As I sat nervously in a clinic, waiting to undergo a round of genetic testing early in my pregnancy, my husband slipped out to a nearby 7-Eleven to get me something to drink. He also picked up a 99-cent ring from a basket by the cash register. The sign promised they were "lucky." (A few months earlier, we'd lost a pregnancy, and he figured we could use the extra luck.) When the test results were good, I vowed to wear the ring until my son was born. And I did, even as my poor finger swelled around it.
"We tend to look for things to believe in during periods of high uncertainty and when the outcome is of huge importance," explains Erika Brady, Ph.D., a professor of folk studies at Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green. And for all of the medical advancements women enjoy today, having a baby still comes with no guarantees.
We asked readers to tell us about the traditions they abided by (or in some cases, rejected) while expecting.
All through her pregnancy, Gloria Reynada, of Tempe, Arizona, wore a set of keys around her neck during the full moon. Reynada's Mexican mother said that without the keys to deflect the moon's rays, the lunar light could eat her baby's lip and cause a cleft palate. Reynada ordinarily believes in science and facts, but she wasn't willing to take any chances: "You can't prove it's right, but you can't prove it's wrong either." Historians of Chicana culture say the key custom began hundreds of years ago with the indigenous tribes in Mexico.
Kimberly Brooks, of Doty, Washington, has never even been to Hawaii. But at a Hawaiian-themed bash, an aunt warned the mom-to-be to skip the party favors: Leis could harm an unborn baby. The notion is widespread in Hawaii and in Polynesia. "Pregnant women should leave their leis untied because the fear is that a completed loop can cause the baby to be strangled by the umbilical cord," says Keali'i'olu'olu Gora, an expert on Hawaiian customs at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. "All five of my sisters cut their leis when they were pregnant."
When it came time to plan Shobha Tummala's baby shower, a close friend (who, like Tummala, is Indian) insisted that they hold the shower in either the seventh or ninth month of pregnancy. According to a 5,000-year-old Hindu belief, the numbers seven and nine are considered lucky and the number eight is not, says Kailash Upadhyay, head priest of the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center in Denver. So it was settled: Tummala, a mom in New York City, was feted in her seventh month!
Natasha Rosenstock, of Washington, D.C., encountered an odd dilemma while she was expecting. Modern Orthodox Jews believe that pregnant women should avoid funerals and burials. Midway through her pregnancy, however, two close family friends died within weeks of each other. Should she attend the burials and honor them, or stick with the traditions of her faith? Her grandmother (who was of Eastern European heritage) was horrified that Rosenstock even considered going to the funerals. Some Eastern European and Mediterranean Jews believe that it's potentially hazardous for a pregnant woman to be in such close proximity to death, and that recently departed souls may sometimes even linger around at cemeteries, explains Samuel Cohon, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, Arizona. In the end Rosenstock elected to attend the memorial services but skip the graveside ceremonies. She's unapologetic about her decision: "I didn't think anything bad would happen, but it felt so natural to follow tradition."
When Minneapolis mom Janette Xiong was pregnant, her mother (a first-generation Hmong from Southeast Asia) advised her to avoid large bodies of water -- otherwise, she'd miscarry. That's a tough one in Minnesota, "The Land of 10,000 Lakes." Hmong culture holds to a 1,000-year-old idea that an evil spirit lives in the water and jealously guards it, explains Txongpao Lee, executive director of the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul. If a pregnant woman gets too close, the spirit will take her baby as punishment. Xiong didn't truly buy it, but still, late in her pregnancy, when friends invited her to the beach, she declined. "If I'd gone and something had happened, I would have felt so guilty."
Between raging hormones and the general discomfort of carrying twins, Bridgette Shade-Epps, from Shelby, North Carolina, was understandably cranky during her first pregnancy. Her mother reminded her, though, that she'd better be polite: If she got into arguments, her babies would look like her adversary. Biting her tongue for nine months was quite a challenge, and Shade-Epps admittedly bickered with a few relatives. The surprise came when her sons were born -- strongly resembling the two family members she'd tussled with the most. Pregnancy superstitions, like many superstitions, often reflect the values of a region or culture. "This belief fits into the moral code of Southern gentility," explains Ashley Fogle, associate director of Carolina Women's Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Shade-Epps remains more than slightly spooked. "I didn't believe it at the time," she says, "But I do now."
Many women view pregnancy as permission to eat with abandon, but for some, it's practically a mandate. When Tammy Padgett, of Tarboro, North Carolina, was expecting, her mother urged her to obey all her cravings. If not, her baby would have a birthmark in the shape of the food she'd denied herself. This tale gets passed around not only in America's rural South but, with different variations, in other cultures, says Dr. Brady. Many people believe that pregnant women crave food their body truly needs, and the birthmark superstition is a twist on that: If you don't follow your hunger cues, the baby may suffer. Ultimately, Padgett rejected the superstition when her fear of tipping the bathroom scale trumped her fear of birthmarks. "If I'd eaten everything I wanted, I would've been as big as a house," she jokes. Luckily, her son was free of birthmarks shaped like all those tacos she skipped while carrying him.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.