By Lani Axman
I was pondering my ancestors recently and got wondering about their birthing experiences. How cool would it be to go back in a time machine and watch our ancestral mothers giving birth?! The closest I could get, however, was to look through some of the histories I have in my family history file. Most of them are sparse on birthing details, but it was still fascinating to imagine-in what the stories lacked. Much of what I found was heartache and loss, but I also found so much courage and strength as well. Here are a few snip-its…
My great-great-great grandmother, Inger, came to America aboard a ship with her husband and her three (living) children from Denmark in 1866. At the time, Inger, was pregnant with her fifth child. Here is the account of that child’s birth:
On board the ship coming to America a baby boy was born, 26 May 1866 to Inger and Andrew. He was given the name John B. after the captain of the ship. The baby died the following day and was buried at sea. . . . They had left one little grave in Denmark and now to lose their baby and not even be able to give it the burial they wanted to was very hard to bear. Conditions on the ship were not at all good. They came as steerage passengers, it was cheaper but more unsanitary and the trip took from 8-12 weeks
I can’t even fathom what it must have been like to first give birth under those circumstances and then to grieve the loss of a child in those conditions. As if uprooting your family and taking a long voyage across the world (to assimilate into a brand new culture and learn a new language) weren’t already stressful enough. Based on the history written about her, she never really recovered from the aching loss of baby John. It reads:
She missed and grieved for the baby that was born on the ship and died so soon after. The thoughts of the little baby being buried in the ocean was still so fresh in her mind. It was Dec of 1867 that she took sick with a bad cold. It developed into pneumonia and she passed away 9 Dec. 1867.
Only a year and a half after the loss of her baby, Inger joined him in the world of spirits. I would say she died of a broken heart. My own heart aches for her. And it aches also for the living husband and children she left behind.
One of those living children was Hans. He was nine years old when his mother died. As an adult, he married Marinda Christena (“Tenie”). Here is an account of their early marriage and the birth of their first child, as told in Tenie’s words:
The first seven years of our life together no children came to our home, and surely it would be very hard for the people of today to realize how one suffered through that condition. While the finger of scorn was not actually pointed at one, she was made to realize she was not blameless, so when a baby came he was his mother’s vindication. At this time, my husband was 42 years of age and I was 32. We felt life now was so complete and how how we loved him and how very anxious about him and awkward in his care. But in less than two years twin girls came.
Vindication indeed! I love to imagine the absolute euphoric joy that must have filled and overflowed from Tenie’s heart as she gave birth to that long-awaited baby boy and finally held him in her arms. And then to go on and give birth to twins (and another baby boy two years later). After seven barren years full of public shame, she had proven to herself and the world that she was not broken! She had filled her aching heart and home with babies and joy. My own heart rejoices to think of it.
One of those twin girls was my great-grandmother, Margaret (“Maggie”). After losing three newborn sons in a row, her first living child was my grandmother, Verla Marinda. I imagine her joy in receiving and raising a living child was indescribable! Here’s what my grandmother had to say about her mother’s birth experiences in an interview with me and my sister:
[Where were you born?] I was born, all my brothers were born at home. [With a midwife or a doctor?] Mine was a midwife I know, ’cause my dad said that she was a little tiny English lady, and he said he went to get her in the middle of the night and he said I don’t think her feet hit the ground all the way from her house to ours. Just picked her up, put his arm around her, and carried her. ‘Course it was only . . . oh what we’d consider probably a block now. I mean, it wasn’t very far. [You came quick?] Probably. I don’t remember. I never did hear my mother say . . . She had one of them alone. My aunt was supposed to be helping the doctor. They were having the doctor and they’d come out and deliver in those days, you know, . . . and my aunt was standing out on the front porch looking for the doctor to come, and my mother was in the bedroom having the baby.
I have to chuckle to myself imagining my great-grandpa running down the road carrying the midwife under his arm. Ha! And I can just picture Maggie’s twin sister standing out on the porch, suddenly hearing a baby’s cry, running into the house in shock. From what my grandma tells me, her mother did not enjoy that experience giving birth alone in her bedroom. I suspect it was particularly traumatizing to her giving birth unattended after losing three previous babies at birth or soon afterward. No doubt she wanted to be sure a skilled professional was present to keep her babies as safe as possible. However, I feel confident she wasn’t actually alone in her bedroom that day. The longer I live and the more stories I hear, the more convinced I become that every birthing woman is attended by crowds of angels. And I feel confident assuming that the brave women I’ve written of here—Inger, Tenie, and Maggie—were among those who have attended me in labor.
I love these strong women and feel so grateful to have their stories. They remind me to have more compassion for those suffering, and they inspire me to continue writing my own experiences and insights. I hope my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and others will find strength and hope and solidarity in what I have recorded.
Do you know your family birthing history? I’d love to hear your stories!