I’m in the process of writing a paper for a conference that is entitled “‘Look! Look!”: The Spectacle of Spinster Childbirth.” My thesis was about spinsters (and I guess I spent a lot of time obsessing about the possibility of being childless). Since finishing my thesis I had a baby, so I guess now my brain is programmed to babies. Art imitates life? Probably.
Anyway, I’ve been learning some things about nineteenth-century pregnancy that I have found fascinating. I’m still figuring out how this information will feed into my paper, but in the mean time, here are some fun facts:
1. Most women were “blamed” for conception even though the act of procreation as a male-female joint effort was understood. There were all kinds of music hall songs about the unfortunate Mr. ___ whose wife kept giving him babies.
2. The word “pregnant” was used only in medical circles. Instead, women (if they discussed it at all) talked about “falling with child,” “being in the family way,” or “carrying.” Dreams about falling were often associated with the fear of another pregnancy.
3. You wouldn’t consider yourself pregnant until you felt the quickening (felt the baby move). I wonder whether this altered the way women considered miscarriage?
4. If you noticed someone was pregnant, it was not polite to talk about it. A young girl reported being slapped when she mentioned to her mother noticing that Mrs Bibbs was pregnant (Ross 106).
5. Possibly because of this don’t-see-don’t-tell policy, many children of pregnant mothers wouldn’t know their mother was pregnant until a baby appeared (or she saw her mother buying baby clothes): “Grace Foakes, whose mother had twelve children after her own birth, never learned to spot the pregnancies; she was genuinely surprised at each of them, unless she happened to notice her mother buying baby clothes at jumble sales and clothing stalls!” (Ross 106).
6. Many working-class women believed that there was a direct connection between their bodies’ experiences and their babies’ deformities. If a mother was kicked by a cow, she would fear that her child would be born with a calf’s foot.
7. From 1623-1803, an unmarried mother suspected of infanticide was presumed guilty and had to prove her innocence, the opposite of other murders. When the law was changed in 1803, a new law criminalized concealing a birth.
8. One of the fears surrounding birth control was that the quality of the population would be altered (i.e. the upper classes would have fewer children but the working classes would continue to reproduce… and might take over… oh my!)
* All of these details were gleaned from the following:
Ross, Ellen. Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870-1918. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
Smart, Carol . Regulating Womanhood: Historical Essays on Marriage, Motherhood and Sexuality. Taylor & Francis, 1992. 18 August 2010 <http://lib.myilibrary.com?ID=32473>