On Outlander last night Jenny gave birth. It sure was a lot different than what we’re used to seeing on TV.
It does seem like every time someone is pregnant on a TV series or in the movies that we end up with the proverbial birthing complications storyline. It makes you wonder how the human race is even here given how many babies and women seem to die due to pregnancy complications in TV and movies.
Now to be fair, TV dramas need conflict or we wouldn’t have a compelling plot to keep us riveted each week. On top of that, Outlander is a historical drama set in the 1740’s. In the 1740’s life expectancy was roughly 45 years depending upon which data source you look at, and infant mortality was between 100 to 200 per 1,000 live births. Even if the birth itself went according to plan, in the 1700’s a significant number of children never made it to their third birthday.
Survival rates and life expectancy really soared across the board in the 20th century with improved nutrition, sanitation, and after the discovery of penicillin. The reality is that TV programs set in the present day may be overdoing the pregnancy crisis storylines, but historical dramas like Outlander are actually spot on.
One of the most refreshing things on last night’s Outlander was seeing Jenny (Laura Donnelly) laboring standing up, crawling on the floor, squatting, and on her hands and knees. As any present-day doula or midwife can tell you, the idea of a woman lying on her back, in the bed, and with her feet up in the air is about as counterintuitive as it gets.
Although no one in the 1700’s was citing Newton’s Laws of Gravity while giving birth, the fact is things went a lot faster and more comfortably when birth wasn’t quite literally an uphill battle. Being confined to a bed was not the norm by any means. Women frequently walked until they couldn’t any longer and then it was on all fours.
The only piece of furniture involved in 18th century births, if at all, would be a birthing chair or stool. With those highly functional pieces of furniture, the woman could sit with her back supported. The midwife didn’t get tired out being the back support, and the woman in labor could brace her feet against the floor.
Beds only came into play after everything was over. Birth was messy. No one was going to ruin the perfectly good linens and mattress stuffing to childbirth. It’s not like anyone had access to a laundromat or 1-800-mattres.
The last matter of interest was that, in the 18th century, doctors being present at births was something only really experienced by the aristocracy if at all. Women helped other women through birth. Facts about delivery would be passed down through the women of families, and through midwife to midwife. Assisting women could attempt to turn a breech birth, untangle a cord, but anything more complicated than that was generally not possible.
Given Claire’s (Caitriona Balfe) medical knowledge, and the fact that reliable birth control certainly didn’t abound, it will be interesting to see how many other birth scenarios she’ll face over the course of the series.
To talk about this scene and more, join us for our weekly Google Hangout called Hangoutlander tomorrow at 10:00 p.m. ET.