Monday, May 19, 2014

Pedigree Collapse?

Or does this guy just not know how great-grandparents work?

We enthusiastically set about filling in the family tree in my newborn's baby book, and were confronted with this:

You don't have to be a genealogist to be annoyed by this, right?

Luckily, I can print out a full-fledged pedigree chart from Family Tree Maker and stick it in the baby book, to make up for these oversights, but I understand that among the general population, almost everyone has 16 great-great-grandparents, and almost no one has genealogy software. Where does Joe Notagenealogist put his kid's other 12 great-great-grandparents?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails: What a difference a Y chromosome makes

Before the recent birth of my son, I was pretty convinced that we were having a girl. Almost everyone I knew disagreed - everyone had "a feeling" it was a boy, or insisted that I was carrying like it was a boy, or that my face hadn't changed, or that my "beauty hadn't been stolen," so it had to be a boy. (Remind me to be insulted if people start guessing that the next one's a girl.) So much for mother's intuition - he's definitely all boy.

I think we were still in the delivery room when I remarked to my husband, "I guess the reign of the Gatto women is really over." My mother was one of 8 children - 7 girls and 1 boy. I was one of 20 grandchildren on that side - 13 girls and 7 boys. (And those numbers are misleadingly even; the first 10 grandkids are 9 girls and 1 boys; the next 10 are 4 girls and 6 boys, so the older cousins grew up in an environment that was all girl, and our younger cousins are growing up in an environment that is substantially boy.) My son is now one of 5 great-grandchildren - 0 girls and 5 boys.

So I decided to draw up a few statistics. Are the gender differences between these generations really as stark as they seem from the inside?

  • In the 1950s, there were 5 births, all girls. 100% female.
  • In the 1960s, there was 1 birth, a boy. 100% male.
  • In the 1970s, there were 4 births, 3 girls and a boy. 75% female, 25% male.
  • In the 1980s, there were 9 births, all girls. 100% female.
  • In the 1990s, there were 4 births, 1 girl and 3 boys. 75% male, 25% female.
  • In the 2000s, there were 6 births, 2 girls and 4 boys. 33% female, 66% male.
  • In the 2010s, there have been 4 births, all boys. 100% male. 

There are as many 100% male as 100% female decades, but on the boys' side is my one uncle born in the 1960s, and on the girls' side are the 9 of us cousins born in the 1980s. 

  • From the 1950s through the 1980s, there were 19 births, 17 girls and 2 boys. 89% female, 11% male.
  • From the 1990s through the 2010s, there were 14 births, 3 girls and 11 boys. 21% female, 79% male.

When you break it down like that, it's pretty apparent that my aunts and the cousins I grew up with really did inhabit a substantially different family environment than my young cousins - and my son - will. I hate to perpetuate gender stereotypes, but I'm pretty confident in stating that, as a whole, these little boys will play far fewer games where they pretend to make jewelry. They will choreograph fewer dance routines and play more pick-up basketball games. They will go to fewer of their cousins' dance recitals and more of their football games; fewer horseback-riding lessons and more wrestling matches. The current crop of young girls - okay, just the one young girl - will have no one with whom to compare the flare of her fancy dresses at holidays. (Picture this: Spin around in a dress. Does the skirt flare straight out, perpendicular to your body? If so, you're wearing a "cake" dress, and can feel superior to your cousins who are merely wearing "cupcake" dresses that don't flare so much when they spin! That is the kind of thing you are surrounded by when you are 6 and your family is 89% female.) 

For much of my early childhood, I had just the one boy cousin. He frequently occupied himself teasing the life out of the younger girls who surrounded him. We'll find out how that looks in reverse, with one little girl growing up in the midst of nearly a dozen boy cousins. 

This situation makes me wonder what I'm in for in the coming years - as someone who grew up with only sisters and mostly girl cousins, boys are kind of an alien species - as well as how these accidents of birth affected other people in my family throughout history. Gender can have some very substantial effects on someone's life - career prospects, health, ability to vote, military service - but what about the more subtle effects? How would my grandfather's life have looked different if he'd had 3 sisters instead of 3 brothers? Would it have changed the way my great-grandmother grew up if the genders in her family had been more evenly distributed, instead of all the girls first, followed by all the boys?

In an oral history I recorded with my late grandmother, who was born in the Bronx in 1927, she told me that her brothers always roamed farther from home than she and her sisters did. "When you're little boys, you hang around more. When you're little girls, you stay kind of by your stoop." She also mentioned that they would have to stop playing softball with the boys when her father got home, because he didn't like girls and boys playing together. "I guess he didn't want us to play with the boys . . . they were very strict about that when we were younger."

Clearly, the differences between a family full of boys and a family full of girls would have been even more stark in previous generations!

Monday, May 5, 2014

What to Expect When Great-Grandma Was Expecting

In advance of Mother's Day this weekend, some thoughts on childbirth and my great-grandmothers.

During the course of my recent first pregnancy, I spent a lot of time thinking about birth in prior generations. This was at least in part because doing any research about childbirth inevitably leads to discussions of both how much birth has improved over the past century (maternal mortality declined from 6-9 deaths per 1000 live births in 1900 to less than 0.1 deaths per 1000 live births in 1999) and how much current standard practices can impeded the course of normal labor, increasing complications and leading to still more interventions, preventing our bodies from working the way our foremothers' were allowed to.

Don't worry, gentlemen, I'm not planning to go into much more detail than that! You can stick around.

However, my thinking about the history of childbirth was also substantially influenced by my natural historical and genealogical perspective, and so I've been calling to mind the stories I've heard of my great-grandmothers' birthing experiences.

Of course, these are not the detailed birth stories you can sometimes find on mommy blogs or when talking to your girlfriends. These are soundbites, the most interesting bits of an experience, the parts that could be sterilized for public consumption and that are interesting enough to have been repeated 3 generations later.

Molly Quinn O'Hara
Molly O'Hara, one of my paternal great-grandmothers, had 4 sons, including my paternal grandfather. She was the one who said that when it came to babies, you need to "Get them before they are two, or they will get you." She lived directly across the street from the hospital, and by the time she was pregnant with her fourth child, she said, she didn't bother seeing a medical professional during her pregnancy, but just showed up at the hospital when it was time. "I had done it three times before, I knew what I was doing."

Anna Cianciotta Lanzillotto
Anna Lanzillotto had 7 children, of whom my maternal grandmother was the fourth. According to my grandmother, when she was being born, her older sister, at 18 months or so, wouldn't leave the room or stop jumping on the bed. The midwife tried to shoo her out but she wouldn't go, or at least wouldn't go quietly, so her mother allowed her to stay. "But," Grandma said, "I'm sure that when I was coming, they got her out of there!"

As the story of my grandmother's birth illustrates, her mother was accustomed to giving birth at home. However, one year at Christmas time, my grandmother recalled that she and her siblings couldn't find their mother anywhere. They looked all over, under beds, in closets, but there was no sign of her. Finally, someone came home to tell them that they had a new baby brother, and that mother and baby were in the hospital. I'm not aware of any particular circumstances that would have caused Anna to deliver Baby #7 in the hospital after 6 home births, other than changing conventions and the fact that hospital births were becoming more common as time went on (1930s as opposed to 1920s). There could have been risk factors I'm unaware of, or it could have been due to the simple fact that a mother is, by definition, older when giving birth to her seventh baby than to her first, and "advanced maternal age" can be a risk factor for many complications, though how strongly that was considered at the time I don't know.

Maria D'Ingeo Gatto
Maria Gatto also had seven children, of whom my maternal grandfather was the 6th, I believe. All 7 were born at home, my grandfather told me recently. "We never had a doctor. My mother was my doctor." Beyond that, I know that those seven children were not her only births. I had heard that she was a midwife, but my grandfather told me recently that that's not exactly accurate. She delivered 9 babies in addition to her own. According to Grandpa, she just happened to be there for some of them, and then was called by other women, too poor to hire the real midwife, because "she knew how to do it."

Veronica Mulvaney Mulcahy
Veronica Mulcahy gave birth to three children in the 1930s and 1940s. In this case, I know little of their actual births, although I have a hospital "birth certificate" (not the official municipal certificate) from Bensonhurst Maternity Hospital in Brooklyn for her eldest, my paternal grandmother Marilyn Mulcahy, so I know that at least one of her children was born there. This doesn't surprise me, as I remember a conversation among my aunts once about whether their parents had been born in hospitals or at home - they didn't know the answer, although clearly on that side of the family, hospitals were the norm - in which one volunteered that "I can't imagine Nana giving birth without whatever forerunner of the epidural existed at the time." (I tried to do some research into what pain relief options would have actually been available at Bensonhurst Maternity Hospital at the time, but found no specific information, and conflicting reports as to the general use of the most well-known early drug for labor pains, twilight sleep.)

What's interesting to me is the clear divide here between the birth  practices of the two sides of my family. The Italians had all or mostly home births. The Irish apparently had all hospital births. Was this a mainly cultural difference? Socioeconomic? Was it related to the fact that my Italian great-grandmothers were both immigrants, and my Irish great-grandmothers native-born New Yorkers? How did these factors interact during what was clearly a time of transition from birth at home, attended by a midwife, to birth at a hospital, attended by a doctor? Where do these "soundbite" birth stories fit into the historical context of the time (1920s-1940s) and place (New York City)? My brief online research didn't supply answers.

What do you know about childbirth in the early-mid 20th century, in general or in NYC in particular?