Before the age of Facebook and parenting blogs, how did women exchange knowledge and beliefs about reproduction? Without What to Expect When You’re Expecting, how did society and “experts” tell women how to manage pregnancy? These are questions often posed by students in my classes, who assume that “in the past,” there was a deafening silence related to all things parturient. The lack of a written record, not to mention modern science, some assume, signifies the absence of a dialogue about childbirth. This presumption, of course, is wrong. Folklore, oral tradition, popular beliefs, and childbirth have a long, intertwined history, and indeed provide some of the richest, most complex material for the study of reproduction, not only historically, but also today.
One place that saw English-language literacy come relatively late and thus preserved rich indigenous oral traditions is Ireland. Traveling throughout the west of Ireland in the early twentieth century, Lady Augusta Gregory enthusiastically collected folk legends and local traditions from the people she met. Dozens of these narratives referenced pregnancy and childbirth.1
Some stories about pregnancy and birth in Irish legend were patriarchal and almost sinister. In one particular trope, changelings — malevolent, meddling fairies — stole pregnant women, new mothers and infants, spiriting them off to the fairy world and leaving supernatural imposters in their places. Changeling beliefs, of course, functioned as metaphors for the very real dangers of pregnancy or birth; a stillborn infant was often said to be “taken away” by the fairies, and a woman who died in childbirth was described as having been abducted.2
Told across generations, narratives about pregnant women and new mothers stolen away by fairy-changelings served as a reminder of the importance of childbirth to Irish families and communities. They also give us access to an alternative public dialogue about women and the lifecycle. Legends of fairy abductions both recognized women’s central roles as mothers and attempted to qualify women’s reproductive powers, depicting them as vulnerable, dangerous, or threatening. Changeling beliefs also reinforced the patriarchal nature of community life by subjecting women to clear codes of behavior, encouraging women to act properly and virtuously to avoid fairy abduction.3
Fairy belief also consistently advocated the containment of the female reproductive body. The following County Galway narrative, also recorded by Lady Gregory, reveals some of the dangers that faced wandering women:
Here, the new mother not only meanders into the field alone at night but does so scantily clad. She enters into a dangerous space even while she traverses sexual boundaries; her crossings are both literal and metaphorical. Wandering into forbidden places points to the reality that some women wandered away from local norms and expectations.
Indeed, there is a close connection in Irish tradition between reported fairy abductions and women who defied familial, communal, or religious expectations, as well as sexual norms.5 Fairy belief and oral tradition insisted that women remain at home, safely enclosed within the domestic sphere. When women strayed, trouble ensued.
Other narratives, however, recognize female agency and power. A woman interviewed by Lady Gregory, for example, discussed rumors of midwives’ special powers, affirming that Irish midwives like her own mother could magically transfer a laboring woman’s pain to her husband. In one exemplary case told to Gregory, the husband “had no compassion at all on his wife. He was making out she had no pain at all…” In response, the midwife (the narrator’s mother) transferred the woman’s pains to her husband. The storyteller told Gregory: “It did him no harm after, and my mother would not have done it but for him being so covetous.”6
Such stories, even if false or exaggerated, reveal much and mean a lot. They testify to the importance of the midwife in a pre-medicalized world. They also, however, represent a virtual reclaiming of power for women in a patriarchal society. Narratives of powerful and even otherworldly midwives allowed women to attempt to assert control over the birthing process. That these stories could be told and retold across generations enhanced their meaning, and perhaps helped to educate girls about their own potential reproductive powers in an era where sex education was non-existent.
In the modern world, when nearly everything related to reproduction has become overmedicalized, the connections between fantasy, imagination, storytelling, and childbirth can be hard to find. Still, even today, “old wives’ tales” purport to give women hints on how to tell their baby’s sex, when they will deliver, how big their infant will be, etc. Instead of dismissing these contemporary practices and beliefs as “superstitions” or viewing them as silly, perhaps we should place them in their larger historical context, one that reveals how all societies and cultures have viewed childbirth as a window into larger issues related to family, community, power, and even the magical.
- See Cara Delay, “Women, Childbirth Customs, and Authority in Ireland, 1850-1930,” Lilith: A Feminist History Journal 21 (July 2015): 6-18. Return to text.
- Angela Bourke, “The Baby and the Bathwater: Cultural Loss in Nineteenth-Century Ireland,” in Ideology and Ireland in the Nineteenth Century, eds Tadhg Foley and Seán Ryder (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998), 79-92. Return to text.
- Angela Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story (London: Pimlico, 1999) and “The Virtual Reality of Irish Fairy Legend,” Éire/Ireland 31:1-2 (Spring/Summer 1996): 7-25. Return to text.
- Lady Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe, 1920), 109. Return to text.
- Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary. Return to text.
- Lady Gregory, 161. Return to text.