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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -2°C
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Giving birth in the 1960s 'All the mothers were terrified of the doctors and matron so we never asked any questions'

‘Was I traumatised? I don’t know – back then you just had to get on with it,’ writes Ava Stapleton.

A RECENT ARTICLE on childbirth reminded me of the birth of my first child in the Rotunda hospital fifty years ago.

I selected the Rotunda because it was rumoured at the time, that if the pregnancy went wrong and it came down to a choice – they would prioritise saving the life of the mother. 

It was believed that other Catholic maternity hospitals would do the opposite.

On your first antenatal visit, you were sent to the dental clinic which was next to the antenatal ward. If any of your teeth looked like they needed a filling or any sort of treatment, the dentist insisted on pulling them out – so I lost two teeth on that first birth. 

Since scans didn’t exist, a deep and painful internal exam was performed on every visit. 

All the mothers were terrified of the doctors and matron so we never asked any questions.   

As soon as my labour started I went to the hospital. My husband was told to go home as there were no visitors allowed in until after the baby was born. 

I was given an enema and after that, I was put on a bed and pushed down a long corridor. The walls were lined with green marble cubicles which had no doors and there was a high bed in each cubicle. I was put on that high bed and there I lay for twenty-four hours, in pain. 

The only distraction was to read messages scrawled on the walls of the cubicle, by former patients. The messages were mostly complaints about men being responsible for the pain they were feeling and how ‘it was well for them to not be able to have babies’. 

Nurses looked in now and again and did internal exams but rarely spoke.

Eventually, after many hours the matron appeared and my legs were hoisted up over my head and strapped either side of the bed onto two metal bars. 

Then the Doctor entered with a scissors and cut my vaginal opening. Throughout all that time I was never offered any pain treatment but soon after my legs were unstrapped I was given a gas mask. 

Fifty years later I can still remember the horrible taste and the feeling of hovering somewhere above the bed. 

My baby was born healthy and I was given four catgut stitches. 

Shortly after we were both brought to the postnatal ward. Where I was offered tea, toast and a light for my cigarette.  

Was I traumatised? I don’t know, back then you just had to get on with it.  

Visiting time was very strictly enforced. Parents and friends could visit at 2 p.m. and evening times were for the fathers.

But having waited in Colon’s pub across the road, many of the new dads would arrive at the hospital drunk and so there were always one or two rows in the ward – culminating in the offending father being ordered out by the staff.

Like every other mother back then, I was kept in for two weeks. During that time we were taught how to bathe our babies and how to breastfeed properly. 

Whether we needed it or not we had to drink a large disgusting glass of some tarry concoction to move our bowels. And later on, we all had to lie on our bed and carry out exercises to strengthen our internal organs.

After five days the catgut stitches were removed, again without any painkiller. These stitches were so strong that often more damage was done taking them out than inserting them.  

But salt baths, we were told, cured everything.

Cleanliness was held in very high regard and everyone had to stay in bed until the ward was cleaned and inspected by the matron – but since everyone was allowed to smoke,  including the visitors, the cleaners could never get rid of the smell.

Lung cancer is very prevalent in Ireland and you have to wonder if all the passive smoking by the nation’s babies in the maternity hospital’s played a part in that?

But of course, back then we didn’t know the dangers. 

Each maternity hospital had its own rules, so us Rotunda mothers felt seriously deprived when we learned that the Coombe allowed all the new mothers to have a night out before they were discharged.

The nurses took care of the babies.  

There have been many changes to maternity care since I had my first child.

These days women have more choices and can choose the type of birth, home births, water births and so on. Those who can afford private care can even choose their own doctors and team. 

Nowadays mothers are encouraged to walk around during labour while we were made to lie on our backs and not move.

Other massive improvements are epidurals and painkillers, being allowed to ask questions, anti-natal classes and having your partner with you in the labour ward. 

Being pregnant is no longer treated as a sickness which it was in my day.

But reading the report about all those women who phoned into Joe Duffy, it strikes me that the care itself doesn’t seem to have improved. 

Back in the 1960s we were treated like children and I felt very disempowered but at least I was well looked after and went home with all the skills I needed to take care of my baby

Obviously, in my mother’s day, things were very different again. My own poor mother had thirteen children and back then, the registrar used to go around the ward as soon as a baby was born and you had to give her the name for the birth certificate.   

My mother, having given birth only an hour beforehand, couldn’t think of a name for my brother. So baby Stapleton was inserted on his birth certificate. 

It was only when my brother needed the cert to get married that he realised his official Christian name was ‘baby’ and it was a terrible job to try get it changed in time for the wedding.

Ava Stapleton is a retired counsellor who continues to provide counselling in her local community on a voluntary basis.

She is a mother of five, grandmother of twelve and also has three great-grandchildren.  

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