Monday, November 15, 2010

Anthropology of Pregnancy

In university one of my favourite non-science courses was Women's History, specifically the course was called "Women in European History: Renaissance to the 20th Century". The professor for it was great. She made things interesting. I was actually sad one night when I had to miss a lecture due to illness.

What most people don't realize is that "History" as it's presented in most schools and media could be better termed "Men's History". Think about it. When you learn about history in school you learn about wars (soldiers were almost exclusively men), kings (men), country leaders (men) and policy makers (generally men). Now, granted there are often women and children in the periphery of these events. They may have looked after the wounded from the wars, and were often displaced geographically by battles. Women were married to kings and were expected to bear children for the succession, but were not really thought of as anything other than a means to secure a lineage. Country leaders and policy makers may have taken the concerns of women and children into consideration, but very few women until the last century or so were given any opportunity to direct these changes themselves.

In learning about 'history' (or men's history), you are learning about the BIG events in history. In learning about women's history you are learning about the 'every day' since women's lives WERE the every day.

While reading a bunch of babylost blogs the other day, I was thinking about how similar a lot of our experiences are. How most stories start with 'trying to get pregnant', then move on to the 'positive pregnancy test', 'first ultrasound', 'feeling the baby kick', 'preparing the baby's room' and so on and so forth. Some of us got further than others of course, but the experience of loss seems similar. The shock, the feeling of connection to the dead baby, the overwhelming sadness...

So I was wondering to myself "Do our stories and the feelings around them seem so similar because that's just how women FEEL when they are pregnant and/or lose a baby? Or, are these feelings and concerns so universal because I'm reading stories about English speaking women in a 21st century Western world?"

It got me thinking about women in centuries past (or in developing countries in the 21st century or hell, South Central LA without health insurance if you want to be really inclusive). What was/are their experience of pregnancy? And how did/do those experiences affect them when the baby died?

First of all, I just found out that the first home pregnancy test was invented in 1978! (Thanks Google) That's only as old as my husband! A good percentage of your mother's probably didn't even have the option to do one of these. So before 1978 there was no peeing on a stick, no running around the house squealing, waiting for your significant other to come through the door so you could figure out a 'special' way to tell him the good news. I can only imagine that prior to this, the realization that you were pregnant may have come more slowly. More along the lines of "Huh? I think my period is boobs have been a bit sore lately...hmmm...maybe I'm pregnant?" Someone who was smart and in tune with her body may have realized this quickly...but I bet lots didn't. Lots of woman may have brushed off a missed period due to malnutrition, stress, or for lack of having a calendar. Think of all the woman who may have miscarried and never have known they were pregnant. If you never saw two lines, or saw the ultrasound photo, what would your experience of loss be like?

Furthermore, ultrasound only started being used to view the fetus in the mid-1960s. Prior to that, the photographic evidence of children started at birth, not at the first (or second or third) ultrasound photo session. What would your experience of pregnancy and birth be like if you never 'saw' your child ahead of time? What if you lived at a time, or in a place, where you didn't really understand how human beings developed? What if you never got updates sent to your e-mail that started out "You're 6 weeks pregnant today. Your baby is starting to develop arm buds!" What if all you knew was that you felt nauseous and your boobs hurt, you were massively tired, but you still had to get up at dawn to feed the chickens, milk the cow, boil water, and then start to salt the meat and churn the butter that would help to last your family through the winter? Although, I'm sure women realized that babies develop in a 'small' to 'big' fashion(evidenced by expanding waistlines), I wonder how many of them realized that fetus' look like babies until they experienced a late miscarriage or premature birth? Would you have the same 'connection' to your child, if you didn't know it looked like a person yet?

Before pregnancy tests and ultrasounds the first time you would KNOW you were pregnant was when the baby kicked. For some women, this doesn't happen until close to 18-20 weeks. In anything other than modern times, you wouldn't know for sure you were pregnant until it was almost half way over. Think of how different your pregnancy experience would have been if it didn't really start until the mid-way point.

What would your experience of pregnancy or loss be like if you lived in a hunter-gather tribe in central Africa in 11,000 BCE? Or in a Mesopotamia under Alexander the Great? Or as a German woman at the time of the Reformation? Or as an Inuit at the end of the Little Ice Age? Or in 2010 if you lived in rural Brazil with no immediate access to medical care.

I wish I could read these people's blogs.

What do you think?


  1. I've thought about this too: How women have handled the loss of a baby throughout the ages? You ask an interesting question though about if you weren't already connected to that baby, knowing you were pregnant, etc would you grieve the same? As we all know, not only did we lose our babies, but our dreams of them were shattered, because we had been planning their arrival for months on end. I'm sure it must have still been shocking to have to deliver a very premature stillborn baby and even if the woman hadn't known she was pregnant, I think seeing your dead child and going through labor is enough to alter your perceptions and as a mother mourn your baby. Then again, she probably wouldn't have seen her child. Too bad those people's blogs don't exist. I agree, I would love to learn about their experiences.

  2. Interesting, isn't it? I can remember asking my mother's advice on ultrasounds & tests, etc., & I could almost hear her throw up her hands over the phone: "In my day, we just had babies," she said. So true!

    Have you ever read Linda L. Layne, "Motherhood Lost: A feminist account of pregnancy loss"? She talks about this, & about the process of how we confer "personhood" on the fetus, particularly in a consumer society. She wrote another book (which I haven't read yet, but sounds like it expands on some of these themes) called "Transformative motherhood: On giving & getting in a consumer culture." Really interesting stuff.

  3. Really interesting post. I would also love to be able to read all those blogs from different times and places.

    My mom always says that things were different in her day. That she never took a home pregnancy test or had an ultrasound. I think she feels that it might have been easier for me if I hadn't had these things either.

  4. Interesting post. You got me thinking... I think our feelings of loss and grief over our babies probably transcend different spans of time. We're emotional beings after all.

    On another note, I just want you to know that I nominated your blog for the One Lovely Blog Award. If you don't know anything about this, check out my blog for the details.