Labor, Birth, and Superstitions

Labor, Birth, and Superstitions

On the morning that my daughter-in-law went into labor, a small bird crashed into our apartment window and lay dead on the terrace. At least that’s what I assumed happened when I saw its small black and yellow body lying on its side. Our internet research told us it was a Blackburnian Warbler, a bird that migrates north to south and back again, and so perhaps this explains why it got confused when it saw a large apartment window.

This has never happened to us before. And here, on one of the most nervous days of our lives, a dead creature, inert and eerie. What am I to make of it?

It turns out I’m a lot more superstitious than I thought. I tend toward the irrational, I’ll give you that. I pick up every single penny I see on the street: “Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck.” Not only pennies. Dimes, quarters, whatever. People seem to throw change on the streets these days.

And I have special earrings that I have to wear when I travel. Air travel only. Well, maybe the train, too. And the car for a long trip, if I’m being completely honest.

I guess it’s my personality to obsess about the fact that in recent years the US maternal mortality rate has increased, and experts suggest that up to 60% of these women die from preventable complications.

A woman is on a hospital bed, her infant baby is in an incubator nearby.
Woman Who Has Just Given Birth in the Delivery Room of Loretto Hospital in New Ulm, Minnesota ca. 1975 (US National Archives / Flickr)

Even before the current rise in women’s deaths during delivery, bad things happened during childbirth. In early America, women expected to die giving birth, often planning for who would raise their older children right before they went into labor. Rather than being a joyful, optimistic time, the entire pregnancy was referred to as “the shadow of maternity,” alluding to the looming specter of death. It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century and the advent of penicillin that medicine could control the bacterial infections that so frequently caused women’s deaths. My own grandmother had a stillbirth in the early 1930s. She went on to have five more children, but she never did find out what caused the death of that first baby.

There’s no logical reason to be so nervous about this particular birth. My son’s wife is healthy, strong, and white. Women of color fare far worse, tragically. High blood pressure and hypertensive disorders, including preeclampsia, have risen an astonishing 72% in the last twenty years, and a Department of Health and Human Services report recently found that such conditions are 60% more common and more severe in African American women.

Add that to the more socially intractable problem of racism and discrimination, and we can begin to understand the enormity of the problem. As Serena Williams has written about her own birth experience, health providers just do not take Black women’s concerns seriously, leading to dangerous health outcomes. Black babies do no better; they die at twice the rate of white babies. And it’s not just about poverty or social class. According to one study, Black women with advanced degrees are more likely to lose their babies than white women who haven’t graduated from high school. There are many social determinants of health, of course, but we cannot overlook the fact that Black women receive worse care because of racial discrimination in the healthcare system.

Serena Williams at a press conference. (Doha Stadium Plus Qatar/Flickr)

My son and daughter-in-law’s baby is 10 days late, though even that is somewhat of a conjecture because precise due dates are unpredictable. In fact, surprisingly, we don’t really know what causes labor to start. Their doctor is going to induce the birth. Since when have physicians become so eager to induce? The baby will come when he’s good and ready, I say.

Of course, I understand the reasons for induction; amniotic fluid can get too low if the baby is waiting inside the womb too long. In fact, I understand altogether too much about pregnancy and birth and the attendant worries. And that’s part of my problem. I teach about women’s health, particularly reproductive health. I know the dangers of C-sections, for example, and the fact that their numbers have climbed dramatically in recent years. In fact, complications from surgical deliveries are one of the main reasons for our country’s high percentage of maternal deaths. Of course, a C-section sometimes saves lives, but as Dr. Neel Shah from Harvard Medical School recently put it, “A world with more vaginal deliveries than we have now would ultimately improve the long-term health of both mothers and babies. That is the goal.”

Maybe this rush to induce when the baby isn’t really ready has something to do with those high C-section rates. Some evidence suggests that. Or maybe it’s completely unrelated. There’s a lot I don’t know, too.

Which is precisely why the dead bird is playing an outsized role.

I keep looking at it to see if perhaps it’s just stunned. Maybe it got knocked unconscious, and after a couple of hours lying there, it’ll regroup and fly away. That’s my hope.

If it’s actually dead, perhaps I should think of it as a sign, but a good one. Is that an actual superstition? I googled it, and it turns out it is! According to a website that I’m considering gospel, “Traditionally the death of a bird is a sign of new beginnings, an omen or renewal.”

My superstitious side is going to cling to that. If it’s on the internet, it’s got to be true, right? My son just texted me from the hospital, “We’ve been here an hour and no baby yet.” It’s going to be a LONG day. Fingers crossed!

Update: The baby was born at 4:01 a.m. Everyone is healthy and good!

Elizabeth Reis is a professor of gender and bioethics at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. She is the author of Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex, which was recently published in a 2nd edition, and Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. She is also the editor of American Sexual Histories: A Social and Cultural History Reader.

8 thoughts on “Labor, Birth, and Superstitions

    • Author gravatar

      CDC has a great chart showing the dramatic drop in US maternal mortality around 1927.

    • Author gravatar

      Mazal tov!

    • Author gravatar

      Why is everything judged through the statistics of suffering black people . I totally have sympathy and probably agree with W.E.B. Dubois that it’s all about race. However, of this whole thing seems like some kind of ruse trivializing suffering, incompetence, neglect, irresponsibility, in this case maternity …
      It seems to be the go to thing for all liberal discourse and it usually comes from those who are very comfortable …I don’t doubt the sincerity and it a good article; at least i enjoyed it, but we are dealing with some weird kind of pathology. If i were African american i’d be sick with disgust and i know many who are.

      • Author gravatar

        I don’t think it’s trivializing to draw attention to what amounts to a crisis of care for Black women giving birth (and their babies). Racial discrimination plays out in healthcare, just like everywhere else, but in this arena we can actually see the statistics to measure its damaging consequences.

    • Author gravatar

      Perhaps off topic but I was surprised how long my induction took. My mom told me that when they induced her she had the baby so quickly that the doctor couldn’t walk across the parking lot fast enough to get there in time. I asked my doctor and she said they have dramatically decreased the dosage of pitocin they give since the 1980s precisely because of stories like that. In her words, every doctor from that era has a baby born in a hallway story.

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