This appeared in the North Clare Local in September.
Pregnancy and childbirth can still be a risky business. Thanks to modern medicine, it is infinitely safer than it used to be, but even in 2014 things can go wrong.
Further back in time, all women, no matter what their status, were at severe risk during childbirth, as were their babies. In early modern England, infant mortality was estimated at 140 per 1000 births, and maternal death rates stood at 25 per 1000.
Until the 20th century, there was a limited understanding of infection. Today, we know that hygiene for mother and child are of utmost importance. However in less enlightened times, it may have seemed that people sickened for no apparent reason. Superstition and folk belief is always an attempt to explain the unknown, and there were plenty of unknowns around pregnancy and childbirth.
The most persistent belief is that the woman informs no-one, apart from the baby’s father, of her pregnancy for the first three months. It’s thought that this is tempting fate and something bad will happen to the baby. In reality, the first trimester is the riskiest time for the pregnancy, and today, many people still abide by this rule.
Other beliefs have gradually fallen by the wayside, but some will be doubtlessly familiar to the mothers reading this. The central tenet is that actions taken during pregnancy impact the baby. Eating toast and having heartburn leads to a baby with lots of hair.
Up to a third of babies are born with the umbilical cord wrapped around their necks. It can be dangerous, and in former times it could be fatal. Ways to avoid this included not eating squid, giving up knitting, or not putting your arms over your head for the duration of your pregnancy.
Although it’s less adhered to today, there is the belief that leaving a pram in the house before the baby comes along is terribly unlucky. Likewise, some say not to by baby clothes or other supplies, which is pretty impractical.
It’s only become possible to accurately discern the unborn’s gender in recent decades. A wealth of superstition attaches itself to predicting the baby’s sex. One of the most common ones is that if the mother is carrying ‘high’ the baby will be a girl, and ‘low’ it’s a boy. In reality, the position relates to the woman’s own physiology. A faster foetal heartbeat is supposed to indicate a girl, as is morning sickness. If you really want a girl, however, put a wooden spoon and a pair of scissors under your bed and a pink bow on your pillow.
Those who read Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex will remember the ring test undertaken by the main character’s grandmother. This is a real superstition. If you hang a wedding ring from a chain and suspend it over the bump, it will swing back and forth for a girl and in a circle for a boy.
Women in olden times were advised not to look at ugly or deformed people or animals; their unfortunate afflictions could pass onto her unborn child. It was forbidden to even speak of deformities or animals in front of a pregnant woman in Lapland. The Chinese believe women should not go to weddings while pregnant. Another interesting belief is that a woman should not eat crab lest her child become a thief. In South America, the moon is the enemy. A full moon is believed to bring on labour, and eclipses can cause deformities.
In Ireland, meeting a hare could cause a baby to have a hare lip, and a pregnant woman twisting her ankle in the graveyard would lead to a baby with a club foot. Jewish tradition avoids this by advising pregnant women to stay out of cemeteries altogether.
Cravings are one of the oddest facets of pregnancy. A common belief in some parts of the world is that to deny a woman’s desire for pickles/watermelons/chocolate is to risk bringing the evil eye upon oneself. I wonder who came up with that one…
Ireland’s largely Catholic population adhered to practice of ‘churching’ until the 1970s. Although this ritual was actually scrapped by the second Vatican council, it is still practiced in the Eastern churches.
Originally mentioned in Leviticus, the belief was that a woman was somehow ‘unclean’ for up to a month after giving birth. This meant she had to receive a special blessing before she was allowed back to attend mass. It’s curious to note that no man was ever considered unclean after fathering a child.
In Ireland, unchurched women were considered attractive to the fairies, as were unbaptised children. This was completely unrelated to the actual Catholic ritual itself, but like so much of our folklore, attached itself to the religion.
Next month, more on churching and beliefs surrounding new-borns.