Who could forget the poignant images of the Queen sitting alone and masked at Prince Philip’s funeral in May? Many of us eagerly await the return to “normal”, yet the disruption provides an important moment to reflect on the role of companionship at critical points in our lives, such as grieving or giving birth.
The pandemic made pregnancy a particularly stressful time for expectant mothers, and giving birth alone became both a fear and a reality. Often a birthing partner was only admitted during the actual labour stage. Support from family members, friends and “doulas” – paid birthing companions who provide practical and emotional support – was strictly curtailed. For some women this made giving birth a deeply traumatic experience, undergoing a painful experience without the reassurance of any companions.
Yet this is not the first time in history that women have had to undergo this intense experience without support. In Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, based on the Great Plague of 1665, the narrator laments that:
‘One of the most deplorable cases in all the present calamity was that of women with child, who, when they came to the hour of their sorrows, and their pains come upon them, could neither have help of one kind or another; neither midwife or neighbouring women to come near them.’
Of course there is no suggestion that women were left without appropriate medical care during the COVID pandemic, but they were certainly left without the modern equivalent of the “neighbouring women”. Despite being frequently called “gossips” these women performed a function much like a modern-day doula.
They too provided emotional and practical support to a woman in labour. The relationship was reciprocal, and women would act as each other’s gossip in turn, as detailed in the novel The Gossips’ Choice. Women often gave birth in a room filled with women including a midwife or handwoman, neighbours and female relatives.