HHH column: Fathers in labour by Hieke Huistra

The HHH column is a blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts: on research, current affairs, and anything to do with medical history. Each author will invite a new author to participate in the conversation. Last time, Martijn van der Meer, PhD candidate at Erasmus University, passed the pen on to Hieke Huistra, assistant professor at Utrecht University.

Hieke Huistra

Mrs V.d. K., mother of seven, already knew. Her eighth baby wouldn’t arrive as easily as the previous ones. As she told her midwife, who described the case in the main Dutch midwifery journal in 1938: “This time, it won’t be like the other times … I feel uncomfortable and the baby’s kicks are bothering me … it feels as if there is a full regiment of frogs in my abdomen.”

And indeed, when she went into labour, the baby just wouldn’t come out. After a full night of contractions, her husband fetched the midwife. But when the midwife arrived, there wasn’t a baby in sight yet.

A mother giving birth to a baby
A mother giving birth to a baby. Oil painting, 1800. Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Midwife and mother struggled to find a position that would both facilitate the arrival of the child and keep the mother somewhat comfortable. They had yet to find one that worked when the father entered the room, bringing soup and other food, for the midwife. She first refused to eat, thinking she should tend to the bearing woman, but the father insisted. “You’ve brought all our children into the world, the least I can do is feed you; just take a break.” So the midwife ate, together with the father.

After the meal, it was time to try something new. The midwife asked the father to get a neighbour to help, and then instructed them to each hold one of the mother’s legs and press it against her stomach. In this way, with her legs held open and the midwife watching the baby crown, the woman birthed the baby – all healthy.

As usual, the mother had done most of the work, but the father hadn’t been idle. He had provided food, additional hands, and companionship. Together with his wife, the midwife and their neighbour, he had welcomed his eighth child into the world. 

In other words, he did more than we often think that husbands did. When we think about past births, we often imagine the expecting father waiting outside the room, or outside the house, pacing up and down nervously, perhaps boiling some water every now and then, but not being truly part of the process. Indeed, there is some scholarship that supports this image of the absent father, for example the work of Laura King and Judith Leavitt. However, there is also research – in particular by Patricia Jalland, Jill Suitor and John Tosh – that suggests that at least some fathers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century attended the births of their children.

What these researchers have in common, is that they focus on the UK and the US. I am currently trying to work out how the situation in the early twentieth-century Netherlands can be best described. To do so, I am studying both medical journal debates on what birth should be like — in which the role of the father is sometimes discussed — and descriptions of individual births, both in case reports (which is where the example above came from) and in diaries, letters and memoirs.

The journal debates may well be the most generalizable source. But it is the personal documents, I find, that really bring the story alive, and can show us how fathers, and mothers, actually experienced the arrival of new life. The problem is, of course, that such personal birth accounts are hard to find — even though I am extremely lucky to have archival miracle worker Friso Hoeneveld to help me locate them.

So if you have a diary, letter or a family anecdote from the first half of the twentieth century recalling a birth story that you are willing to share: do let me know!

Hieke passes the pen on to Trude Dijkstra, visiting postdoctoral fellow at the Warburg Institute in London.

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