Giving birth is an incredible milestone and platinum moment in any family’s history. At the same time, it is serious business and subjects a woman to extreme pain and dangers that are seldom equaled. Combining these two realities together creates the perfect conditions for unique rituals, traditions and superstitions and in the hills of Appalachia, the place I proudly claim as home, things are no different.
Nearly a half century ago, my mother, at my grandmother’s insistence flipped me, doused urine into my ear, fed me catnip and probably did a thousand other things folks outside of the mountains would have found as strange at best, and abuse at worst. Fortunately, I survived and in some strange way, am very proud of this rich mountain heritage that began long before my eyes ever beheld the light of day.
My great-great-grandmother was a mid-wife in the Elk Creek community of Mingo County, West Virginia. A legendary Appalachian “Granny Woman” she is said to have delivered nearly every baby in her community for three generations. Though she held no medical degree, her knowledge was built upon a hodgepodge mixture of practicality, necessity, and to some degree witchcraft.
Though I pride this area on being frozen in time, fortunately, there are many things in the mountains of “downhome” that have changed drastically and childbearing is one of them.
Today, when a woman discovers she is pregnant, one of the first things she does is schedule an appointment with one of a dozen or more doctors in her community — not so in the mountains a century ago.
Midwives were not called on until the due date was approaching or labor pains began. Prior to these moments, the women were often left to their own devices or the advise of a relative.
In an era in which herbs served as medication for most everything, pregnant women were encouraged to drink raspberry leaf tea in order to strengthen the uterus.
As the expected date of delivery neared, family members would earnestly pray for the baby to not be born during a full moon, as it was considered highly dangerous to the child and the mother.
The proximity of the midwife to the woman’s house would determine when she would arrive — the greater the distance, the earlier she would arrive.
As the days neared, additional relatives would gather at the family’s homeplace to celebrate the anticipated arrival of the family’s newest member — soon an almost festive atmosphere existed at the home.
When the woman entered childbirth, the women would attend to the birthing process, while the men would socialize in another part of the home or out on the porch.
If the child was not in a proper position, midwives would attempt to manipulate the child by hand. Women were allowed to labor in a sitting position if they felt that was comfortable for them.
In the event that the labor process was not happening fast enough, midwives had an entire arsenal of tools at their disposal designed to expedite things — these practices included having the pregnant woman ingest turpentine or gunpowder to forcing her to sneeze by blowing red pepper or gunpowder through a quill into the mother’s nose (a practice known as “quilling”).
Labor could also be quickened by placing a snakeskin around the thigh. A sharp object placed under the bed was believed to “cut” the labor pains or stop hemorrhaging. If an ax was used, one that had cut many trees was considered to be the best.
Should the labor end unfortunately, a number of omens hexes could have been to blame — the mother could have raised her hands above her head, a dove may have mouned outside the window, or a member of the household had swept the steps after sundown.
After a successful birth, the placenta was diligently cared for by taking it into the family’s yard and burying it deep enough so that it would not be dug up by humans or animals. If the placenta were dug up, this would bring bad luck, illness, or death to the mother and child. Sometimes the placenta were buried or disposed of in a stream of running water to prevent fever in the mother.
If the mother suffered from an inflammation of her breasts due to infection, mastitis, treatment would include spreading cow manure on the woman’s breasts.
Newborns were held upside down by their feet and lifted up and down to prevent ‘livergrown’ disorder. Some midwives believed that placing the child next to the mother under the quilt would force ‘bold hives’ out of the baby’s body. Others recommended a little catnip or ground ivy tea, a drop or two of turpentine, or a spoonful of whiskey in order to “hive” the baby.
In order to protect the baby’s naval area, a piece of cloth would be tied around the newborn’s waist for six weeks.
The newborn’s hair could not be cut for a specific length of time, which varied from six moths to several years, for fear of death.
If a child whose hair was cut too early did not die, it was feared that the child would become a thief later in life. If someone stepped over the child, this would stunt the newborn’s growth.
Lastly, woe unto the child born on a Tuesday, as these particular children were said to have been unlucky.
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