I Had a Baby
IT was only when the fourth baby was imminent that I struck and determined to have it the way I wanted — not as the fancy obstetricians ruled, nor as most women of my acquaintance did. For the other three I had submitted to the routine proceedings. Each time it had been an unpleasant, upsetting, and baffling experience. Not the least upsetting part had been the finances. It seems strange now — probably in fifty years it will seem incredible — that young people, living on small professional incomes during the late 1920’s, paid as much as seven hundred dollars for delivery and hospital care of the mother the first two weeks after the baby’s birth. In our case the total cost was nearly a quarter of our yearly income; it was such a burden and a worry that our joy in the child and interest in the birth were under a cloud.
To women like myself, whose maturing years were spent in college dormitories and New York offices, a baby was strange and mysterious — either bad luck and something to be braved, or an interesting psychological experience which every woman should have. It did not seem the matter-of-fact occurrence which any more normal social community considers it to be. The college-educated career woman living in New York may have some advantages, although of their intrinsic worth I am not convinced, but she is certainly deprived of the setting which her earlier ‘less fortunate’ sisters enjoyed — a large vigorous family with aunts, grandmothers, baby sisters, nephews, and so forth, in the midst of which pregnancy and birth are everyday affairs.
We were scientific, even if it was expensive. The first thing, of course, was to find an obstetrician. Our mothers had had their babies delivered for $25 by country doctors, but of course that was before the days of enlightenment. We knew now about prenatal care, anæsthesia, and hospitals. The best was none too good, especially when one was in a flutter about something so unusual and dangerous as the birth of a baby. I was fortunate. The obstetrician to whom I was sent charged only $250 for the delivery. I was unaware then that everything else was extra: $5.00 for each prenatal visit, $2.00 for each analysis; that the hospital would cheerfully take $8.00 a day for a cubicle, and add and add and add.
Enough has been said about the fee racket, and it is on the decline, anyway. Doctors are not wholly to blame. We still are witnessing $50,000 debutante parties. Doctors, like everyone else, are probably justified in charging what they think they can get. But there is no reason why young people on professional incomes, with the fairly high standard of living and expensive tastes of their class, should pay such a large proportion of their income for something as easy to have and as normal as a baby. Their own timidity and lack of experience have brought them to it. Doctors see many cases which are difficult and dangerous, where ‘something goes wrong.’ Listening to them, we forget the millions of normal women who have babies in their own beds cheerfully and cheaply.
But the expense was not the only thing which caused my revolt. We all have our little luxuries, and if what I had got had been worth it I should have been glad to continue in the grand manner. But after each birth I felt baffled and bewildered (‘frustrated’ is, I think, the correct term). With the first ones, gas and ether were used. I experienced the sensation which has always seemed to me worse than any pain — of struggling for consciousness, going down into blackness, coming up only to know that something big and dreadful is happening, to feel fear, to hear oneself moaning, to sense strange people, with offensive professional voices; then to go way under, and to recover hours later, clean and dizzy, in a strange bed, and be told that one is all right and a boy has been born.
The first times I was so frightened by it all that I was convinced that any escape from the actual experience was a blessing. But as time intervened, and I grew in spirit, it became obvious to me that I had missed something. Not only was I curious as to what actually went on, but I felt that an important thing had happened to me and I knew nothing about it.
I began to wonder if it really was so dreadful. It seemed to me a lack of character to have allowed myself to be made into a sterilized package, babbling and unaware, while my son was being born. Had I been too much taken in by the escape psychology of our time? Wasn’t the experience of reality more important than comfort? Were not clarity of sensation and continuity of consciousness of more value to one’s self-respect and spiritual harmony than the mere negation of physical unpleasantness?
When I uttered such thoughts most people regarded them as amusing attempts to be different or as hollow heroics. But two things strengthened my conviction. I was often in Europe, and met there women of intelligence, character, and progressive outlook who assured me that, aside from any possible bad effects upon mother or child from modern anæsthesia (about which there is something to be said), the complete experience of childbirth is something which transcends the mere physical happenings. It was like a mighty thunderstorm, said one. It was only after a birth that you were a complete person, said another. I felt undeveloped, virginal. . . .
But I was still afraid. When the time for my third child was at hand I mentioned to the doctor that I should like to have it without anæsthesia, as I knew it would come easily and quickly. He laughed. ‘Don’t be so heroic,’ he said. Then he related tales of difficult cases he had just been through. By then the new techniques were in full swing. I did not even experience a labor pain. My child was born at noon, and the next morning I was able to grasp the fact that it was over and that she was somewhere and doing well.
Then my husband and I began to do farming on the side. After 1933 it seemed essential to have roots and soil under one’s feet, to find comfort in the care of animals, permanence and stability in productive nature. Here for the first time I saw births. Not only cows and sheep, stolid and complacent creatures, produced their young with calm, but our aristocratic and delicate Irish setter bore eleven puppies with great casualness. There was no writhing, no screeching. Then I knew. Human beings are hysterical about it, and I had been taken in.
So with the advent of the fourth baby I was determined. I was going to have it straight, and preferably at home. But this was impossible. The well-trained doctors in the country simply did not deliver babies. The ones who went about to the farm women seemed to me less competent than I wanted. In the city (home of a famous medical school and gorged with specialists) it was equally impossible. The obstetrician flatly refused. ‘I don’t like to see people suffer’ was his reason for insisting on anæsthesia; also, at the hospital he had everything he needed ‘in case . . .’ again.
For several months I inquired and looked. One man of the sort I wanted was willing to handle the case at home if I purchased expensive equipment and provided him with nurses. Also I must promise to take an anæsthetic if difficulties arose. But I knew that if I got too uncomfortable and someone offered me a pill I would take it. Who would not? What I wanted was a strong, confident doctor, well trained, skillful, willing to do more than handle instruments, who would encourage me, bully me if necessary, so that I would stick it out and not get soft at the first whimper. But I didn’t find him. He probably exists. I hope so.
So I turned to Europe. Europe is a disease with me, a nostalgia. The beauty of old towns, of cathedrals and castles, has always been a balm to my spirit. And it has also seemed to me that the things which make life pleasant are more accessible in Europe than here — service, travel, schools, music, the beauty of nature, leisure, and also medicine. It is not a matter of lower currencies, since this is true of Switzerland, where there is a great deal of wealth and prices are high. It is a question of values.
Just at this time my husband had to be abroad for two months for some research, mainly in France and Switzerland. It was fate. Surely in one of these countries I could have a baby as I wanted. I should have preferred Germany, as I have been impressed by the midwives there: women with sound medical training who come to the house sometime before the birth and stay for two weeks afterward. I have met some of these women and have heard a great deal about them. It has always seemed the ideal, normal way to have a child. But the Germany of the Nazis is not a country to which one who loves Germany can go with any peace of mind. France presents difficulties with regard to boys born on its soil. So Switzerland was left.
I felt sure that one could choose the spot for the scenery. There are, of course, fancy clinics, sanatoria, and what not, where movie stars may have everything as modern as they please — also as expensive. But we chose a beautiful little town on Lago Maggiore, unheard of in America save for the wistful rôle it played in 1925, when for a moment there was hope in Europe. It was all there, the paradise I had imagined: enchanting scenery, temperate climate, air fragrant — it was May — and yet with a touch of coolness from the mountains. The people were gentle, gracious, intelligent. Mornings they practised machine-gunning and drilled. Bridges were charged with dynamite, in case Mussolini should make an invasion. But otherwise the place was quiet and friendly: Europe as one dreams of it — the Europe which is so rapidly disappearing.
It was not an accident that in this little town there was a modern hospital architecturally and æsthetically pleasing, yet fully equipped, nor that there was a doctor who was all I had hoped for — well trained, skillful, and a human being who radiated strength and confidence. It was also not an accident that the total cost came to less than one hundred dollars. That is the way things are done there. When I expressed my desire to have no anæsthesia, I was told that it was never given in that hospital for a normal birth.
The details of the last weeks of waiting are very precious to me, but hardly of interest to anyone else. Europe is blessed with small, tasteful hotels, where the service is faultless and the food inspired; to live in such a place, utterly free from any responsibility, has always seemed the ultimate joy to me, a busy housewife and mother.
I was not frightened about the birth. I knew I should get through, but I was afraid I should not be able to bear it with fortitude. One hears tales only of the sensational births. About the normal ones there is little to be said. To lie quietly and produce a child without a fuss is the rule and not the exception, but, like all rules, it is not very dramatic or interesting, except to the person who experiences it. So I spent the long night alone, with only a nun at my bedside. She was sleepy and dozed off if I was quiet, so I decided not to mention any feeling I might have. I had always suspected that it was not pain, and it isn’t. How can people maintain this myth with the picture of modern warfare before them?
As the night lengthened I regretted that I was alone. I should have liked some conversation. I felt very alert. When I grew a bit discouraged the doctor came and scolded, cheered, and encouraged me. We talked about languages and politics, and he gallantly told me that moderate tears were very becoming, and that I did not look thirty-seven. We argued about the merits of being a man or a woman, and he told me tales of his forty years as a country doctor in that region, where he often had to toil on foot through the snow, hour after hour, up the mountainsides. To such a man a little ‘suffering’ does not seem very important, and with him you find yourself being brave.
Then came the birth — and, of all the exciting experiences I have ever read or imagined, it was the most exhilarating. They shouted and I shouted — not because it was painful or because I was frightened, for I wasn’t, but because something elemental and stupendous was happening and I was in on it. And then she was there and I saw her, all rosy and perfect. I felt as if I could move mountains. It was early on Sunday morning; the sun was just rising, birds were singing, and bells ringing for Mass. Words cannot re-create this moment. It was one of ecstasy. In such a moment you are no longer yourself alone, but a force; the memory of it stays with you and makes you strong and released. The nuns all came in to shake hands and congratulate me, and they asked what I wanted to eat.
In my American experiences the days in the hospital after the birth had been a further ordeal. The routine, the early morning waking, the constant running in and out of strange young women on errands such as counting blankets, are painful memories to nearly every sensitive maternity patient. Not so in Tessin. There was no glass wall around the babies. We could have our daughter with us when we wanted her. The babies were all very clean and nicely dressed, and they did not seem in the least disturbed by being treated as human beings instead of so many bacteria.
After two attempts, at which both my daughter and I did poorly, the nuns decided that nursing was too strenuous for us. Having experienced the persistence of American hospitals in this activity, usually ending in failure and nervous exhaustion, I was shocked, and felt irresponsible. But the nuns have wills of iron where they think they are right. So I slept. No one opened my door until I rang. I had long mornings to myself.
One side of my room was all glass, opening on a balcony. The lake was spread out before me, and the Alps beyond gave me a feeling of endless distance and quiet. There was not a sound except birds or the scratching of the gardener’s hoe. Some days my temperature was taken, some days not. I had a clean bed and bath when I wanted it, and not because it was 8.30 A. M. Sometimes I gave no sign of life until one o’clock, but I could have what I wanted to eat when I wanted it. Some days the room was not scoured as thoroughly as others because I didn’t want anyone to bother me. If my husband dropped in at mealtimes, a tray of excellent food was brought for him too. If he wanted to stay on in the evening after the outside gates were closed, he could have them opened or could climb over, whichever his mood dictated, and no one seemed to mind.
As far as I could judge, ‘sterile precautions’ were as strictly observed as anywhere. One could go about freely, and everywhere it was clean, quiet, and orderly. Signal lights were answered at once. The comfort of the patient seemed to be the main consideration, not the convenience of the doctor or the hospital schedule. The fact that one was nervous and weepy was regarded gently and objectively.
Perhaps the very wealthy have such congenial surroundings everywhere, the very poor nowhere. But the middle income groups have a hard time finding them in America. I have been a maternity patient in one of the best hospitals in the country, and I have visited dozens of them. It is always the same story. Regarding anæsthesia there seems to be a difference, but practically everywhere something is given ‘at the last.’ If you have endured the waiting and the labor, why should you miss the climax?
It is improbable that any change in the present system will come from the doctors, for whom it is far less strenuous, or from women, since sleeping is more comfortable than fighting. But there are indications here and there among psychologists, seeking cures for neuroses. The liberating effect of experiences which are strong, real, nearly cosmic, has not escaped their attention.