Fathers in the Home: the Longview

Family, home, work, and schooling have collided in the last year thanks to Covid. This has made visible the tensions between different parts of our lives and brought into stark relief gender stereotypes about caring. These issues were the spur to an open lecture exploring the role of fathers in the home today and in the past which I presented with Professor Tina Miller, chaired by Dr Patrick Alexander. It was part of the Oxford Brookes University Think Human Festival that will culminate in a series of exciting events in April 2022.

Tina and I work on fathering and fatherhood and we were both keen to talk about this in the light of Covid19. After all, lockdown has seen more of us spending time in the home for work, education, and leisure as well as family life. This has led to much questioning of gendered caring roles and opened up to scrutiny the issue of who does what when we’re at home and how this gets organised and practised. In our presentations and Q&A we ask what do fathers do in the home? Are fathers more involved now than ever before? Do men and women share the physical and emotional labours of parenting?

Do take a look at the recording here!

The many faces of mothers in Georgian England

One of the things I’ve found interesting on joining social media is how many people’s profiles include ‘mother’ and ‘father’ as part of their personal identity, alongside their occupation, their political stance, and their hobbies. Being a parent has long been part of people’s sense of self, but perhaps what struck me most in my research on parenting in the later Georgian period was how parents could draw on lots of different types of parental identity to construct their own. Probably it was the variety open to mothers that is most striking, for I think there is an assumption that maternity was a very fixed ideal and identity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially for elite women. Having talked a lot about fathers on my blog so far, here are some of my findings about the mothers I researched.[1]


Mary Robinson, by Gainsborough, 1781. Wikimedia Commons.

One way in which women defined themselves through mothering was to use the language of ‘sensibility,’ that fashionable mode of being that influenced the period. For example, in her memoir, written at the end of her too short life, the marvellous Mary Robinson [1758-1800] described herself as a ‘parent whose heart is ennobled by sensibility’. She used the language of feeling to describe her new sense of self at the birth of her daughter. It awoke:

‘a new and tender interest in my bosom, which presented to my fondly beating heart my child, – my Maria. I cannot describe the sensations of my soul at the moment when I pressed the little darling to my bosom, my maternal bosom.’

Mary was not alone in this and like others was using a familiar cultural ideal of the ‘tender mother’. Tender was the adjective most often applied to mothers (and fathers) in the period. It conveyed depth of love, compassion, and care and other characteristics of ideal motherhood which were more abstract than material. These were feelings that were part of the culture of sensibility, including the shedding of tears, shuddering, extreme sensitivity, and movement of hearts. Crucially, Mary was able to use maternity in her memoirs as part of her construction of a more palatable public self-image at the end of her life as a female author formed by the culture of sensibility. This was obviously intended to offer a different public identity to her earlier one as high-class courtesan which centred on her scandalous relationships with a series of high-profile men. [2]

Using the language of the culture of sensibility was not restricted to the educated elite. For example women from a range of social groups used a related style of motherhood regularly depicted in fiction and genre art: the ‘distressed mother’. It emerged out of the emphasis in the culture of sensibility upon the importance of a benevolent society that acted charitably to others. Many of these women may have had no choice in using this form of identity for it was often those who were trying to secure aid, or to justify their position. For example, when her husband, a former merchant, was unable to contribute to his family’s support, one woman placed an advert in The Times, 1795, describing herself as:

‘an almost broken-hearted Mother. God knows this is not any fiction; and not any thing on earth but the dreadful misery that must attend my children, could ever have so far conquered the delicate feelings of sensibility as to lead me to make this appeal to the Public.’

It was an expression that was instrumentally deployed in pauper correspondence in the first three decades of the 19th century. The pauper Frances Soundy said she was ‘a poor disstreesed mother’ in one letter requesting relief written February 1829. Interestingly, though, it was not only women in financial need who described themselves thus. So did women who experienced what they considered setbacks in their lives as mothers.[3]

It would be a mistake to think that this fashionable and dominating image of maternity was the only one that women deployed. Mothering could be experienced as part of women’s personal identity in more pragmatic, material ways that were related to married women’s sense of self as provisioners of their families and households. For all that men are usually described as the breadwinners of the family in the past, women were just as essential in this role, and they knew it and gained a sense of pride and identity from it. The women who used this style of presentation were usually those who in their writings emphasised their labours in order to feed, clothe, and educate their children. When Hannah Robertson [1724-1800] wrote her life in 1791 she set out the main components of her personal identity: daughter of the illegitimate son of Charles II, mother, melancholic (in many ways, what we would today call depressed), and family saviour through her ability to earn a living in a range of activities, from tavern-keeping to teaching and making the visual ‘arts’. The role of motherhood in Hannah’s sense of self was multi-faceted and as much informed by hard labour and provision, and obligation to her family, as by cultural idealisations.[4]

While this was a social and economic role, there was a cultural category which also informed these women’s sense of selves. This was the ‘prudent’ mother. She was good at running the household and domestic economy and bringing up her daughters in the same way. One striking aspect of this form of maternity, both in fiction and in life-writing, is how the provisioning mother was often contrasted with the ineffectual father/husband; men who were in prison for debt, or were bankrupt, or had deserted their families. Women may therefore have called upon prudent, provisioning motherhood when presenting themselves because it was an image of agency, conveying independence, courage, and fortitude.

There was even a category of maternal self-identity which many women have today: the working mother. For some women, ideals of motherhood brought tensions as they sought to reconcile their maternal, domestic roles with other roles in their lives. This is clearly expressed by the Quaker minister Mary Dudley [1750-1823]. In her correspondence and journals, collected by her daughter to construct her life narrative, she presented herself as spiritually compelled to travel as a preacher. However, as the mother of eight children, this compulsion conflicted with mothering. Her journal entries from her travels frequently record her anxieties about her absences from her children and the comfort she received from communications that they were well. She recorded on Sunday 14 April 1786 that she,

‘felt a stop in my mind to proceeding this day to Knockballymaher … some uneasiness respecting home had been hovering about me for several days’.

She ignored her anxiety and went about her business, but on returning to her lodgings she got a message that the woman who cared for her children had taken measles and was removed from the house. She said:

‘I sensibly felt this intelligence, and the struggle was not small to endeavour after, and attain, a degree of quietude, sufficient to discover the right path. I went distressed to bed, I think honestly resigned, either to go forward or return home, as truth opened’.

Since her thoughts kept turning to Knockballymaher, however, she took that as a divine message and went there the following day. She and returned home on the 16th to find her husband and children in health. Problematically she interpreted her anxieties about leaving her children as undermining her call and demonstrating her failure to place her trust in God and submit to Him. This internal conflict attacked her sense of self. In June 1792, hearing the call to visit Quaker Friends in France, Guernsey, and the north of Britain, she confessed,

‘how much has it cost my nature, yea, almost its destruction, to be in the degree I am, loosened from my precious domestic ties’.[5]

Motherhood has never been an easy role!

[1] For more on the mothers discussed here and parental self-identity in general have a look at my book Parenting in England.

[2] Robinson, Mary Elizabeth (ed.), Memoirs of the late Mrs Robinson, Written by herself, 4 vols. (London 1801). Mellor, A., ‘Making an Exhibition of Her Self: Mary “Perdita” Robinson and Nineteenth-Century Scripts of Female Sexuality’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 22 (2000), 271-304

[4] She became melancholic after she lost her ‘darling child,’ in infancy. Her melancholic nature resurfaced and the bereavement caused her to lose her reason for two years. In this time her husband left ‘his other concerns, devoted his time, his fortune, and all his cares to me alone’. Thus his business was given over to his incompetent partner and bankruptcy ensued. Robertson, Hannah, The life of Mrs Robertson, grand-daughter of Charles II. Written by Herself (Derby 1791).

[5] Dudley E., (ed.), The Life of Mary Dudley, including an account of her religious engagements and extracts from her letters, with an appendix containing some account of the illness and death of her daughter Hannah Dudley (London, 1825).

Feeling like a Dad

Fatherhood is one of the most universal and collective experiences, but at the same time is intensely personal, individual and unique. This is what Tom Chivers, is encountering and thinking about in his article ‘What does it feel like to be a Father’ in The Telegraph. He concludes:

In about four and a half months, it seems, I am going to change, profoundly and almost instantly. It’s a frightening thought. I can’t wait.

Men have always wondered about becoming fathers. Perhaps one of the things that is always associated with fatherhood, despite changing styles in expression, is that it brings with it a deluge of emotions that are rarely felt anywhere else in life. As the clergyman John Angell James rhetorically asked in 1822:

who, that has felt them, can ever forget the emotions awakened by the first gaze upon the face of his child, by the first embrace of his babe?

AMERLING_Friedrich_von_Rudolf_Von_Arthaber_With_His_Children 1837Indeed one of the aspects I enjoyed most when writing about parenting in Georgian England was the sheer, unabated love for their children that men often expressed; much like that which Tom Chivers anticipates.

A number of examples can be found in William Hutton’s autobiography which he assembled in extreme old age from the diaries he had kept. William was born in 1723 and died in 1815. In between he climbed the social ladder to rise from a child worker in a Derby silk mill, to a bookshop owner in Birmingham, and ended owning a successful paper warehouse. He wrote the first history of Birmingham, and was a travel writer, powered by his phenomenal ability to walk long distances. Oh, and he was really quite delightful!

Of 1756 he recorded:

My dear wife brought me a little daughter, who has been the pleasure of my life to this day.

For 1758 he described a fine year when:

I procured all the intelligence I could relative to the fabrication of paper; engaged an artist to make me a model of a mill; attended to business; and nursed my children; while the year ran round. On the 2nd of July, Mrs. Hutton brought me another son, so that I had now three to nurse; all of whom I frequently carried together in my arms. This I could not do without a smile; while he who had none, would view the act with envy.

And then, just as now, everyone’s child was the best. In 1770 he recalled:

I went to Nottingham races, and took my son upon a pony. When I. surveyed the little man, and the little horse, the strong affection of a father taught me to think him the prettiest figure upon the race-ground.

At the end of his life, he confessed

my children are my treasure, my happiness. I have ardently wished I might not be separated from them. I have hitherto had my wish. The world would only exhibit a barren desert without them.

William died a happy man, his surviving daughter and son close by him.

I’m delighted that there are more historians writing about fatherhood in the last couple of years and that men’s emotions figure prominently in the analysis. Here I’ve talked about positive feelings, but of course fatherhood stirs others too, like anxiety, sorrow, anger, and fear. All need far more attention for the changing ways in which men are meant to handle these feelings as fathers.

For more recent fathers’ thoughts and feelings, do have a look at the modern historian Laura King’s wonderful website ‘Hiding in the Pub to Cutting the Cord’ and the sociologist Tina Miller’s book Making Sense of Fatherhood.

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)