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Your 1952 Pregnancy

June 7, 2010

I recently bought a copy of How to Care for Children, published in 1952 as part of the Homemaker’s Encyclopedia.  It clearly assumes a few things about it’s reader: that she is young, married, at-home and expecting her first child.  (The chapter on pregnancy repeatedly refers to “your husband” and there’s no mention of how your pregnancy might impact your job.)

Most stay-at-home mothers today leave paid employment when a child, usually their first, perhaps their second or third, is born.  (I know that’s not true for all stay-at-home mothers, but I think it is the norm.)  I had assumed that was true of the 1950s as well.  But HTCFC never mentions quitting your job because your pregnant or, for that matter, having a job at all.  I have to assume that the target reader quit work before she bought the Homemaker’s Encyclopedia.

Oddly, the chapter on pregnancy features exactly zero pregnant women.  I suppose sensibilities in 1952 were such that pregnant women couldn’t be featured, even in a book for and about them.

Instead, HTCFC shows photograph and photograph of wasp-waisted women with jaunty pregnancy oriented captions: “Milk is one of the building and repair foods,” “Take frequent naps and get lots of sleep,” and my personal favorite “Pregnancy is no longer an excuse for adding pound after pound.”  That last one shows a remarkably skinny woman standing, holding knitting needles and staring at her coffee table.  It’s not clear what she’s doing or how it might prevent “adding pound after pound.”  Is the knitting?  While standing?

HTCFC repeatedly refers to maternity wear as "stork fashions."

Some of the advice in HTCFC is so stereotypical of the 1950’s that it seems almost satirical (“Your doctor will probably recommend a maternity girdle to be fitted by an expert”) but by and large it only hints at 1950’s attitudes toward women and childbearing.

For example, modern pregnancy manuals can be oppressive with their lengthy lists of things that can go wrong, but the 50’s approach, if anything, is worse: it just says to talk to your doctor.  Beyond a mention of blood pressure and syphilis testing, and a later mention of amniotic fluid, there are no medical terms at all in HTCFC.  The word “trimester” is never used.  Not once.

Then, there’s hospital stay.  HTCFC doesn’t say how long you might be in the hospital.  (Various internet sites claim 8 to 14 days was typical in the 50s, compared to the 2-3 night stay typical today.)  But the book make sit clear you will be there awhile.  They recommend taking:

  • “Gay little bed jackets”
  • “A pretty robe and slippers”
  • “A cosmetic kit”
  • “A manicure kit, curlers if you need them and a scarf to cover your hair when you’re too tired to struggle with it”
  • “Writing supplies–you’ll want to write thank you notes”
  • “Something to knit… and a few new books and magazines”
  • and perhaps most disturbingly, “your most glamorous nighties… the ones left from your trousseau that you’ve felt strange about wearing just to sleep in.”

It’s assumed that yor husband won’t actually be around when the baby is born.  “It will probably come as a shock when the nurse has you say goodbye [to him] at the front desk and takes you in tow… Unless you’re part and parcel of the Childbirth Without Fear group, in which case he may be allowed to remain with you until hard labor begins.”  I gather that even in the 1950s, there was some push back against the medical establishment and some families wanted the father in the delivery room.  But it was still widely seen as a weird, fringey thing to do, perhaps the way home birth is today.

The description of birth procedures is frankly horrifying.  (I’m tempted to copy and mail it to my Bradley instructor as a “see how far we’ve come” sort of thing.)  Some highlights:

“Once you’re in the hospital… you belong to your doctor and the nurses body and soul… your clothes are removed and you may not see them again until you are ready to leave the hospital… Your doctor will probably order and enema or enemas… As part of the preparation for delivery, pubic hair will be shaved off.”

The indignities don’t end there and HTCFC recommends that you learn that this is all for the best.  “You’ll understand that the joking remarks of nurses and interns are meant to be reassuring and to divert your mind from pain; that the many intimate examinations of your person are conducted from a thoroughly impersonal viewpoint; and that any unpleasantness or tactlessness probably results from fatigue and long hours.”  Indeed.

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