“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.
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,
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!”
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. 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.” 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.”
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.”
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.
 Godey’s, August 1874, 143.
 Haywood Broun and Margaret Leech, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1927), 157.
 Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner, The Empty Cradle: Infertility in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
 Ibid, 38.
 Ibid, 37.
 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.