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Pregnancy and Childbirth

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After the wedding the most import thing that the new bride could do was to give her husband heirs. Hopefully that would occur soon.

She might well have been able to notice with pleasure that she had ceased her monthly bleeding, giving rise to expectations, although that alone could not confirm a pregnancy. Her hopes may have been strengthen by morning sickness, as well as swelling and tenderness of her breasts, and her stays may have started to hurt her as her maids were unable to pull it as tightly as usual due to her growing waistline. But it would not have been until the fourth or fifth month that she would know for certain, when she felt the little flutter in her belly of the baby's first movement. This was the "quickening" and it was the moment when, Christians believed, babies received their souls and came to life. In her world only after the quickening did a woman know for certain that she was pregnant.

Like most things in this time period pregnancy was shrouded in custom and superstition, and woman (and men) had been imparting "wisdom" to pregnant women for centuries. For the mom to be pregnancy brought a certain rhythm to her life and household. The cooks would all have been instructed to ensure that her meals included more meat and fewer spices. Old wive's tales warned that too much red wine or strawberries could cause blemishes on the baby's delicate skin. She would have likely followed any advise her own mother shared too. Regardless of her dietary restrictions, there was nothing more important to the development of her baby than her "maternal imagination." She was EXPECTED to spend considerable time intentionally thinking about the shape of her baby, praying for a boy (although a healthy daughter would be welcomed too), and using her own spiritual devotion to nature the baby's soul.

To us this will sound silly but it is important to understand the humanity of the mom to be, her family, and her contemporaries. For the mom to be and her husband pregnancy could bring great joy, but it was also an extremely perilous time in a woman's life. She faced a 6 to 7 percent chance of dying in childbirth and about a 14 percent infant mortality rate. Motherhood was the most important role a woman like the mom to be would ever hold, and as such their contemporaries went to great lengths physically, mentally, and spiritually to keep mother and baby as safe as possible.

For a woman of rank the birthing chamber was a scared female space and men were not permitted to enter the room. If her financial resources permitted she would have spared no expense to transform the room into a place that not only met her physical needs but could also comfortably prepare her for her delivery. Shortly before the baby was expected to arrive she would confine herself to her birthing chamber for her "lying- in" the final phase of her pregnancy. For a first pregnancy the mom to be might wish to be at her family home or some place that held happy memories. During her lying-in she would be surrounded by her mother, sisters, close female friends, a local midwife, and other female servants. Fresh air and natural light were believed to be dangerous during a delivery, so dark heavy fabrics covered the windows, and candles were kept glowing around the room. The attending women prepared "caudle" (broths and mulled wines) in the chamber for her to drink. Clean linens were neatly folded in preparation for the delivery. The women kept watchful eyes over her and prayed for her and the baby while embroidering swaddling clothes for the baby. In the days before the intensity of labor, the birthing chambers of a noblewoman were quiet, calm, gentle spaces of profound femininity.

That tranquility disappeared with the onset of labor. The women would rapidly tend to her needs, offering continued prayers and holding her as delivery was imminent. Her mother or closest female relative, such as a married sister, would likely have been the one to actually deliver the baby, with the midwife watching to help should the baby need to be turned in the womb. This new mother would do those same things for her own sisters and friends and would someday do them for her own daughters. Even the volatile birthing process was cloaked in female ritual and companionship. The baby would stay with the mother in the birthing chamber for the first week of its life when it would then be sent off under the watchful eyes of a nurse along with the chosen wet nurses and other servants.

Celebrations and family feasting were usually held after the successful delivery. Lasting a week in length which allowed for extended family and friends to travel. Hunting, perhaps a group of players to entertain. A week later the baby would travel with its father and family to the parish church for its baptism. The new mother, like all women of rank, did not attend the baptism as she would remain in her lying-in chamber for another month to come as she healed. She would emerge from her chamber and again with family gathered this time for her churching ceremony. In the medieval period when England was still Catholic churching was the service for the mother to be spiritually cleansed after childbirth.

With the Protestant Reformation, however, many male church leaders saw the ritual as superstitious, yet women refused to abandon the practice. Childbirth was so steeped in female tradition the many women demanded to follow the customs of their mothers, grandmothers, and other ancestors. As a result, in Protestant England, churching was recast as a "thanksgiving for the mother's health and survival." At her churching, depending on the families connections, even a Bishop might officiate. Both the new father as well as the new mother, her sisters and other family and friends as well as the Bishop's wife if he had one would be in attendance. The grouping might well remain for days afterwards to celebrate.

This also marked the point at which the new mother was allowed to return to public life.

Becoming a mother solidified her place within her husband's family.

For the aristocracy, marriage was just the first level of commitment between two families. The second level was achieved when a child was born, as he or she embodied the joining of bloodlines.

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