Uterine Mysteries

Our daughter is due on March 11th.

It’s a peculiar way to discuss the arrival of a baby: to be “due.” Like a homework assignment. Or a debt. Still, babies are themselves usually reluctant to comply. A mere 4% of children are born on their predicted due date. Whether they come earlier or later, the rest are rebels even before extra-uterine life commences. 20% miss the mark altogether and opt to stay in the womb for at least another week before finally being evicted, which is probably a good thing considering the cognitive benefits demonstrated by children of longer pregnancies.

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Whither shall I wander?

The uterus defies the pretense of schedules, predictions, forecasts, or prophesies. Scientists still don’t know exactly when or how a woman’s body comes to conclude it’s time to eject its infantile occupant. The mysteries of the uterus and its purported powers have troubled scholars for centuries. Few other organs have caused quite as much contention, grief, speculation, and superstition.

As early as 1900 BCE, we learn from Egyptian papyrus that if a woman is “ill in seeing,” her womb is likely starved or dislocated (Not to worry! A poultice of dried human feces and beer froth will clean the problem right up). Other examples describe a range of symptoms the Greeks, more than 1000 years later, would associate with hysteria, after their word for the uterus, ὑστέρα.

In the Timaeus, Plato writes that an “unproductive” womb “gets irritated and fretful” and travels about a woman’s body “generating all sorts of ailments, including potentially fatal problems, if it blocks up the air-channels and makes breathing impossible.” Aristotle concurred and in his Nichomachean Ethics cites the deleterious emotional impact of uterine defiance (especially menstruation) to justify excluding women from politics.

It was Hippocrates, the “Father of Western Medicine,” who first coined the term hysteria. He postulated the theory of the “wandering womb” and suggested the uterus could literally float around a woman’s body causing mischief. To coax it back into place, he recommended sniffing acrid and foul odors.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia, an advocate of Hippocratic principles, described the doctrine’s basic tenets:

In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscous, closely resembling an animal; for it moves itself hither and thither in the flanks, also upwards in a direct line to below the cartilage of the thorax, and also obliquely to the right or to the left, either to the liver or the spleen; and it likewise is subject to prolapsus downwards, and, in a word, it is altogether erratic. It delights, also, in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it had an aversion to fetid smells and flees from them; and, on the whole the womb is like an animal within an animal.

And the Roman physician Galen continued his work centuries later:

I have examined many hysterical women, some stuporous, others with anxiety attacks […]: the disease [hysteria] manifests itself with different symptoms, but always refers to the uterus.

The solution? Hellebore, mint, laudanum, belladonna extract, valerian root and other herbal remedies. Marriage also seemed to work wonders, as it frequently resulted in a guaranteed cure: pregnancy and childbirth.

Helen King explains this apparently “pharmacological interpretation” of  “the social processes of marriage and motherhood”:

Not only does intercourse moisten the womb, thus discouraging it from moving elsewhere in the body to seek moisture, but it also agitates the body and thus facilitates the passage of blood within it. Furthermore, childbirth breaks down the flesh throughout the body and, by making extra spaces within which excess blood can rest, reduces the pain caused by the movement of blood between parts of the body. […] Since all disorders of women ultimately result from their soft and spongy flesh and excess blood, all disorders of women may be cured by intercourse and/or childbirth, to which marriage and pregnancy are the necessary precursors.

The myth of female hysteria persisted into the 20th century, making bloody detours along the way through so many inquisitions and witch-burnings. The Aristotelian belief that “the woman is a failed man” found advocates among the Patristic theologians and later in the work of thinkers like Thomas Aquinas. The 17th century English physician William Harvey claimed women were “slaves to their own biology” and described the uterus as “insatiable, ferocious, animal-like.”

Even as late as the Victorian era, women embraced Hippocratic remedies. A sick woman was said to be “womby” or suffering from “wombiness.” To combat this epidemic, it was common practice to carry a bottle of smelling salts with which to tempt the “wandering womb” back to its proper anatomical locale.

Fortunately, modern uteri tend to be rather less troublesome that their unruly predecessors and, by this time next week, a cocktail of hormones will trigger a succession of biological impulses in my partner’s body that will ultimately result in the birth of our daughter. It is a meeting we have anticipated patiently for 40 weeks. Whatever the womb’s mysteries, real or imagined, it’s hard to believe anything might surpass the sheer wonder and anxiety of impending fatherhood. 

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