Wanstead resident Jean Medcalf published her first poetry book last year. To Everything There is a Season is a collection of lyrical, spiritual poems about nature. In the eighth of a series of articles, Jean – who celebrated her 90th birthday last month – reflects on memories of her late husband and the birth of her children
The month of June is, of course, when Father’s Day falls, and brings back memories of having my three babies. I had my first baby in Wanstead Hospital, and it was not a happy experience. Hospitals at that time were very strictly run, ruled with a rod of iron by a stern matron, and it was rather intimidating.
Fathers were not allowed to be present at the birth in those days. Babies were kept in the ‘nursery’, separate from their mothers, and we were not allowed to go in there. We were not allowed to bathe our babies or change their nappies. There was a strict regime: we mothers were only permitted to see our babies at four-hourly intervals when it was feeding time. They were fed and taken away again. If the babies were hungry between these times, they were left to cry. We all knew the cry of our own baby, and it felt very sad not to be allowed to go and comfort them.
What made the hospital birth so awful for me was the fact that, having given birth, my baby was taken away to be cleaned up and weighed. The nurse then returned alone, so I timidly asked: “Can I see my baby?” She snapped: “I haven’t time to play bloody silly games. My shift’s finished and I’m going home!” I didn’t hold my baby until hours later for the appointed 9am feeding time.
We expectant mothers attended the antenatal clinic, which was in a large house on the corner of Hermon Hill and Eagle Lane. After our babies were born, we went to the baby clinic in Cromwell Hall at Wanstead Congregational Church. There the babies would be weighed, and we were given free welfare cod liver oil and orange juice concentrate.
I had a large heavy pram; in those days, it was considered safe to leave a baby in a pram outside a shop, and it was thought to be healthy to leave a baby outside to get fresh air in all weathers, even when it was snowing!
After my time in Wanstead Hospital, I vowed my future babies would be born at home. We had the community midwife, Nurse Turner, who will be remembered by many, as she attended all the local births from the 1940s onwards, even during air raids. She was a little, round, grey-haired Welsh lady, who arrived on her bicycle with a basket in all weathers.
Giving birth in my own home was completely different, with kind Nurse Turner to look after me, my husband there and no need for pain relief, except a couple of aspirin and some gas and air. My child was born late one night in the bedroom of the house where I still live, which was warm and cosy with a glowing coal fire, and put straight into the arms of her father, to be welcomed into the world.
For Father’s Day
by Jean Medcalf
If you can keep your head when babes beside you
Are screaming bright blue murder through the night;
If you do not despair when new wives panic
But make them think that things will turn out right;
If you can wash a pile of dirty nappies
And, smiling, ask if there are any more;
If you can hold your child and not disown it
When bachelor friends come knocking at the door;
If you can bath your daughter without drowning
Though soapy slippery limbs are all awhirl;
If you are full of love towards your daughter
And think she is a most delightful girl;
Yours is a family and all that’s in it
And, what is more,
You’ll be a Dad, my dear.
Jean’s book To Everything There is a Season is available in paperback (£4.75). Visit wnstd.com/jean