When Wendy McCarthy, AO, gave birth to her first child in the late 1960s, she did something that was radical at the time: she asked for her husband to be there to support her during the labour.
“It was unheard of,” recalls the women’s activist, business woman and author. “I had the support of my obstetrician and the Childbirth Education Association to lobby hard for it to happen, and yet to my husband and I, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.”
Wendy was a 26-year-old teacher at the time, and having worked in the UK and the US for several years, was better informed than most Australian women about birth choices.
She also opted for a natural birth, drawing on many of the techniques endorsed by the French obstetrician Dr Fernand Lamaze such as breathing techniques, massage and movement to work with the pain of labour, rather than fighting it. This was also unusual at the time.
“I didn’t want to be gassed out. I wanted to be awake and aware,” she recalls.
That birth – and the two others that followed – were deeply satisfying experiences, which her husband was able to attend. Eventually, campaigning women like Wendy led to husbands and families at the labour being viewed as part of the normal birth process.
The powerful first-hand experience as a young mother prompted Wendy to to join with her fellow fundraiser, politician Rosemary Foot AO to raise almost $10 million for The Royal. This team was to become the nucleus of The Royal Hospital for Women Foundation in 1994.
“It was very exciting, raising that amount of money in such a short amount of time,” Wendy recalls. “We were getting people to dream bigger than they ever thought possible. People enjoyed being asked, because it made them feel good to be involved in important work.”
The grandmother of five has noticed first-hand the increasing age of women having their first child. “My mother was 18 when she had me. I had my first child, Sophie when I was 26, and Sophie had her first when she was in her thirties,” she said.
Having children sparked Wendy’s activism; after fighting to have her husband at her births, she confronted no maternity leave, no child care and very little part-time work. She has remained unwavering in her belief that the health of women and children is the best investment any nation can make.
“If you want to build good families, everything you can do to support mothers and babies in those early years is crucial. Everything that makes for a solid base in family life is about women having a choice; if and how and when they want to have their children. Family planning is a human right. Good hospitals help women do that.”
Wendy may no longer be at the helm, but the need for philanthropic support remains as crucial as ever. The Foundation continues to enable The Royal Hospital for Women to provide exceptional medical care to women and babies of NSW by funding the best medical equipment, innovative research, people and programs.