Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Thought About Birthdays and The “Where Were You Born?” Question

Midwife-assisted Childbirth
Yesterday was my birthday.  That got me thinking.

For genealogists, finding and documenting the answer to the “Where was he/she born?” question is one of the basic building blocks of family history.

As I noted in the last blog post, my mother was born in Brooklyn in her grandmother’s house on Christmas day in 1917. Similarly, my father was born in his grandmother’s house in Albany, New York in 1913.  In that case, it wasn’t much of a journey for his mother – her own mother lived just across the street.   

As the story goes, my father was born on the stairs between the first and second floors, since my grandmother went into what was always described as an exceptionally short labor while walking down the stairs. 

“He was so small, he just about fell out all by himself!” my aunt (his older sister) used to say.

Note: I never took this “fell out” story as anything more than apocryphal, since my aunt was only 18 months old at the time and could hardly be considered a credible witness.

Nonetheless, this “where born” question presents an interesting issue for genealogists. Here’s why:

As far as I can tell, all of my parents’ ancestors were born at home. In fact, for most of human history, home births, attended by family members and midwives, were the norm. If you lived on a farm, chances are, your children would be born there.  However, with the advent of the “professional physician”, childbirth slowly transformed from a sociocultural family event into a “medical” event.   

Even though home births were most common, women who could afford it often sought the advice and assistance of physicians. In fact, in late 18th and very early 19th century cities, hospital births were for only for women who were having out-of-wedlock children and had no “proper” home in which to give birth.  In polite society, home births, physician-assisted or otherwise, were the normal thing.

Before World War Two, the doctors involved in childbirth tended to be mostly family physicians, resembling those avuncular Marcus Welby types who set broken fingers, stitched up gashes and delivered babies.  And as childbirth became more and more of a “medical” event, births themselves moved into a much more “health-industrial” setting: the hospital.

I was born during the waning years of the Roosevelt administration in the same hospital in which my father died in 1961 and in which my mother died last Sunday.  While in labor, my mother was attended by our longtime family physician – the man who was my grandfather’s doctor, my parents’ doctor and my doctor until he died in 1970.  (Turns out he was a very, very distant cousin of my grandkids, several times removed, but that’s another story altogether…)

As late as 1969, you could go to his office, have a thorough physical examination and pay his secretary-nurse twenty bucks for the visit. No insurance needed.  Twenty bucks took care of it all.

Between World War One and World War Two, childbirth changed dramatically. Being born at home became something of a rarity.  In the year I was born, 79% of all babies were born in hospitals, compared with only 39% a decade earlier.  By 1960, that percentage of hospital-born babies had jumped to 97%.  

In addition, in the time period after World War Two, the rise of specialist obstetricians meant that fewer GPs assisted in childbirth, making it even more of a high-tech "medical" event.

Moreover, as hospital births and physician-assisted births increased, infant mortality and childbirth-related fatalities for women declined. Much as advocates for in-home “natural” childbirth in the 21st century would like to dispute the numbers, public health statistics collected and published by state health departments throughout the 20th century are pretty clear: fewer children per thousand died when born in hospitals – that “health-industrial setting”  - than those born at home.

Further, the culture and sociology (for lack of a better term) surrounding childbirth continued to change dramatically over time.  For example, there’s not much evidence around to document exactly how long women who had just given birth in the late 18th or early 19th century were “confined” to bed rest because of their “delicate condition.”  In my mother’s case, a “normal” hospital stay for a childbirth without complications in the mid-1940s in upstate New York was two weeks.  This was usually followed by additional at-home bed rest for a while, often as much as another two weeks.  

 In my case, I apparently sent my first two weeks (post-hospital) sleeping in between my paternal grandparents - something that would be greatly frowned upon today.  My mother always maintained that it was difficult for her to pry me away from her in-laws.  She always maintained that moving in with her in-laws for a few weeks was just part of the natural order of things.  She was expected to do it.  Even in the mid-1940s, women who had just given birth were not expected to resume “normal” activities for at least a month.

So, what does all this mean for genealogists?

Simple, really.   

Perhaps it’s not enough to fill in that family group sheet with just a place name in the “BORN” box.  Perhaps we should strive to make the “industry standard” as precise as possible, especially when we’re documenting our 20th century family members’ place (and circumstances) of birth. 

After all, every bit of raw data can tell us something.  For example, I was born in the old Memorial Hospital, at that time located near the northeast corner of North Pearl Street and Clinton Avenue in Albany, New York.  It was easy walking distance from my father’s work and also easy walking distance from my grandparents’ house.  That explains why I wasn’t born at either of the other two hospitals in the city. The fact that I was born in a hospital at all says something about my parents’ views on childbirth and medicine.  The fact that my grandparents were so closely involved with the whole process also says something.

Knowing that simple locational fact is so much more interesting that just saying that I was born in “Albany, New York”.

Are you collecting specific locational birth data on your family members?


  1. Good point, Mel. I always knew I was born in Williamsport, PA, but I have no idea the name of the hospital or why that particular hospital. Guess I better have that conversation with my mother- soon. I'm very sorry about your mother's passing- she sounds like a wonderful lady. It seems like it's got you thinking of some interesting topics, so I look forward to your subsequent postings.

  2. I'm so sorry to read about the death of your mother, but she would be so proud to read this tribute. I feel like you captured her -- and I've never met her. Sounds like she was a powerful woman of her time.