Thursday 30 June 2011

Mothers and Babies

The institution of the 'monthly nurse' is now largely forgotten (can anyone tell me when it disappeared? presumably with the creation of the NHS?) but it was common for middle-class women to have a paid, live-in helper for the first month after childbirth both - I assume - to let them recover their powers and give them some instruction in the basics of childcare, if they were ignorant. They were, however, not always that much help, as this article from 1859 The British Mothers' Journal attests. The mother's powerless distrust of a 'health professional' in the first couple of paragraphs will resonate strongly with those who have had bad experiences in hospitals; and yet, conversely, you may be comforted with how far we've come with modern medicine, placing it against the traditional 'physic' of the monthly nurse.


NURSE L— was engaged to attend me with my first baby, and was duly installed in the house fully a week before the event took, place : this gave me an opportunity of judging her. She answered very much to the description of monthly nurses in general : she had that bland, quiet, undisturbed look and manner which few of them are deficient in — they study it no doubt; their self-possession inspires confidence, and has its advantages; they never appear hurried or in a fright; no matter what happens or is likely to happen, there is the same calm look and blank expression when they choose, so that it is impossible to read in their face any intelligence of what is passing even at the most critical period, although the doctor and nurse always thoroughly but silently understand each other : this is right, during trying scenes it is well to keep the patient calm and free from fears. I had the utmost confidence (to begin with) in this nurse, as most young mothers have, especially with their first child. She was an oracle of wisdom : all she recommended was done, in fact she had the whole control of the infant. The opinions of grandmammas and aunts fail before the supposed superior judgment of the old nurse.
    Nurse L— was one of the old-fashioned sort, who thought it highly important to administer a liberal amount of "physic," according to the approved ancient custom prevalent in the days of great grandmothers. Doctors seldom interfere with these matters; and so the poor babe was dosed plentifully at intervals, amidst a fearful deal of struggling, choking, and screaming; but I was told it was "all for its good;" and so in very ignorance and trustfulness I allowed it to continue.
    I must digress here a little to remark, that it would be better if doctors did inquire a little more into the state of matters, and how they go on in their absence. Some doctors, I know, are very minute in their inquiries and directions (and their patients generally progress well); they taste the food prepared for mother and child; direct how often and in what quantities it is to be administered. I have heard doctors blamed and ridiculed for looking into things which many persons think are more properly belonging to the care of the nurse ; but I am assured such thoughtfulness on the part of a doctor is of the greatest value and importance, especially with a young and inexperienced patient and an untried nurse. More than two or three hours should not elapse, night or day, without refreshment — at least for the first fortnight, when the food is necessarily slight; but this is too often neglected, for if the infant should have long sleeps which most likely will be the case the first week or two of its existence — the nurse perhaps may be unwilling to rouse, and the patient too weak or not sufficiently aware of the necessity to exert herself to ask. Thus the night passes; and from the ten o'clock supper of gruel, sago, or so forth, to the breakfast hour (though early), is too long to have been left without refreshment; and if the mother, under such circumstances, give nourishment to her infant, both suffer.
    But to return to the daily routine of the monthly nurse. The morning and evening ablutions, with the torments of dressing and undressing. were a sad scene —a daily recurring trial from beginning to end for me and the poor babe: I begged, and begged in vain, that the nurse would desist for awhile, that the child might take breath and not scream itself into convulsions; but I was not heeded. "It must be done," was always the answer, "and the sooner it is got over the better." Then to quiet my fears and reassure me, she would say, "Why, ma'am, it does the little dears good to cry it stretches their lungs;" and, "Babies always cry, it wouldn't be natural if they didn't, would it, my darling?" and would then go off into a long rigmarole of a talk to the baby, in the true old nursery style (as if it could understand), partly to avoid any further remonstrance on my part : and so the dressing was finished, and the poor little creature, instead of being refreshed, was weakened and wearied by its efforts, and went involuntarily into a slumber from very exhaustion. I always thought this a horrible state of things that an infant should be subjected to such a system of daily torture : but I was necessarily passive, because I could not then control things nor command a remedy : but in later years, when I had gained courage to undertake this business myself, I was the more convinced that it is unnatural for an infant to scream through what ought to be a pleasant process, if managed with the smallest degree of judgment and care.
    I now recollect some circumstances attending the administering of medicine to the infant, which I looked upon at the time as more accident; but I discovered afterwards that this woman could not read! She passed her deficiency off with great address,—always putting on her spectacles and seeming to try and decipher the direction on the bottles, then giving it up, saying she was "so near-sighted;" and she ould ask any one who happened to be present to read the label for her : this answered till a fresh bottle arrived, and the same ceremony was again gone through. But one day two bottles stood side by side alike colourless; one was a mixture, the other an eye lotion ; and the entrance of some one to the room of quick observation was the happy means of staying the nurse's hand about to administer a dose of the latter to the infant internally. Another mistake she really accomplished, which caused great suffering for a time, but happily resulted in nothing serious : she applied dill-seed water to the infant's eyes instead of rosewvatcr, both being in the same sort of bottle and, though labelled distinctly, to one who could not read and would not ask, they were alike. She made the venture, and erred. I thought little of these things at the time beyond the temporary annoyance at the infant's suffering through carelessness, as I considered it ; but now I view it in a more serious light: it is unprincipled in the highest degree for people to pretend to what they are not equal to ; and not having the honesty to avow their deficiency, adds to the fault in every way : they are emboldened by their success—or rather their escapes from committing any harm—forgetting that it is to God's providence alone we owe such protection, and not to the ignorant recklessness of those who risk our life and health. We have, indeed, wonderful instances of God's goodness in protecting us : but let us not dare too much;—ninety-nine times we may escape, and the hundreth we are lost.
     Let us then take every precaution to guard against dangers that surround us on every side, and, trusting in his care, we need not be afraid. Let us carry out this precaution, by endeavouring to secure conscientious and intelligent people about us : this plan, if adopted generally, would also have the good effect of setting ignorant, ill-informed people to work in gaining information to fit them for the duties of the capacity they aspire to; so that the demand for intelligent and knowledgeable servants, etc., would tend very much to increase the supply of such.
    But to return to the narrative. The first baby had a tolerably good constitution, and struggled through much mismanagement, the extent of which I was not aware of till this woman nursed me with my second child; it was not so robust as the first, and could not contend with the dosing, etc. At length an indiscretion on the part of the nurse caused it to be "struck with the cold," as she expressed it herself; she took it out of doors at a month old in January, because (as she reasoned) the first child went out at that age in June. Convulsive fits ensued, and it is a marvel that the little creature survived, considering, too, that the warm baths given to restore it to consciousness and to revive it from the fits, were at much too high a temperature. At length I discovered that this woman was a drunkard (it is of no use attempting to soften the term for such a heinous offence in one of her profession), and more, that she used to give the poor babe some narcotic to cause it to sleep, and it was administered in such quantities that the poor little sufferer could arouse from the effects of the torpor only by means of a convulsive effort. I then took entire charge of the dear babe, and slowly, oh! how slowly, did it rally, and at length recover from the sad effects of such mal-treatment." — From "A Few Friendly Hints to Young Mothers."

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