view of a baby from the side of an incubator

How My Postpartum Guilt Was Healed by a 17th-Century Poet

Both of my children were born too soon. My son was twelve weeks premature, and my daughter arrived ten weeks early. Twice, I tried to will my body not to go into labor. Twice, I delivered a baby unable to breathe. Twice, I sat beside an impossibly tiny body hooked up to machines.

The early weeks of a preemie’s life involve fear and uncertainty under normal circumstances, and when my second baby was born at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world felt anything but normal. In addition to worrying about the baby’s vital signs, I fretted about the safety of pressing the hospital’s elevator buttons. I washed my hands until they cracked and bled at the knuckles. At the children’s hospital, newly instituted temperature checks and signs about social distancing reminded me that an invisible danger could be lurking anywhere. It took everything I had not to grab my baby and run.

I found solace in an unexpected place: the poetry of an obscure seventeenth-century writer named Hester Pulter, whose single manuscript was rediscovered in the 1990s. Pulter didn’t have a preemie in a pandemic, but she lived through several outbreaks of the plague and smallpox. She wrote about forced isolation, pregnancies that made her ill, and the agony of separation from her children. Her poem called “This Was Written in 1648, When I Lay In, With My Son John” describes a lonely postpartum period, in which the speaker lay in bed “sad, sick, and lame.” Instead of focusing on her pain, the speaker visualizes her “free” thoughts flying into space. In other poems, Pulter imagined “playing football with the stars” and dancing with the planets. In “Why Must I Thus Forever Be Confined,” the speaker complains of being “shut up” in her house while the lowliest insects get to roam free. The poem ends with a striking image of death as liberated atoms.

Text from The Eclipse
Poems breathed forth by the nobel Hadassas, and The Unfortunate Florinda, by Lady Hesther Pulter. (Leeds University Library)

When Pulter described these atoms as “free as my verse,” she identified poetry as an important escape from the hardships of everyday life. It was for me. During my solitary visits to the children’s hospital, I thought of Pulter dreaming of the cosmos and felt less alone. Frustrated by the slowness of my baby’s progress and my own recovery following a traumatic delivery, I let Pulter’s poetry lead my imagination elsewhere. Other times, I felt overwhelmed by emotions I couldn’t escape. I felt responsible for my babies’ pain and apologized to them that I wasn’t better at staying pregnant. I grieved the loss of a “normal” pregnancy. I grieved for my babies, who had to endure sensations in the outside world before they were ready. Because my babies were alive and relatively well, I felt ashamed to admit my grief.

Pulter taught me to embrace the sorrow and let go of the guilt. Her poetry presents her as an expert on loss, and rightly so: she buried thirteen of her fifteen children. Even when writing about healthy children, she associated parenting with anxiety and heartache. She described good parents as “indulgent,” by which she meant loving children intensely and protecting them fiercely. To illustrate how tightly mothers desire to hold onto their children, she praised sharks and snakes who temporarily swallow their offspring to protect them from predators. I, too, have wished I could fold my child back into my body. Yet Pulter’s poetry reminds readers that no one can prevent all tragedies. In “The Lark,” an “indulgent” bird carefully gathers her babies in a warm nest, only to have it mown down by a careless man. When Pulter wrote about the loss of her own daughter Jane from smallpox, she dwelt on the pain of being “overwhelmed with grief.” She imagined herself as Niobe, the mythological woman whose sorrow at her children’s deaths transformed her into a weeping stone, and she vowed to mourn Jane “all my life.” Just as Pulter didn’t blame the mother bird for the destruction of her nest, she didn’t blame herself for Jane’s death.

Pulter spoke to me across the centuries and suggested that certain emotions transcend time and place. Her losses made me grateful for what I had, and her poetry encouraged me to confront my own feelings of fear and failure. Yet our similarities highlight a long history of cultural reasons for my guilt. In Pulter’s time, many male-authored texts worried about the mysteries of women’s leaky, unruly bodies and blamed women for what their bodies did. Medical manuals by Thomas Raynalde, Jacque Guillemeau, Robert Barrett, and others warned pregnant women against excessive emotions, activities, or cravings, all of which could cause “untimely birth.” Don’t dance, lift things, or run. Don’t eat too much. Don’t eat the wrong things. Don’t sleep too long. Don’t fall down. Don’t hang out with the wrong people. Lust, fear, joy, pleasure, and anger could all endanger a pregnancy. (And not all of these ideas are in the past. Today, the Internet abounds with lists of things not to do and foods not to eat for those who are pregnant.) In the seventeenth century, warnings against excessive emotions derived from the same principles as Protestant treatises about grief. Ministers advised everyone to mourn moderately and noted that women – who were thought to be prone to extreme emotional reactions – would need to work harder to achieve this goal. Women heard the same advice from multiple sources: you need to stifle strong emotions, you are responsible for what happens to your pregnant body, and if the pregnancy fails, so do you.

My own twenty-first-century diagnosis was “incompetent cervix.” Medically, “incompetent” means unable to function correctly. But in other contexts, “incompetent” means inadequate and lacking knowledge or ability. This modern term of “incompetent” smacks more clearly of personal responsibility than does the seventeenth-century word “untimely.” One standard treatment for cervical incompetence is a surgery first used in 1955 called a “cerclage,” which involves stitching the cervix tightly closed. No doctor told me my body was too leaky, but the need for surgical closure made me feel like it was. Because the precise cause of any one premature birth is rarely known, it is nearly impossible to know whether cerclages work. Women’s bodies are still mysteries.

Unfortunately, many of our approaches and language continue to make women responsible for how these bodies function. The first time I went into labor early, doctors advised me to avoid excessive activity and emotions, especially stress – an intangible, dangerous thing we’re supposed to be able to control. My small team of doctors ordered bed rest, which only increased my anxiety. I took to being “shut up” in my house about as well as Pulter did. Seventeenth-century writers blamed women’s emotions on a floating womb that couldn’t be controlled. Today, we call pregnant women “hormonal,” but it’s the same general idea: women are too emotional. Their reactions are wrong and affect their bodies negatively.

Both of my babies’ hospitalizations ended happily. Because prematurity is the leading cause of infant death worldwide, many stories like mine end differently, especially for families without the racial and economic privileges that I have. I’m also grateful for the ultrasound technology, surgeries, anesthesia, neonatal equipment, and lifesaving techniques that Pulter didn’t have. Without modern medicine, my babies and I wouldn’t have had a chance at survival. Yet I appreciate that she and her contemporaries knew better than to take life for granted. They expected that some pregnancies led to death and that not all babies would live. Because we assume today that most pregnancies result in healthy, full-term babies, we describe preemies in terms of deficit and delay. This language contributed to my feelings of responsibility and disempowerment. Good healthcare providers find other ways of discussing development, focusing on “adjusted age,” for example. But how do we talk about preemie parents? As a society, we lack an emotional vocabulary for their experiences.

Even if we aren’t good at describing them, these emotions exist, and Pulter inspired me to find the words. Her poems explore trauma and isolation in ways that still resonate today, and she validates parental feelings and “indulgences.” Read in context of her society’s pressure to moderate emotions, her insistence on the healing power of tears sounds defiant. “The Weeping Wish” imagines her tears as life-giving rain, “blazing comets” that brighten the sky, and medicine for her friends. My own wish goes something like this: we follow Pulter’s lead and embrace our emotions instead of apologizing for them. We normalize abnormal pregnancies. We take care not to blame parents for what they cannot control, and we make sure that those whose pregnancies “fail” no longer feel like failures.

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