Foetus: From the Sensory to the Scan

As a physical state, the stages of pregnancy follow a fairly consistent form. Yet maternal perceptions of pregnancy can vary enormously across time and location. As Barbara Duden comments in Disembodying Women: Perspectives on pregnancy and the Unborn: ‘over time, woman and body do not remain the same’; we cannot feel the same as our distant counterparts because our bodies have no ‘empirical equivalent’ to theirs. I’m currently completing a chapter for a forthcoming book on perceptions of pregnancy, edited by Jennifer Evans and Ciara Meehan, and one of the aspects I find fascinating is the way that technologies of conception have entirely changed emotional responses to pregnancy.

A powerful way to illustrate this is through Anna Barbauld’s poem To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible (published 1825, probably written at the end of the 18th century). The foetus that Barbauld described in her poem below was invisible, mysterious, and unknown. This ‘stranger guest’ was a captive imprisoned in her mother’s nurturing though fearful body, burdened with the increasing physical and emotional weight of the foetus. I love this poem, so lively, so touching, so yearning, and so illuminating of maternal pregnant sensibilities in the past.

To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible (By Anna Laetitia Barbauld 1743–1825)

Germ of new life, whose powers expanding slow

For many a moon their full perfection wait,—

Haste, precious pledge of happy love, to go

Auspicious borne through life’s mysterious gate.

What powers lie folded in thy curious frame,—

Senses from objects locked, and mind from thought!

How little canst thou guess thy lofty claim

To grasp at all the worlds the Almighty wrought!

And see, the genial season’s warmth to share,

Fresh younglings shoot, and opening roses glow!

Swarms of new life exulting fill the air,—

Haste, infant bud of being, haste to blow!

For thee the nurse prepares her lulling songs,

The eager matrons count the lingering day;

But far the most thy anxious parent longs

On thy soft cheek a mother’s kiss to lay.

She only asks to lay her burden down,

That her glad arms that burden may resume;

And nature’s sharpest pangs her wishes crown,

That free thee living from thy living tomb.

She longs to fold to her maternal breast

Part of herself, yet to herself unknown;

To see and to salute the stranger guest,

Fed with her life through many a tedious moon.

Come, reap thy rich inheritance of love!

Bask in the fondness of a Mother’s eye!

Nor wit nor eloquence her heart shall move

Like the first accents of thy feeble cry.

Haste, little captive, burst thy prison doors!

Launch on the living world, and spring to light!

Nature for thee displays her various stores,

Opens her thousand inlets of delight.

If charmed verse or muttered prayers had power,

With favouring spells to speed thee on thy way,

Anxious I’d bid my beads each passing hour,

Till thy wished smile thy mother’s pangs o’erpay.[1]

Rachel Bowlby (A Child of One’s Own) shows that technologies of conception shape perceptions of the foetus, and, therefore, pregnancy. We are used to seeing the foetus within the womb thanks to ultrasound scans offered twice during pregnancy, the first usually around 8 to 12 weeks. The baby is visible in a moving image on a screen and in a still photograph produced from the same scan as a physical object and memento. However, this is a very recent phenomenon. It was the 1880s when physicians first began to use the recently invented stethoscope to listen to the baby’s heart in the womb, the end of the 19th century when X-rays were used to see a six-month old embryo in the womb, and it was not until the late 1970s in Britain that ultrasound was first used to produce an image of the baby before birth.[2] The implications of this are significant, providing information about a baby which was previously hidden until its birth; the most obvious example of this is that the baby’s sex can be known in advance.[3]

N0019383 Ultrasound scan, normal 24 weeks gestation

In Bowlby’s astute words, ultrasound has changed ‘the view of pregnancy; it makes the foetus more of a recognizable soon-to-be baby, and less of a hidden, interior being perceptible only through its creeping movements’.[4] These ‘creeping movements’ were the sensations first felt at the quickening (around three months) and continued through pregnancy to be joined by weightier shifts and painful jolts as the foetus moved and kicked. Indeed, Barbara Duden reminds us that the senses were the only means by which women in the past could report on their experiences of the unseen or the ‘sensorium’ of what went on inside them.[5] Such movements or, more sinisterly, the lack of movements were the primary indication of foetal well-being, thus they also occasioned maternal emotions. This makes the vocabulary of pregnancy all the more important to closely scrutinise in terms of an emotional discourse.

Let me return to Barbauld’s poem to demonstrate this connection between the different senses in pregnancy. I have underlined words and phrases which illustrate the uncertainty of pregnancy (which you can see more about in this presentation) partly due to the invisibility of the foetus. Barbauld mentions the anxiety of pregnancy, the apprehension associated with the passage of time, the fear of pain of childbirth, and the unborn child as an unknown quantity perceived only through the senses. The phrase ‘Part of herself, yet to herself unknown’ conveys in beautiful form the sentiment of many mothers.

As Bowlby points out, technology has removed this aspect of pregnancy from our grasp since the advent of foetal scans has removed ‘a significant element of uncertainty – or possibility’.[6] Of course, these new ways of visualising our babies does not eradicate all anxieties; perhaps it simply replaces them with others since often scans are there to detect abnormalities.

[1] I am indebted to Sara Read for alerting me to this poem.

[2] Developed in the 1950s, ultrasound technology came to public attention with the first IVF baby in England, in 1978. Rachel Bowlby, A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories, Oxford 2013.

[3] Bowlby, A Child of One’s Own, pp. 20-21.

[4] Bowlby, A Child of One’s Own, p. 22.

[5] Duden, Disembodying Women, p. 8.

[6] Bowlby, A Child of One’s Own, p. 21.

Image: N0019383 Credit Wellcome Photo Library, Wellcome Images Ultrasound image, lateral of head and upper chest  of normal 24 week fetus  Collection: Wellcome Images
Library reference no.: NMSB

‘Breeding’ a ‘little stranger’: managing uncertainty in pregnancy c. 1660-1830

I had a fantastic time at the Perceptions of Pregnancy Conference. I met some wonderful people for the first time, encountered the real version of the people I talk to in Twitter, and heard some really brilliant and thought-provoking papers.

If you’d like to read the presentation I gave for my keynote paper – click here.

 640px-Da_Vinci_Studies_of_Embryos_Luc_ViatourFoetus by Leonoardo Da Vinci, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Images.

I got some invaluable questions about the issues I discussed, so thanks to everyone who asked them. Also, the last bit of Prezi here acknowledges the conversations I had with people during the preparation of the paper – so thanks to them too! I also learned that I should probably be using a downloaded version of my Prezi presentation when I deliver them. More stuff to find out about …

Also, if you enjoy the presentation, some of my earlier blog posts talk in a little more detail about some of the quotations I mention – here . here, and here.

The bed and the emotional landscape of the household

Angela McShane and I have worked on beds (as it were) for quite some time now and one of the things that has increasingly fascinated us is that the main bed of the household – the marital bed – was a location for family and home that was both literal and figurative. So in this post we’ll think a bit more about this question: how did the bed and its dressings act as both a metaphor and stage for household and family relations?

Overall, the bed was a space whose use was directed by wider family and household concerns. Historians have become much more spatially aware recently, and what is important for those of us who study domestic space is that spaces obtain meaning mainly through the ways in which people use them. One of the things that struck Angela and I again and again was that the space of the bed in seventeenth- and eighteenth- century households was very mutable. The bed could hold different meanings at different times for different individuals because it was so intimately bound up with the form and function of the household. Just think about it – the bed regularly changed its use in a number of short-term, temporary ways. So a bed had different meanings according to whether a wife shared the marital bed with a female servant due to her husband’s absence, or when she lay with her husband. It changed again when it was given over to child care or nursing the sick.

L0019348 A Dutch birth-room, with a maid giving sweetmeats to gossips.

Many historians will know that there were times when the bed had a ceremonial role to play in key life-cycle events like ‘bedding’, childbirth and death, at which points its function would be symbolically transformed. Very often, the dressings on a bed themselves played a vital part in the reshaping of its use. The classic example of this is the way that the function of the chamber in which the bed was placed changed to a child-bed and lying-in space. This was done by blocking the key hole, and by using fabric to close off the light from any windows. The space was thus transformed into a secure, safe environment ready for the female-only experience of giving birth (The image above illustrates this: Wellcome Library, A Dutch birth-room, with a maid giving sweetmeats to gossips, seventeenth century).  Male midwives eventually caused a draft by entering this closed-off haven in the eighteenth century, of course!

Bed curtains c. 1690

As such, the bed and its textiles could become invested with emotional meaning for individuals and families. A great article by Janelle Jansted reveals that wealthy women, for example, had special hangings that were used during their lying-in, the period following child-birth when they received guests from their bed.[i] These textiles gained sentimental connotations and were shared between the aristocratic women’s family members.

We can see the emotional investment of parents in the quilts made for children’s cradles too. Made or commissioned for the birth of a child, some embroidered with the child’s name and date of birth, they represent the human capacity of hope in the face of adversity. In lots of autobiographies and print culture children were frequently referred to as the repository of parental hopes; precious conveyors of familial and personal qualities on to the next generation.


Wikimedia Commons, Two Women By a Cradle, 1670

Yet children’s lives were unbearably fragile. One demographer calculates that from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries around a third of all children died before reaching their tenth birthdays in England and Wales. Mortality for infants under a year old could be even higher. And the same memoirs are often full of the language of grief that testifies to the shattering blighting of parental hopes when a child died. Yet what astounded us was that in the face of this knowledge, parents did not fear marking the precarious arrival of their offspring through textiles that would be placed on cradles or beds, or indeed displayed nearby. In part the possibility of loss might itself have motivated parents to make permanent their children’s lives through a material object that could be passed on to future generations. As with family portraits, or written memories of family members, textiles offered another way to try and heal the irrevocable discontinuity caused by frequent and sudden mortality.

All this testifies to individuals’ interest in what scholars rather pompously call the ‘diachronic’ family – that is in situating themselves within the family as it stretched before and after them. And this too can be seen in some quilts and coverlets. One of the quilts which was displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Quilt Exhibition (2010) is a great illustration of this.


It is a cot quilt (held at the V&A), thought to date from 1690 to 1720 as most of the textiles used in it are late seventeenth century. Yet it has a particularly early textile at its centre, probably from the 1660s). The likely maker was Priscilla Redding, and research on this quilt by Claire Smith in preparation for the exhibition suggests she probably made it for her first born child Susanna. Priscilla herself was born in 1654, which means that the textile may have been from her own childhood (or could have been inherited from another family member). The fact that it sits at the centre suggests it has a particular emotional resonance for the maker. We don’t think it is unreasonable to speculate that it represents emotional lineage, the handing down of memories of family from one generation to another.

To read more about the quilts on beds you can read Sue Prichard (ed), Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories (V&A, 2010)

We’ll think more about the curtains around the bed in our next post.

[i] Janelle Day Jenstad, ‘Lying-in like a Countess: the Lisle letters, the Cecil Family, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34:2 (2004)