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Oral History NSW Annual Lecture 2018 with Dr Carla Pascoe: On the cusp of life and death


Apart from our own birth, which we do not remember, and our own death, which we cannot anticipate, no other event in our human lives brings us as close to mortality as childbirth. Both the miracle of new life and the threat of infant or maternal death loom over the event, imbuing it with unparalleled significance.

Memories of birth across the past 70 years are multi-layered and diverse, exhibiting patterns of both change and continuity. Increasingly sophisticated medical technologies have resulted in births with higher levels of medical intervention and lower levels of risk for mother and infant. 

Expectant mothers now receive far greater information and their labours are more highly monitored. Yet across this period women report that their experiences of birth commonly do not reflect their expectations. Despite medical advances, childbirth remains an intense ordeal, with women pushed to the limits of what they can endure.

Memories of childbirth exhibit interesting narrative patterns. As events which are associated with peak emotional experiences and physical sensations, narrators use different strategies to try to communicate the primal, visceral and corporeal nature of their labour. And yet women often muse that they are aware that they cannot fully recall and convey the reality of their childbirth. At some level the intensity and profundity of this event escapes language. Memory cannot quite contain the ferocity of this experience.

Dr Carla Pascoe is a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne and an Honorary Associate at Museums Victoria.  Her research illuminates the history and heritage of women and children in twentieth-century Australia, particularly motherhood, childhood and menstruation. Carla has published in leading international and Australian journals and is the author of Spaces Imagined, Places Remembered: Childhood in 1950s Australia (2011) and a co-editor of Children, Childhood and Cultural Heritage (2013). She is currently undertaking a project funded by the Australian Research Council on the history of Australian motherhood since 1945. 

11am, Saturday 8th September

Oral History NSW Annual General Meeting will follow at 11:45am

History House
133 Macquarie Street, Sydney

$20 entry