Their mother-hearts beset with fears,

Their lives bound up in tender lives

(from Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”)

I’ve read “Goblin Market” about a million times (OK, more like 20), but I noticed these lines only recently. I used to dismiss the domestic conclusion of the poem as predictably Victorian, with the nearly-fallen woman redeemed through childbearing and child rearing. But of course, there’s a wrenching truth to these lines, too, a truth that is impossible to get away from once you are a mother. Those tender lives that are our children do have a way of binding themselves around our hearts, constricting them with fear even as they expand them with love.

It wasn’t until I became a mother that I noticed that there is an attentiveness to mothers that makes them sometimes seem absent-minded. Their eyes are so riveted on their children that they may miss punch lines, news items, and gossip, but their hands will almost always be the first to reach out to catch a falling toddler (or the dish he throws), as though each mother’s very body is in tune with her child’s.

My child is still very young. He still needs catching. The other day he wandered from the grass to the edge of the sidewalk near a residential but fairly busy street. I was too far away to grab him but I yelled louder than even I expected, and he stopped in his tracks until I got to him. I felt a surge of mothering-adrenaline in me at that moment – my yell was primal, and my boy heard me. Yesterday I saw him start to fall down our outdoor steps (he was trying to put my sweater over his head and it toppled him). I was across the yard, so I wasn’t fast enough to prevent him from hitting his head on the first step or rolling onto the second, but I did catch him on the third (still two from the ground). Poor munchkin. He wasn’t badly hurt… mostly scared.

I’m not there yet, but I think in some ways it must be harder to feel that maternal pull when your children are no longer children. My mother has mentioned on many occasions her desire (or need) to reach out to us (her children) when she feels that we are falling (not falling down so much, but away from her, away from her dreams for us, away from her expectations of us). I am sure her maternal reach is as visceral as my cry to Owen to keep him from the cars. How difficult it must be to let go. I hope I manage with as much grace as my mother has.

To all the “mother-hearts” (biological and adoptive mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, special aunts, godmothers, and guardian angels) whose lives are “bound up in tender lives,” have a very happy mother’s day.

Attempts at Communication

I’ve heard that kids get frustrated when they get to around Owen’s age (17 months) because they want to speak but can’t. I just gave a paper at a conference about  a novel that deals partly with this problem. It’s called The Rejuvenation of Miss Semaphore. Its aptly named heroine, Augusta Semaphore, drinks too greedily from the fountain of youth and wakes up as an 8-day-old baby (she was hoping to go from 53 years old to 19 or so). A large part of her frustration stems from the fact that she still has a 53-year-old’s brain but she’s trapped inside the body of a preverbal infant. There’s a great scene when she’s in a courtroom (her sister didn’t want to keep her so pawned her off to an illegal baby-farming operation, and the woman running it got caught) – and she is trying to communicate using facial expressions and gestures with her caretakers – but because she (by this point) looks to be about a year old, her gestures are discounted by her caretakers as odd and humorous – they don’t even try to understand her.

Augusta then starts growing rapidly (all her clothes rip apart à la Incredible Hulk) and finally (amidst attempts at making signs, or semaphore), she grows just enough so that she can speak. And she is so extraordinarily happy that she doesn’t mind that she will quickly grow back to being a single 53-year-old woman. It’s kind of an awesome book.

Anyway, Owen is yammering away now, but few (if any) of his actual words are decipherable. He might have dog (da), cat (cha), and dada. He definitely has bye bye (which he said a long time ago and then stopped for a while). Now bye bye is used for everything, but more present than the word is its accompanying gesture, the wave. It’s a prim little wave, fingers straight, bending from the knuckles, up and down. He says bye bye to everything that is finished (bye bye bottle, bye bye lunch, bye bye outside, bye bye car, etc). The other day at my parents’ place he (quite charmingly) finished his fruit salad, waved bye bye to his empty plate, and then pointed eagerly at the fruit salad bowl with a non-verbal but very clear “MORE, PLEASE!”

We’ve started a little routine before bed now, and I almost hesitate to mention it, since every time bedtime starts going well … well, it stops going well. However, the point is that I have been trying to enlist his burgeoning understanding of the world around him to make him accept going to sleep as the next logical (and oh-so-desirable) phase of the day. So we sit in the chair and we work our way up the body, from “night night toes” to “night night eyebrows” and then we go around the room and say “night night everyone outside” (out the window) and “night night clothes” and “night night animals” – and then I ask if he wants to say “night night mummy?” and he gives me a hug.  When this works, it is absolutely magical. His little fingers wave in the dark, and he squeezes me tight, and we get a bedtime that is peaceful rather than a struggle. By the way, I am not proposing that this routine will work forever, but I like the idea that I can use his understanding of the world now, whereas a couple of months ago I couldn’t.

I look at Owen sometimes and I think he understands more than he does. I catch myself surprised when he obviously doesn’t understand something that I thought he did. But I think it’s kind of right to guess that there is more going on inside his head than he can express yet (like Miss Semaphore), and to give him credit for his (very good) attempts at communication.

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 <>

Scaredy Lady of Shalott

Note: There are probably twenty people on earth who will get this, but I came up with this connection in class one day and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It’s based on a WONDERFUL children’s book by Montreal author Mélanie Watt (which you should buy for yourself, if not for your child):

and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “The Lady of Shalott”:

Anyway, this is what happens to your brain when you teach Victorian Literature but are spending a great deal of time reading children’s books: Enjoy!

Scaredy Lady of Shalott

Scaredy Lady of Shalott never leaves her tower.

She’d rather stay in her safe and familiar tower than risk venturing out into the unknown. The unknown can be a scary place for a lady.

A few things Scaredy Lady of Shalott is afraid of:

  • Reapers reaping early
  • Surly village churls
  • Red cloaks of market girls
  • A curly shepherd lad
  • Two young lovers lately wed
  • Knights in shining armour

So she’s perfectly happy to stay right where she is.

Advantages of never leaving the tower:

  • great view (through a mirror)
  • plenty of weaving
  • safe place
  • no reapers, churls, market girls, shepherd lads, young lovers, or knights

Disadvantages of never leaving the tower:

  • same old view (through a mirror)
  • same old weaving
  • same old place

In Scaredy Lady of Shalott’s tower, every day is the same. Everything is predictable. All is under control.

Monday: weaving – Tuesday: weaving – Wednesday: weaving – Thursday: weaving –Friday: weaving – Saturday: weaving – Sunday: weaving.

Scaredy Lady of Shalott’s daily routine:

  • 6:45 am            wake up
  • 7:00 am            do some weaving
  • 7:15 am             look at view (through mirror)
  • 12:00 noon      do some weaving
  • 12:30 pm          look at view (through mirror)
  • 5:00 pm            do some weaving
  • 5:31 pm             look at view (through mirror)
  • 8:00 pm            go to sleep

BUT let’s say, just for example, that something unexpected DID happen…

You can rest assured that Scaredy Lady of Shalott is prepared.

A few items in Scaredy Lady of Shalott’s emergency kit:

  • Parachute
  • Hand mirror
  • Embroidery floss
  • Net
  • Pen

What to do if the curse is activated, according to Scaredy Lady of Shalott:

  • Step 1: Panic
  • Step 2: Run
  • Step 3: Liberate tapestry
  • Step 4: Put on kit
  • Step 5: Consult Exit plan
  • Step 6: Exit tower (if there is absolutely, definitely, truly no other option)

Exit Plan “TOP SECRET”

  • Exit 1: Note to self: Watch out for churls and market girls
  • Exit 2: Note to self: Do not land in river. If unavoidable, find a boat and write your name on it.
  • Exit 3: Note to self: Look out for reapers and  knights
  • Exit 4: Keep in mind that young lovers are everywhere.

Remember, if all else fails, playing dead is always a good option.

With her emergency kit in hand, Scaredy Lady of Shalott watches (through a mirror). Day by day she watches (through a mirror), until one day …

Thursday 9:37 am

Sir Lancelot flashes into the crystal mirror!

Scaredy lady of Shalott turns to look and cries “A curse is on me,” knocking her emergency kit out of the tower.

This was NOT part of the Plan.

Scaredy lady of Shalott jumps to catch her kit.

She quickly regrets this idea.

The parachute is in the kit.

But something incredible happens …

The magic web floats wide and she hangs on for the ride. Scaredy lady of Shalott is no ordinary lady. She’s a flying lady!

Scaredy lady of Shalott forgets all about the knight, not to mention the reapers, churls, market girls, shepherd lads, and young lovers.

She feels overjoyed! Adventurous! Carefree! Alive! Until she lands in a boat.

And plays DEAD.

After Lancelot says “She had a lovely face,” Scaredy Lady of Shalott realizes that nothing horrible is happening in the unknown today. So she returns to her tower.

All this excitement has inspired Scaredy Lady of Shalott to make drastic changes to her life…

Scaredy Lady of Shalott’s new-and-improved daily routine:

  • 6:45 am             wake up
  • 7:00 am             do some weaving
  • 7:15 am              look at view (through mirror)
  • 9:37 am             float into the unknown on magic web
  • 9:45 am             play dead
  • 11:45 am            return home
  • 12:00 noon       do some weaving
  • 12:30 pm           look at view (through mirror)
  • 5:00 pm             do some weaving
  • 5:31 pm              look at view (through mirror)
  • 8:00 pm             go to sleep

P.S. As for the emergency kit, Scaredy Lady of Shalott is in no hurry to pick it up just yet (it’s between two young lovers. Ew.)