Category Archives: Belief

The impact of ‘unnatural and unreasonable desires’ during pregnancy

I was recently having a chat with my favourite (only) sister @fivefingerfrank about the pressure on modern mothers to be perfect.  Any feelings of failure that we have as parents are exacerbated by a quick look on social media where we feel compelled to construct an idealised version of our family life, full of happy pictures and status updates that skim over the reality of staring down the gaping mouth of a screaming toddler after only 3 hours sleep and having run out of coffee.

As parents (and particularly mothers) we are regularly judged upon the decisions that we make in raising our children from the moment that we become pregnant – breast or bottle? Flu vaccination? Alcohol? And in what quantity?  Our everyday interactions with our unborn children are judged by friends, family and strangers alike, often based upon rapidly changing medical ‘facts’ on the correct course of action.  I am guilty of it myself.

Title page from Jane Sharp's 'Art of Midwifry Improv'd'
Title page from Jane Sharp’s ‘Art of Midwifry Improv’d’

Despite it being sufficiently ahistorical to upset my supervisors, I feel compelled to draw a comparison with early modern pregnancy and motherhood.  Up until the eighteenth-century even the medical establishment believed that the pregnant body was permeable – what were usually the boundaries of the body had been breached by the infant growing inside and this changed notions of internal and external.  It was therefore common sense that the thoughts, sensations and experiences of the mother could actually transfer themselves physically to the unborn child.  Here is an extract from a book by Jane Sharp, first published in 1675 but reprinted several times.  This edition was printed in 1725.

But before I come to her time of delivery, I shall speak a word of one frequent cause of Women’s Miscarriage, and that is their longings, and sometimes of their unnatural and unreasonable desires after they have conceived with Child…..sometimes you have Ladies at Court and Citizens Wives, and Country Women too will long to eat Sand and Dirt; but their Children seldom live long that are begun thus.[1]

The idea that the cravings of the mother would leave a mark on the child appears quite common and there are many records of individuals with food shaped birthmarks (red birthmarks are still referred to as ‘strawberry’ marks) where the mother had over-indulged in the object of her craving.

Sharp goes on to note:

There is another cause not far unlike to Women’s Longings, and that is suddain fears, for many a Woman brings forth a Child with a Hair Lip, being suddenly frighted when she conceived by the starting of a Hare, or by longing after a piece of Hare.[2]

At first glance, these ideas seem antiquated and vaguely ridiculous, yet they are perpetuated in a different guise today.  Instructions on the taking of folic acid, alcohol, cold and flu medication whilst pregnant abound. The extent to which we exercise, our weight, and our age is assessed in relation of the risk they pose to the unborn child. These directions are validated by their basis in scientific and medical fact yet so were Jane Sharp’s statements when they were published.  Occasionally, early modern practices are validated by modern science.  It has been suggested, for example that the early modern practice of giving birth in a darkened room may have reduced the chances of maternal haemorrhage in the dangerous hours following delivery.[3]  Some practices are enjoying a renaissance such as swaddling.  Whilst decried in the Ladies Magazine as ‘the barbarous custom of swathing children like living mummies’ in 1785 it is now possible to buy swaddling bands (minus the pins and swaddling boards!) in Next.  It is a reminder that science and medicine is as much a product of modern culture as literature, or history.   The ‘facts’ stated in Jane Sharp’s book are no different to the 1970s assertion that formula milk was better for an infant than breast, or the 1980s practice of supplying new mothers with a glass of stout to restore their strength and rebuild their iron reserves.

I suppose at least now, while we are being judged by others for the decisions we are making about our pregnant bodies, we can think murderous thoughts without the fear that they will be writ large on the bodies of our unborn infants!

[1] Jane Sharp, The compleat midwife’s companion; or, the art of midwifery improv’d, (London, 1725), p.113.

[2] Ibid, p.114.

[3] Adrian Wilson, The Making of Man-Midwifery, (London, 1991), p.93.

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