5 Birthing Traditions We Thankfully Don’t Have Anymore

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5 Birthing Traditions We Thankfully Don’t Have Anymore

Childbirth has always been a difficult process, because it often results in parenthood. Our ceremonies surrounding the process often make it worse. For example, couples in the 21st century sometimes herald the birth with a gender-reveal party, whose fire damage typically has a double-digit death toll. Even that, however, makes more sense than such forgotten traditions as...

Squeezing the Father’s Balls

Giving birth hurts. We’ve always known this. It’s a pain that only women experience, and in search of a counterpart that men go through, many a comedian has pointed to the agony of getting kicked in the balls. So, what if we link the two? For that, we’d simply need to kick the father in the balls at the same time as the mother delivers. 

We’d need to hire someone special for this, since the mother isn’t exactly in a position to do much kicking herself. Or, if we want her to play an active part in inflicting pain on her mate, we can arrange a testicle torture system that does not rely on kicks. Suppose we tie a cord around the man’s scrotum. The other end of the cord goes into the woman’s hand. While delivering, and while in pain, she can tug on the cord, forcing considerable anguish on him. Here’s a piece of art depicting how this plays out:

We can’t speak to the provenance of the above piece, which seems to have been made in a more modern era but in the style of pre-Colombian art. We do have, however, the National Library of Medicine 45 years ago saying that this really was a custom among the Huichol Indians of Central Mexico. It doesn’t sound like a very good custom. When we talk about “sharing pain,” we mean that someone should share their experience to lessen their own pain, not that pain must multiply. That guy’s balls turning purple won’t really make her feel any better. Or, if it does, this couple has additional issues, and the relationship is doomed. 

Memory Wiping

Clearly, we’d be better off trying to relieve the mother’s suffering than torturing some bystander as well. Pain relief became the goal at the start of the 20th century. The problem was, no one yet had the drugs that could really block pain — at least, not without interfering with consciousness, which isn’t an ideal option when you need the patient to actively push a baby out. Then, some German doctors came upon an alternate solution.

Suppose we were to inject the patient with a bit of morphine and then also the drug known as devil’s breath. Devil’s breath is formally called scopolamine, and this alkaloid has recently earned an undeserved reputation as the most dangerous drug in the world. The mixture of morphine and scopolamine offers a small amount of pain relief, as well as something firmer: amnesia. The patient would experience a lot of pain while giving birth but afterward would emerge with a spotless mind. Germans called the result Dämmerschlaf. In English, this is translates as “twilight sleep.”

Bella Twilight Breaking Dawn

Summit Entertainment

Like Twilight, it was painful at the time, but now, who even remembers what was wrong with it? 

The practice fell out of favor when one of its big advocates hemorrhaged while giving birth via twilight sleep. Though the drug cocktail didn’t cause the hemorrhage — lots of patients hemorrhaged while giving birth back then — people assumed it did. 

Until then, mothers who used twilight sleep recommended it, happy to have to have no memory of the pain. They very much felt the pain; they just later forgot it. Women undergoing twilight sleep had to be strapped down, and they screamed so loud, people heard it several floors away. If it were possible, doctors would have been happiest to have totally paralyzed the patient, leaving them able to sense pain but unable to react and unable to remember it afterward. In fact, according to one theory, that’s exactly what general anesthesia does.

Always Slicing the Taint

In 1984, doctors performed episiotomies on 70 percent of all women undergoing natural births. If you know what an episiotomy is, that stat should leave you wincing. If you don’t, no worries — you learn something new every day. 

Medio-lateral episiotomy

Jeremy Kemp

Or, you can just say, “This is literally 1984,” and move on

A baby can tear through the wall of the vagina when a mother gives birth. Episiotomies seek to pre-empt that, by the doctor cutting through the vaginal wall and the perineum, down toward the anus, with scissors. If you were going to rip anyway, reasons the doctor, we might as well rip you ourselves, because it’s cleaner that way. 

If an episiotomy’s necessary, it’s necessary — there’s no arguing with that. But as the years went by, people realized that, hold on, maybe it’s often not necessary. There are ways to prevent tearing altogether. And far from making a small controlled cut that’s more easily patched up, an episiotomy might make it easier for you to rip apart even farther than you would have otherwise, all the way to the butthole, since skin that’s already split tends to rip apart more easily than skin that hasn’t. 

The procedure’s a loss less common now, with some hospitals doing it just 1 percent of the time. Others do it more often than that, earning criticism. It seems an awful lot like doctors aren’t really concerned about the recovery process and just want to make as big a hole as possible to give themselves an easier job. 

Passing the Baby Through a Cheese

But why must a baby pass through just one single hole when they are born? “One good hole deserves another,” as the old English saying goes. And this was why, from the 16th century to the 18th century in England, they’d cut a hole in a wheel of cheese and then pass the newborn baby through it. They called the cheese “the groaning cheese,” a reference to the moans of pain let out by the mother during childbirth. 

“Cutting the cheese” is similarly a reference to a bodily function.

In fact, the entire period leading up to childbirth was referred to as “the groaning.” The expectant mother — confined to a bed and not experiencing a very pleasant time — would be fed delicacies to try to make her feel a bit better. These included groaning cake and groaning pie. She ate them off a groaning board. She’d eat the cheese that was cut from the wheel, and if the baby made it into this world alive, through the groaning cheese it would go. The husband would also get to drink groaning beer

It was quite a merry custom. It’s especially merry if you ignore the other name that the groaning cheese had: “the sick wife’s cheese.” A woman who gave birth was sick by default and stood a good chance of dying, so folk rituals were the only recourse we had. 

Flinging the Baby Out by Spinning

The problem with childbirth, said inventors George and Charlotts Blonsky, was that “civilized women” lack the powerful muscles necessary to propel out the child. “Primitive peoples” have these muscles, thanks to physical exertion, but the modern woman of 1963 does not. We therefore must assist her with additional force — centrifugal force

G. B. Blonsky, et al.

If a centrifuge can separate chemicals, it can also separate humans.

The Blonskys' idea was never actually put into practice. It was merely proposed and was taken seriously enough (i.e., not that seriously) that it received a patent. A “rotatable apparatus” would spin the patient so that velocity would pull the fetus away from the center of mass. This would supplement the mother’s own insufficient efforts. Or, suggested the inventors optimistically, it may even work if she loses consciousness and can’t supply any effort at all.

G. B. Blonsky, et al.

Passing out isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. 

And would the newly delivered baby fly straight outward and collide with the nearest wall? Of course not. The apparatus captures the child with a “pocket-shaped reception net made of strong, elastic material.”

G. B. Blonsky, et al.

Hopefully not so elastic that the baby shoots right back where it came from.

Clearly, we now know that this was not a smart route to go down when trying to ease the process of childbirth. No, what we should have been working on was eliminating childbirth altogether and instead growing babies in vats. How have scientists not got around to this yet? It seems like the obvious solution. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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