Twilight sleep


(Originally written for the Blogging from A to Z April, then I decided to be consistent and have every letter be about a character.)

For a long time I vaguely knew that women in America used to be put to sleep during birth, and that that practice slowly started fading out during the Seventies. Even after I started reading about natural childbirth and the history of hospital birth in my early twenties, I still didn’t know the entire truth about the horrific twilight sleep era.

Women for at least 50 years had no memory of giving birth, were tied down with lamb’s wool restraints, put in straitjackets, not allowed to have any friends or family in the birthing room, all sorts of horrific abuses. It makes me so sad to think my own grandmothers must’ve been victims of twilight sleep, and didn’t even question it, since this was the era of “doctor knows best.” I think I threw up in my mouth a little when I was reading Ernestine Gilbreth Carey’s Rings Around Us and she seriously called her OB “that precious, God-like man.” Given that she gave birth in 1938 and 1942, the odds are that she was a victim of twilight sleep and that that “precious, God-like man” let all this happen to her.

Needless to say, I’m glad my primary genre of choice is 20th century historical fiction, so I’ve been able to encorporate awareness of this thankfully discontinued practice into certain of my books, in a way that fits with the storyline and characters. It’s definitely not just stuck in there to push my own views. It always has something to do with the story.

In Little Ragdoll, oldest sister Gemma is completely traumatized by her ordeal with twilight sleep (in addition to being forced to see a male doctor). Ever since she had her birth son Giovanni in June 1961, she’s been unable to stop telling anyone and everyone about how she was mistreated in the hospital. Her mother, the black-hearted Mrs. Troy, and all the women in her abusive, unwanted first husband Francesco’s family think she needs to shut up and know her place, but Gemma’s five little sisters, her one decent brother Allen, and her former nanny Sarah (who’s little more than an exploited live-in slave) are very moved and inspired by the horror stories she’s told. This makes all of them want to seek out natural childbirths, and since midwifery, homebirth, and natural childbirth started coming back into fashion during the Sixties and Seventies, it fits perfectly with the historical timeline.

In my Russian novels, radical Katrin is an enthusiastic proponent of twilight sleep. Like many feminists of the era, she views it as a basic women’s right and 20th century progress. She hates some of the things that are considered hospital routine, like unwanted episiotomies and her babies being fed sugar water when they’re in the nursery, but she accepts it as the price to pay for being a modern woman.

Kat also embraces twilight sleep, since her mother had 15 daughters and almost lost her mind on account of so many pregnancies, labors, and children. Kat is quite displeased when her third birth (a third set of twins) has to be at home because she hasn’t been working and her intellectual, head in the clouds husband Nikolas doesn’t earn enough money to afford another two-week hospital stay.

Anastasiya, the nicer of the two antagonists of the first two books, is quite upset when she gets pregnant from a drunken one-night stand in Paris and is forced by Katrin to birth at home to avoid a scandal. Even when she’s in labor, she’s still in denial about the situation and is trying to come up with all sorts of ways to go to a hospital anyway or have twilight sleep snuck in.

Here, largely taken from the explanations midwife/former nurse Veronica Zoravkov gives Lenore, her sisters-in-law, and her friends in Little Ragdoll:

On what planet is it not considered abusive to tie a laboring woman down to the delivery bed, wrap her head in gauze, not let her see her own baby for four days, give her a shot drying up her milk, let her lie in her own filth for hours and give her drugs to slow labor because the doctor wants to go out to eat and see a movie, and give her a combination of morphine and scopolamine so she has amnesia in addition to pain relief?

Scopolamine isn’t an unsafe drug, in certain circumstances, and with the proper doses.  But when mixed with morphine, and given to a pregnant woman, it can be very dangerous.  Some women bled to death after giving birth because they got too much, and many babies born to women under twilight sleep came out groggy or not breathing, or even stillborn.  The combination of these two drugs induced a tranquilized, amnesiac state in which a woman couldn’t remember feeling any pain but remained conscious. A lot of twilight sleep babies had to be delivered with mid to high forceps since their mothers didn’t have the ability to push properly when under the effects of those drugs.

Twilight sleep was created in Germany shortly before the First World War and called Dämmerschlaf.  Some wealthy American women went abroad to deliver their babies in the German clinics that offered it, and raved about it when they came home.  There was a whole league formed to promote it, and at the time it was seen as a very important issue in the struggle for equal rights for women.  Even prominent feminists supported it, like Mary Ware Dennett, a pioneer in the birth control movement.

MWD wrote a very popular pamphlet called ‘The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People,’ educating young people about human reproduction and how physical intimacy between a man and a woman who are married and in love is a beautiful, natural thing.  They felt being free of pain during childbirth, which had a higher death rate in those days, was a very important right.  MWD herself had three very painful deliveries and lost her husband because she’d been cautioned not to have another child.  There really wasn’t anything except chastity to prevent that in those days.

What these women didn’t know was that while they were in that amnesiac state, they also lost their inhibitions due to the drugs.  Doctors and nurses tied them down to the beds and put gauze over their heads because they often thrashed around.  They were still feeling pain, even if they couldn’t remember it.  Sometimes they were given earplugs so they didn’t wake themselves up with their screaming.  A lot of women were given a shot to dry up their breastmilk while still in that amnesiac state.

The only husbands admitted to delivery rooms were the husbands of women with a lot of money, or doctors whose wives were patients.  The vast majority had to wait in the so-called Stork Club, the waiting room for husbands.  The average man waiting in the Stork Club had no idea what was happening to his wife, and she of course wouldn’t be able to tell him what happened to her, since she had no memory of it.

Author: Carrie-Anne

Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

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