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Friday, March 11, 2011

Little birth on the Prairie

Although I can't be certain, I wonder if there's a
baby under there somewhere?
Most of you know that I am a total Little House on the Prairie freak. A few years ago, I went on an eBay crusade to buy all the books in hardcover, because I find it a valuable collection to have and want my kids to have something nice to hold on to. I still have a hard copy of The Long Winter that my dad gave me, complete with a "Herself the Elf" bookplate in the front, my name in 9-year-old scrawl. That and because it was something my dad gave me, I wouldn't trade that book for anything. If your teacher, like mine, read Farmer Boy to you in third grade, you probably remember drooling over the descriptions of food in Almanzo's childhood. And so a love affair began.

(Interestingly enough, Laura's grandparents were married somewhere up over the hill from my house, and Laura's grandmother was born in that area [even though some dolt who wrote a Wikipedia article on them says she was born somewhere else. Dude, you're wrong.])

Anyway, I digress.

When I read the last book in the series, The First Four Years, (after reading them in chronological order, of course), I came to an interesting, if not inevitable, scene where Laura gives birth to Rose, their first child. I don't know how it was portrayed in the TV series (haven't got there yet, I'm only in the middle of season four LOL). Now, most Little House fans speculate over the authorship of the books, as it's commonly believed that Rose helped Laura write the series in her old age. I would say that might be true of the books that cover Laura's childhood, which by the time they were written were a distant memory to an aging Laura. Childhood memories are one thing; childbirth, when you're a grown woman, is quite another. When reading Years, I could tell the tone was different than the other books, and found out later that this book, in its rough manuscript, was published after Laura's death when they found the notes among her things. This probably explains the straight-foward birth scene: no elaborating, definitely no dreamy, 'strong pioneer woman' characterizations that one might expect. Yes, she did have pain relief, if you're wondering, and yes, her birth was at home - attended by her mother, another woman, and a doctor. Not a midwife.

Most people often wonder what birth was like back then, and I thought it was an interesting glimpse. It's not like she wrote every detail down and talked about the placenta and contractions and all of that; there was a level of modesty, I suppose, to talking about birth (or anything female-y) in those days.

Before she talks about the birth, she mentions the weather - it was December 5, and a rare nice day. She mentions sled rides and climbing hills and all that stuff, but on this day, Laura is "quiet," which worried her husband. She wanted to sit by the fire and rest - and soon it's time to call the doctor. Labor is approaching. No hill climbs for Laura! LOL

Manly (Alamanzo) goes to fetch the doctor, telling Laura, "Keep as quiet as you can until we come." Why? Laura's no dummy - after he leaves she "walked the floor" until he came back.

In all of my children's births, I paced. It was comforting, a pace that was steady and predictable and helped me to cope.

When Manly returns with her mother, Ma scolds Laura for being up and around. I think Laura was just going on instinct - after all, there was no Ina May's Guide to Childbirth back then, and even that book shows women in Laura's day coping with labor pains. Ma says, "I'll get you to bed right away."

Laura responds, "I'll have a long time to stay in bed. I am going to stay up now as long as I can." Smart girl. Perhaps her instincts were telling her to keep upright and keep moving, two things that can help speed labor.

However, the book goes on: "Soon she made no objections and only vaguely knew when Manly drove away again to fetch a friend of Ma's from town." Was she inwardly focusing? Coping with the pain? Or was it becoming too much for her? One thing's for sure: it probably didn't help her once she got in bed and couldn't move around.

Once the "friend," Mrs. Power, shows up, she assesses the situation. Laura is young, she says, and that's an advantage. But Mrs. Power decided it was time to call the doctor - one only wonders how many children she's had. We know that Ma had five - four girls and one boy who died after birth - so you'd think these women would not be all about the pain. Did they tell tales of horrific births like women do today? Were they already, at this point, victims of labor myths and abnormal childbirth?

When Laura could again see and know what went on around her, Ma and Mrs. Power were standing one on each side of her bed. And was that Manly at the foot? No! Manly had gone for the doctor. Then were there two Mas and two Mrs. Powers? They seemed to be all around her.
 She was being borne away on a wave of pain. A gust of cold, fresh air brought her back and she saw a tall man drop his snowy overcoat by the door and come toward her in the lamplight.
She vaguely felt a cloth touch her face and smelled a keen odor. Then she drifted away into a blessed darkness where there was no pain. 
And no awareness or memory of your first child being born.

A rather insolent-looking Rose
The first thing that struck me after reading this passage was how women can give birth while unconscious. At some point, the body will push that baby out whether you like it or not, but with the incredibly inane idea of directed pushing, few women get to that point, it seems. Because I'm sure some people are wondering how a woman can give birth while not even awake, one can probably presume she had a forceps birth, no doubt what Laura was anticipating when she said "I'll have a long time to stay in bed." My own mother-in-law gave birth this way in the early 70s, in a high forceps birth (which is considered dangerous nowadays), and said she couldn't sit without pain or discomfort for probably a month.

The cost of the attending physician and birth was $100, which was a precious sum to the Ingalls in those days. No mention of a midwife, which is sort of unfortunate. And hospitals? Too far away, too expensive, and probably only a place you went if you were on your deathbed.

Laura did have a second baby, a son, who was, according to the book, born before the doctor got there. For many women, future labors are faster than the first one, and I'm sure Laura wasn't as scared now that she knew what to expect. She doesn't say much about the birth, and doesn't even mention the child by name at all. Perhaps it's a reflection on her feelings at the time it was written; maybe women knew not to grow too attached to their babies because of the high newborn mortality rate in those days. I found this passage strange, if not telling, of Laura's almost indifference towards her new baby:
Laura was proud of her new baby, but strangely she wanted Rose more than anything.
It almost sounds like Laura was going through some postpartum depression to begin with, obviously not helped by the fact that shortly thereafter the child dies. Apparently, even though he was almost a month old when he died, he was never given a name. day three weeks later when the baby was taken with spasms, and he died so quickly that the doctor was too late.
To Laura, the days that followed were mercifully blurred. Her feelings were numbed and she only wanted to rest - to rest and not to think.
I do wonder if there were some bonding issues between mother and son - Laura and Rose were very close and she was very protective of her, which you could expect her to be - but almost to a startling degree. I've also read that Laura was bossy and somewhat difficult to get along with in later years, and that she and Rose were often at odds with each other. (Rose later said she herself had what is now considered bipolar disorder.)

Interestingly enough, Laura's mother lost a son a little over a year after he was born. The TV series talks about this in the episodes "The Lord is my Shepherd" but the book series doesn't mention it all. Not much is known about the baby's health, but some speculate that he was suffering from a hereditary metabolic disease and failure to thrive, which is discussed in the show - the baby is not satisfied with breastmilk and chugs down cow's milk from a bottle, much to the family's wonderment (I don't find this story line much of a coincidence, considering the still somewhat negative attitudes about breastfeeding then). He fails to put on weight and dies within a year.

One of the sources I checked states that the baby died from diarrhea, which could come from any number of illnesses that were quite common in those days (one of the book details the family's bout with malaria).
"Laura herself said in her writings that he was 'taken with convulsions,' and a few days later he 'straightened out his little body and died.'"
Laura's lovely little writing desk
Although we can't really tell, I often wonder why the Ingalls sisters (minus Mary, who never married) never had children. In those days, all the children were born at home, and perhaps the girls were frightened by it?

Rose herself had a son - which most conclude was either stillborn or died shortly after - resulting in what sounds like a hysterectomy. She was a free spirit much like her father, and traveled the world as a reporter and writer.

I'm curious what either Laura or Rose (who was once considered one of the highest-paid female writers in the country) would be like today: mommy bloggers? Moms who vent about their trials and losses, sharing and enduring with hundreds, if not thousands of readers? Would we be reading "Little Blog on the Prairie" now instead?

I think I am going to go read. :)


Dana said...

This is probably the mist I've ever been interested in Little House on the Prairie. I never read the books & only occasionally watched the television show.

Your mention of a hereditary metabolic disease caught my eye. My son has VLCADD, which is a genetic metabolic disorder, a fatty acid oxidation disorder to be specific. Do you have any more information about conjecture regarding the baby possibly suffering from a metabolic disorder?

Laura @ our messy messy life. said...

I was a HUGE Little House on the Prairie fan growing up. I literally wore out several different sets of the books through elementary school as I read and reread each book over and over and over again. For several years, my favorite shoes were lace up ankle boots...

I distinctly remember reading the passage about the "keen odor" and passing out during labor even though it's been almost 20 years since I last read the series.

I always assumed (even in childhood, which seems odd in retrospect) that she was given ether to make her pass out and that was the "keen odor".....much like the Twilight Sleep you mentioned.

The Deranged Housewife said...

I think you are probably right - I'm not sure chloroform was as widely used in the US by then.

K said...

with all these little boys dying in multiple generations it really makes one wonder if there was an inherited metabolic disorder in play.
has someone looked back at the generations before Laura and manly to see if there were any more early unexplained deaths of baby boys?