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Grand Isle

TURN OF THE CENTURY CHILDBIRTH

 

In her own personal account of childbirth, Kate Chopin mentions some standard parts of turn-of-the-century, upper-class childbirth, including an attending physician and the use of chloroform. She describes her own emotions at the time as "pure animal sensation" which is appropriate than she could have known since, in retrospect, we can see how primitive obstetrics were in her time.

Chopin also reflects the divergent experiences of women in childbirth by depicting Madame Ratignolle as an excited mother who anticipates her deliveries, then countering that attitude with that of Edna, who not only does not happily dote on her children, but is completely horrified by the "scene [of] torture" (Chopin 119) she witnesses at Mme. Ratignolle’s delivery.

From the evidence, it would seem that Edna, rather than Adele, more accurately reflects the feeling of the turn-of-the-century woman toward childbearing. Theirs was a legitimate fear not only like that of modern women of pain and the unknown, but fear for their very lives. Those women were not secure in the proper training of their attending physicians or the safety or sterilization of birthing tools. They literally had no assurance that their deliveries would turn out satisfactorily.

The maternal death rate around 1900 was one mother’s death per every 154 living births. So, "if women delivered . . . five live babies during their child-bearing years . . . then one of every thirty women might have expected to die of childbirth over the course of her fertile years" (Leavitt 25). This statistic becomes even more shocking when one realizes that women of the 1980s fared much better odds of one maternal death per every 10,000 live births.

Madame Ratignolle figures nicely into this equation, as she gives birth to her fourth child in The Awakening. Surely she was aware of the risks of childbirth to her health, but, like many of her peers, she continued to challenge the odds. As sociable as Mme. Ratignolle was just within the confines of Grand Isle, it was quite probable that her full social circle included a woman who did not survive her deliver. This would also help explain Edna’s distress at Mme. Ratignolle’s delivery.

The major explanation for continued high maternal death rate is that women were most likely to die during or as a result of the birth of their first child. Perhaps this could be attributed to a woman’s body’s inexperience and the shock of a first pregnancy, or the lack of knowledge on the part of women in choosing attending physicians. Either way, women were trying to save themselves by using birth control and having fewer children, but were still taking the same amount of risk by having that one first child.

Quality of obstetrical care also varied by social class. The luxury of physician-monitored home delivery was limited to privileged, upper-class women, so most other women who could not afford private doctors or hospital care employed midwives instead. These poorer women might not actually have been at a disadvantage, either; the safety record of midwives was actually better than that of trained physicians.

One standard item at every upper-class delivery seemed to be chloroform, which is mentioned in the account of Mme. Ratignolle’s labor. This revolutionary improvement was developed in the late nineteenth century, and even though women were overjoyed at the pain relief drugs provided, the medical community remained divided over their safety.

Although chloroform’s advantages included less nausea and swelling, the chief complications resulting from chloroform included falling blood pressure and cardiac arrest. The consensus was that the safety of chloroform depended on the "amount of the drug used and the time during labor when it was administered" (Leavitt 123).

Chloroform was not inexpensive, either, so its availability was limited to wealthy women who could afford the drug itself and attending physicians to administer it. Even though physicians had the easiest access to chloroform, one didn’t need to be licensed to administer it. The doctor was expected to be present, but, as he was often busy checking cervical dilations, he often left chloroform administration up to a woman’s attending nurse or friend. Thus, if Edna had had a stronger stomach, she feasibly could have been responsible for administering chloroform at Mme. Ratignolle’s delivery.

In reality, Edna was right to be frightened and upset by witnessing Mme. Ratignolle give birth. Her character suggests that she may have blocked her own birthing traumas from her mind, and understandably so. The turn of the century was a terrible time for obstetrics and pregnancy, and 1990s women should be truly thankful for modern advancement in the field.

 

--Content prepared by Shelley Roy.

Copyright (c) 1999; all rights reserved.

Email Us                                                                                                                  Date Page Last Updated 01/08/00

 

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