Gestation through the Generations

My daughter, moments after her birth on August 28, 1997.

Twenty-two years ago last night I was standing in my kitchen when I felt a deluge of warm water plunge all at once down my inner thighs, instantly soaking my clothes and creating a sizable puddle on the kitchen floor.

My water had broken. 

My obstetrician had examined me only a few days earlier, boldly stating at the time, “This baby’s going to TERM!” Armed with that information, I figured I had the next two weeks until my due date to continue preparing my “nest” as well as to complete an embroidery project that had occupied a lot of my leisure time that summer. I began stitching “September” on the counted cross-stitch baby sampler that was now, like my baby, very near completion.

What I had not remembered (or hadn’t known previously) is that medical wisdom of the time dictated that once the mother’s water had broken, if labor did not happen on its own within twenty-four hours, labor would be induced.  It was not advisable for the safety of the fetus for it to remain in utero without the protection of the amniotic sac and fluids. 

Apparently having utter confidence in her prediction of several more weeks’ gestation, my obstetrician had taken a hiatus. And so it was that the obstetrician on call was the one to return my phone message. She prepared me for a night of cramping and bleeding and instructed my husband and me to meet her at Mount Sinai Hospital early the following morning. 

I went to sleep that night (or tried anyway!) thinking, “Tomorrow I will have a baby!”

I now knew that my baby’s birthdate would be August 28, 1997!

The “September” stitches were easily pulled out at a later time.

The finished stitchery with amended month and added date and time, height and weight.

I know that it is not uncommon, especially when the health of the mother or baby is concerned, to be given a date by which a mother might be induced or a C Section performed; nonetheless, it was a unique feeling to have gotten into bed that night thinking that, whatever other tasks I would perform the following day, I was going to give birth!

I recently read an article in the Science section of the New York Times in which I discovered that at least some in the medical community are now questioning the wisdom of this practice. In the article, entitled 10 Findings That Contradict Medical Wisdom. Doctors, Take Note, the author states:

If a pregnant woman’s water breaks prematurely, the baby does not have to be delivered immediately.

The author went on to explain,

Sometimes, a few weeks before a woman’s due date, the membrane surrounding her fetus ruptures and amniotic fluid spills out. Obstetricians worried that bacteria could invade what had been a sterile environment around the fetus, causing infection. Better to deliver the baby immediately, doctors thought.
But a clinical trial found that if obstetricians carefully monitor the fetus while waiting for labor to begin naturally, the fetus is at no greater risk for infection. And newborns left to gestate were healthier, with less respiratory distress and a lower risk of death, than those who were delivered immediately after a break.

I find it fascinating that, even one generation later, a common practice associated with childbirth is now being reconsidered and that some medical practitioners now consider the practice unnecessary at best and detrimental to the development of the fetus at worst. 

In the thousands of documents, personal stories and, sadly, photos of infant grave markers I have come across in plotting my family tree, it’s astonishing to me how problematic and fatal childbirth was not all that long ago.

In my research, I have found so many cases of still births, often with the mother’s date of death being the same as her infant’s. Thankfully, that was not the case with my maternal great great grandmother. She did, however, live to mourn the loss of five of the thirteen children born to her.

Photo taken on the occasion of the marriage of Jannet White Mathews and Robert Beattie Cathcart

Jannet White Mathews (1831-1915) was one of ten children born to Thomas Mathews and Nancy White Ross Mathews in Ballymoney, County Antrim, Ireland. She and her family came to American when she was eight years old, joining others of their Covenanter faith in a community in Southwestern Illinois. At the age of nineteen, Jannet married a fellow church member, Robert Beattie Cathcart.

Life in rural Illinois was a harsh one to begin with, but my great great grandmother also lost five children there. Perhaps thinking that a change of venue would help his distraught wife, my great great grandfather and grandmother and their five surviving children relocated to Eastern Kansas, leaving behind her parents and all but one of her siblings. (A brother of Jannet’s also chose to move to Kansas.)

She also left behind the graves of her four children who had died in infancy and that of a daughter that had died at the age of three.

In Kansas, the couple would have three more children, and they both lived to see those children prosper and have their own families.

Robert and Jannet Cathcart, surrounded by their adult children, in Winchester, Kansas in 1895.

According to family lore, Jannet never really recovered from the loss of those children and, before departing for Kansas, she had instructed a family member to erect suitable gravestones for each of them, promising to send money for that purpose at a later date. 

The graves of the children
of Robert Beattie & Jannet Mathews Cathcart
Hill Prairie Cemetery, Sparta, Illinois

Her strong desire to see her young children given proper burials was realized. This photo of the five small markers holds a certain poignancy for me. On the one hand, looking at the photo, I feel a sense of hope that perhaps the existence of these markers had given my great great grandmother some sense of peace and closure; but viewing the photo also stirs in me a sadness that must be a mere taste of what had to have been her tremendous sense of loss and heartache.

While today is a celebration of the day I safely gave birth to a healthy baby girl, I have never lost sight of the miracle that the birth of my child truly was. 

Thankfully, dramatic advancements in science and diagnostic medicine since my great great grandmother’s time have made pregnancy and childbirth safer and healthier for mother and baby. Sophisticated methods of monitoring the fetus in utero and the prevalence of neonatal intensive care units have also resulted in reduced infant mortality rates.

Melanie Beryl Spector, shortly after her birth on August 28, 1997, in Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital.

Advances in medical technology are not the only technological advances that have changed the labor experience, however. As my ob-gyn often remembers to mention when I see her–even over twenty years after she assisted me in my daughter’s birth–that day marked the very first time she had ever seen a digital camera.

Yes, my husband and I were early adopters and had one of the very first digital cameras that came out. One look at the pixelated photos with slightly “off” colors above and at the top of this post, taken in my hospital room, is a reminder not only of how much more sophisticated digital photography has become since 1997 but also of the fact that today’s high resolution images and video are widely available on cellphones, devices seemingly ubiquitous to twenty-first century living.

While the advancement in medicine and the encouraging statistics might logically result in “routine” births being taken for granted, one would do well to remember the true miracle that is the cycle of pregnancy, childbirth, and the extremely rapid growth changes the infant undergoes in its first year of life.

I know I will NEVER forget the miracle of your arrival into the world, dearest daughter. And I will always enjoy celebrating that date just as much as you do.

And I like to think that perhaps I even got to meet you two weeks earlier than I would have if common medical wisdom twenty-two years ago had been what it is today!

3 thoughts on “Gestation through the Generations”

  1. Thank you, Susan, for this “Labor Day” surprise, as I am reading this on Labor Day 2019. I have not been on Facebook lately, so I really appreciate your connecting via e-mail. One small correction: Since the move to Kansas took place in “late March 1868”, Jannet would have been pregnant, but their 6th “child who lived to adulthood” had not been born yet. The “Labor Day” for Isabella Beatrice “Bessie” was 11 Dec 1868 – about 8 months after they moved to Kansas.

    Here’s a snapshot of the parents & their 5 children as they stood on the station platform in Leavenworth, just arriving in Kansas: Robert (47), Jannet (36), Mary Alice (13), Annetta (7 on 29 Mar 1868), Thomas (4), Robert (3), & James (turning 1 on 2 Apr 1868).

    I am always awed by Jannet Cathcart’s story. For Lois Getty Eastwood to have recorded so many details of the family history is a constant treasure to me. Thanks to Lois, we know that one reason they moved was because Robert felt that Jannet would grieve less about the 5 children who died in infancy or early childhood – if she had new surroundings.

    The three children who were born in Kansas (Bessie, Eli born 14 Aug 1870, Adda born 17 Oct 1873) lived long & fruitful lives. Lois records that these 3 siblings share an especially close bond.

    Eli was such a special grandfather to me. I always mark his birthday on my calendar. I realized (finally!) this year that my sister Ruth married William Cathcart-Rake on 14 Aug. They are within a couple of years of their 50th wedding anniversary, so it’s taken me awhile to figure that out.

    This morning, I was in a “funk” over the dark cloud that is hanging over this nation politically. Now I am counting my blessings & realizing what incredible ancestors we share! Jannet survived the Civil War, birthed 13 children, moved from Ireland to Illinois to Kansas, mourned throughout her life for the 5 children who died. Thank you, Susan, for this wonderful blog! History has much to teach us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Carol, for reading the post and for your heart-warming words and observations. Perhaps you could email me the photo you described in your comment. I would LOVE to see it!

    Actually, Carol, I reread the passage and I think it is correct. I stated that they departed with five children and that they had three more in Kansas (including Bessie.) Reread it and please verify, but I’m pretty sure it’s correct as written. Thanks, Cousin!


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