In March, 1963, just after my twentieth birthday, my fourth child was ready to enter the world. Standing around waiting, in the foyer of Wellington Hospital’s maternity ward, for admittance, I suddenly was standing in the centre of a small wet pool. The baby’s water had come flooding out with a big rush. Reminding me of my Brownie days accident, wetting myself in the dairy shop, I was left feeling the same embarrassment. After notifying the one on the desk about this event, hanging around for attention was over.
Two nurses appeared from nowhere, one to mop, and the other wanting me to follow her straight to the theatre. With great nervousness, I obeyed, fearfully wondering what their method of delivering babies was going to be. All ready to go into battle, I was determined to scream ‘blue murder’ before getting smothered with a chloroform mask again.
Good news, no Chloroform, bad news, another worse, equally, completely idiotic, cockamamie idea that anyone could ever have thought up, confronted me. Stirrups! leather straps, hanging down from above the theatre table like some sort of medieval, ‘torture’ gadget.
The nurse then proceeded to string my feet up in the air, so that now, from my position flat on my back, I had to defy gravity and push my baby out uphill!!! I’m convinced this could only have been dreamed up by a dopey male who had never given birth. Luckily after three babies, the path for this one had been well and truly blazed and our second little girl’s entry to the world proceeded rapidly, with no problems. How mothers who had longer deliveries coped with this dumb idea, I couldn’t imagine.
Our new little girl, like all the other babies, was fair with olive skin but was the first to inherit the curly hair, in my family line. My feelings of isolation and loneliness after each birth, worsened this time, but I was too scared to let this on to anyone, just in case they thought, I was ‘mental’ and packed me off to ‘Porirua’.
All communication with my husband had long since gone through the gap and we were barely talking, except for essentials. I could see his bread factory workplace directly across the road from the hospital and felt sad he never found the time to visit me and the baby. I never knew if this was due to the hospitals inflexible visiting or he was mad with me about something.
Wellington Hospital’s maternity ward was run on the same four hour feeding schedule as at Featherston. The babies, all lined up in rows, looking like sausage rolls in their furry baby wraps, were delivered, from the nursery to their mums for feeding, on large, rattling stainless steel trolleys. Goodness knows what their little brains thought, on their journeys through the hospital corridors, bouncing up and down with every irregularity on the floors’ surfaces. A whole generation of people now probably hate that sound with no idea why.
One of my husband’s cousins, who wasn’t married and never had a husband, happened to give birth in the maternity ward at the same time as me. Back then being single and pregnant was thought to be a big disgrace, like the way the girl at the Philip’s factory where I used to work, had been gossiped about. So as not to shame their families, and become outcasts from ‘nice’ society, girls in this predicament usually took up live-in jobs in the country until giving birth, adopting out their babies, and returning home alone.
Another option was to go into special houses run by Nuns or the Salvation Army, like the, Alexandra Hospital and Home, near the Winter Show Grounds. I always used to wonder what its purpose was, as a kid, and now I knew.
In exchange for care during the last months of their pregnancy, the girls were expected to be self sacrificing, ‘do the right thing’ and give their babies up for adoption to ‘real’ families. With no alternative, most girls succumbed to this pressure and adopted their babies out. They were told it was, ‘for the best’, because some so called ‘expert’ somewhere, had proclaimed it better for babies to be raised with ‘two’ unrelated parents, instead of, ‘one’ real mother. Also, the stigma, society attached to being a single mother was huge.
This cousin intended to give her baby up for adoption, and immediately after the birth it was taken away and put in another room, to await handing over to a new family. Another, ‘it’s for the best theory’ was for the mother not to see their baby so they would not get attached and change their mind.
It became obvious by their speech and actions, that some hospital staff held judgmental and negative attitudes to the unmarried, cousin–in–law and appeared to be trying to punish her. Putting her in the same room as us other mothers with babies after having hers removed after the birth, like she had no feelings, seemed particularly cruel and insensitive. Other room options, like in with, the mothers in waiting with problems, would have been preferable.
Three days after giving birth, she could not take watching us other mums and babies at feeding times, knowing her baby was somewhere in another room waiting to be given away, and discharged herself to go home. After signing a paper freeing the hospital of any responsibility, she went home with the dire warnings from the staff, designed to scare her about how life threatening her decision was, overheard by everyone in the ward, ringing in her ears. I felt sad for her, but admired her guts and bravery for thumbing her nose at the rules and warnings and doing what was best for her.
Back home, I noticed our new baby had something wrong with her tongue as it couldn’t move much. The doctor said it was called being tongue-tied and she would need to have the skin under the tongue snipped with scissors when she got a bit bigger.
My own health was slow to pick up after this latest birth and when my breast milk dried up really quickly, the Plunket nurse recommended changing to cows milk, diluted with water, and a dash of sugar. I was spending large amounts of time lying on the couch, constantly over-tired. Dizziness when standing up too quickly kept bringing me to my knees, forcing me to crawl back to the couch, it made caring for the little ones difficult and only able to do the basics.
The gadget that was supposed to prevent getting pregnant, obviously was not working, as my monthly never arrived. Devastated, I knew that meant, there was another baby on the way that I would be unable to cope with. Nana had told me about one of her neighbours in her Christchurch days who had died when someone who helped people get rid of their babies stuck a knitting needle up inside them and messed it up. That night while having my bath, I reached inside and squeezed the neck of my womb, and a little bit of bleeding came out.