Anthropology & Miscarriage

I recently finished reading a book called Mothers of Thyme: Customs and Rituals of Infertility and Miscarriage and my attention was caught by the explanation of how miscarried babies were viewed by some non-Western cultures:

Anthropologists’ writings reveal that non-Western cultures cultivated a more tender attitude toward miscarriage than Western culture has known. Native American cultures considered unborn children to be human beings…these cultures treated the remains of miscarried babies in the same manner as for adults, by burning or burying them…

Manus women of the Admiralities of New Guinea had similar feelings toward children lost during pregnancy. These women named each baby lost to miscarriage and treated its memory as if it had been a full individual.  Years afterward, when reminiscing about their children, these mothers would not distinguish between a miscarriage at three months, a stillborn infant, and a child who died several days after birth. The Ndranirol people of New Guinea also treated miscarried babies as though they had been born full term, naming each child and holding a ceremony to recognize its existence… (p. 72-73)

Noah’s angel bear and necklace

I identified with this section because of how I always want to mention Noah when people ask how many children I have. I usually leave him out and I never fail to feel a pang of regret for ignoring or erasing him in that way. Prior to Alaina’s birth, I used to include him, but now…somehow…it feels easier or simpler to just refer to the children I actually have with me. His birth counted to me. His life counted. And, while he may not have been a fully grown baby, he counted to me. He was/is one of my babies. His heart beat in my body. I felt his tiny kicks. He had fingers and toes and a little jaw that opened. He had closed eyelids with blue eyes beneath them and I saw his little ribcage through his translucently delicate skin. It is this experience that makes me struggle to reconcile my deep belief in women’s reproductive rights, with my deep knowing that this was my baby and he was real. He counted.

Earlier in the book, the author explains that in other cultures women were blamed or viewed with suspicion for having miscarried or for being infertile:

…blamed the problem on poor social graces. Women with this problem were assured that if they tried harder to get along with their female relatives, their chances of conceiving would improve. But sometimes the problem was more serious, such as when the medium determined that an infertile woman was a witch… (p. 31).

This doesn’t seem altogether dissimilar from being told she needs to “just relax” and then she’ll get pregnant, or from legislative attempts to make women prove they had a miscarriage (or, likewise, to withhold abortion from women who are in grave medical condition).

In general this book wasn’t what I expected or hoped for at all. It was basically a compendium of obscure historical and cultural “rituals” of the eat-three-raw-eggs-mixed-with-bat-dung-while-standing-under-the-banana-tree-on-the-new-moon, variety. It contained some things that were really interesting to read about from a historical perspective, particularly with regard to the way out there and funky misinformed beliefs of the health-care-professionals of the day (will we see continuous electronic fetal monitoring in the anthropology books of the future?!), but there was nothing of relevance to creating ceremony/acknowledgement for mothers today. It is definitely a history/anthropology book more than a miscarriage resource.

One thought on “Anthropology & Miscarriage

  1. Pingback: Anthropology & Miscarriage » The Amethyst Network

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