Lady in a leotard who (with a few deep breaths) taught the Queen to enjoy giving birth
Dressed in a simple leotard and leggings, childbirth guru Betty Parsons espoused advice as pared down as she was: ‘Now girls, drop shoulders, breathe out gently, pause, and let your breath come in.’
But the clients who hung on her every word were anything but plain and homespun. For more than half a century the former nurse saw some of the country’s grandest and wealthiest women at their most vulnerable.
Those she referred to as ‘my girls’ included The Queen, Princess Diana, the Duchess of York and a host of celebrities including actress Rula Lenska and television presenter Esther Rantzen.
A royal birth: The Queen with Prince Edward. Betty Parsons was said to have advised on the labour
Her common-sense approach to pregnancy and labour took the fear out of childbirth for more than 20,000 women lucky enough to attend her ground-breaking antenatal classes.
When she died earlier this month, aged 96, they came out in force to pay tribute.
The mixture of relaxation techniques, practical advice and humour proved soothing in almost any situation. Her motto was: ‘relax for pregnancy and for life’.
This desire to help other women through one of the most fundamental — but often frightening and painful — times in their lives stemmed from her own traumatic experience of pregnancy and childbirth.
Born Aileen Murray Slater (the name Betty was originally a nickname from the Hindi ‘Beti’ meaning ‘little girl’) in Pakistan in 1915, she grew up in Canada, where she trained as a nurse.
She married Terence Parsons, a commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1940, and moved with him to Bermuda, where she became pregnant.
When her husband was posted to the Far East, Betty returned to Canada to have her son Michael. She described his birth as ‘long and painful’. She spent much of the time unconscious under general anaesthetic and he was eventually delivered by forceps. She later said that had it been available at the time she would certainly have chosen an epidural.
Betty with Prince Charles: The popular childbirth guru passed away this month aged 96
A second son tragically died aged four months of pneumonia and a ‘rather horrible’ miscarriage left her unable to have any more children. Desperately seeking support, she approached an Indian homeopathic doctor who taught her to overcome her grief and depression with breathing techniques. This became the foundation of her practice in the UK.
Once established in Mayfair — where her studio was an oasis of calm, furnished with plump cushions, vases of flowers and pretty paintings — Betty’s classes became incredibly popular.
Her patient list read like Tatler’s society pages. During her heyday it was said, ‘every Duchess in Debrett’s was a Betty P girl.’ Countess Alexander of Tunis — referred to Betty P by Sir George Pinker obstetrician to the Queen — remembers her, ‘as a sort of no-nonsense nanny, very soothing and reassuring.’
Part of her appeal to the well-heeled and upper classes was undoubtedly her discretion.
'She believed the most important thing was
that the mother was relaxed and confident – not trying to outdo one's
friends by having a water-birth or yogic labour positions'
She never gave interviews or spoke about clients — however, she did once let slip more than she meant to about one of her most famous cases.
A rumour had circulated that The Queen, who had sought Betty’s help when pregnant with Prince Edward, had asked Betty to help her relax. It had happened not long after intruder Michael Fagan had broken into the palace (making it as far as the Queen’s bedchamber) and Prince Andrew’s girlfriend Koo Stark was exposed as a one-time porn actress.
When asked if it was true Parsons rather gave the game away by replying: ‘How extraordinary. I don’t know how you could have heard. I’m sorry but I can’t talk about anyone I give classes to.’
Aside from relaxation techniques, Betty’s greatest contribution to the field of childbirth was her then revolutionary notion that expectant fathers be part of the process. When Betty started out, a father’s role was restricted to pacing up and down the hospital corridor waiting for the baby to be born.
He would see his wife and child only when both were cleaned up, and the most important part of his role was to ‘wet the baby’s head’ — and perhaps indulge in a cigar to celebrate the new arrival.
The most high-profile father Betty persuaded to be involved in his child’s birth was undoubtedly Prince Philip. When the Queen went into labour with Prince Edward on Tuesday March 10, 1964, she had her husband beside her, holding her hand, in the bathroom of Buckingham Palace’s Belgian Suite, which was converted into a makeshift delivery room.
Advocate: Tessa Dahl sought Betty's help for the births of her four children
Philip didn’t attend the births of his first three children, but by the time Edward arrived, even royalty acknowledged that father’s role in childbirth had changed dramatically — although Philip drew the line at attending Betty’s classes.
She was sympathetic to men in the delivery room and always told ‘her girls’ to ‘remember to bring wine — he may need it.
Royal biographer Ingrid Seward recalls
how Betty P had to comfort her husband — distinguished war
correspondent Ross Benson — when the birth of their daughter Bella in
1989 didn’t go to plan.
‘Betty had retired by then but Tessa
Dahl took me to meet her and when I went into St Mary’s Hospital in
Paddington, Betty accompanied us.
‘We sent Ross home because he was very
nervous and things were moving quite slowly. Suddenly, Betty noticed on
the monitor that the baby’s heart had stopped.
‘She summoned the doctor who picked me up off the bed and carried me down to theatre.
‘All the time Betty was holding my hand saying: “Don’t worry darling, it’s going to be alright.”
‘When the baby was delivered it was Betty who told me, “it’s a girl, and she’s perfect” Without her my daughter would have died.’
When Ross returned he collapsed in tears. ‘He never told me this, my brave war reporter husband, but Betty had to comfort him as he sobbed. That was typical of her —there for the whole family.’
'Another of her great mantras was: “It takes a year to have a baby, not nine months”'
In sharp contrast to the modern
approach, where childbirth often seems like a competition — with the
highest points awarded for ‘natural’ births delivered without recourse
to pain relief, where breast-feeding and maternity leave are political
issues, where opting for an elective Caesarean is deemed ‘too posh to
push’ — Betty thought such worries only added needless stress to the
All of her clients describe her as
‘non-judgemental’ and she believed the most important thing was that the
mother was relaxed and confident — not trying to outdo one’s friends by
having a water-birth or engaging in yogic labour positions.
Tessa Dahl, the writer daughter of
author Roald Dahl, visited Betty before all four of her children’s
births and even covered for Betty’s secretary when she was away.
She recalls: ‘For Betty, any birth
which involved a live child being born was natural, she never made you
feel guilty about choosing an epidural or a C-section.’
Betty spared women no detail, believing it ‘wicked’ to peddle an ideal of a pain-free labour.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh this week: He was persuaded by Betty to be present at Prince Edward's birth, having not been there for the arrival of his first three children
Instead she advocated ‘fearless, not painless childbirth’. When told a fellow birth guru likened childbirth to an orgasm she famously told her class: ‘Well honeys, if that’s an orgasm, keep me out of the bed.’ One expectant mother said Betty’s advice was so comprehensive it even extended to ‘telling you about different hospitals and whether or not you need to take Vim to clean the bath.’
Esther Rantzen attended Betty’s classes in the 70s and 80s before all three of her children were born and remembers her as ‘incredibly maternal and charismatic. She taught me things I still remember today.’
And for Betty, her job didn’t end at the birth. Another of her great mantras was: ‘It takes a year to have a baby, not nine months.’
She would almost certainly not have been in favour of the current vogue for returning to work weeks or even days after giving birth.
Betty advocated a two-hour nap for the mother every afternoon in the first three months after birth.
‘She believed that when women get tired they get angry with their husbands, and time out to recharge your batteries is not wasting time,’ says writer Mary Killen.
Sadly future generations will miss out on those soothing, common-sense tones. And those who were fortunate enough to know them are all lamenting a great loss.
Were she here today, no doubt Betty would urge them to cope in the best way possible: ‘Drop shoulders, breathe out gently, pause, and let your breath come in.’