Friday, July 30, 2010


One of my big hobbies is genealogy. That's right folks, in case you hadn't figured it out already, I'm a total nerd. I have been researching my own genealogy for about 8 years now. I've collected records from hundreds of family members and have built up my family tree so that I can now trace back one side of my family to the 1500s. I have linked myself to well over 7000 people either by blood or marriage. And, yes, it took a lot of work.

Anywho, this post is not about how fabulous a researcher I am. Actually, it's about what it all circles back to of course, the dead baby.

We all know that dead babies were more common 'in the olden days'. Babies and young children died from many things that are generally less of a concern these days. Baby deaths that can now be avoided by C-sections, blood thinners, blood pressure medications, insulin, and probably most importantly antibiotics. Penicillin, one of the greatest inventions EVER people. Just out of curiosity I decided to do a search through my provinces death records for exactly 100 years ago. I typed in July 30th 1910 into ancestry's search engine for Ontario death records in the part of the province that I am currently located.

On one page alone, containing records of 30 people, there were 6 stillbirths and 4 deaths under the age of 3 years old. One of the 'under three' was a baby listed as dying of 'congenital debility' at age 4 days. Only one of the babies who was still born was named (Thomas F.), the rest were listed as only "Last name, Baby" with their gender "M" or "F" beside it. The baby with the 'congenital debility' was named "Lucy Mary". Now, this page may contain a proportionally high number of baby deaths, but probably not by much. I'm fairly certain that if I was just to keep scrolling through this county's death records you'd often see "stillbirth", "premature", and "congenital debility" listed as the cause of death for infants. If they were smart enough, or the infection was obvious, you'd probably also see words like "toxemia" (a blood infection) or "pneumonia" listed as the cause of death for others. The next page even lists a little guy named "Charles" who was 23 days old and his cause of death was listed as "puny at birth". Nice.

What this illustrates to me is a few things. Number one, is how as a culture did we get so ingrained with the idea that BABIES DON'T DIE??!! When did it start to be the norm that we assumed from conception (or at least after the 12 week 'safe point') that it was now pretty much a sure bet that our child would outlive us? Were people always delusional? In days of yore, did they just ignore the babies and children all around them who were dropping like flies? Is this a relatively new belief after the invention of so-called 'modern' medicine? Is the media to blame, with its happy, healthy, images of smiling babies with not a sick or dead one ever noted? When did we hit the percentage point of baby death that everyone started to feel comfortable thinking it wouldn't happen to them?

The other thing it brings up for me is that, no wonder we all feel the need to connect via the Internet. Women probably connected with others in their community who had experienced a baby death. It was a pretty good bet that their mother, sister, friend, cousin, aunt, or grandmother had experienced a baby death, some probably more than once. Since baby death has become somewhat less common, we are now having to go farther afield in search of others for whom we feel a connection to.

I wonder what baby death looked like all those years ago? Did the mothers and fathers hold their dead or dying baby? Did they save things like locks of hair or the blanket their child was wrapped in? There would have been no photos, possibly no foot prints (did they have ink?), no stuffed toys bought at the local Toys R' Us. Did the five still born babies listed on that page really go to their graves without a name? Was little Thomas an anomaly because his mommy and daddy chose to name him?

Someone with a social studies or history degree should really get on this. Do some research. How did families in the past cope with baby death? Were there any traditions associated with it? Did women connect with one another afterwards? When, as a culture, did we start assuming that all babies arrived healthy and alive?

Would this interest you?


  1. You aren't the only nerd. :-) I love doing genealogy. I was hoping to stay at home with Drew and pursue genealogical research for others. I think those final questions that you posed might really help us connect our own losses to larger social and historical perspectives. My great grandmother lost three babies in a row (all at the age of 2). We have pictures of two of the babies taken after they had died. I always wondered why she had those pictures, but now I understand. I think it might be hard to find out how women and families handled loss so long ago, because so many people felt that was something that was "private." But, I would be very interested in researching how loss was handled in the past. Wouldn't it be fascinating to put together a collection of stories across generations? My mind is whirling with ideas...

  2. i don't know where i'd be right now without the internet, my blog, the babycenter boards, and all my babyloss sisters. i can't imagine having to go through this before that was an option - even just ten years ago.

    i don't know a single person in real life who's gone through this, and while i "knew" stillbirth happens, it was never a part of my reality, and never talked about anyone i know, or even my doctor, so i truly never considered the possibility.

  3. I've never thought about how people in the past have handled child loss. It is an interesting question. But I do often think about how people deal with this issue in other parts of the world where it is a much more common occurrence. Are they more open about their grief because it is more common or are they more private about their grief because it is more common? Would they be totally unfamiliar with how we grieve? Would we be totally unfamiliar with how they grieve?

    I'd be interested in reading what someone who knows more about sociology (historical and modern) would have to say on the matter.


  4. One of my favorite "after" books has been "A Broken Heart Still Beats" it is not factual or anthropological, but gives great insight through poetry and prose at how various writers have handled the death of their children. It has passages from as far back as Homer. A good read and gives some needed perspective I think.

  5. This is such an interesting post!!! It's so true. It has always been a part of life. When did that change??

  6. At my last job I worked with a woman who was elderly - and I loved listening to all of her stories from when she was a little girl.

    She would tell me how common it was to see a pregnant woman on your street; she would disappear one day, and sometimes it would be just the baby coming home. No mother. Or it would be the mother, and no baby.

    My co-worker was telling me this was so common, that it didn't really shock anyone - it's just the way it was. You might feel sad, but not shocked.

    She also told me that when that happened - no one talked about it. Nothing was said about a lost baby, or a lost mother. And that most babies were buried, no name given, and nothing was ever spoken about them again.

    My co-worker found out (way after her mother died) that her mother had a baby before she had been born, who had died. The baby was buried in an unmarked grave - and she never had a clue that any of that had ever happened. Her mother never breathed a word of it - neither did any of her extended family.

    I think that, fortunately, baby and mother mortality rates have dropped so dramatically over the last several decades - that it is shocking when it happens today. We (at least in the Western world) have forgotten about what used to be a relatively common occurance.

  7. My Dad is into genealogy and I've enjoy learning about my family history. I was always sad when looking back at the number of babies that died or were stillborn, but assumed it was a thing of the past. Surely with all of the medical advances, we just aren't there anymore? I think it would be very interesting to know how women dealt with the grief and if they connected with our women.

  8. This is such an interesting topic. My mother-in-law's (MIL) first child, and son, was stillborn. My husband was their rainbow baby so to speak. While we were still in the hosptial, before Acacia died, my dh reminded me that his mom could understand what we're going through because her first child died. I remember thinking, oh, that's right. She'll get this, that will probably be helpful for us. But, alas, she doesn't get it. And she's told me that. She's shared with me that during pregnancy (for her anyways) "it" wasn't really a baby - not until the baby was born. She shared that she didn't do all the in-utero bonding that I did with my daugther, and she didn't read tons of pregnancy magazines and parenting magazines and books like I did - so somehow, I guess, it was less of a loss for her? Now we look at each other in wonder, I think. I wonder how she didn't experience the depth of pain and loss I'm experiencing, and she might wonder how I do.

    I too am so thankful to have experienced the death of my daughter at this day in age - to have the support of an on-line community. But I think our culture at large has a long way to go to understand and accept that babies DO die.

  9. I too am into genealogy, & being a stillbirth mom, I would most certainly find this interesting. ; )