births. My grandmother had many many babies (10) - probably some of them were easy births and just popped out and of course she just had to get on with it. But she lost one baby in childbirth as a result of complications. It happened all the time.

I had a straightforward birth last time by the way, but it still feels like a huge deal to me, the weirdest thing that's ever happened to me.

Greenstone Wed 06-Aug-14 09:58:57

Also emons - don't forget that people genuinely forget the finer details of things like birth and the early weeks with the passing of years! The versions you hear may be the full truth but equally they may not smile

Lally112 Wed 06-Aug-14 10:05:00

People had more kids back then and labours tend to get shorter with each one. I know mine have gotten shorter every time.

squizita Wed 06-Aug-14 10:06:32

It depends on your family. My family stories have stillbirths, bodily damage they did not have the tech to repair, children scarred from forceps etc' (in both sides of my family). If you had a premature baby and it died, it wasn't counted as a stillbirth until much later- loads more issues.
But in those days, you didn't argue because (a) Dr/Men knew best (b) you didn't talk about 'those bits' of you in polite company and (c) to be blunt, there was nothing they could do about some of it in those days. I remember the newspapers coming to see a girl born early up my street in the very early 80s - surviving at her gestation was big news. Now, she would be 80-90% likely to survive without significant disability.

Then, in the 70s, there was the 'natural birth movement' (my mum was into this type of movement at the time but became critical after they viewed her 'letting' the Dr support the sudden birth her premi twins', when she had PE, letting the side down) but they hadn't perfected replacing the medicalised side with other things: basically a lot of women just fiercely said "hands off" to medical staff but without much access to the exercises, yoga, water births, hypnotherapies, 'active birthing' stuff women who want a drug free birth can utilise now to prepare themselves. It was so often'trust your body and do a bit of vague, probably badly taught breathing'. But to complain would have set back a valid movement many years in terms of its message, so many women 'took one for the team' in that regard! Juju Sundan has an excellent critique of that period in her birth skills book - which is about dealing with pain naturally but fully admits it's very painful hence you need a lot of skills and even then ... if you prefer there's no shame in accepting drugs if needed.

Now, I think the internet is one big issue with births being thought of as 'tough'.
Just from anecdotal/ personal experience. Of course births go well and some not so well, but I have several friends who did one/other of the things below and are vocal about warning others not to!
Essentially, we all know if you google and google you hear what you want to hear: so if you're a pessimist you can search for botched birth stories, go in assuming your MW and Ob/Gyn are quacks and worry/question everything. If something isn't pleasant (as is likely) you'll dwell.
At the other end of the extreme, if you google Ina May sneeze birthing in a field and nothing else, you might have an extremely traumatic/scary experience (one friend of mine needed therapy and it boiled down to her denial that birth was coming) if something painful, stressful or medical happens because it is unknown. Not helped by people on the web who confuse 'spiral of intervention' with ranty 'if you go near a hospital they will ruin your birth!' comments.

Also people pay for birth prep more now and perhaps some providers are better than others? NCT varies wildly in quality. One of my friends actually got her money back from her hypnobirthing teacher when it transpired the class was not what it claimed to be.

But then again I think Dr Google does this in a lot of fields of life/health.
It would be interesting to see how it impacts on such a massive thing as birth as I mentioned, I am going purely on anecdotes from women I know.

When I speak to people, I get a mixture of 'G&A, 5 hours start to finish', to 'needed a vonteuse and stitches, was OK in the end' to 'needed an EMC'. I.e. a mixture of experiences. I don't think that has changed over the years but I do think perhaps we have gone from getting all our advice from one (possibly flawed) medical team per person to the whole web and that has impacted on expectations.

emonslemons Wed 06-Aug-14 10:29:10

I would be very interested to know if any research has been done in this area......I'm sure it has always had dangers and negatives.....and always been hard's called labour after all.....but I wonder if there is any truth to what these women claim......many of my friends mothers come over here to help them through labour and often say after their daughters suffered with lengthy painful labours where theirs only took a couple of hours....usually without any real medical attention (as they are elderly village women!)........I think the main difference is they are incredibly active as essentially they are farmers (they tend to grow most of their own food).....makes you wonder!

Deelish75 Wed 06-Aug-14 10:54:58

I really do not know whether they have or not.
My mum's first labour was about 6hrs, my first labour was about 7hrs. They were both straight forward labours' she had a straightforward birth. My first birth took longer due to ventouse and forceps, but it was still quicker than hour and a half that I'd been warned about. My SIL first labour was 12+ hrs, the baby was back to back, and they let her push for a long time before using forceps. My mum got herself into a right state because of how long it was taking. Mum really struggled to accept that the length of SIL labour wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Afterwards when we were all discussing it being back to back, mum was very quite, she seemed to have trouble processing that.
I think my mum is from an age when the processes of labour and childbirth weren't really discussed. I had a miscarriage, and although my mum knows various women who've had miscarriages I am the first to properly discuss it with her.

squizita Wed 06-Aug-14 10:55:20

Emons this will sound brutal but one of my elderly relatives (from overseas/rural area) used to say "any old lady you meet will be good at bearing children. Otherwise they don't get to be old..." shock
I've done research into admissions to orphanages and similar in the past, and hardworking women fared no better than anyone else. Sadly many died. Others had fewer children and I wonder if it was that hard, because they couldn't have C sections or epidurals, they were advised just not to have any (I know this happened in the UK in the 40s/50s).

emonslemons Wed 06-Aug-14 12:00:00

Yes that's a really sad thought squizita. sure this did happen.....I just wonder if we're talking relatively. ...If there would be a difference or it is just because women who lived to tell the tale managed well.....

emonslemons Wed 06-Aug-14 12:00:22

Yes that's a really sad thought squizita. sure this did happen.....I just wonder if we're talking relatively. ...If there would be a difference or it is just because women who lived to tell the tale managed well.....

emonslemons Wed 06-Aug-14 12:00:43

Sorry phone has list it's mind

emonslemons Wed 06-Aug-14 12:01:06


emonslemons Wed 06-Aug-14 12:01:26

Sorry phone has list it's mind

emonslemons Wed 06-Aug-14 12:02:12

I wonder if there are any midwives out there who have any experience or research to share?

TheFirmament Wed 06-Aug-14 12:11:08

Agree with squizita. In the past dying in childbirth was really common, more common the further back you go. It's bollocks that people used to know how to "do it right" or that traditional births are best blah blah. Women just suffered appalling agony, appalling complications, and/or died in extreme cases. Old ladies who could report that they had easy births would be over-represented because they were more likely to have survived to old age.

However I do think that it's possible that since we developed c-sections, evolution means that the tendency to be unable to bear a child easily is more likely to be genetically passed on. Being not cut out for childbirth is something that evolution would tend to act against. With C-sections that no longer happens so it's possible there are more people presenting with difficult births now.

In the bigger picture though, childbirth in humans is a bit crap, has a marked tendency to go wrong and has been that way for a long time. Like our eyesight which is suboptimal in most people and our backs which have a propensity to going wrong and cause back pain.

Boysclothes Wed 06-Aug-14 12:11:15

There's got to be some physical factors too though. In the developed world, first time mums are older, we're heavier, less fit and our babies are heavier. All things which can impact on how "easy" labour is.

I worked as a midwife in a rural Ugandan hospital. Only access to a very small amount of the most basic drugs and equipment. Doctors could be hours and hours before they could attend a complicated labour. And yet we lost so few mums and babies. We had so few long labours compared to the hospital I work at now in the UK. These women were young and incredibly fit. I think it must have an impact.

TheFirmament Wed 06-Aug-14 12:14:37

Sorry I don't mean bear a child, I mean birth a child (though bear a child too possibly, with IVF and surrogacy)

splendide Wed 06-Aug-14 12:19:05

My mum had awful births so not in my family, no.

TremoloGreen Wed 06-Aug-14 17:08:41

My granny had 5 children, all uncomplicated home births. My mother had her children in the 70s when medicalised hospital births were available and very much the thing. She couldn't for example, request a homebirth and she was expected to lie on her back for labour. She was induced when she went 'over her dates' resulting in an epidural and traumatic forceps delivery. A midwife shouted at her for screaming. The baby, my brother, was born covered in vernix so probably not overdue at all.

She had a difficult time in labour with me too, she admits carrying around the trauma of her first birth did not help. Both she and my dad are terrified of birth and were horrified that I wanted a natural birth without doctors in attendance.

My daughter's birth was straightforward, natural, it was a positive experience for me. I think we at least have the option to go back to the uncomplicated births of my granny's day. I know people will jump on this and say 'it isn't like that for everyone/ my baby would have died', but I am talking about the majority of women, who can have normal, uncomplicated births...

Purpleflamingos Wed 06-Aug-14 17:13:14

My mum had awful births , 3 days long . She likes to tell me she was 3cms dilated Monday tea time and 9 cms dilated weds tea time. I was born just before weds turned into Thursday!

squizita Wed 06-Aug-14 17:19:28

Thefirmament although because it was a woman's job to bear/birth children, you just kept plugging away till a few survived... otherwise how would there be women with genetically less favourable bodies? We would have died out, frankly.
I speak as someone with a blood condition which means, untreated (with simple drugs they've had for 100+ years ironically) I'd miscarry 8-10 pregnancies per live birth. There is evidence it runs down my maternal line. The evidence... family tree back 300 years, big Catholic family but a few women standing out having only 2 kids spaced over 20 years when everyone else had 6-10 kids. I can only infer the women kept going until they got their kids. Bet they were more than happy with even the worst labours though, as it meant they had longed for kids. Makes me bloody grateful for simple aspirin and basic anticoagulants (no one bothered investigating this ailment until the 1980s even though it's easy to treat, it mainly affects women and their 'bits' soo y'know... pretty easy for old male doctors to ignore and put down to hysteria for all medical history before that).
I'm actually extremely grateful that genetically, once my blood is sorted, my physical build and ability to 'do' pregnancy is pretty normal.

RedToothBrush Wed 06-Aug-14 17:22:42

There is this massive misnomer that this is a new thing and that anxiety over childbirth and having a traumatic experience is something that is modern, and brought on due to media representations of birth.

A doctor called Dr. Louis Victor Marcé wrote the following regarding fears of mothers to be in a book:
“If they are giving birth for the first time, waiting for unknown pain worries them beyond all measure and they are plunged into an indescribable state of anxiety. If they are already mothers, they are terrified by the memory of the past and the prospect of the future; they are privately convinced that they are going to die from the ordeal which awaits them”.
Marcé added that “this idea becomes absolutely fixed in their heads and triggers a melancholy frame of mind which takes over all their thoughts”

The year it was written?


It is almost identical to the modern day (and very recently recognised) definition and condition of tokophobia.

I think this helps to put things into a little context. Clearly the same fears were present, yet rarely given a voice. I would suspect this would be true about birth injuries. Its has been for a long long time, a culture of put up, shut up and don't talk about it no matter how bad it was. It was, and still is to an extent, considered unwomanly or weak to express views that suggest that your body didn't perform perfectly somehow, despite how common it really is. Even on MN you'll repeatedly see the phrase about women feeling like that their body has 'failed them' and its something that the poster struggles to talk about in real life.

I think this has given a very different picture to the reality of things. Both in the past, and in the present, though this is improving.

I was shocked to learn recently about my grandmother's experience of the birth of her first child. She had never been told how babies were made. And whilst she was in labour she had to have the experience explained to her, as she had no idea what was happening to her. Thats how little childbirth was discussed in her day.

I think that whilst additional complications in modern day pregnancies - such as older mothers and obesity have contributed to 'longer labours' resulting in mother and baby surviving, I think this has off set the reduction of women who simply died in the past.

Afterall, you don't tend to get too many anecdotes from women who are dead, and probably endured longer, harder labours as they died.

squizita Wed 06-Aug-14 17:31:23

I think we at least have the option to go back to the uncomplicated births of my granny's day.

Are we talking the 20s-50s? Awful time for many British births - no tech to help, but still status driven, keep quiet, stuff-upper-lip. There were women in asylums for 20+ years because if you had PND or birth trauma you were seen as an unfit mother and locked up. It's a massive secret scandal.

Natural birth requires a 'culture' and skills/belief (whether that be a woman with unshaking faith in her religion, great physical fitness, hypnosis or yoga or whatever). We are lucky to have access to those now.
My mum was part of the natural birth movement in the 70s. She found it - at that time - flawed. Removal of hospital lie-on-your-back ... but not much in the way of skills and breathing and a 'political' angle that led to friends of hers suffering birth injuries because they felt pressure NEVER to consent to a Dr/intervention. Thanks to their good ideas we have choice now... but it is a bit of a secret never told now...

But even now friends of mine have gone for it without the understanding that birth is challenging: they want the 'natural' birth but do not realise that in cultures throughout history though it wasn't starched aprons and wards, there were skills and so forth to be used. Like a swan- seems effortless and natural, huge amount of paddling under the surface.
One of them had serious trauma because she felt so 'weak', having convinced herself birth pain was a myth.

squizita Wed 06-Aug-14 17:35:37

RedToothBrush EXACTLY!
There is so much myth.
The native American who birthed and got back on her horse?
No way!! She would have been placed in a special tent with the older women of the village and tended for days. Religious rituals for good luck would be performed. Sounds like the whole community knew it was scary, risky and she needed their help!
It's a modern media construct (slightly 'halcyon days' meets 'noble savage') that birth in the past was quick and hunky-dory for all.

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