Watch out world! Here comes the next generation of Noerpels. Jamie Noerpel Photo.
We’re having a baby! My search through York County history for pregnancy pain relief
Around April 27th, my husband and I are welcoming our first child into the world. We’ve got all the feels: excitement, love, anxiety, hope, and fear. To put it simply, we’re stoked!
I wish I could say I’ve enjoyed every moment of growing this babe, but I haven’t. Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have conceived. The opportunity to be this child’s mom brings me happiness on a whole new level. But as with likely all pregnancies, that doesn’t mean it’s been a walk down easy street.
My hips ache, my sore pelvic floor screams while teaching, and dinner always ends with stomach acid lurching up my esophagus. And what’s with the itchy skin and restless legs?! When I’m not scratching, I’m twisting and turning as this baby’s body presses against the nerve endings of my legs.
I turn to my doctor and medical literature for advice. While they’ve been mostly helpful, sometimes they just don’t have answers. Pregnancy, it appears, is one big unknown. I dislike these unknowns, so I look for solutions elsewhere.
Powwowing for protection, swelling, and ‘mother pains’
Before I dive into my findings, I want to remind you that I’m not a medical professional. These remedies are for educational purposes only — please consult a doctor.
In the 19th and early 20th century, many York Countians relied on local healers called Powwowers. The PA Dutch tradition uses home remedies, local herbs, and spices as well as spells and talismans to cure ailments. Practitioners referenced John George Hohman’s 1820 book called Long Lost Friend — I do the same; however, my interest lies in the folkloric and historical value, not necessarily medical application.
In it I find advice for dropsy, or general swelling from retaining fluid. I think of the way my swollen feet push against the sides of my sneakers and read with eagerness:
As much as I’d love a glass of wine, I think I’ll pass on this remedy considering what we know today about fetal development.
Next I uncover a protection spell. It starts with “Welcome, thou fiery fiend! do not extend further than thou already hast. This I found until thee as a repentant act, in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost…” The book claims that if a pregnant woman, like me, carries this letter, “neither enchantment nor evil spirits can injure her or her child.”
Thankfully, I’m not too worried that a neighbor or a student who failed my history class will curse me. However, I can see why mothers from the 19th century would turn to a protection letter. Expecting mothers who feel out of control look for some level of autonomy.
My friend from graduate school, Raven Haymond Ph.D., wrote her dissertation on birthing rituals. She’s also a doula, or a birthing coach. “We want to feel like we’re in control,” she tells me. “But, as you know, pregnancy takes over our bodies… it impacts everything – our emotions, our energy, our bodily functions, our ability to move and sleep and even just get up from our chair.”
For mother pains, which I’m guessing is during labor, Long Lost Friend recommends taking two drops of clove oil in a tablespoon of wine before eating anything in the morning. This concoction also stops vomiting, relieves tooth pain, and “removes giddiness.”
Today, we know that clove oil can be unsafe during pregnancy, and that alcohol is definitely not recommended. But York County women from the 1800s and early 1900s didn’t have the resources I have at my fingertips today. They looked for ways to soothe physical symptoms in a world before formalized medicine. I appreciate their resourcefulness.
Melted butter, morning sickness and magnesium
The York County History Center archivists help me locate a book by Mary R. Melendy, M.D., Ph.D. (1901) called Ideal Womanhood and Motherhood How Attained. It was published in Chicago, but owned by a York woman named Viola M. Stitt who lived from 1887 to 1980. It answers “all the mysterious and complex matters pertaining to women,” including pregnancy pains.
For heartburn, Melendy recommends avoiding foods such as greens, pastries, hot-buttered toast, and anything with melted butter. Generally, “everything that is rich and gross.”
“That’s a problem,” I think. I love my sweets and really anything lathered in butter. For dessert, I’ll just switch to ice-cream for a while!
Around week seven of my pregnancy, nausea overtook me almost 24 hours a day. It persisted for six more weeks. Snacking and sleeping were my only (brief) moments of respite. Frankly, it was terrible.
What does Melendy recommend? Before doing anything in the morning, drink a copy of hot water. “If this should not have the desired effect,” she wrote, “then take a lump of magnesia the size of a hickory nut.” Interestingly, magnesium seems to be safe for pregnant women. I wish I would have done this research four months ago!
If magnesium doesn’t work, Melendy reminds her readers that they can’t fix everything. “As we cannot remove the sympathy and the pressure, we cannot always relieve the sickness; the patient is sometimes obliged to bear with the annoyance.” It looks like some discomforts just come with the territory.
She does give me some hope. Women, she writes, who suffer from morning sickness and heartburn will “have kinder labors, more lively children, and more comfortable recoveries than those who, at such times, do not suffer at all. Compensation here, as in almost everything else in this world, is found to prevail.” My fingers are crossed that my dues are paid… .
Surviving the next 10 weeks
This baby is coming in just 10 weeks. During that time, I’ll continue to look for less-invasive remedies for my heartburn and other bodily discomforts. Like my ancestors, I have a network of family and friends who help me.
My friend Raven said it’s common for women to create “communities of care.” It’s a way of “subverting a system that has often disregarded our symptoms and needs. Women are like ‘forget this, I’ll figure it out on my own.’”
Thankfully, I’ve never felt alone. I have my friends, family, medical professionals, online resources, and even history to help me!