Pregnancy is cool. It’s featured on the cover of magazines, and we endlessly discuss celebrities’ baby bumps (I’m looking at you, Kim K.). But it wasn’t always this way—our mothers had a different experience than we did.
So let’s compare what it was like to be pregnant then versus now:
Finding out the big news
Then: To find out you were pregnant, you had to bring a urine sample to your doctor and wait a couple of days as they mixed up various solutions to find out if there was any pregnancy hormone (hCG) in your urine. Alternately, the e.p.t. test, the first home pregnancy test to hit the North American market, became popular in 1977. But it’s much preferable to earlier generations than other pregnancy tests. Ever heard someone say “the rabbit died”? Back then, a pregnant woman’s urine was injected into a female rabbit. The hormonal difference would result in noticeable changes in the rabbit’s ovaries if the woman was pregnant. The test was fatal to the rabbit, despite the popular belief that only a positive result killed the animal. Luckily, this early form of pregnancy test created in the late 1920s no longer exists.
Now: Pee on a stick, stare at the results, then refer to the pamphlet 324 times just to confirm. Repeat as often as you’d like until the results sink in.
Then: Pregnant women were encouraged to continue eating and drinking as they always did. There are even stories of new moms being told to drink dark beer for their iron levels, and my mother swears that her friend’s doctor told her not to quit smoking when she was pregnant because quitting would raise her blood pressure.
Now: Pregnant women worry about their diet constantly—there are lists of foods to avoid that seem to grow bigger all the time. The research on drinking while pregnant is fairly conclusive nowadays, and women fret over that one beer they drank before they knew they were pregnant. The idea of a woman smoking while pregnant is shocking now.
Then: Trapeze dresses, smock tops and Peter Pan collars were the norm, often finished off with big, floppy bows. Maternity fashion was a little infantilizing and made every pregnant woman look enormous. The clothing looked like it was actively trying to erase any idea of sex from everyone’s mind.
Now: Even maternity bras and panties are sexier than what I currently have in my secret drawer for “special occasions.” Your favourite jeans come in maternity styles, and bikinis are encouraged. Body-conscious clothing that emphasizes the “bump” is all the rage. (I know that I would’ve liked to hide it under a comfortable trapeze dress though.)
Then: Back in the day, men used to hang out in the waiting room with cigars at the ready. In the early ’70s, however, men were gradually starting to come into the delivery rooms. My dad ended up present at my birth because the nurse mistakenly thought he was a doctor. (He’s a professor and had arrogantly put “Dr.” on his credit card.) He fainted. By the ’80s, men were pressured into being by their wives’ sides, doing their Lamaze training with them. Fainting was still a possibility though.
Now: Can you imagine a father missing his child’s birth? He may still faint, he may feel squeamish, but the bonding starts as soon as the baby is born—and rightly so.
Labour and delivery
Then: Women had little say in the delivery method of their babies. Doctors made the birth plan and episiotomies were the norm. The popularity of epidurals started to rise in the ’80s, giving women more choice in their pain management. Midwifery was practiced, but it was unregulated until the ’90s in Canada. If a woman wanted a midwife, then she was obviously a hippie.
Now: While labour rarely goes according to a woman’s birth plan, at least there are options when it comes to pain relief. Also, women can now choose midwives and doulas to be present at their bedside—even if they aren’t hippies.
Then: There was the notion that mothers and babies needed constant monitoring, and newborns were often placed in the nursery for at least 24 hours for observation. They were brought to the mothers on a schedule. Dads and grandparents would stare at the rows of babies trying to find the one with recognizable facial features. New moms stayed in the hospital for several days, even a week.
Now: Babies are roomed in the same room as their mom so the bonding (and sleepless nights) can begin right away. A hospital stay of 24 hours is the norm for “normal” vaginal births. For women who choose to have a hospital birth with a midwife, they can leave soon after the baby is born.
Feeding the baby
Then: Breastfeeding rates started to rise in the ’70s, but less than a quarter of new mothers nursed while in hospital. Sometimes mothers were actively discouraged from breastfeeding, as was my mother—she was given a shot to dry up her milk. She insists the “the shot” did the trick, but science insists it wasn’t very effective, and might have had undetected side effects. Breastfeeding rates continued to spike, hitting a peak in 1982 as more than 60 percent of moms nursed while in hospital.
Now: Breastfeeding is strongly encouraged, even if nurses give you conflicting advice on how to get that baby latched. You encounter the word “latch” more in 24 hours than you did in your entire life before babies.
The return home
Then: The baby was placed in a wicker Moses basket and put in the back seat. Since the seat belts were only lap belts, there was no way to strap it in. Sometimes the new mom just held the baby in the front seat on the drive home. By the mid-’80s, car seats were increasingly popular, and on their way to becoming mandatory. Dads drove home nervously.
Now: The perfect, safest car seat is acquired months in advance, and both parents have attended many training sessions on how to properly place it in the middle seat of the car. The first test with a human baby is often done in front of the hospital doors and usually results in some tense words and a few beads of sweat. Dads drive home nervously.
One thing our moms definitely didn’t have to deal with was the pressure to get their pre-baby body back. While pregnancy and birth is safer and more empowering now, the pressure on women to lose the “baby weight” immediately is something I only hope we leave behind one day—just like the sailor dresses and big bows of the ’80s.