Pregnancy, Circa 1880.

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 <>

Take Two

On Tuesday, Duncan and I got the idea in our heads that we should go whale watching. Great idea, right? It had been sunny almost every day since we arrived, and the forecast predicted showers for Wednesday and clearing on Thursday. We immediately booked a night at the Brier Island Lodge, followed by a whale watch cruise on Thursday morning. It was going to be expensive, but worth it!

We had both forgotten our raincoats in Montreal, possessed with the packing amnesia that comes of hot and sunny temperatures over 30ºC — it will never rain or be cold again! We also had to drive Duncan’s sister Liz to the airport, so we got off to a bit of a late start. Brier Island is at the tip of the tip of Digby neck, a long, skinny promontory that juts out between Saint-Mary’s Bay (la Baie Sainte-Marie) and the Bay of Fundy. You have to take two ferries to get there, and the ferries leave just once an hour. We stopped in Digby to buy warm sweaters and jackets, which somehow took two hours. We went to Guy’s Frenchy’s Family Fashion Outlet, where we bought Owen a too-big winter jacket and fuzzy pants, and where Duncan and I found sweaters, then off to Canadian Tire for rain slickers.  Of course, it wasn’t this simple, since I insisted in checking to see whether Digby had a Joe Fresh fashion outlet and Owen lost (and found) a shoe. And there were diaper changes and snacks and the etceteras that come from being vaguely disorganized and having a one-year-old.

Two ferries later, we arrived on Brier Island in the midst of a deep, thick fog. It was spectacular (from what we could see). We checked into the hotel, went straight to the dining room, and stuffed our faces on fried seafood. I have never seen Owen as excited as when eating fish and chips. Probably not ideal nutrition, I know.

We overheard mutterings of the fog continuing the next day, but we blocked our ears. “It will burn off” said Duncan.

But the next morning was foggier than the night before. We got ready anyway, and went down to the whale watching office, bracing ourselves for the news that our boat was cancelled, but it wasn’t. In fog, you just have to listen for the whales’ blowholes, and then you follow them, they assured us.

Owen fell asleep in the two minutes it took to get to the wharf, so we carried him on board the ship, and listened attentively while our guides told us how we would find the whales – we would go to their feeding grounds, listen for the sound of their blowholes, and smell for their stinky breath. We did not know that whales had stinky breath!

So off we went, and it was so foggy we could barely see the water. It was eerie and kind of beautiful. I kept thinking I was seeing a whale out of the corner of my eye, but no – just my bangs. Owen eventually woke up and began entertaining people. I kept my mouth gritted shut, since I was starting to feel a little, then a lot, seasick. It was quite choppy out there. When you are seasick, you’re supposed to look to the horizon, but alas! no horizon was remotely visible. Two hours later, proud of myself for holding it all together, I handed Owen to Duncan and rushed to the side of the ship. And was sick. And again. And again. And then I felt MUCH better. I didn’t even care that there were no whales. I was no longer seasick!

After 3 hours, the chase was abandoned. The wind was so loud that we couldn’t hear the whales, and the fog made it so that we couldn’t see them. We got a voucher for our next trip. And I considered the nausea I was likely to experience again.

We then went for a hike through the fog where only the day before there had been reports of fifty seals basking on rocks. We thought we saw four seal heads in the water, until we realised that they were birds. Because of this wild seal chase, we missed the ferry.

We stopped for coffee in Annapolis Royal. Our plan was to have dinner in Wolfville and then to drive back to Halifax and slip a fed and sleeping Owen into bed. Outside Wolfville, Duncan asked if I still wanted to stop in Wolfville for dinner. It was already 7:30 and I thought we’d better feed Owen, who had already been clamouring for whatever food we had in the car for an hour. (I always said I would never feed my kids in the car. Ha. Ha. Ha.)

We stopped. Owen wouldn’t eat. He was fussing and throwing food on the floor. Laughing. Fussing. It had been about 2 hours since his last diaper change so I figured I would change him before we left the restaurant, so he’d be fresh for the road. Did I mention that both Duncan and I made a bee-line for the bathroom the moment we got to the restaurant? And didn’t change our son, who had had more to drink than usual to keep him quiet?

Anyway, mid-way through dinner, I thought to change his diaper. I picked him up and realised that he was soaked. His diaper was so full it was like he was sitting on a wet sponge. We had to wipe down the high chair. That bad. And did I have a clean set of clothes to put on him? No! I had a dirty shirt from a leaky diaper from the day before and a pair of shorts. So we did the walk-of-shame-with-half-naked baby back into the restaurant. We had pushed Owen a bit too far. He was exhausted. When we got him in his carseat, he did not fall asleep, but wailed. And then it started to POUR RAIN. Buckets. Gushing fountains. The OCEAN was on our car.

And Duncan said: “So you had to stop for dinner.”

And I kept very quiet. And I actually prayed that the rain would stop.

The visibility was so poor that we ended up on the shoulder by accident, having mistaken an entrance to the highway for a passing lane.

Eventually, the rain did subside. We missed the exit we wanted, but ended up by some trick of all roads leading to Halifax, in Halifax. I said I was sorry we had decided to stop for dinner. Duncan acknowledged that there was no way we could have predicted the torrential downpour. We laughed.

We arrived at Duncan’s parents’ house with a fast-asleep baby. Then the dogs started to bark. Owen woke up. “Dodeh! Dodeh!” He said, too awake. I don’t even remember how we got him back to sleep. I think it might have been traumatic.

The point of my story?

So much went wrong. But we have a voucher! So we have to do it all over again. And it has the potential to go wrong all over again. You can’t predict the weather. (It has been sunny every day since we got back). But we want to do it again. And I would get seasick again, for the chance to see the whales. Do you see where I am going with this?

If we did decide to have another child, at some point, there is so much that could go wrong. Everything that was difficult this time would be difficult again, or, more likely, different things would go wrong, challenging our sense that we knew what we were doing. But I still want to go on that journey again. I’ll risk the seasickness or morning sickness for the chance to see a watery creature emerge from its watery world. And the optimist in me assumes (with the amnesia that seems to set in after having a baby) that the next time there will be clear skies and smooth sailing.

The Ungracious Host; Or, sometimes it’s nice to be alone

My mother-in-law was here last weekend, and she is a wonderful guest: generous (she arrived with a suitcase of presents); helpful (she made dinner, including one of the best rhubarb crisps I have ever had); and respectful (she almost never offers unsolicited advice). I know! She’s like a dream-mother-in-law… And yet? in the brief 4 days of her visit, I realized how much I craved my alone time. And I don’t even mean time alone with Duncan – I mean A-L-O-N-E all-by-myself time.

A year ago today, I was just over 8 months pregnant, and it was starting to get a little ugly. Well, I felt a little ugly. I told Duncan he had to tell me, periodically, that I was beautiful  – “but not now because then I’ll know you’re just saying it to placate me!” – It never worked. I always suspected him of following orders after that…

And I had heartburn (maxing out on the recommended daily dose of antacids for pregnant women). And my hips ached. And my pelvis felt like it was cracking/had cracked. I had a really easy pregnancy – these above represent the sum total of my complaints, and they really only kicked in in month 7. But while I was creaking and groaning and Owen was scratching my insides (“where nae men should be!”)* – scritch, scratch – people who had had babies were telling me that I’d miss being pregnant. That I should enjoy my peace and quiet while it lasted.

But I kind of disagree.

I wasn’t the most gracious host. I resented the bloat and the discomfort. An hour or two after Owen’s birth, yes, I was marvelling that we had a son, I was also so extraordinarily joyous NOT to be pregnant anymore.

“I’m not pregnant!” I said, jubilantly, as soon as Duncan and I were alone with Owen. I seriously think the “now we have a baby” part might have been second on my mind.

People talk about getting your body back after pregnancy – and they mean losing the baby weight – but seriously? What was WAY MORE IMPORTANT was having myself to myself. And even though the first several weeks were sleep-deprived, my hips stopped aching, my heartburn went away, and my pelvis knit itself back together. And I could take naps BY MYSELF.

I’d like to do the pregnancy thing one more time, and I’ll consider myself lucky if I get there again. But I so vastly prefer having a child on the outside than on the inside.

*A quote from Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford, referring to a band of housebreaking men. It’s a great book, about spinsters!

A Womb Welcome

A couple of days ago, I was using google as a calculator. You can do anything on google. I typed in 26 and the search engine supplied “26 weeks pregnant.” Immediately, I had a flashback to myself, a little over a year ago, as I looked up the stage of my pregnancy week by week … by week. I really did google every week of my pregnancy, and I often skipped ahead, marvelling at the inner and outer diagrams of my and my baby’s growing bodies. I was curious about the mystery growing inside of me – an actual person who would emerge and develop his own perspective on the world – but I was also nervous about my own transformation into a mother.

I read books (lots of books) to try to prepare myself for this momentous change. What I noticed right away was how very certain about their own messages (yet how contradictory!) these books were. Everyone agrees what a fetus looks like at 26 weeks gestation, but no one agrees on how to get a baby to sleep through the night. This certainty, while it might sell books, can be really demoralising for a newly-minted, bleary-eyed mother. So I sought out some specific narratives of pregnancy and parenting from friends and from a couple of blogs. I have found their variety of experience infinitely more reassuring than any published prescriptions for happy babies.

My son Owen is now (already!) 10 1/2 months old, and I have been feeling more and more like I have things to say about my experience of parenting (and about babies, who I actually gush over now). Not that I claim to know what I’m doing, because I still have all kinds of doubts and am really just muddling through, but because I want to share my ideas and hopefully, eventually, get feedback. Parenting can be a very lonely state full of self doubt, especially in our current social environments, where an ideal model often seems to involve a mother alone in the house with a baby. I think that the internet can actually function as a kind of community where we can share our ideas and feel a little less isolated. So I’m adding my thoughts to the fray, and if you’d like to read along, welcome.