Maternity in the Age of Mad Men

babys pregnancy stork illustration

Who’s Afraid of the Stork? asks this 1951 vintage ad for Lederle a Division of American Cyanamid Company. “The stork is now as tame as a household pet,” it boasts, explaining how safe childbirth has become thanks to new drugs.

Like today, a mid-century gal’s maternity cares were best placed in the hands of knowledgeable men. When it came to birthin’ babies,  a testosterone driven doctor and his pharmaceutical pals knew best.

In the cold war world of convenience, the idea of painful natural childbirth was a thing of the past.

When it came time for my own March 28th birth, my mid-century Mother  like millions of other pregnant gals, would never have dreamed of giving birth without the help of pain-eliminating, memory erasing -miracle drugs.

art collage retro illustration baby being born

The American Way of Birth- (L) collage by Sally Edelstein (R) illustration of a baby’s birth from the pamphlet “The Story About You” 1966 American Medical Association

Every lady-in-waiting circa 1955 knew that they would have an easier time than other mothers before them. Having a baby in that push-button- age of jet propulsion was a snap! No Fuss No Muss! “This is going to be fun” – the baby experts cheered. “As of now, the whole business of having babies was taking on an exhilarating new atmosphere.”

A simple, take-it easy atmosphere; a modern atmosphere.

But Birthin’ Babies was serious business and my mother Betty made sure she was prepared for “Operation-Baby.”

If ever there was a time for optimism it was now.

The days of painful deliveries were as old as yesterday’s horse and buggy. Modern childbirth was a miracle of conveniences. This was the modern atomic age and the idea of an agonizing delivery was blown to smithereens.

Though there was some talk about “natural childbirth” promoted by French physician Dr Ferdinand Lamaze, for most gals that was a foreign concept. “The patient,” reasonable American doctors were quick to point out, “who was interested in ”participating in her own childbirth experience was probably infantile neurotic and downright delusional.”

A “progressive” neighbor had lent Mom a copy of the book, “Childbirth Without Fear” that explained the benefits of a natural, drug free childbirth. Not for my Mom. “I want my doctor putting me to sleep before I feel my first pain. That’s what I call “without fear” – to know nothing!”

Vintage Soviet Woman pregant woman illustration

In post war America, natural childbirth was almost un-American. (L) Vintage Magazine Ladies Home Journal 1948 women and children of Soviet Union (R) Illustration from “The Story About You” 1966 pamphlet by American Medical Association to help in assisting parents of children in grades 4,5,& 6 in explaining sex education

A Cold War Pregnancy

Betty considered natural childbirth downright dangerous, primitive and frankly un-American.

Maybe for some poor unfortunate Soviet woman shackled by communism, who had spent her pregnancy lifting great chunks of rubble and iron, laying bricks, hoisting timbers, swinging picks and sledge hammers who probably had to give birth in a potato field and then head back to her job in the factory, it was okay, but why would anyone go back to those pre-chloroform days?

The combination of drugs – one to deaden pain, the other an eraser of memory, promised to end the drudgery of childbirth. It was half the effort half the time.

“Designed for ease of living, it was a leisure giving convenience.”

But whose ease, whose convenience? Golf- enthusiast obstetricians welcomed it because it gave them more control over the screaming, laboring woman, and more control of teeing off on time. Mama has no knowledge of what occurs between the time she is given the injection and several hours later when its effect wears off. “And once you try it, Doctors smiled, “we think you’ll say “How did I ever manage without it?”

health Drugs Upjohn old ad mother child illustration

Vintage ad Upjohn for pain-free birth

 Post War Pharmaceuticals

Since Mom had no memory of my older brothers’ birth, the obstetrician gave her a booklet that described the miracle of birth: It was like magic, she thought-pull a baby out of your hat-presto!

In successful cases, the patient soon falls into a deep quiet sleep. When the patient wakes up the obstetrician is rewarded by hearing her ask: “Doctor, when am I going to have my baby?” The quickest way I know to prove that the child is already born is to guide the patients hand to her own abdomen. Puzzled she seeks for the familiar mountainous lump; when she finds it gone, the silliest happiest grin steals across her face.

 After all the Doctor reassures her, she is very likely to spend a half a century with her child, and missing the first few hours of their association is a very brief fragment of the whole. For her, the temporary separation from reality at such a time through the boon of safe analgesia and anesthesia, is a welcome goal. Certainly if you tell your teenage daughter 15 years hence that you had her with medicated childbirth, she could not care less!’

Moments to Remember

Babies Birth How You Were Born book

(R) Vintage Book “The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born” 1952 Doubleday by Sidonie Gruenberg illustrations by Hildegarde Woodward(L) Photo of minutes old Baby Life Magazine 1953

 My All American Mom had an all American delivery. Thoroughly up to date, she was thoroughly sedated, and fastidiously prepped for “the operation.”

Lying flat on her back on the surgical table, they strapped her feet in stirrups to make sure that she wasn’t going anywhere in case she changed her mind, while her wrists were securely tied to the sides of the table to prevent her from touching the sterile drapes when they were applied.

Naturally she was continually drugged. It was all within the bounds of the Geneva Convention, she was assured.

My very last meal while still in the womb, the one meant to carry me through my big break out to freedom was a healthy dose of -“I don’t know what I’d do without it – Demerol” and “I don’t remember nuthin’ bout birthin’ no babies – Scopolamine,” the preferred aperitif for the boomer baby.

And where is Dad in all this?

My father, like all the other fathers-to-be is nowhere near any of this.

Togetherness was terminated at the delivery door.

But unlike most of the other nervous, expectant fathers who were sent to the waiting room to pace and hand out cigars, my father retreated back home and went back to sleep. But that was okay because my mother was sleeping soundly herself.

Unlike today when a baby’s birth is Instagramed ’round the world, no one but me would remember my birth.

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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  1. Wow–I’d never heard about any of this before. Amazing.


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