The destination for history

Bringing up baby in the 1950s


Embarking on motherhood was a very different affair in the 1950s to what it is today. While much of the antenatal advice was sensible, if a trifle extreme, it has become a source of on-going debate over the years as to the value of the strictures laid down concerning the actual rearing of the infant.

In the first half of the decade, the Sunday Express produced its own baby book. Mrs A.A. Woodman, MBE, SRN, SCM, certified health visitor, produced a handbook for mothers in response to what mothers had said they wanted to know. It was not just a reference book full of advice, but also included what, at that time, was a novel feature, namely a personal record section in which to chart the own child’s progress. It is interesting to compare the style and attitudes of Liddiard and Woodman. The former reflects the common sense unemotional approach of the earlier period and was aimed at nursery nurses as well as mothers, while the latter is more sentimental. In the opening chapter of the Sunday Express Baby Book we are given the supposed thoughts of a mother-to-be including her dreams for the future of the child, based on the parental duty to teach and train it to grow up with high moral standards, which would be achieved with God’s help.

Today we might be surprised at the overt religious content but more shocking was the sexist attitude shown by the mother to her unborn child. She wishes that her daughter should be beautiful, since beauty is always an asset, provided it is more than skin deep. She wants her to be unselfish, loving, generous and kind – all things her parents can teach her. She must learn to be a sport and play the game by the rules. If she loses, then she must smile and try again. But it is the next wish that today’s women may find irritating. There is nothing about the girl making the most of her ability and finding a satisfying career in which she could make use of all the goodness her parents have taught her; instead there is advice on what to look for in her search for a husband. The assumption is that this is every woman’s ultimate aim. And once she has found her man she must love him wholeheartedly; no matter what happens she must stick by him and trust him. If things sometimes go wrong, she should just smile and love him all the more and things will come right again!

As for her son, she wishes him to be honest, straightforward, kind and gentle. He must be fair in his dealings just as he would expect others to be. Again he, like the girl, must learn to be a good sport. The mother-to-be hopes he will never know poverty but, if he does, then he must have the courage to do the best he can with what he has. She hopes he will never be grumpy or cynical but always wear a cheerful grin on his face. When he comes to choose his partner in life, he must not be blinded by superficial appearances ... and so it goes on, and it is we the readers who become cynical, wondering in what ideal world this woman lives, knowing that she is more than likely to be in for a nasty shock one day.

The early years of the National Health Service offered the 1950s expectant mother good antenatal care. For the first time, all this care was free; those who in the past had been unable to afford medical treatment now saw a doctor regularly, with visits in between to midwives at the local clinic. Any worries that the mother-to-be had could be dealt with promptly. Had she been one of those who had neglected to have dental treatment because of the cost, she now had no excuse not to visit the dentist because that too was provided free by the NHS. One of the first things to be decided once the expected date of birth was confirmed was where it should take place. In the past it had been accepted that most women had their babies at home but during the 1950s there was a definite move on the part of the NHS to encourage hospital confinements. There were many good reasons for this, starting with the fact that both doctors and midwives were always on hand, whereas they might be delayed when a home birth was imminent. There were other reasons that would not apply today.

We must remember that the housing conditions of a large part of the population were often vastly overcrowded. There were still people living in rows of back-to-back houses where the lavatory block in the communal courtyard was shared by all the neighbours and the only water supply was a single cold tap in the small back kitchen. Unbelievable now, there were council houses dating from the late 1920s that had been built with an outside lavatory only. Tenants were still expected to take their weekly bath in a tin bath brought into the kitchen or living room. Those in the country often had neither running water nor mains drainage. In an age which had advanced medically, hygiene was of paramount importance.

Where, you may ask, did the expectant father fit into all this? In a hospital situation he was most definitely excluded from the actual birth. Liddiard mentions husbands along with friends, who ‘should do all in their power to make her [the expectant mother’s] life happy, free from worry, and full of loving companionship’. But that was during the waiting period. Woodman deals with the subject of what father should do once he has delivered his wife to the hospital. He will, she says, be advised that it will be some time before anything happens, so he should go home or back to the office. If he insists on staying then he may do so in the waiting room. Eventually he will be informed of the baby’s arrival but, she warns the new mother, ‘You may slip into sleep so quickly that you will not even be aware of proud father – if he is allowed to come into your room for a moment to see you’. What Liddiard and Woodman would have thought of men being present at the birth, holding their wife’s hand and encouraging her with her breathing, I think we can guess. Certainly in the 1950s having a baby was very much ‘women’s business’ and this exclusion from the birth may account for why it took many men of that generation time to bond with their children.  

By Sheila Hardy


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