The drama of conception, gestation and parturition has been going on in female bodies since before humans came into existence, but what we know about the experience of mothering in times past comes from a thin and fragile strand of sources. According to the historian Sarah Knott, ‘the first published, personal account of being pregnant’ appeared in 1917, written by the novelist Charlotte Hirsch. Before that, the voices of mothers have to be traced in private correspondence or intuited from the advice given in manuals (the first of these in English appeared in the late 17th century). Not until the 1970s and the women’s liberation movement did any substantial record of how women experienced maternity come into being.
That means that our knowledge about mothering (Knott prefers to treat the word ‘mother’ as a verb rather than a noun, choosing to emphasise it as a historically specific process rather than an eternal archetype) comes largely from a moment in history when it was less important than it had ever been before. With the coming of the Pill and legally available abortion, pregnancy could be considered optional for women in Europe and North America. Those who did have children were having fewer than before – two or three, rather than half a dozen or more. ‘Somewhere between the fecund past and the parsimonious present, mothering as dilemma … replaced mothering as destiny,’ writes Knott.