A Celebrated Birth

Merry Christmas, one and all!

I’m taking a week off from the cover art tutorial. It’s a holiday, I’m traveling, and frankly the last week was crazypants, so I’ll do a better job when I have less demanding my attention elsewhere.

This week, I thought about the day of my post, when many of our readers would be celebrating the birthday of a savior, and realized there’s a topic I’m not sure I’ve seen discussed for writers and it’s one that is sort of important…. birth. Pregnancy, yes, as a precursor, but today specifically it’s about the delivering of a child from the womb to the cold hard light of the world. I’ve been through this process five times, but I only remember four of them. Those were the times I was a mother, bringing her child into the world.

I suspect that the reasons you’ll not often see birth in science fiction (or, for that matter, fantasy) are myriad. Pregnant women usually aren’t traveling, having adventures, or giving birth in uncertain circumstances. They did, in the past, and also, not coincidentally, infant mortality was terribly high. As was maternal. Even today, the outcome from labor is not always guaranteed to wind up with happy healthy mom and baby. Worst case always has been losing one or the other, or both. This is only one reason most writers are either going to steer clear, or use it as a off-screen plot element to pitch a Hero into the thick of it, if it’s mentioned. More than this? Birth is a messy, vulnerable, fraught process. And it’s not fast, for most. It’s also been treated with great mystery for much of human history, as it’s a mystical time in many cultures.

With many SFF writers being men, who were in recent century-or-so excluded from labor and delivery rooms, and only introduced to their offspring later, cleaned up and wrapped in fluffy blankets, it’s little wonder they weren’t going to get gritty in their storytelling with the details. On the other hand… there was also a trend for years of anesthetizing Mama, fully in some cases… But I’m not going to go into a screed here on the horrors of interventionist delivery doctors. Suffice it to say that pregnancy and birth are not illnesses, and treating them like they are is not a healthy strategy.

So! I had four children. My first three were born at home, with midwives in attendance. I chose to have my final child at the hospital, also with my midwives, for the sole reason that I had three small children at home and really wanted to have 24-48 hours in a room by myself. A vacation! That this turned out to be the only delivery where I had problems, was ironic.

If you are writing labor, it is a varied as women are themselves. Long labors for the first child are not uncommon, as the body goes through significant physiological changes to accommodate the passage of a small human through the pelvis. The first child is often (and I’m not speaking in absolutes here in this post, as statistical probability doesn’t always hold the exceptions back from happening) the smallest child if a mother has multiples over her lifespan, which helps in this process of the body altering into motherhood. These changes are permanent, by the way, which is why a forensic anthropologist looking at only the bones of a woman can tell you if she had delivered a child. My first labor was 24 hours, my second was 13, my third 6… and this is another pattern that is common for mothers. The body, figuring the process out, tends to be more efficient with it. You’d think my fourth birth would have been rapid. Except this is where the pattern altered for me, as my son presented with his head tilted, and jammed like a cork in a bottle. It wasn’t until some interventions happened that he was able to be born… 23 hours after labor began.

You can already begin to see some of the complexity of writing an accurate labor. The temptation to gloss over it is strong – and likely valid if the description is not going to advance the plot. Birth is also a messy process. There will be blood, amniotic fluids, meconium (the infant’s first bowel movements happen prior to birth, or even during, due to the pressures), and even feces from the mother that are forced out in the process. Then there is placenta Must be delivered after the baby, and takes some effort), the umbilical cord, and sometimes what is called a caul. You’ll see the last referenced in some fantasy tales as there are myths surrounding this membrane. The baby has been in a sack of fluid for months, and as a result, will be coated with (to some degree, some more than others) vernix, a creamy white film that protects their skin. I’m just giving a brief overview here – I could write much, much more, having studied this intensively from the time I first learned I was pregnant and continuing through all my pregnancies.

Describing any of this is rare in fiction, but you should know it’s there. If you want to write birth with any accuracy, you should not be making it all clean and clinical unless you are going to also make it happening outside the mother. Which is a whole ’nother topic. The concept of external incubation has been well-handled by Lois McMaster Bujold, and we do see that science is advancing to make it possible. The problem is that we are also understanding better just how important the maternal presence is to the developing child. From the ability of the mother’s body to cushion and protect the womb with it’s precious cargo, to the babe’s ability to hear and react to the mother’s heartbeat, voice, and even the voice of others who are nearby – like their father – the human starts to become aware of and connected with the world around them very soon in the gestation period. If you are going to postulate a culture with external incubation, you much also postulate the developmental and psychological impacts this leaves such creche-born children with.

Even the ’violence’ of birth itself has purpose. During the passage though the birth canal, the liquid that has been in the infant’s lungs is forced out (there is some fascinating data on this, the development of lungs, and how we can save and nurture even very premature babies, in the last couple of decades. The baby is also exposed to the mother’s microbiome during this process, and in the time-honored tradition of laying the newborn on the mother’s skin for bonding time. This gives a newborn essential immune protections which are reinforced through breastfeeding. Not being able to do this, through delivery via C-section, or a mother that is unable to nurse, gives a newborn hurdles to cross from the first moments. Feasible, of course, but still, not the ideals.

I was thinking about all of this, and the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth, the other day. There is no mention of a midwife – and in a small town overwhelmed with an influx of visitors, she would have existed but likely been busy, or simple matter of not knowing who to contact. However, being in the stable was not a bad thing for a woman in the throes – less contact with stranger’s germs. Also, although Joseph was a carpenter, and would not have had much experience with birth, the first responders to the Star were shepherds, who would have been intimately familiar with birth (I leave aside the Wise Men, as they likely arrived when the child was a year or two old, certainly not to the stable as the holiday cards depict for brevity and art’s sake). A young mother, but not completely alone, with perhaps shepherds arriving in the aftermath? I can see it. Birth is as old as time, and happens whether we are ready or not for it!

24 comments

  1. And then there was the friend of mine, who, as a very slim, petite 17-year-old, didn’t know she was pregnant until the baby started coming out while she was in the shower. She’d stayed home that day because she wasn’t feeling well; later that day her boyfriend (now husband — they have six children total, and she’s still slim!) came over and was totally shocked to find out he was a father, LOL!

    All the weird places babies have been born, too, when they decided to come early, or when Mom wasn’t where she’d planned to be at the time of the birth. It would be hard to top some of the real-life stories!

  2. “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” Yep, written by a man, translated and edited by committees of men, none of whom dared go into the details (if they even knew them). You can practically see them squirming in their seats to avoid talking about it.

    I’ve always wondered about the Wise Men. If they arrived so long after The Birth, why would the Holy Family still be living in a cow shed? The only reason they were in town at all was to participate in the census so they could be taxed. How long could it possibly take for government bureaucrats to receive input from stakeholders so they could establish procedures to gather, count, recount, verify the count, appeal the count, lose the scrolls, count again . . . okay, never mind. A year is totally believable. No wonder the Baby Jesus in my Nativity Set looks like a toddler instead of an infant.

    1. Based on Herod’s edict to kill all the boy children aged 2 and under in his mad attempt to kill the prophesied Messiah, and the required transit time for the Wise Men of a distant land, it’s easy to extrapolate they did not arrive to the stable. And not only for the census, but render care in not moving a newborn and mother, remaining in Bethlehem makes sense to me. Having moved while pregnant…

      1. I can’t believe it took me this long to THINK to go look it up, but– remember how Jesus was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem, two doves, the prophetess and the old man who’d been told he’d see the Savior before he died? We know that’s 40 days old… and Bethlehem is a lot closer to Jerusalem than Nazareth!

    2. It’s traditional to show the Wise Men at the Nativity Scene.
      However, IMO it is obvious that they arrived months after Christ’s Birth.
      Luke has them finding the house where they were living.
      Note, Herod sent his troops to Bethlehem to kill boys two years old and younger.

      1. In Dorothy L. Sayer’s The Man Born to Be King, she elided the Presentation and compressed it to the traditional 12 days.

        Nevertheless, the Wise Men arrived at one of the shepherds’ houses, because the shepherds got them out of the barn.

    3. Matthew 2:11 says that they were in a house by the time the Wise Men arrived: And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. 

    4. They also weren’t focusing on stuff that wasn’t especially important (the specific date of birth) or that “everybody” knew (details about Joseph)– for example, the “inn” was not what we modern folks picture, it was very likely that it was something like staying with extended family, though even that isn’t quite right either.

      A stable is warm, and safe, and clean, and has room— it’s just not where you’d expect a KING to be born, much less stay! (My grandmother and her sisters slept in the barn for their whole childhood, and that was much later. 😀 )

      When the first rush of folks had gone home, there’d be room with relatives for Mary to stay and recover, and everybody to coo over the baby.

      If you’re really interested in trying to figure out how much is symbolism/shorthand that contains anachronisms, and what was believed closer to the time, there are a lot of sources on the Church Fathers that either are commentary or collected older commentary. I have good luck with Catholic dot com, they give names and details enough to find a lot of good resources.

  3. In medieval times, one routine duty of a medieval midwife was to ensure water was on hand so she could baptize dying babies.

    1. This oddly reminds me of the closest local cemetery, dating back to the 19th century, which has a small ‘Poor Sinner’s Corner’. You know, where they buried unbaptized children and adults who committed suicide. It has one adult buried there and five or six children, most of them with death dates within a week of being born.

      Then again the rest of the cemetery isn’t exactly short of children’s and infant’s graves, especially dating down to about the 1950’s.

  4. I note that if a character’s pregnancy runs from start to finish in a story, you have a chronology hard limit. (Remember that prematurity was a death sentence, generally. )

    Madeleine and the Mists had not one but two pregnancies that were running while plot significant events were occurring. Fortunately concurrently with each other, but still….

    (The Princess Seeks Her Fortune had it easier because time could be brushed over. Fairy tales generally just skip to the birth.)

  5. When I’ve read the Biblical account, I always reflect on the circumstance of the Holy Family traveling to Bethlehem from Nazareth where Joseph had his business. Some translations imply that Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown.

    That being the case, I wonder why they didn’t stay with relatives. Was Joseph estranged? Were his relatives in a booming ThereBnB business owing to the crowd swarming Jerusalem? Did the Roman post not carry Jospeh’s request for accommodation to Uncle Jake? ¿Quien sabe? Moreover, why would there be a crush in the area? After all, the Romans were no slouches at organization–they were experienced administrators, who would know that a requirement that persons required to travel to their hometown (presumably where their identities could be vouched for by friends and relatives) could take months, if not years to accomplish.

    The storyline possibilities intrigue me. Free use for credit.

    1. Well, the word normally translated as “inn” has another meaning of Large House.

      The speculation that I’ve heard is that this Large House was where out-of-town members of the House Of David stayed while visiting Bethlehem.

      Because of the Roman Census, more out-of-town members of the House Of David were in Bethlehem than normal thus Joseph & Family weren’t able to get a room in the Large House.

      And the “stable” was part of the Large House were animals were kept.

      Whoever was in charge of the House did the best he could under the circumstances.

      Of course, what we don’t know is if other family members had traveled to Bethlehem with Joseph from Nazareth.

      I could just see an older woman traveling with Joseph and Mary to help Mary out when her child was born. 😀

      1. Because there was a lot of bad feeling about selling off _all_ your ancestral lands to anybody else, there were a lot of people who owned, or co-owned, tiny little pieces of land. (Even if all the rest belonged to somebody else, pending the happening of a Jubilee year at some distant date.)

  6. The past is a different country; they do things differently there. – LP Hartley

    Living in a stable for a year sounds outrageous to us, but it might not have been so bad for them. I wish I could remember where I read an account, written by a pioneer woman who came to Minnesota around 1850, of her travel. It went something like: “I was eight years old the summer we walked from Galena to Mankato. We couldn’t ride because the wagon was full and and too much weight for the oxen. We stayed the first winter in the Johnson’s barn until Daddy got our barn built, then three years in our barn as Daddy cleared land for crops and built our house. A few years later, Momma was ever so glad to get wood floors instead of dirt.”

    The pioneers didn’t think they were poor. They weren’t roughing it. Their experience was normal for people of their class in those days. Think how bad life must have been Back East for them to believe this was A Better Life. And so with the Holy Family: if Mom and Dad’s house was small and their gathered descendants many, the barn would be better than a tent, even for a girl about to deliver her first baby. Without a doubt, some aunt scoffed, “Delivering a baby in a manger? Kids these days have it easy. In MY day . . . .”

    1. My mother and grandmother both lived in very roughly converted barns/cow sheds for a time when they were young. They both grew up in the Oregon Coast Range, not far from the ocean, so snow was rare, but they also both had incidents of waking up to find that snow had sifted through the roof and covered their blankets.

      When I was little, we lived for a while in a collection of rough-built sheds in Alaska that had been slapped together at a sawmill both sets of my grandparents owned. All but one of them were insulated with sawdust in the walls, which settled while the sheds were being hauled thirty miles over rough roads to our homestead, leaving the top two feet of the walls void of insulation. We had no electricity, no running water (my mother had to scramble up and down a steep bank to the lake to get our water), a big barrel stove for heat….

      Being content with where you live is mostly a matter of attitude rather than circumstances. I can be happy with a tent in the wilderness; some people want a five-star motel or they’ll throw a hissy fit.

      Going back to Mary and Joseph, a ‘stable’ in their time really wasn’t all that much different from a house, it just housed animals (for the most part) rather than people. That was the case for most people throughout history, even up to current times in a lot of parts of the world. Only the fairly well-off had much distinction between their dwellings and the housing given their livestock. So I doubt that Mary and Joseph were terribly bothered by being offered shelter in the stable. It was probably a lot more private, and quieter, than the crowded ‘inn.’

  7. Having assisted many of our goats at birthing time, I was quite familiar with the process and not at all nervous. It was funny that my water broke just as we were bringing groceries into the house. My mother had just said, “We have everything, so you can have the baby any time now.” Truer words were never spoken! 😀

  8. A lot of recent scholarship indicates that the Romans ran two census processes: first the one for landowners, and second the one for non-landowners.

    Well, the census in Luke was probably a landowner census. And the thing was that a lot of Jews owned tiny little patches of their ancestral land. So Joseph probably had a tiny little field, or co-owned a tiny little field, in Bethlehem. This didn’t mean that he had close family in Bethlehem. It could have been pretty far off family, and probably family by marriage at that.

    The villages of Nazareth (Branch Village) and Kochba (Star) were apparently founded by members of the House of David who had been living in Babylon up until about 100 or 150 BC. They “came home” because they were expecting prophecies like Daniel to come true, and they wanted the House of David’s sons to be in a position to be able to fulfill the prophecy. Obviously they would have tended to hook up with any other members of the House of David in places like Bethlehem, but they mostly stuck to their villages, followed their trades, and kept their heads down. (Because obviously getting offed by the Hasmoneans or Herod would be not so great.)

  9. And this is the one time a year when I suggest that people look up the word “caravanserai”, and put it together with the fact that there was a rather storied caravanserai in Bethlehem as part of the crossroads heading down to Egypt.

    And then think that England, not being on the Silk Road, had no caravanserai, and the closest translation would, perforce, be “inn.”

  10. Discussing how bad infant mortality can get — I am reminded of the stories told in my family about my paternal grandmother here in the PA Dutch country, who worked much of her life (late 19th – early 20th centuries) as a midwife, and was widely believed to be a braucher/powwow doctor (a folk healer) simply because every one of the babies she delivered and their mothers lived.

    She also took her sons along, once each, to see a woman give birth so they’d know what was involved and appreciate how difficult it was to bring a life into the world.

    1. One of my great-great grandmothers was a community midwife; Grandma said that she never lost a mother, and I think only once lost a baby and there was something wrong with it.

  11. Like anything else, I think that the process of child birth (and the problems thereof) needs to be in a story – only when it is actually needed for the plot.

    As we usually do, the family watched Scrooge on Christmas Eve. There, the scene at Fan’s deathbed after the birth of Ebenezer’s nephew is vitally necessary; it explains much of the hardening of his soul.

    (That’s in the uncolorized 1951 version, with Alastair Sim in the title role. The family prefers that one – black and white is much better for many of the scenes, such as Marley’s visit and the Spirit of Christmas Future.)

  12. Do not neglect recovery time.

    Or, for that matter, the reason given for it. It’s amazing how cultures come with everything from “ritually impure” to “must watch the baby so the Fair Folk don’t take it” to say, “You can’t make her work for N many days after the birth.”

    1. The idea that a mother MUST have help for the first few weeks after birth also helps fight post partum depression– my granny “needed help” for almost a full year, because they were afraid she’d kill my mom.
      (Doctor told her that they were having twin boys, so it hit a lady already prone to depression as her twin sons *died* and were replaced by someone else.)

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