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Labor Intensive: The Way Childbirth Used to Be

(Image credit: Luc Melanson)

Childbirth is no picnic. But at least it no longer involves chickens and weasels.

Giving birth is hard. Or so I’ve heard. I don’t have the proper equipment, so when my children were born my job was restricted to feeding my wife ice chips and telling her she was a trouper. But after witnessing the sounds and faces she made, I’m assuming birth is hard.

That said, I’m incredibly grateful that my kids were born in the last decade. Because childbirth in centuries past was almost incomprehensibly harder, more painful, and more dangerous than it is in modern-day America.

Not only that: It was also a lot stranger. For starters, it involved far more animals than you might expect. According to the book Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy, French midwives would place a chicken on the belly of the pregnant woman. The idea was that the scratchy claws would somehow speed up labor.

Cassidy also writes that women in the Hopi Native American tribe were encouraged to snack on weasels. They hoped the fetus would absorb the weasel’s skill of digging its way out of holes. Other women were told to eat eels to make the birth canal slippery.

Sometimes it wasn’t just strange—it was downright brutal. (Well, more brutal than childbirth tends to be of its own accord.) German midwives were known to flog expectant women in a hearty attempt to scare the baby out of the womb.

And then there was the machinery. If you want to lose some sleep, check out the diagram of a 20th-century baby-extraction contraption that involves forceps, ropes, and pulleys. (It can be found at London's Wellcome Library). Or just take my word for it and get your beauty rest.

Other tools would fit right in at Christian Grey’s dungeon. As Randi Hutter Epstein describes in Get Me Out, “a few looked like fireplace stokers, and one looked like a gigantic cast-iron corkscrew.”

Even though they were busy squeezing human beings out of their bodies, it was still important that women act like proper ladies and hosts. In colonial times, women in labor were expected to provide “groaning beers” and “groaning cakes” to their guests.

Since they looked unseemly squatting or with their feet in the air, Victorian women were encouraged to lie down during birth. Unfortunately, as Epstein writes, the pose “may look ladylike but does not work very well for the mechanics of labor”—not to mention, it can be “excruciating.”

Now, consider the odd ritual known as “couvade,” once practiced by several societies, including the Basques of Northern Spain. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the father would get into bed with his wife and simulate childbirth. That is, he pretended to undergo labor, just like the baby’s mother. And then, the mother would sometimes get to her feet hours after giving birth and wait on the father.

By the way, don’t even think about asking for pain relief. According to Genesis 3:16, agonizing childbirth was punishment for Eve’s sin: “In pain shall you bring forth children.” And according to Sanjay Datta’s book Childbirth and Pain Relief: An Anesthesiologist Explains Your Options, in 1591, a Scottish woman named Euphaine Macalyane was burned to death for having the gall to ask her midwife for a remedy to alleviate her labor pains.

Perhaps even worse: In traditional Siberian culture, it was thought that labor was a convenient time to interrogate the soon-to-be mom about any potential infidelities. She was told that the birth would be even more painful if she lied.

It’s not even all ancient history. Fifty years ago, retired mining engineer George Blonksy and his wife, Charlotte, were granted a U.S. patent for their “Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force,” which Jennifer Block describes in the book Pushed. Also known as “The Blonksy,” it was a floor-to-ceiling, cast-iron carousel of doom. The mother-to-be would be strapped in and spun around, generating a force seven times that of gravity to “counteract the atmospheric pressure opposing the emergence of the child.” The doctor stood by, ready to employ an emergency brake if necessary.

So all in all, today’s birthing process is an improvement. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Easy for you to say, Mr. Breathing Coach.”


The above article by A.J. Jacobs is reprinted with permission from the July-August 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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