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In the Family Way

By rob taylor  |  Posted: February 16, 2012

Charming studio photograph.

Charming studio photograph.

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GIVING birth these days is so much easier now than when great grandma was in the family way. I'm not saying that it is like shelling peas, but there is the new medical management of childbirth with pain-relieving medication, and techniques of breathing and relaxation. There is even assistance which granny would have thought was the stuff of science fiction.

The Victorians may have idolised the family, but were under no illusions about the business of childbirth. Generally, it meant appalling pain and the all too possible prospect of the death of either the child or the mother. However, once safely delivered a tender relationship was encouraged between mother and her newly born. Unlike in previous centuries when crying had been considered good for a baby, the Victorians saw it as a symptom that something might be wrong.

Clearly the circumstances of the family contributed to the kind of life the child would have, consequently some experienced heartwrenching social problems, while the childhood of a little one born in a middle-class Victorian family could be exceptionally happy and secure. There were also, of course, noticeable variations among the middle classes; some immediately after birth were closely nurtured, while others had a structure of nannies and nursery life, only seeing their mother for a few hours each day after they had been bathed, fed and burped.

In these families illustrated, it is quite apparent they had a certain social standing within the Black Country. Beautiful clothes, and the fact that they could have these photographs taken were the outward signs of a solid prosperous lifestyle. Consequently, no effort had been spared in recording precious moments of their children's lives from birth until they were probably quite grown-up. Then they were slipped into special albums for posterity. An album of this kind belonged to Miss Annie Williams, who lived at Petford Street, Old Hill. One of her treasured photographs (see front page) had been captured probably around 1898 by Geo. E. Redding at their studio at Halesowen Road, Old Hill, or at High Street, Stourbridge. It shows a warm tender relationship between three lovely little girls; as it had a special magic and appeal their mother had sent a copy to Annie; but who was she, their aunt or their nanny - even the local midwife? The other studio portrait which was also part of Annie's album, showing proud parents with their three little angels, was possibly taken before W.W.I. The children have the same adorable chubby cheeks and huge brown eyes; does this family likeness hint that they were also part of the Williams clan at Old Hill? During these times, to start or not to start a family was a matter of no great choice. The Victorians’ naivety and repression in these matters is legendary. However, the Victorians and the Edwardians managed to look forward to a future of happiness with a great number of children. Maybe this greetings card (top of page) indicates how many children were in this family. Best Wishes from Stourton, was sent to a young lady living at Netherton from Mrs Meredith of Field Lodge, Lawnswood, Stourton. Now that's what I call a family, "Six Bundles of Joy."

 Again this was part of a collection treasured by the Meredith family which also included many comical postcards relating to the disadvantages of having a large family.

During the 1920's, the ideal of what made a good or bad mother was always questionable.

The more she surrendered to her instincts, the more likely she would be chastised. According to baby care books, motherly love was the enemy of her infants’ health as all those kisses and cuddles were said to pollute it's tiny body with germs. And to pick up the little one, when it cried, poor mom was upsetting the formation of its character. If she took it to bed for a little bit of comfort when it was teething, she was at risk of the little mite being squashed to death. Even the cot had to be placed on the other side of a line between the window and the fireplace so that the draught would whisk away any pollution from the parents breathing safely up the chimney. It made me wonder if the parents of these three little charmers captured at the studio of Gerald Cooper in West Bromwich had read the book written by a socalled child-care expert.

The photograph taken during the 1920's shows three perfectly healthy children, so mummy and daddy didn't need to read such silly nonsense. The mother would have said "What twaddle, I've known exactly what to do, I've been in the family way three times."

 Probably every young inexperienced mum listened to their own mothers, rather than health visitors or other experts, who told them what they were doing wrong.

Before W.W.II most babies arrived with the help of a midwife. Without the aid of a doctor she saw hundreds of babies come into the world. In those days a midwife was respected and trusted as an experienced professional by the moms-to-be. Once they were in the family way they valued the midwife's friendship, as before the baby was born she regularly popped round for tea and a chat just like a member of the family.

However; there was a change in attitude in 1944 when the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommended that seventy per cent of births should take place in hospital, which before the N.H.S. cost about five guineas. With the pressures of rationing and housekeeping many new moms must have thought this was worth every penny. Of course, in those days there was no question of the father being present, he just had to pace the hospital corridor waiting for news - or a cry from their new arrival.

But, in 1948 with the launch of the N.H.S.

births came to be seen as a less natural event, even the very mention of hospital made it seem more as an ordeal.

Yet, coinciding with the rise in hospital deliveries, was an immediate, dramatic fall in infant mortality. Complicated births were undoubtedly safer in hospital, and the advances in medicine meant that fewer small babies died from diarrhoea and breathing problems.

The days when women were knocked out with chloroform disappeared, and the young moms-to-be turned increasingly to doctors for advice.

They embraced the liberal views of Dr Spock who advocated lots of cuddles, demand feeding and plenty of fresh air. It was fine to roll on the floor with the cat and fling food across the room. Then in August 1946 the first "family allowance" was paid, whereby mothers received five shillings a week for each child apart from the eldest. This was a lifesaver for some families; the importance also lay in the fact that it was paid to the mother. Just imagine what this would have meant to some of our great grandmothers who already had lots of children, and then again found themselves in the family way?

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