Obituary: Betty Parsons, childbirth adviser to royalty and celebrities whose career was born out of her own painful experiences
Born: 31 October, 1915, in Rawalpindi in Pakistan. Died: 1 February, 2012, in Surrey, aged 96.
Betty Parsons, despite acting as a childbirth adviser to royalty and the famous, was always discrete. She never gave interviews to the press and rarely spoke to even close friends about her work.
She gave practical advice to expectant mothers and guided them through a stress-free pregnancy: her oft-repeated mantra was “relax for pregnancy and life”. Parsons’ classes were attended by both the Queen and Princess Diana as well as the Duchess of York, other ladies of the royal household, celebrities and actresses.
Parsons delightfully listed them all as “Betty’s mums”. It was significant that the gracious help and advice provided by Parsons to so many eminent prospective mothers was recognised when her 80th birthday was celebrated at St James’s Palace with the personal permission of the Queen. Prince Charles was the principal guest.
Aileen Murray Slater – many mothers knew her as “Betty P” – was the daughter of an officer in the Indian army. When she was born, the ecstatic father sent a cable announcing, “Beti [Hindi for ‘little girl’] has arrived” . Throughout her life she was consequently known as Betty.
In 1924, the family moved to Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada, and she trained and practised as a nurse. She met her husband, Commander Terence Parsons, who was serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and they married the following year. He was posted to Bermuda, but she returned to Vancouver where their son Michael was born after a long and painful labour followed by a forceps delivery. The days of the labour were to prove a definitive experience for Parsons.
Her experience of childbirth was brought into sharp focus when, back in London, in 1946 her second son died of pneumonia. A miscarriage followed and grief-stricken Parsons sought the advice of an Indian homoeopathic doctor. He recommended that she adopt the practise of total relaxation to overcome the pain and stress. She followed his philosophy and expounded the theory: “We can never change what is. The first thing to do is to drop shoulders and put space between you and the problem.”
Parsons was pursuing a successful career as a singer, but her fascination with childbirth was taking up much of her time. At one rehearsal, her pianist remarked that she was not “enough of a bitch” to succeed as a soprano. Parsons decided to concentrate on childbirth.
Her doctor friend noticed that Parsons had a natural ability with worried pregnant mothers. He suggested she taught his relaxation methods to some of his patients and initially she concentrated on those with high blood pressure. Her calm manner and ability to listen to the mothers’ concerns made Parsons an excellent counsellor. She joined the National Childbirth Association and started holding classes and teaching in people’s homes.
The process of pregnancy and childbirth in the Fifties was far removed from what is now commonplace. Women were often terrified throughout the last weeks of pregnancy and the post-natal care was not advanced. Parsons, always at her most practical, addressed the problems with sound common-sense and sound medical expertise.
Many leading obstetricians, including the Queen’s gynaecologist, Sir George Pinker, sent their expectant mothers to Parsons and in the mid-Sixties she set up her own clinic in London’s Mayfair. Parsons’ approach was simple and direct. None of “her girls” went into labour without knowing exactly what was happening to their body or what childbirth entailed. They were made aware of every detail of childbirth and Parsons had a way of imparting this knowledge with a relaxed but informed manner. She often held the worried mum’s hand and called her “honey”.
Her principal instruction was to relax and get through the most painful moments with an air of calmness. “Giving birth” she once told a mum, “is not an Olympic event for which you have to be trained up to get the gold medal. One needs to have a relaxed, positive attitude to life. We all get into tizzies, usually over things we can’t change. Labour is something you can’t change. I teach women to accept the moment.”
Last year, Parsons produced a book and audio video, Understanding Childbirth. It gives a comprehensive guide to pregnancy and birth, but on the audio guide one gets a hint of how calming Parsons was. Her voice is reassuring and encouraging and a listener responds to her confident technique.
Parsons retired in 1986, but continued to see “girls with problems” at her home in Surrey She would often see the daughters – or the grand-daughters – of some of her original mothers from the Fifties.
Parsons’ husband died in 1976. She is survived by their son Michael.
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