Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Extreme Motherhood.

Due to the absence of a decent independent coffeehouse in my neighborhood, I am forced to sate my caffeine jones at a corporate shop. Luckily the people that work the counter are sticklers for detail. They really seem to make a commitment to serving quality product. They are helpful, courteous, and make an effort to remember what each and every regular prefers. Every day they affix a daily horoscope to the mini-counter from which you pick up your finished drink. Another added touch is the daily trivia question. The stakes aren't very high, but it's a nice extra. If you answer correctly you get ten cents off your order. I have a weakness for trivia, and I can often elicit a laugh with an irreverent answer. Occasionally I take away something to think about for awhile after I leave.

Such was the case today. The query was, "What is the record for the most children born to a mother?" Of course this was a timely question for me. I'm aware of women who have had more than ten screaming whelps over the course of a lifetime. I figured that the typical human female has about 30-40 years to deliver kids. With this in mind, I gave an irrationally low number for my answer. I guess I was affected by the empathy I have accumulated for M. while going through this process together for the first time. It's easy to want a few children, but altogether a different reality when you consider the work that goes into bearing them. Anyway I guessed that eighteen was an inordinately high number, and was (therefore) probably a reasonable assumption.

I was actually a bit amazed to learn just how far off the correct answer I was. The barista told me that a woman had actually borne 69 offspring. I immediately wondered how this was possible, given the the limitations of individual fertility. Obviously I figured there must have been multiple births. Well, they didn't have more details for me at the shop, and so I resolved to Google the case when I got home. Indeed, between the years of 1725 and 1765, the first wife of Russian Feodor Vassilyev got pregnant 27 times. There were 16 pairs of twins, seven groups of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets. Amazingly, 67 of these children survived past infancy. The striking thing about this feat is that her first name is nowhere on record. If that's not an example of the crassest sort of gender injustice, then I truly don't understand sexism.

Naturally I view this little factoid with a bit of skepticism. Surely the story is apocryphal? This couple was said to be among the peasant population of a little town called Shuya. How is it that such humble people were able to afford to feed that large a brood? Shouldn't there have been folktales and songs written about that woman? The only thing I could find out about her, besides the location and number of her children, is that she was the first wife of Feodor Vassilyev. I don't know for sure, but I would assume that she likely died from the strain on her body. Anyway, she certainly left a legacy. Imagine facing the prospect of marrying into that obligation. Perhaps our man Feodor felt a bit overwhelmed. But how was he able to convince his second wife to share his burden? And then... did the new couple have more kids? The logistics of such a family are mind-boggling.

As shocking as that whole tale is, it doesn't compare to another case I read about while researching "extreme motherhood". This one is particularly disturbing. On May 14th, 1939, the Peruvian Lina Medina gave birth to to a six pound boy named Gerardo (after the doctor that delivered him). Lina was five years, seven months old at the time. When she first started showing her pregnancy, it was believed that she had an abdominal tumor. She was seven months into term before they diagnosed her true condition. As one might expect, the new born was delivered via c-section. Apparently her period came first at 8 months of age, and she had prominently developed breasts at age four (signs of "precocious puberty"). Although her father was initially arrested for rape and incest, and later released for lack of evidence, the biological source of the sperm that impregnated Lina was never identified.

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