Thursday, March 29, 2018

OB/GYN and the historical

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For women's history month, I thought I'd check into a topic that isn't exactly hearts and flowers, but which (perversely, maybe), drew my searching feminist interest. After all, what did our fore-mothers' experience in their real lives? Inevitably, after the romance comes the babies. It's Mother Nature's plan to trick us that way.) Women then had to cope with their bodies as well as their emotions when caught up in an amorous physical relationship. Exactly what, in the 18th Century, did that mean? 

The very first historical novel I wrote, Mozart's Wife, got me researching a kind of social history that has, until lately, been little regarded.  Back in the 1980's when I began to write a novel from the POV of a young Viennese woman  who had the fortune/misfortune to marry the Rock Star of her day, I had to do some serious digging to unearth information about these female rites of passage, from birthing customs, feminine hygiene to contraception. It's top secret info into caring for what--believe it or not--one of our modern (?) politicians is still referring to as "lady parts." 

A good part of Constanze’s life, and rarely mentioned by Wolfgang’s biographers--who, for many years, loved to pile on her for not being the same sort of caretaker of genius that his father had been--the poor girl was pregnant or convalescent from childbirth. For six  out of the nine years their marriage lasted, she was expecting. The longest interval between her pregnancies was seventeen months, the shortest (on two occasions) six months. In 1789 she was bedridden for months. Her legs swelled, she had intermittent fevers and racking pains in her legs and abdomen throughout the entire pregnancy. The daughter she bore that year died at birth and very nearly took Constanze with her. No wonder the poor creature was often distracted. Not only was she struggling to manage a household with an income that came in and went out like some kind of wildly irregular tide; her energies were concentrated upon staying alive.

From the Mozart Family Letters, and from what I’ve read to research her symptoms, it would appear that Constanze nearly died of puerperal fever on two separate occasions. Childbirth and the resulting illnesses brought doctors, midwives, wet-nurses, and prescriptions--and attendant expense. It would be difficult, even today, to keep a woman with such an obstetrical record “in good general health.” And the cure for her ailments? Trips to the spa to bathe in the hot water--and who knows what microbes lurked in those pools, in continual use since Roman Times--and, of course, leeches. The leeches actually might have helped, as they draw blood through areas where swelling or infection has caused circulation to stagnate. They are so used in hospitals today. There is also an anesthetic the critters secrete when they latch on which may have a welcome local effect.

All large European cities were dirty. There were backhouses behind the apartment buildings. If the latrines were inside, this meant a collection point at the bottom of the house which was occasionally scooped out. What this meant for the summer water supply is not hard to guess. The brief life of four of Mozart’s children and the illnesses of the parents are not unusual for the 18th Century. However, it can only be imagined how difficult the birth and death of four infants in such a short space of time was upon the mother.

Congratulations, you are a grandpapa! Yesterday, at half past six in the morning, my dear wife was safely delivered of a fine sturdy boy, as round as a ball. Her pains began at half past one in the morning so that night we both lost our rest and sleep. At four o’clock I sent for my mother-in-law and then for the midwife. At six o’clock the child began to appear and at half past six the trouble was all over. My mother-in-law by her great kindness to her daughter has made full amends for all the harm she did her before her marriage. She spends the whole day with her.”

Raimund Leopold, as he was named, was born strong and healthy, but what the proud father originally wrote to his father is an 18th Century tale, one that today sounds totally crazy. 

“My dear wife….will make a full recovery from her confinement. From the condition of her breasts I am rather afraid of milk-fever. And now the child has been given to a foster-nurse against my will, or rather, at my wish! For I was quite determined that whether she should be able to do so or not, my wife was never to feed her child. Yet I was equally determined that my child was never to take the milk of a stranger! I wanted the child to be brought up on water, like my sister and myself. However, the midwife, my mother-in-law and most people here have begged and implored me not to allow it, if only for the reason that most children here who are brought up on water do not survive as the people here don’t know how to give it properly. That induced me to give in, for I should not like to have anything to reproach myself with.”

It was a good thing that Grandma Cecelia, tactful for once, managed to persuade Mozart that babies do not live long on sugar water! And, certainly, Constanze doubtless did have milk fever more than once, because while they had money, Mozart, that 18th Century husband-whose-word-must-be-obeyed, never allowed her to nurse. Of their six children, only two survived to adulthood. Her last baby, Franz Wolfgang, was probably nursed by his mother, but this was only because that final summer of 1791, the couple were stony broke. In Mozart's mind, breast feeding was "lower class," a stigma that, if you think about it, has lasted for a very long time in our western "civilized" society.  

After Mozart died, Constanze never bore another baby, though she did marry again. I had to assume that such a fertile woman had at last learned the unholy secret of contraception. When I did a little research into that veiled subject, I learned that there weren't a whole lot of options for a "decent" married couple in the late 18th Century. Perhaps she'd learned the trick with the natural sponge and lemon juice or vinegar douche. Perhaps her new husband used a sheep gut condom--there are images of these quaint relics online--complete with a red ribbon to keep it snugly fitted.

~~Juliet Waldron

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