Anonymous’ story

This is a letter from an anonymous woman from 1914, a member of the Co-operative Guild, writing to Margaret Llewelyn Davies on her experiences of working motherhood. It was published in the book “Maternity” in 1915.

“Stead’s Penny Poets

I was married at twenty-eight in utter ignorance of the things that most vitally affect a wife and mother. My mother, a dear, pious soul, thought ignorance was innocence, and the only thing I remember her saying on the subject of childbirth was, “God never sends a babe without bread to feed it.” Dame Experience long ago knocked the bottom out of that argument for me. My husband was a man earning 32s. a week – a conscientious good man, but utterly undomesticated. A year after our marriage the first baby was born, naturally and with little pain or trouble. I had every care, and motherhood stirred the depths of my nature. The rapture of a babe in arms drawing nourishment from me crowned me with glory and sanctity and honour. Alas! The doctor who attended me suffered from eczema of a very bad type in his hands. The disease attacked me, and in twenty-four hours I was covered from head to foot… finally leaving me partially and sometimes totally crippled in my hands. Fifteen months later a second baby came – a dear little girl, and again I was in a fairly good condition physically and financially, but had incurred heavy doctor’s and attendance bills, due to my incapacity for work owing to eczema. Both the children were delicate, and dietary expenses ran high. Believing that true thrift is wise expenditure, we spent our all trying to build up for them sound, healthy bodies, and was ill-prepared financially and physically to meet the birth of a third baby sixteen months later. Motherhood ceased to be a crown of glory and became a fearsome thing to be shunned and feared. The only way to meet our increased expenditure was by dropping an endowment policy, and losing all our little, hard-earned savings. I confess without shame that when well-meaning friends said: “You cannot afford another baby; take this drug.” I took their strong concoctions to purge me of the little life that might be mine. They failed, as such things generally do, and the third baby came. Many a time I have sat in daddy’s big chair, a baby two and a half years old at my back, one sixteen months, and one one month on my knees, and cried for very weariness and hopelessness. I fed them all as long as I could, but I was too harassed, domestic duties too heavy and the income too limited to furnish me with a rich nourishing milk… Nine months later I was again pregnant and the second child fell ill. “She cannot live,” the doctors said, but I loved… She is still delicate, but bright and intelligent. I watched by her couch three weeks, snatching her sleeping moments to fulfil the household task. The strain was fearful, and one night I felt I must sleep or die – I didn’t much care which; and I lay down by her side, and slept, and slept, and slept, forgetful of temperatures, nourishment or anything else. … A miscarriage followed in consequence of the strain, and doctor’s bills grew like mushrooms. The physical pain from the eczema, and working with raw and bleeding hand, threatened me with madness. I dare not tell a soul. I dare not even face it for some time, and then I knew I must face this battle or go under. Care and rest would have cured me, but I was too proud for charity, and no other help was available. You may say mine is an isolated case. It is not. The sympathy born of suffering brings many mothers to me, just that they may find a listening ear. I find this mental state is common, and the root cause is lack of rest and economic strain – economic strain being the greatest factor for ill of the two.

Working-class women have grown more refined; they desire better homes, better clothes for themselves and their children, and are far more self-respecting and less humble than their predecessors. But the strain to keep up to anything like a decent standard of housing, clothing, diet and general appearance, is enough to upset the mental balance of a Chancellor of the Exchequer. How much more so a struggling pregnant mother! Preventatives are largely used. Race suicide, if you will, is the policy of the mothers of the future. Who shall blame us?

Two years later a fourth baby came. Varicose veins developed. I thought they were a necessary complement to childbirth. He was a giant of a boy, and heavy to carry, and I just dragged about the housework, washing and cleaning until the time of his birth; but I looked forward to that nine days in bed longingly; to be still and rest was a luxury of luxuries. Economics became a greater strain than ever now that I had four children to care for. Dimly conscious of the evils of sweating, instead of buying cheap ready-made clothes, I fashioned all their little garments and became a sweated worker myself. The utter monotony of life, the lack of tone and culture, the drudgery and gradual lowering of the standard of living consequent upon the rising cost of living, and increased responsibilities, was converting me into a soulless drudge and nagging scold. I felt the comradeship between myself and my husband was breaking up. He could not enter into my domestic, I would not enter into his intellectual pursuits, and again I had to fight or go under. I could give no time to mental culture or reading, and I bought Stead’s penny editions of literary masters, and used to put them on a shelf in front of me washing-day, fastened back their pages with a clothes-peg, and learned pages of Whittier, Lowell, and Longfellow, as I mechanically rubbed the dirty clothes and thus wrought my education. This served a useful purpose; my children used to be sent off to sleep by reciting what I had learnt during the day. My mental outlook was widened, and once again I stood as a comrade and helpmeet by my husband’s side, and my children all have a love for good literature.

Three years later a fifth baby came. I was ill and tired, but my husband fell ill a month prior to his birth, and I was up day and night. Our doctor was, and is, one of the kindest men I have ever met. I said: “Doctor, I cannot afford you for myself, but will you come if I need?” “I hope you won’t need me, but I’ll come.” I dare not let my husband in his precarious condition hear a cry of pain from me, and travail pain cannot always be stifled; and here again the doctor helped me by giving me a sleeping draught to administer him as soon as I felt the pangs of childbirth. Hence he slept in one room while I travailed in the other, and brought forth the loveliest boy that ever gladdened a mother’s heart. So here I am a woman of forty-one years, blessed with a lovely family of healthy children, faced with a big deficit, varicose veins, and an occasional loss of the use of my hands. I want nice things, but I must pay that debt I owe. I would like nice clothes (I’ve had three new dresses in fourteen years), but I must not have them yet. I’d like to develop mentally, but I must stifle that part of my nature until I have made good the ills of the past, and I am doing it slowly and surely, and my heart grows lighter, and will grow lighter still when I know the burden is lifted from the mothers of our race.

Wages 32s. to 40s.: five children, one miscarriage.

From the details given, this woman was born in c1873, and married in c1901, and lived somewhere in the UK.

3 thoughts on “Anonymous’ story

    1. Absolutely. This is the story I bring out when people tell me that their female ancestors “just” kept house and had children and weren’t interesting – at what point does this life have any less value or strength in it to discovering radium? It’s about redefining parameters and choosing not to view people through the lens they are presented.

      Liked by 1 person

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