“Blossoms of Hope”: Our Cultural History of Pregnancy and Infant Loss and Grief

“Blossoms of Hope”: Our Cultural History of Pregnancy and Infant Loss and Grief

In a recent Adventures in the Archives post, Adam Turner recounts a moving story of grief and loss he found in Today’s Health of a woman whose daughter was born three months premature due to a hemolytic disease in the 1950’s. In the comments section after the post, blogger Historiann remarks,

I find it fascinating that she writes of her RH baby as being born ‘just three months too soon,’ and very much as a daughter rather than as a fetus or a patient. Even now, a 3-months preemie is still an extremely premature child with no guarantees–it’s interesting to know that some woman in 1950 thought about her daughter in the ways that seem familiar to [how] those of us in the post-Roe, post-ultrasound era think about pregnancy & children.

The commentator’s surprise at this mother’s conception of her fetus as a “daughter,” I think, mirrors a current trend in the feminist scholarship of pregnancy and childbirth that seems to divide cultural ideas around pregnancy, fetuses, and infants into pre- and post-Roe.

Mourning Locket, ca. 1800-1820. Courtesy of University of South Carolina
Mourning Locket, ca. 1800-1820.
Courtesy of University of South Carolina

Furthermore, advances in prenatal technology, particularly the development and increasing use of ultrasound technology, encourage us to imagine that women today have different, and in some ways, more personal relationships with their children still in the womb. And no doubt we do. The ubiquity with which women today have the opportunity to glance into their wombs, our ever-increasing revealing of the mysteries of fetal development, and the cultural rhetoric of abortion in the forty years after Roe have undoubtedly shaped our relationships to our pregnancies and unborn children. However, the personal writings of nineteenth-century women on their experiences of miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal loss indicate that our experiences and theirs are not as dissimilar as we might expect. Indeed, grief and loss are complex, personal, and cultural experiences, rooted in social meaning, but also deeply intimate. And even though the account from Today’s Health was written in the 1950’s rather than the 1850’s, the fact that the sentiment seems so similar to both us and to women’s writings from the nineteenth century further cements the idea that it is perhaps our belief that these expressions of grief and ideas of pregnancy loss are post-Roe, post-ultrasound, that is mistaken.

Women’s writings on the subject of pregnancy and infant loss paints a far different picture than we might expect. A poem published in Godey’s in 1874 gives voice to a mother’s feelings after experiencing the death of her infant:

Oh, selfish mother-love! To dare,

To grudge God’s angels though aware

That he in mercy call them home—

Their little feet to never roam

In paths of sorrow or of sin,

But safe, in his loving arms within![1]

The sentiments are not far removed from some common contemporary women’s experiences of pregnancy and infant loss in religious communities who lament the loss of a child called back “home,” while simultaneously expressing the “selfishness” of the mother’s desire to

keep her child with her on earth. Anthony Comstock, the historical boogeyman of the reproductive rights movement, echoes a similar sentiment in mourning the neonatal loss of his daughter, writing in his diary of her death a few hours after her birth, “The Lord’s will be done.  Oh for grace to say it and live it!”[2]

“The Empty Cradle” 1847. Courtesy of University of South Carolina
“The Empty Cradle” 1847.
University of South Carolina

These expressions of grief aren’t limited to infant loss. Although much of the critical discussion of miscarriage and stillbirth in the nineteenth century focuses on the “silence” or the “hazard” of these losses, evidence from the personal writings of nineteenth-century women indicates that these events were often acknowledged as loss. Furthermore, as Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner show in their work on the history of infertility in America, women even mourned their status as infertile, or “barren,” often while experiencing multiple pregnancy losses.[3] The writer and activist Lydia Maria Child, who remained childless throughout her life, wrote a letter to a friend congratulating her on the news of her friend’s pregnancy, but also commented on her own disappointment and grief stemming from her inability to have a child and on the emptiness that she felt as a result: “I never felt so forcibly as within the last year, that to a childless wife, ‘life is almost untenanted.”[4] The Civil War diarist Mary Chestnut was reportedly “despondent” over her pregnancy losses and inability to bear a living child, and wrote, “God help me, no good have I done—to myself or any one else.”[5]

Perhaps the most striking commonality to the current cultural articulations of pregnancy and infant loss comes from Sarah Hale’s 1841 accounting of her childbearing experiences and losses:

I have borne eleven children, and have been permitted to keep until this day seven—One blossom of hope, just dawned upon this world, lived but a brief hour, and was transplanted by the all knowing Creator to his gardens of joy.—Another remained with us for seven months, learned to return smile for smile, and was just beginning to show the germs of intelligence when a short space of suffering and anxiety was closed by our laying him away in the dark chamber, which then was but a few paces from the nursery where we had cherished and nourished him—Then came another bright cherub—our darling ‘other Susie’—bright and hopeful and promising with her earnest and deep glance, and her thoughtful spirit, and in her seventh year, it pleased God to take her from us…–Since then another girl has been given and taken, and now there are seven here, and four awaiting us on the other side of Jordan.”[6]

There seems to be little distinction in the quantity or quality of grief she experiences for the “blossom of hope,” the neonatal death of an infant that lived only an hour, the “cherished and nourished” seven month old, and “bright cherub” lost in her seventh year. She writes tenderly, and with feeling, about them all.  What is remarkable about the passage, though, is the sense that she sees them all as her children, that she has seven living children and four “awaiting” her in heaven.  This articulation of herself as mother to all of her children, living and lost, is startlingly similar to current depictions in the “babyloss” community of “angel babies.” For some women who’ve experienced pregnancy or neonatal loss, when asked how many children they have, they’ll respond with some variation of “one living and one angel baby,” or “one living and one in heaven.” The notion of “angel babies,” while purportedly part of the contemporary remaking of pregnancy loss, actually seems to be part of a long tradition of grief in American culture.  This is significant because it underscores that the pain women currently experience at the loss of a wanted pregnancy or child seems to be articulated in much the same way as women have done for generations. Women mourned their lost babies, even before the emergence of a contemporary “babyloss” community.


Historian Judith Walzer Leavitt sees Hale’s maternal inventory as evidence that women faced the “necessity of accepting the deaths of numerous offspring.” I see it, though, as a lack of acceptance of, or at the very least, a lack of resignation to the losses. In other words, the current critical bias seems to assume that because these women experienced many losses, they couldn’t possibly feel intense grief for all of them.  We imagine a sort of cultural numbness preventing them from feeling the grief that we ourselves feel when faced with the loss of wanted pregnancies and infants. It seems very likely, though, that this cultural numbness is imagined for our own sakes.  Because of advances in reproductive and neonatal medicine, we no longer statistically face the probability of multiple, or even a single, pregnancy or infant loss.  These same advances also encourage us to imagine that it is our ability to see into the womb, to understand fetal development that allows us to develop a strong connection with our unborn children. As a result, we risk becoming blinded to the emotional pain experienced by women who did face this reality, who knew with each pregnancy that pain and grief were every bit as possible as joy and happiness. Yet, their writings indicate that despite these harsh realities, they seem to have loved, to have cherished, and perhaps most significantly, to have mourned, the children that they lost or that could have been.


Works cited:

[1] Godey’s, August 1874, 143.

[2] Haywood Broun and Margaret Leech, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1927), 157.

[3] Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner, The Empty Cradle: Infertility in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

[4] Ibid, 38.

[5] Ibid, 37.

[6] Judith Walzer Leavitt, Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 18.


For Further Reading

Leslie Reagan, “”From Hazard to Blessing to Tragedy: Representations of Miscarriage in Twentieth-Century America,” Feminist Studies 29.2 (2003), 356-378.

Wendy Simonds, “Confessions of Loss: Maternal Grief in True Story, 1920-1985,” Gender and Society 2.2 (1988), 149-171.


Ginny Engholm recently completed her Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky in the department of English. Her interdisciplinary dissertation, titled “The Power of Multiplying: Reproductive Control in American Culture, 1850-1930,” traces the rise of modern birth control in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her current work-in-progress examines miscarriage, pregnancy loss, and stillbirth in American culture. She teaches at a small college in the Liberal Arts department in Baton Rouge, LA.

16 thoughts on ““Blossoms of Hope”: Our Cultural History of Pregnancy and Infant Loss and Grief

    • Author gravatar

      A wonderful and important post. As a mom, these kinds of stories are always the hardest for me to read – Sarah Josepha Hale’s words about her lost children made me cry.

      Thank you, also, for your thoughts on the idea that high infant and child mortality rates in the 19th century made parents indifferent to grief at their children’s death. At the sake of showing my ignorance on the matter, with so much heartbreaking evidence that shows the immense pain of these losses, where did this theory come from?

    • Author gravatar

      Thank you for your comments. I agree that her writing is particularly poignant–I love that passage. As to where this conception emerged from, I think it comes from a lack of understanding of grief practices in the past. For example, some historians have pointed to the fact that parents often named a baby after an infant that had died as evidence that the parents saw the child as a sort of “replacement” child, which of course seems to me like a clear misreading of that grief practice. There’s also not been a lot of scholarship on the cultural history of grief and pregnancy and infant loss, which also complicates our understanding of it. Recent historians and cultural scholars, though, have really begun to do important work on both grief and pregnancy loss that are helping us to better examine our assumptions and ideas about these losses in the past.

    • Author gravatar

      I take your point that the differences between 19th century and 21st century experiences of pregnancy loss have probably been overstated. But I do think that it’s important not to gloss over some really important differences, nonetheless. In the 19th century, women didn’t really “count” their pregnancies until after quickening (fetal movement, about 4 months or so). They suspected and diagnosed pregnancies earlier, but they did not lose “babies” in the early months, the way many women experience it today. They had “slips” and “misses,” which were sometimes scary because of hemorrhage or infection, but they did not speak of these as the deaths of babies. If you look at 19th century first-person accounts of miscarriages before viability (about 7 months), women mostly talk about their fear for their own health and life, not grief for a lost baby. (Historian Shannon Wythecombe’s in-progress book manuscript will eventually bring this evidence into the published scholarly conversation.) Not every woman had the same emotional experience, so it’s important to do our best to look both at accounts that talk about grief for a lost baby and those that don’t. Anecdotally, because I am working on the history of how early pregnancy losses became like losing a baby for so many Americans, many older women have told me that they don’t understand how women today can call it a “baby” when the loss is at 6 or 8 weeks. And even that they had second-trimester losses, which were horrible, but still not, to them, the same as losing a baby. Again, this doesn’t represent everyone, but it’s important not to lose sight of the stories on both sides. But the most crucial difference has to do with early losses. Our own grandmothers, never mind 19th century women, would not have recognized “angel babies” at 6 weeks’ pregnancy. They lamented infertility and early losses as part of infertility, but this is different from calling them “babies.”

      • Author gravatar


        I’m sure you have done plenty of research for your book, but I have to offer at least anecdotal evidence against your claim that our grandparents wouldn’t have mourned miscarriages in the same way our culture does today.

        My grandma (who is 81) had six miscarriages all before 8 weeks gestation, in addition to five live births, and she said she does count each of her losses as a baby. She has told me several times that the way I speak about the grief and loss of my own miscarriages (as babies and lost children I will never raise) is much healthier than what was typical in her day. I would hazard a guess that the culturally accepted patterns of grieving and speaking of difficulty may have kept more women quiet about the pain they felt back in the 19th Century, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

        Additionally, even today, if I was speaking to someone who had buried 3 children after a terrible illness ravaged their family I wouldn’t dwell on my miscarriages in her presence. It doesn’t mean I am discrediting my own experiences, just that I would be aware that woman was walking a path more treacherous than I, and I would want to respect whatever ways she was managing her grief. And there were a LOT more of those kinds of mothers back then, so maybe the “silence” was a way of respecting those who had suffered numerous tragedies in the loss of older children and full-term babies as well.

        • Author gravatar

          Abby, thanks for sharing your anecdote from your own family. I think it’s fascinating that your grandmother both viewed her own losses that way and that she also seems to welcome what she perceives as a shift in the current culture with expressing that grief. I think the real take away from the post and this great discussion (as well as a new post and discussion by Joanne Bailey called “Useless in Society: Women Miscarriage and Gender” today too) is that much more scholarship needs to be done on this particular topic of the intersection of grief and pregnancy loss and how our conceptions of pregnancy shape that grief culturally so that we can better understand how that grief has both changed–and not changed. I’m excited to read Shannon Wythecombe’s in-progress work on the topic, and I’m also in the very early stages of working on a book project on it myself. If anyone else has resources to share on the topic, I’m sure it will be much appreciated by all. And here’s the link to Joanne’s post, which explores a husband’s writing to his wife after a miscarriage:

      • Author gravatar

        Even before fetal movement is felt, a miscarriage can result in the loss of a visible embryo or fully formed fetus. As all miscarriages back then would have proceeded naturally, with no D&C to speed them along, the mother would often have had to deal with more than a flow of blood, and she would not have had our modern terms, embryo and fetus, to distance herself from the loss of her unborn child.

    • Author gravatar

      Lara, thank you for your thoughtful reply that adds to the complexity of the issue. I agree with you completely that early pregnancy losses would not have been seen as the loss of a “baby” for 19th century women (and as I’m sure you know many 21st century women do not see them as “babies” either). I’m in no way trying to argue that the experiences of pregnancy loss and grief are the same either–as you point out, I’m just examining the extent to which the differences have been overstated, largely because of our cultural biases and assumptions of the experiences of women in the past and the particular ways we are making meaning out of our contemporary experiences of pregnancy and loss. One of the dangers in discussing the relationship between grief and pregnancy/infant loss is the danger of both equivocation and demarcation–that we say, all women at X point in pregnancy experience it as a loss and experience it in the same way while all women at Y point don’t. That seems like a problematic issue in talking about cultural constructions of grief, which as I said, are deeply personal while simultaneously cultural constructed. I think the answer, as you said, is to examine the historical narratives for a range of depictions and to avoid over-generalizing, of course.

    • Author gravatar

      Ginny, thanks for this thoughtful post. I think your comment here is especially insightful, especially w/r/t Sarah Handley-Cousins’s question about where the idea comes from that women before the 20th were emotionally numb to pregnancy or infant loss: “We imagine a sort of cultural numbness preventing them from feeling the grief that we ourselves feel when faced with the loss of wanted pregnancies and infants. It seems very likely, though, that this cultural numbness is imagined for our own sakes.” This seems really right on to me. We must always interrogate the position and assumptions of the historians, even (other) feminist historians!

    • Author gravatar

      I think it’s important to realize that much of the historiography about pregnancy has been shaped by the politics of abortion. I think this accounts for some of the stronger arguments about a lack of attachment to pregnancies/newborns in previous centuries, and its occasional tone-deafness to the possibility of genuine grief over lost pregnancies. Still, I am wary of the argument that women have always felt the way they do today, but their feelings just haven’t been recognized. I can’t lay out all my arguments here, but here’s an example: the category of “wanted pregnancy” was created in the mid-twentieth century. Before that, it’s not remotely that simple. There certainly were certain pregnancies that were desperately desired, and some that were clearly a terrible misfortune, but most fell somewhere in the middle. Between 1800 and 1940, women reduced their childbearing from an average of 7 children per woman to 2, without what we would consider effective birth control or legal abortion. So would early miscarriages have been typically experienced as grave losses, or as pregnancies that simply were not meant to be? And I mean this even for women who were still in the midst of building their 2 or 3-child families, for whom an additional pregnancy would not be obviously “unwanted.” I am also working from evidence I have seen in 19th century women’s letters about their miscarriages. Today, it’s hard to imagine a several-page exchange about a second-trimester miscarriage that never once mentioned a baby, or grief over a child. But I have a exchange of this sort from a 19th century private collection. There aren’t tons of these types of letters, so the evidence is thinner than I’d like, but it indicates that the difference is not simply a 19th century repression of women’s true emotional experiences.

      • Author gravatar

        Lara, you once again raise really important points about this issue. I completely agree that the historiography of pregnancy has been influenced by the politics and rhetoric of abortion, complicated by, as you point out, the rapid change in the reproductive rates of women during this same time period, which would clearly change women’s relationship to their pregnancies. In addition, the relatively recent explosion in the science of fetal development and the rise of ultrasound has absolutely also shaped our understanding of the developing embryo and the mother’s relationship to it in ways that we can’t even begin to fully understand yet. And in particular, the issue of early 1st trimester miscarriages is a special case within these questions, given the vast difference in access to knowledge of the pregnancy at that stage for women today versus women in the 19th century. However, it does seem that at least some historical evidence suggests that for losses at other stages (stillbirths, later miscarriages, very early neonatal deaths) that these experiences had profound affects on the women who had them (and in some cases I’ve found, such as Anthony Comstock’s, the father as well), and exploring these narratives, I think, can really help illuminate some of those interesting, complex, and messy ways that these various narratives about pregnancy, loss, grief, and women’s bodies intersect.

    • Author gravatar

      Thank you for this important addition to the discussion about the history of pregnancy and pregnancy loss. I too am interested in challenging the dichotomy of pregnancy pre-Roe and post-Roe (or another common dichotomy of pre-fetal imagery and post), and I think looking at similarities between personal writings of women today and women in the 19th century provides proof against such a stark dichotomy. My research, based on letters and diaries of women experiencing pregnancy loss 1830-1900, does bring to light some women who mourned their losses and who were devastated by repeated miscarriages, but it also unearths women who were overjoyed about the event. And one aspect of this we need to keep in mind, when discussing individual accounts of pregnancy loss, is the ability of women in the 19th century to control their fertility. In the 21st century, we live under a popular narrative that all women can control when to have children and how many (and thus miscarriage is always a tragedy). This narrative did not exist in the 19th century, leaving room for a lot more personal constructions of pregnancy loss than we see today. You are so right, Ginny, to remind us that any attempts to create a unified category of “women,” whether it be 19th-century women or women today, leads to overgeneralization and marginalization. Characterizing women of the 19th century as not grieving over pregnancy loss leaves out many individuals who did; just as characterizing pregnancy loss today as “loss” or “tragedy” demanding grieving leaves out individuals as well.

      And thank you, Lara, for the plug for my book (in progress) – but a note that my last name is spelled Withycombe.

      • Author gravatar

        Let me chime in with Lara that I too am looking forward to your book because, as this discussion shows, there’s still a lot unknown, and therefore a lot of assumptions and supposition, about the historical place of pregnancy loss. I agree that the place of miscarriage in 19th century women’s lives is removed from our current ones, both because of modern narratives of birth control and because of the medical implications and health concerns of failed pregnancies in the past. I also second that we have to be careful on both ends though, as you point out. For many women today, a miscarriage or pregnancy loss remains a welcome event, given the fact that although we have the popular narrative that women can completely control when and how often they conceive, a variety of factors–health, access to birth control, education, etc.–complicate and even prevent their ability to do so. We must not lose sight of that as well.

    • Author gravatar

      I’m very interested in this topic, I’ve had many women speak to me over the years about pregnancy loses, as a healthcare professional and personally. I have lost two little babies that were born too early and that is how I always refer to them to myself and when speaking to others, my first a little girl born at 23 weeks and my last a little boy born at 22 weeks. I was privileged enough to keep three in between. Even that early on your body is primed to receive and love that baby, breasts fill with milk and your heart with love, I do not believe that there can be any greater pain than losing a child at any age. I have cared for women from less developed countries, Africa and India, I think sometimes as their loses are more frequent due to poor healthcare and difficult living conditions we assume that as we do for women in the past that they will be more reconciled to loss, this however is not the case, grief and a sense of loss is carried within them just as it is for us now and this has been and will probably always be so for mothers especially, but also fathers who have lost a child and feel helpless with regard to the pain that their partner suffers as well as their own.

      • Author gravatar

        Thank you for sharing your experiences. It’s interesting that in your experience women in areas with poor healthcare and less access to birth control may experience these losses in similar ways, despite what assumptions we might make. Another fascinating topic for research and scholarship!

    • Author gravatar

      Reblogged this on and commented:

      Writing for Nursing Clio, Ginny Engholm explores miscarriage and infant loss through a historical lens. Have historians of the nineteenth century misread or underestimated the intensity of maternal grief? This piece is an important one for historians of women, gender, reproduction, and the family.

      There’s a great discussion in the comments thread!

Comments are closed.