In hindsight

Since my mother died I have started to feel the cold in ways I never did before. As if her presence kept my body a couple of degrees warmer and her absence becomes a cold chill through my bones.

I knew even before she went, her death would leave me older, at least by the feel of it.

Today I’m on the edge of a cold, the sort that makes your nose itch, your eyes water and your throat burn. But it’s not so bad I tell myself, not bad enough to opt out.

And I’m hungry too. A good sign they say: feed a cold starve a fever.

You know you’re sick when your hunger goes, when you no longer salivate at the thought of something tasty.

My mother stopped eating three weeks before she died. In hindsight, we should have seen it as a sign. She was pulling out but we kept trying to keep her going.

Thrush collected in white globules at the corners of her mouth and she poked her tongue in and out in an effort to get rid of it.

In time the hospital staff treated the thrush but it kept on coming back. Then someone came up with the idea of feeding our mother cranberry juice, the concentrated kind, to give her relief.

My sister bought a good-sized bottle from the chemist and we encouraged my mother to drink it by the cap full.

She gagged. She turned away, and the white flecks in her mouth turned pink.

Every day they brought her lunch.

‘Coax her to eat. Anything at all. Try the chocolate mouse,’ my sister said and shoved a heaped spoon close to my mother’s nose so she could get a smell. ‘You love your sweets.’

But even the chocolate pudding stayed in its plastic hospital sized tub, uneaten.

And so it was, my mother gave up eating and with it the will to live.

I had not bargained on this way of going. If only I’d known.

Thirty three years earlier when my first daughter came into the world, I had no idea about how to feed her either.

I had every intention of breastfeeding before her birth but it never occurred to me it took skill or practice or some other unforeseen capacities on the part of mother and baby to make it happen.

My first daughter’s labour was long and in the end I needed yet another dose of pethidine to get me through, but this time too close to delivery. I had lost the will and capacity to push so the doctor set me up in stirrups and dragged my baby out with forceps.

Exhausted and in pain and drugged out on pethidine, this was not the birth I had anticipated.

My first daughter was born at lunchtime, and by clock work the staff wheeled in a lunch tray, chicken of some sort, and my husband also exhausted but still awake enough to be hungry, ate my lunch while I drifted off into a deep sleep all afternoon.

When I woke at 6 o’clock in the evening I asked to see my baby.

Thirty three years ago babies were taken from their mothers and wheeled off into communal nurseries where the nursing staff kept a close eye over all their charges.

Visitors could come during visiting time and walk along a glass walled corridor where they put up a sign with the baby’s name or family name against the glass. One of the nurses on duty then picked up the baby whose name had appeared and lifted her for all to see.

During those long seven days of confinement visitors were not to touch, any more than were fathers or anyone else other than staff and mothers.

When the baby cried out in hunger, a nurse took each one to each mother for as long as was necessary for a feed and nappy change.

At some point around day three, one of the nurses took each mother into the nursery to teach her the art of bathing her baby and to reinforce the rules of nappy changing.

Thirty years ago before the advent of disposable nappies we tried to find ways of folding the nappy corners and tucking them inside so as to preclude the use of safety pins.

Safety pins, despite their name, were not safe.

I tried to keep up this tradition of pin less nappies after I took my daughter home but failed. The nappies leaked and for all that I had bought the best pilchers on the market – those strange plastic lined over pants – to cover the nappy but like cranberry juice as an antidote for my mother’s thrush, such nappies could not prevent any seepage between changes.

Still, the trick most foreign came with that first attempt to feed when the nurse first brought out my baby and suggested I try.

I gave up my dignity to oblige as the nurse grabbed a hunk of my breast to one side and forced the nipple into my baby’s mouth.

We were lucky. After two or three such attempts my baby latched on and began to suck and so began my life as a breast feeding mother.

Nothing glorious or beautiful at first and in those days with strict instructions to let the baby suckle for only one minute at a time and then change sides so as to give the nipples a chance to harden, I was anxious to get it right.

The regulation of breast feeds reminded me of the rules about sunbathing: spend only ten minutes in the sun on day one, turning yourself slowly, as though you were basting a chook, and then the next day increase your time in the sun by another ten minutes and so on, day after day, ten minutes at a time until on day six you could endure a whole hour in the sun without burning and your body turned a glorious golden brown without a hint of burning.

No need for sun screen or any such thing in those days and if you really fancied a glowing tan you might use coconut oil for that extra baste.

If only we knew then what we know now.

And so it was when my baby was born.

With my second and subsequent babies I no longer needed a nurse to grab a hunk of my breast and force that nipple into my baby’s mouth and with the benefit of hindsight, I would have done it differently with my first, too.

With the benefit of hindsight I also would have stopped forcing that spoon of chocolate mousse into my mother’s thrush filled mouth.

Wth hindsight, I would have more respect for the beginnings and end of life.


14 thoughts on “In hindsight”

  1. This is beautiful and very moving. I love how you let the writing go where it wanted to go, and it went full circle, back to the original idea.
    Hindsight’s a wonderful thing—in Medicine, we called it the retrospectoscope. If only we could recognise imminent death when it’s starting, or trust our instincts when feeding our newborn, or a thousand other things we wish we’d done differently if we’d known.
    The newborn story resonated. I got sick of the midwife shoving my nipple in my newborn’s mouth. I was also meant to space out her feeds to four-hourly, and it just about drove both of us insane—and that was only twenty years’ ago. A few months’ later, I was told to do ‘controlled crying’, which I couldn’t, so I left the house while my husband did it. I threw all of the advice out the window with the second and subsequent children, and trusted my instincts and did what felt right to me.
    I remember the days of babies being kept in nurseries and going to view them through a window. I can remember the babies howling in their bassinettes and midwives just going about their business—no one picked them up! Horrible to think of now—imagine the babies’ cortisol levels! Feeding times were 6, 10, and 2. My mother told me that babies were wheeled along at 10pm for their last feed of the day, and then the mother was left to sleep overnight, until the 6am feed. I asked her if the nurses fed a baby if they woke overnight, which I imagine quite a few of them did, or did they just let them cry. My mother didn’t know—and I don’t think you were allowed to question back then! It’s hard to believe now.

    1. It must have been terrible for those babies in the nurseries left to wail, Louise. I’m not one for controlled crying. As you say what happens to their cortisol levels and although they might in time learn to shut up, isn’t to more to do with getting the message that no one is there for them so why bother crying, why not give up in a sleep of despair?
      Maybe it’s okay when children are older, beyond two or three, by which time I expect most have learned to get themselves to sleep, but to expect little tackers under one to comfort themselves boggles my mind.
      As for the death side of things, my sister and I sensed our mother was dying but somehow in the hospital setting where everything was pitched to getting her better, namely to getting her up and about, we couldn’t think about what she really needed.
      Alhough we tried hard to get her out of hospital so she could die at home, our mother wound up in a hospice and died within a day of her arrival. She’d had it.
      I wish I’d known sooner. Maybe I’d have fought to get her there sooner.
      My experience of palliative care places has only been positive. Although people go there to die, at least they’re allowed to do just that. To die in peace with appropriate management of their pain and discomfort and no medical heroics to interfere.
      Thanks, Louise.

  2. “respect for the beginnings and end of life”. Rather says it all. When someone is dying, we do need to let them die, in the manner they want. If they are hungry, they will eat and food must be available to them. Ditto thirsty. Yes, feed up a young person who is unwell, but not someone who is in their last stage of life.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Andrew. and with hindsight I still wonder why we tried so hard to get my mother to eat when clearly she wanted nothing but to be left in peace. It’s so very sad, but I’ll never really know what went on inside her at this time. My mother was not one to complain, at least not to me. Thanks, Andrew.

  3. I am saddened to hear you had such a terrible time and were so frightened. Clearly there was a difference between the public and private systems 33 years ago. The babies in the public system roomed in with their mothers at the hospital I worked in my first social work job. Upstairs, in the private wards, was it that the babies were separated from their mothers thus? I am not sure, really. Perhaps each hospital had their own way of handling these things. However the idea of privilege and class in relation to proximity to babe after birth is something to consider…

    1. My mother found the business of giving birth in Australia very perplexing, Christine. She’d come from Holland where people gave birth in their homes. Hospitals were for the unwell or extreme cases. Rather like what you see in that wonderful TV series ‘Call the Midwife’, but here in Australia childbirth was already institutionalised. I must say the system has changed though dramatically. By the time I had my last daughter in the early nineties it was much more free, no one took her away from me, and then when my oldest daughter first gave birth eight years ago it was different again, and not all of it so good as in I reckon women need more support after their babies are born. Perhaps we got too much support in the early eighties but not of the helpful fluid kind, more rigid and doctrinaire. But now it seems more like a level of abandonment that leaves families relying on their own near and dear ones to help. Of course, communities tend to be a helpful way to go but not everyone enjoys a close knit and loving community. Thanks, Christine.

  4. I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones who found breastfeeding easy but I knew others who struggled. I credit my success to the no-nonsense midwife who did actually handle my breast and showed me directly what to do. But then again, I struggle with all the political correctness that goes on these days that does not allow anyone to say ‘this is wrong but this is right’. So much angst could be avoided if we didn’t have to beat around the bush.
    During my husbands last days, pressure around his brain was causing him to vomit so I had to stop feeding him. My last intimate connection with him. I felt terribly guilty and sad that I could not do this smallest thing to bring either of us comfort. The wise palliative care nurse who knew better than I what was happening said ‘every spoonful you give him now will just prolong his suffering.’ I knew what she was saying was right but there is something sacred about giving nourishment and even though he was unaware and ‘comfortable’ on medication, I couldn’t help feeling cold and cruel knowing all the power was in my hands.

    1. That’s just so sad, Karen, to lose that last act of comfort with your husband. It must have been difficult. I admire your capacity to endure this experience and still go on as positive as you are. Such different phases of life these, birth and death and yet each as important and meaningful. Thank you Karen.

  5. So much to comment on in your beautiful writing, Elisabeth. I was one of the midwives in the 1950s who was part of the terrible four-hourly feeding regime in the major women’s hospital in Perth. I remember a haze of stressed babies, mothers and midwives all condemned to some sort of ridiculous system. When my first baby was born a few years later, the system was still the same but when my first son was born, I insisted that he should be left in my room. Such a relief!

    Thank you for reminding me how far we have come. My oldest granddaughter delivered her third child eight weeks ago. There was no thought that healthy baby Edward would be anywhere but in his mother’s room. His father was part of the bonding process, and his two older sisters were frequent visitors until mother and baby went home 48 hours after the birth. Lovely to see.

    1. I agree, Maureen, things have changed dramatically. Was it the Truby Kind method they employed in WA in the fifties? My mother was into this style of infant care with my oldest brother who’s now in his seventies. She did it because my father insisted. And she told me later it was cruel, and she was so relieved when my father went off to work or to war so she was free to follow her own instincts in the care of her babies. Thanks, Maureen.

  6. My daughter will be thirty-six in a few weeks. I have some memories of her birth but as is the case with any memories I share here you’d be wise not to assume that because I remember the thing I’m sharing that there’s a deep well of recollections from which I’m drawing. Well, there will be but my bucket’s got a hole in it. Our daughter certainly wasn’t whisked away from us after the birth, not for any length of time (enough to get weighed, washed and ensure she had the requisite body parts), and we got to sit with her for a long time. I held her for ages without interruption; I even sang to her—‘An Irish Lullaby’ (‘Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral’) because all the nurses for some strange reason were Irish and lovely, every last one of them. I’ve forgotten how long labour was—nine hours, twelve hours, something along those lines—but I do remember getting kicked out of the delivery room at regular intervals. I remember the equipment not giving the readings they told me were normal and yet when I pointed this out to the staff they weren’t even slightly perturbed. I remember crying in the toilets and swearing I’d never put her through that again although from all accounts the delivery went pretty much by the numbers.

    I don’t know how long my wife was in hospital—certainly less than a week—but they did transfer her from the maternity to a general hospital closer to our home which made visiting easier and the baby was always with her. I do remember not taking flowers. Instead I took a glass orb filled with water and which rested on a circular spring. Inside was some tacky plastic flower arrangement. My idea was that this was something we could keep to remind us of the day. I’m guessing but I suspect when she left me a couple of years later—and emptied the flat whilst I was at work—that got left.

    She did breast feed for the minimum amount of time recommended, whatever it was at the time; I forget. Was it six weeks? I have no memories of my wife breastfeeding; I just know she did. To be honest I have only a vague impression what her breasts looked like. If health visitors called to shout at her for doing everything wrong I must have been at work. I don’t recall any hard and fast rules but I do know she was glad to give it up and I was not displeased to get in on the act; I liked being a dad. We did use cloth nappies; the flat stunk of Napisan which is one of the very few biographical details ever to make it into my fiction.

    As far as the death of my mother goes—I wasn’t there when Dad died—it was all over so quickly. We weren’t expecting it and so there was no prolonged nursing and waiting for the inevitable. I know we all mourn in our own ways but when I read you you make me feel as if I did it wrong. It’s not just you but you’re the only person I read regularly who’s just lost a parent. I never felt loss. I felt relief. If my mother’s beliefs were true she’ll have opened her eyes and known immediately. If they weren’t she’ll still be dead and so will never have to suffer the embarrassing realisation that for forty-odd years she’d believed in a lie. It must be coming up to the anniversary of her death. I’ve forgotten again when it was but I remember it was hot. July rings a bell.

  7. So much for the hole in your memory bucket, Jim, you still mange to store quite a lot inside. I imagine birthing babies was different in England as I was telling Christine above, it was different too in Holland. We must have been more influenced by the likes of Truby King that paediatric doctor who brought in the rigid method of child care in line with his concerns about sanitation and the promotion of good hygiene to Australia. He was a New Zealander I believe and so it’s likely his ideas reached us first though clearly they got as far as Holland because, despite the fact of giving birth at home, my father who read all the child rearing books of the day, insisted my mother adopt this regulated method with my oldest brother. Thank goodness, the rest of us were spared.
    As for the right way to handle the death of a parent, I reckon there isn’t one. You operate as you see fit, and you do your best according to your experience. and to an outsider or even from inside our own mind, your best might not seem like it’s good enough because your best might have involved not being there at all, but no one else can judge another person’s response to the loss of a so-called loved one. I’m with Camus here. Just because someone seems indifferent to a significant death that doesn’t mean to say they’re guilty of murder. Thanks, Jim.

  8. Yes, Truby King was a New Zealander whose methods were adopted in Britain. Part of his success was about the high levels of infant mortality in the early decades of the twentieth century so ideas about airy rooms, breast milk rather than an alternative milk which was often adulterated or indeed, in summer, gone sour wth resulting deaths from gastroeneteritis were part of the problem. There was also concern, in pre antibiotic days, about syphilis, and also about parents who had little idea how to feed babies. So the regime, developed by a medical man, was intended to address this. Not that everyone agreed. When Truby King died in 1939, I think it was, one of his obituaries was along the lines of ‘well, at least he made people think about babies!’.

  9. That’s true, Christine. at least people began to think about the significance of babies at this time, but still in hindsight it seems a cruel and bluntly to deal with them. Still we must be wary of judging the past by today’s standards. Thanks.

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