by Mallory Turner. Turner is an Anthropology student in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Fall 2011 class "Folklife in America."
Pregnancy is a time of immense change, anticipation, and uncertainty – making it a breeding ground for superstitions. Superstitions are a form of customary folklore that generally center on cause and effect. The most common formula is “if one does X, then Y will happen unless one does Z.” Wayland Hand, an American folklorist, collected and separated superstitions into those dealing with the human life cycle, the supernatural, folk religion, and cosmology and the natural world. Pregnancy superstitions primarily fall under the human life cycle.
Pregnant women comprise a folk group. They are connected by this shared, unusual and frightening experience of growing a life, and talking to others who are experiencing similar feelings is often more helpful than talking to those who are more disconnected from the experience, like a husband. This folk group shares stories and advice, and it is perpetually changing as more women join it. Women who have already given birth are also a significant part of the folk group because they can still contribute with their past experiences. Superstitions are a common topic of discussion for this folk group, and they persist for three main reasons. First, people have a tendency to try to control all aspects of life, whether or not they are actually under one’s control. This point is especially valid for pregnancy, a time when women feel like they have very little control over their bodies or the future. Second, humans have an innate desire to believe in something supernatural. Many pregnancy superstitions deal with supernatural beliefs. Finally, humans tend to ignore information that disproves superstitions and believe information that confirms them. When sharing stories about pregnancy and what superstitions were or were not true, the ones that confirm the superstitions can make women believe the practice is worth following – just in case.
In this project, I will first explore what reputable sources that women might seek for answers have to say about pregnancy superstitions. I will then examine more general, less reputable sources where superstitions are much more bountiful. Finally, I will interview both women who have had babies and those who have not about their experience with pregnancy superstitions. The interviews with those who have not given birth are on a video.
A plethora of “reputable” articles have been written about pregnancy “myths,” which are actually technically superstitions according to folklorists because most follow a cause and effect pattern and are mostly more customary, rather than narrative in nature. The articles, found in what most people would consider reliable sources, like Time, Scientific American, an interview with Dr. Phil, and CBSNews, are generally written to prove or disprove the superstitions. I will examine the superstitions they choose to test to determine and analyze what fairly reputable sources perceive as the most common superstitions.
One area of superstitions many “reputable” articles deal with is determining the sex of the baby. A common superstition both Dr. Phil and Scientific American explore is that if the baby bump is mostly low and in the front, the baby is a boy, while if it is more evenly rounded, the baby is a girl (“Myths”, Ballantyne). Time Healthland also names the position of the baby in the womb to be a common superstition about determining the baby’s sex, along with the line on the skin below the belly button (Luscombe). All three of these sources claim that this superstition is false and that the baby’s position depends on the mother’s body type. Another false superstition about the baby’s sex, according to Dr. Phil, is that having acne while one is pregnant means the baby will be a girl (“Myths”). In addition, CBSNews reports that having a ravenous appetite while one is pregnant indicates that the child will be a boy (CBSNews). Whether or not any of these superstitions are true, the large number of superstitions regarding the baby’s gender shows a great interest in the gender on the part of the mother and those involved in the baby’s life. Ultrasounds are now advanced enough that the sex of the baby is easy to detect fairly early in the pregnancy, but for the time before the fetus is not developed enough to tell, and for those who choose to not find out the baby’s gender until the birth, the period of not knowing invokes immense curiosity. This curiosity and desire for control probably are the roots of the large number of gender pregnancy superstitions.
Another area commonly discussed in articles about pregnancy regards eating habits during pregnancy. For example, both CBSNews and Scientific American inquire whether eating peanuts and other allergenic foods during pregnancy makes the baby more likely to develop an allergy to those foods (CBSNews, Ballantyne). They both proved this superstition to be false. Other foods are questioned for various reasons, from coffee, to hot dogs, to raw fish. While some of these beliefs are based in truth due to harmful contents like mercury, others have been found to be untrue (Luscombe). In addition, cravings are a trademark of pregnancy. Dr. Phil brings up the common belief that all pregnant women crave pickles and ice cream (“Myths”). This belief is a quintessential example of humans’ tendency to pay attention to evidence supporting the superstition and ignore evidence disproving it. While many women may crave this bizarre combination, many do not. However, cravings are ridiculed and not completely understood, so solid facts such as this one may be comforting to women who have this particular craving. Superstitions about food probably derive from the lack of scientific consistency in this area. Because a new article about what one should and should not eat is published daily, superstitions develop easily when people misconstrue facts or just make up their own. Expecting mothers want to do what is best for their babies, and separating the lies from the truth can sometimes be difficult. Thus, it may be easier for them to follow the advice from all of these superstitions because avoiding many of the foods is not detrimental to the woman’s health, and doing so could only help if the superstition were to be true.
Other superstitions about nutrition deal with the mother and baby’s weight. Time, Dr. Phil, and CBSNews all report that many women believe that they must eat for two people while they are pregnant (Luscombe, “Myths”, CBSNews). Scientific American discusses how some people think heavier pregnant women are more likely to have overweight babies (Ballantyne). Time also expresses the belief that bigger babies are better than small babies (Luscombe). Superstitions regarding weight are probably common because pregnant women are often self-conscious of the weight they gain during pregnancy, and this discomfort creates the desire for concrete facts where they may not exist.
While more reputable sources report many superstitions, superstitions abound in less organized forums. Countless websites, from parenting websites to personal blogs, describe various superstitions regarding different stages of pregnancy. Gender predictions, again, are one of the most common topics of superstitions in this setting. According to several websites, jewelry can be used to predict the baby’s gender. If a woman swings her wedding over her stomach and it swings in a circle, the baby will be a boy. If it swings in a line, the baby is a girl. When swinging a necklace over the hand of a pregnant woman, a circle indicates a girl, while a line indicates a boy (Bells). Several websites also cite the urine test. Supposedly, when a pregnant woman urinates into a cup of Drain-O, the mixture turning green means the baby is a girl, and a blue