Pregnancy is far more than just a biological process. And as any woman who’s ever been visibly pregnant can probably attest, every second person out there feels like they have the right to offer advice on what such a woman should and should not do.
We’re understandably twitchy on this subject, because pregnancy is a fraught thing. On average, something like ten to twenty percent of confirmed pregnancies end in spontaneous miscarriage; when you expand that to all fertilizations, the number might rise as high as thirty to fifty percent. There’s a good reason why many couples don’t announce that they’re expecting until the first trimester has ended: miscarriages are common, and the vast majority of them happen in that early, uncertain span.
But getting past the first trimester doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet. As our medical knowledge has improved, we’ve come to understand much more about the proper care and feeding of an expectant mother. For example, after a brief period in the twentieth century where doctors recommended alcohol as a way of stopping pre-term labor, we went back to the ancient prohibitions against drinking while pregnant, because the alternative is fetal alcohol syndrome. But despite those prohibitions, one has to imagine that syndrome was rampant in the past, because weak alcohol was often the safest thing to drink in general — not to mention that there’s a stretch of time where a woman might not even know she’s pregnant yet.
Avoiding alcohol is the only tip of the iceberg, though. There’s long list of things pregnant women shouldn’t eat — including pretty much anything that’s raw, undercooked, or unpasteurized; now think about the past again — and an equally long list of things they should eat for optimal maternal and fetal health. Some of them are well-grounded in modern science (like the ban on booze), while others are old superstition (spicy food will blind your child! Did anybody tell the equatorial regions?) or part and parcel of our recent tendency toward nutritional fads. And speaking of fads, does anybody remember the purported “Mozart effect”? The claim was that listening to his music — or just classical music in general — makes you smarter, which led to suggestions that an expectant mother should put headphones on her abdomen to ensure her kid will be a genius.
Both before and after childbirth, we want the certainty of believing that if we do X, Y, and Z, we can be confident of having a perfect, healthy baby. And the flip side of that is, any woman who fails to live up to those unattainable standards is a Bad Mother who doesn’t care about the future of her child.
This extends to many kinds of behavior. Should a pregnant woman exercise? Our answer to that has swung all over the place across the years, and even when the answer is “yes,” you still have to ask how much and what kind? It’s a privileged question to begin with; most women, past and present, haven’t had the luxury of sitting back and taking it easy for months on end. The world is full of tales about mothers who kept working until their water broke, then were back on their feet a day or two later. Maternity leave is supposed to ease that burden, but how much you get (if any) still depends heavily on where you live and what kind of job you have. Women with white-collar careers fare much better.
How about sex? Lots of people get nervous around the possibility, fearing that it might somehow hurt the fetus. But for at least one group — I want to say the Maya, but I’m not positive about that attribution — semen is viewed not just as the seed that gets the process going, but a necessary form of sustenance throughout, and therefore the mother and father should continue having sex regularly. Contrast that with a chilly political marriage, where once the wife is knocked up the husband gladly leaves her alone, and goes back to the arms of his mistress.
Maternal and fetal dangers aren’t limited to the realm of medicine and the body. There’s a whole panoply of charms, rituals, and superstitions meant to protect both parties against malign spiritual influences. Birth defects are often blamed on the evil eye or demonic influence, so naturally one has to take precautions against such threats. And of course a miscarriage, especially later in the pregnancy, might not be the result of mundane medical issues; magical precautions are also supposed to help you carry your baby to term.
When it comes to pregnancy superstitions, there’s a whole sub-genre focused on the question of the child’s sex. This actually starts before the pregnancy itself: eating certain foods, or having intercourse at a particular time of day or in a particular position, or conducting appropriate rituals, are tactics meant to ensure that the mother gives birth to a child of the desired sex. (Which commonly means male, though not always.) We know now that it’s determined by the chromosomal inheritance from the father, but if a woman repeatedly gave birth to daughters, she was often seen as the one at fault.
Once a woman is bearing, then it’s time to play a guessing game. Is there any significance to whether she’s carrying “high” or “low”? Does severe morning sickness mean there’s a daughter on the way, or a huge appetite mean she’ll have a son? Can you divine the sex of the fetus from the heart rate, or the shape of the mother’s face, or whether or not she develops acne? These days we can get more definitive answers (if we want them) from an ultrasound or amniocentesis. In a fantasy setting, though, divinatory methods might be just as reliable. In particular, people often place great significance on a pregnant woman’s dreams — not just for gender, but for omens of many kinds.
All of these things, whether based in science or not, are again a way of trying to find some certainty in a very uncertain time. So until and unless technology takes all the risk and randomness away — until you can design your child’s genes down to the last chromosome, gestate them in a tank, and fix or forestall any potential problems — many of these traditions and debates are going to stick around.