A woman named Lila, who is in her eighties, shared with me the story of the birth of her third child, who was stillborn, on the way to the hospital. The details are not mine to share but her experience is one of the most extraordinary I have ever heard, in part because Lila’s story reveals what it was like to be a woman and a mother “back then” in a rural area in the 1950’s.
For women living in the countryside, most births took place at home.
“There were no tests or machines then,” Lila said. “We had no ultrasounds. Back then, you either had a child or you didn’t.”
Imagine a pregnant woman today having that attitude. You either had a child or you didn’t. With our easy access to doctors and hospitals, with information at our fingertips in books and online, it is inconceivable that a woman would speak so cavalierly about having a child. These days, a birth at home happens by choice with a midwife in attendance. These days, a woman schedules her C-section.
What makes Lila’s story so moving and unforgettable is the fact that the experience has not lost its power, or any detail. As she told the story of the two days surrounding this early birth sixty years after it happened, remembering every moment as clearly as if it had happened recently, Lila was overcome by emotion. The tears in her voice made me appreciate how strong this woman is and has had to be. Also, Lila isn’t alone in carrying this loss with her for a lifetime; there are many women in their seventies and eighties with stories just like this buried deep in their memories.
The doctor told Lila that they didn’t name stillborn babies so she buried her son naming him only in her heart (for she already had a name picked out). Imagine a doctor saying that today. No name for a baby that dies. I can’t imagine any of my friends accepting that.
While I was visiting my best friend when she was pregnant with her second child in 2005, she said to me, “There’s something wrong. I’m going to the hospital.” Thankfully, we did not live through a tragedy together (her son will be seven this summer) but if that had been 1955, I’d have had to hold her hand while we waited for the doctor to come to the house and tell her to go to bed and that he’d be back the next day. Only by the next day, it would be too late.
Because of the era in which they grew up, none of my friends have ever experienced a tragedy like Lila’s so I am grateful that Lila trusted me with her story. I needed to hear it, needed to know, needed to remember. Back then, women lived so much closer to life and death – you either had a child or you didn’t – yet there was no time for mourning. There were other children to care for (and eventually, other children to have), there was a husband and hired hands to feed, there was a self to pull together.
There is nothing weak about a woman like that.