Whenever I visit the Women’s Pavilion of our local hospital, I feel both very happy and very sad. What I see there is so different from how the women of my mother’s generation had to give birth back in the Soviet Union. As I explained before, every experience of a human being in the USSR was fashioned in a sense that would break his or her spirit and sever the connections between family members. This was a process that began while one was still in the mother’s womb.
When a woman went into labor, she would be brought into the hospital and separated from the child’s father for the next 10 days that the stay at the maternity ward usually lasted. Women were kept together in large wards irrespective of what had actually brought them to the hospital. If a woman had a still-birth, for instance, she’d be kept in the same ward with a bunch of women who delivered healthy babies. Imagine the emotional state of a woman who’d have to look at other people’s happiness and think of her own dead baby for 10 days.
For some mysterious reason, underwear was strictly banned in maternity wards and the nurses – who always made an impression of having been trained by the Gestapo – hunted after every pair of panties. Women were assigned a time slot when they were supposed to give birth, and nobody cared if labor proceeded on a different schedule. When my mother went into labor with my sister, she had to schlep all the way to the nurses’ station and ask for somebody to help her deliver.
“No, you are not scheduled to give birth for the next 4 hours,” the nurse barked.
“I’ve given birth before,” my mother. “I know what is going on, and this baby is coming now. Please help me.”
“I told you to go back to your bed, you stupid broad!” the nurse hollered.
Later, the doctors told us that we were very fortunate that my sister came out alive and unharmed.
The worst part of delivery was having to get into the delivery chair. It was very high, and for a pregnant woman in labor getting into it unassisted (and, of course, nobody was willing to assist women) was torture.
After the birth, the baby would be removed from the mother’s side immediately. Fathers were banned from the event altogether, and had to roam the area where the hospital was located for the next 10 days, hoping to get a glimpse of their wives through the window.
Babies were brought to their mothers to be breast-fed on schedule and then removed immediately. Of course, nobody cared that babies might not be hungry according to the schedule. The rest of the time, babies were kept in a big room far away from their mothers and could scream their little heads off in loneliness and abandonment. If you’ve ever been around a baby, you probably know that hunger, loneliness and being separated from their parents are the most traumatic, horrible things a newborn can experience. This is precisely why all of this was done.
The nurses were careless and indifferent. As a result, cases where babies were swapped by mistake (or even by malice) were not infrequent.
The father would finally get to touch the baby when the mother was discharged. He had to pay the traditional fee to the nurses for getting the baby: 5 rubles for a boy and 3 for a girl.
This is how very uncomplicated deliveries took place. What women who had medical complications had to experience would be characterized as torture under any definition of what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
The real tragedy of Soviet life was that every tiny detail of a person’s daily experience was rendered humiliating, painful, and intolerable.
Today, this is still pretty much how you give birth in FSU countries, except if you live in a very big city and are rich enough to pay for a stay at a private facility. The nurses at the expensive facility will still be Gestapo-like, the underwear will still be banned, and the baby will be handled like a slab of meat, but at least the father will be there and you’ll get to be close to the baby.