Parenting through History
You've Come a Long, Long Way, Baby
Childbearing, child-rearing and children three years into the new century and millennium
Change is all around us. Things our ancestors couldn’t even dream about have come to pass. Man’s walking on the moon is old news, and many appliances once considered the height of modern convenience are now “so last century.” Yet one thing will never change: women continue giving birth to babies, and parents are still bringing them up. Childbirth and child-rearing survived the turn of the century and will survive into the end of time as we know it. So let us look back on the changes that have occurred in childbirth, child-rearing, and children since the year 1899.
“Childbirth in the nineteenth century was accomplished, as it had been for centuries, at home, with the help of a midwife. Midwives, and “men midwives” had no formal training in delivery, usually learning their skill from family members. Though there were many who knew their craft well and carried it out with compassion, there had always been high mortality rates due to ineptitude, unsanitary conditions and overdosing with both laudanum and opium, which were used to lessen the mother’s pain and to quiet the cries of the child. In 1864, a Ladies Obstetrical College was founded in London, which sought to train women in the art of midwifery, the theories behind procedures, and the follow-up care of both mother and infant.” Daily Life in Victorian England, by Kristine Hughes
The 19th century saw some amazing advances in medicine. Early in the century, a chemist by the name of Sir Humphrey Davy discovered that using nitrous oxide gas rendered patients unconscious. Chloroform, another anesthetic, was first used for medical purposes in 1847. In 1867 Joseph Lister began cleaning his patients’ wounds with carbolic acid and immediately noticed a decrease in infections. By 1891 Lister’s “Carbolic Acid Spray” was being used by most physicians as a preventive measure as well as treatment for infectious wounds. Medical Colleges, like the one mentioned in the excerpt from Kristine Hughes book, began paying close attention to various fields of medicine including Obstetrics. And yet, despite the great strides made in medicine and the emphasis placed on the field of Obstetrics, childbirth at the turn of the century was still an event fraught with peril.
At the turn of the century, childbirth often meant death for the mother as well as the infant. Nine out of 1,000 women died as a result of complications associated with labor and 124 out of 1,000 infants died during birth or within the first year of life. The high maternal mortality rate can be attributed to poor health care. The high infant mortality rate reflects the health status of the pregnant woman and her infant as well as the living conditions, parental supervision, and the availability of good medical attention.
Only five percent of births at the turn of the century took place in a hospital. Over 50 percent of those births were performed by a midwife. Most midwives were capable of safely delivering a healthy baby vaginally provided there were no complications; however, because most midwives lacked formal training, any abnormality might end in disaster. A fetus in the breech position almost always led to the death of the mother and the child. If labor failed to progress, doctors were often called upon to perform an embryotomy. Embryotomies required the physician to surgically separate a part of the fetus. Oftentimes limbs were extracted or fetuses were decapitated. Cesareans were still fairly uncommon. The first successful cesarean section in the United States was not performed until 1827. C-sections did not become widely used until the mid-20th century.
Today maternal and infant mortality rates are low. Only one out of a thousand women die of childbirth complications and 5.5 infants out of 1000 die within the first year of life. The lower rates are due, in part, to improvements in medicine, more accessible medical care, and better nutrition.
Approximately 20 percent of all births are now performed by cesarean section, and over 95 percent of all births take place in a hospital or clinical environment with a physician in attendance. Hospitals have birthing rooms, where the laboring woman actually gives birth to her infant, and mother-baby rooms, where the new mother recovers and bonds with her new child. Birthing rooms contain the necessary equipment for delivering a baby vaginally, though it is usually tucked neatly away in closets or camouflaged by artwork. The trend in birthing units for the millenium looks to be LDRPs (labor/delivery/recovery/postpartum) where the mother gives birth and recovers all in one private room. These rooms, intended to be home-like, will be decorated to reflect a “softer environment thus facilitating mother-infant bonding.”
Childrearing – Who’s Bringing Up Baby?
“The nurse should keep the child as clean as possible, and particularly she should train it to habits of cleanliness, so that it should feel uncomfortable when otherwise; watching especially that it does not soil itself in eating. At the same time, vanity in its personal appearance is not to be encouraged by overcare in this respect, or by too tight lacing or buttoning of dresses.”
Book of Household Management, by Isabella Beeton
Once a child was born in the late 1800s, the role its parents played in its life largely depended on their economic background. Upper-class parents allowed their children to be cared for solely by a nurse or nanny from the moment they were born. The nanny and her charges lived on a separate floor or in a separate wing of the house. Children were expected to follow a strict routine of schoolroom studies and lessons in morality and character. Their routines rarely allowed for more than an hour or two with their parents. Mealtimes were spent in silence in the nursery. Once children turned eight, they were sent to boarding school and parents began to play an even smaller role in their lives.
Although most middle-class families could not afford a separate staff to tend the children, they did employ two or three servants. In addition to her regular duties, one servant would be expected to mind the children. Children of the middle classes spent more time with their mothers than those of the upper-classes. After attending to her civic and charitable duties, a middle-class mother would take a few hours to teach and socialize with her children. Children of the middle-classes, once old enough to comport themselves properly, would also take their meals with their parents. The standards for middle-class children and the relationship between parent and child was far more relaxed than that of the upper classes.
Children born to a poor, working class family would spend all of their time with their mother. If the poor mother was fortunate enough to have an unwed sister or spinster aunt living nearby, she may have received some help in caring for her newborns. In most cases, however, the new mother was expected to learn as she went. Starting at an early age, children of poor families were expected to help around the house and to contribute to the household income.
The roles of the individual parent were quite different in 1899 than they are today. Fathers at the turn of the century remained distant and reserved. They preferred to take a silent, firm role in the family. The father was the breadwinner and the disciplinarian.
A mother’s role in 1899 was to see to the spiritual and moral training of her children. Thus, if a child acted errantly it was naturally the mother’s fault for not seeing to her duties properly.
A child in 1899 was instructed to always “be honest and circumspect with adults. He/she should never speak to an adult unless spoken to first and should always hasten to use the proper forms of address.” It was typical for a child of 1899 to address their father as “Mister” or “Sir.”
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