‘I am harassed and fatigued’: being a parent

woman writingI recently published ‘A History of Mum and Dad’, an overview of historical research on parenting in History Compass, which you can read here. In it I explain some of the new approaches that historians take when studying parenthood and I show that aspects of parenting are culturally constructed and change over time. One thing, however, has not changed significantly: the time demands of parenting. I read quite a lot of family correspondence from the early nineteenth century as part of my research into the experience of parenting for my book and one note that middle-class women frequently sounded was that they could do little else each day but see to their children.

Interestingly, this often emerged in their apologies for tardiness in keeping in touch with their various loved ones. Women were often the maintainers of familial networks. Sarah Pearsall talks about ’familiarity’ as a concept that shaped correspondence whose aim was to broker and reinforce connections between individuals who were on the move. So it was no wonder they felt guilty when they couldn’t sustain their part in this familiarity.

In February 1815, for example, Jane Munby wrote to her mother Jane Pontey at Liverpool:

My Dear Mother
It seems you are determined not to give me two letters for one and I am very busy very Negligent and very late but … I have found a way to begin I shall most probably finish. It would give me great pleasure to hear from you a little oftener and I can assure you my Time is much engaged whether well or ill. I shall not take upon me to say but if I don’t get wrote in a morning I have no chance for it in an evening for the children are all engaged in their tasks, & Reading & Music occupy the time till Mr Munby comes Home and sometimes I am out so that one day passes over another rapidly without perhaps being at the last employed as it ought to be. I shall be very glad to hear your Health is quite established and that your mind is easy & comfortable I had rather you would write and scold me as not write at all.

Jane had a varied list of things that kept her from her writing: mostly her children, but there is a glimpse of other activities (‘sometimes I am out’) which hints at some sociability being maintained. I’m glad she crammed a lot into life, for within a handful of years both she and her husband Joseph had died and the orphaned children’s maternal grandmother Jane Pontey had stepped in to help manage their lives.

Absent husbands were also reminded of the demands of parenting. Much correspondence survives from John and Elizabeth Shaw’s marriage because John was often away as a commercial traveller. Elizabeth sometimes explained to him that she struggled to write as often as she wished as an affectionate wife. In 1816 shortly after the birth of their first son she ended a long letter to John:

And now – you will begin to think what with the child and other cares I have forgot to think of you – indeed one thing or another has occupied my mind pretty fully since you had been gone. I am at no loss for company and something to do. I hope in another week we shall be more settled – but amidst all the bustle don’t believe you are forgot. My thoughts often run out after you and after dinner and supper I am lost for want of you to talk to – I hope you are going on well. The weather is very fine which is one comfort and every day you are out makes it a day less before you are home. Adieu my dear John – our little boy is fast asleep – bless him – and looks very comfortable. That God may bless and preserve you is the prayer of your ever affectionate wife.

Illness was the least welcome cause of distraction from more pleasurable pursuits. Catherine Taylor wrote to her sister Sophia Courtauld on 15 June 1820 of her disappointment at receiving Sophia’s letter regretting her lack of contact:

My dearest Sister, I have this moment recd your letter when I am harassed & fatigued almost out of my senses by nursing & trying to amuse my dear cross boy & having a violent head ache, & instead of its containing the affectionate feeling that was wont to cheer my heart in your letters & expressing delight at the prospect of our coming Meeting, it expresses an almost assured feeling of diminished affection & interest on my part…

Partly because parenting’s demands don’t end and also because communication depended upon women, the guilt (and complaining) did not necessarily end when children got to adulthood. In 1821 Ruth Courtauld wrote to her daughters Eliza and Sophie who were in America having accompanied their father George who was determined to set up a new settlement near Ohio. Ruth, who was estranged from her husband, remained in Essex, acting as housekeeper to her son Samuel Courtauld who (along with his eldest sister Louisa) had refused to travel to America with his father. Ruth told Eliza that a parcel was being organised to be sent to the siblings in America, and thus she realised she must write to them. Somewhat self-deprecatingly she complains that:

one from me will be of little or at least of less value, & I am as usual much cumber’d with overmuch serving; our boarder & Louisa in addition to my before small family, keeps me in continual employment. To be sure Louisa has taken Sam’s work off my hands, but still I have more to do than is comfortable at my time of life.

Louisa was the eldest child and visiting Sam’s home, but clearly was not a sufficient help to her mother to stop her feeling overworked.

Loving husbands responded with concern for their wives’ many maternal duties. John Shaw, for instance, often worried about Elizabeth’s health as a consequence of being constantly busy with the children. This is not surprising since they had six children, John (b. 1816), Betsy (b. 1819), Thomas (b. 1820), Edward (b. 1822), Richard (b. 1826), and Mary (b. 1830). Indeed, he felt more relaxed for her well-being when the children were at school. In August 1825 he wrote:

I am happy to find the children are getting quit of the coughs – hope by this time they are quite gone – and that John and Betsey are at school if so you will get a little more ease and a good deal of care and trouble off your hands of which I think you will stand much in need particularly in this hot trying weather which renders any kind of exertion dully difficult

In July 1828 he ended a letter:

Give my love to the children and friends in Goldthornill I am doubtful you will be much harassed and fatigued with the children. Do I pray take it easy – you know how – It will be a relief when they are gone and more particularly so just now situated as you are will it not.

Clearly, the equivalent of parents rather guiltily looking forward to the end of school holidays is not an entirely recent phenomenon.

For the Munby family see:  http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a/records.aspx?cat=192-acc54&cid=0#0

For the Shaw family see: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a/records.aspx?cat=150-shaw&cid=-1#-1 and Andrew Popp’s book Entrepreneurial Families.

For the Courtauld family see: Courtauld, S. A. (ed.), Courtauld family letters, 1782–1900, 7 vols. (privately printed, 1916)

The image used is of Princess Elizabeth, 1797, by William Beechey. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Images http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Princess_Elizabeth_%281770-1840%29.jpg



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