I had to do a research paper on childbirth in Puritan New England, and how it is relevant to The Handmaid's Tale. I would love any feedback, suggestions, grammar/spelling corrections, etc. Thanks in Advance!
Childbirth is primeval. It has been going on since the beginning of mammals, but birth is entirely different now then it use to be. "In the healthiest seventeenth century communities, one infant in ten died before the age of five. In less healthy environments, three children in ten died before their fifth birthday." ("Childbirth in Early America," 2011, para. 6). However, it was not the actual birth that killed women and children, but complications they did not know how to fix. Such as: dehydration, hemorrhage, and infection, just to name a few. Although it still does happen, infant fatality is much less common today.
In general, most of a colonial woman's life was focused on children and childbirth. "On average, women had about nine children, and about 90-95% of women bore children. Their children were typically born about 2 ½ years apart..." (Brewer, para. 1). In a typical colonial birth, a midwife attended instead of a physician. Men were not allowed to attend a birth, unless there were medical complications. A woman was also never alone during childbirth, "In colonial America, the typical woman gave birth to her children at home, while female kin and neighbors clustered at her bedside to offer support and encouragement." ("Childbirth in Early America." 2011, para. 8). Unlike today, there were no painkillers to aid in childbirth, aside from alcohol. Women were told that pain was "God's punishment for Eve's sin of eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden". ("Childbirth in Early America." 2011, para. 10). What ever occurred after birth depended on the wealth of the woman. Wealthy women were expected to spend weeks in bed regaining their strength, whilst poorer women usually had to begin working after a couple of days.
Nowadays, we are aware of the proper precautions we must take for a safe infant delivery. This was not the case in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Infection was a very dangerous possibility due to lack of hygiene. Many diseases and epidemics spread just because hand washing was not as common. "In fact, it was common during those times for doctors to attend autopsies of recently deceased people who had died from very contagious diseases and then to attend a birth without washing their hands!" (Martell, 2008, para. 27). If something like this happened today, the offending physician would be fired and/or sued! Another likely cause of fatality was improper positioning of the baby, or obstruction.
"Obstructed labor was perhaps the number one cause of death to birthing mothers, previous to the 1600's. With the invention of forceps, came a great increase in the survival rate of mothers and babies during childbirth. Previous to this time, death during childbirth was "an expected" tragedy." (Martell, 2008, para. 18).
Forceps are still used today for women who need assistance with birth. It is highly unlikely for a mother or child nowadays to die due to a breach infant.
The actual act of birth has remained unchanged, we can't change that, but the way we deliver babies has changed drastically. The majority of women in the United States no longer have children in their homes with a midwife, although it is still common in some parts of the world. The most common type of birth in America is with a physician in a hospital. Unlike the seventeenth century, we also have multiple forms of pain control, the most popular being an epidural. "In some hospitals, over 80 to 90 percent of women who give birth use an epidural for pain control, and nationally, around 70 percent of women have an epidural during birth." ("The Epidural," 2006, para. 1). The risk of infant fatality has also decreased immensely. Our knowledge of infection control, cesarean sections, and the use of forceps and vacuums, allow the infant death rate to be very low.
Even though the novel The Handmaid's Tale is set in the future, the births resemble upper-class Puritan births. Fertility is very rare amongst the women of Gilead, so birth is a ceremony for all of the handmaids. A doctor, the wife of the commander, and all of the handmaids, surrounded the mother. While the mother was in labor, the handmaids were told to chant together to help her birth the child. Even though the handmaids would give birth to the child, they acted more as wet-nurses than mothers. They could keep the baby for a couple of months to nurse it, but then the wife would take care of it. By the time this novel was written, there were already medications available to help with the pain of childbirth. However, the women of Gilead were allowed no drugs, as it might interfere with the health of the child and birth was already rare enough. The actual birth ceremony is only mentioned once in the novel, but childbirth is the heart of The Handmaid's Tale. The lack of fertility is the reason why Gilead and its extreme rules were created.