Maternal Impressions

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This month, PoP network member Sarah Fox shares her insights on the debates (both historical and contemporary) on maternal impressions.

On the 14th September 2020, the Daily Mail reported upon a pilot study being undertaken at the University of Heidelberg.  The headline read: ‘Anxious mums can pass on their stress to their babies – leaving them with an ‘emotional imprint’ that can scar them for life, scientists warn.’  The article reported that children of mothers suffering from anxiety or depression experienced raised heart rates during a stress test called ‘still face test’. “We found that if a mother was anxious or depressed, their baby had a more sensitive physiological response to stress during the test than did the babies of healthy mothers” researcher Fabio Blanco-Dormond is reported to have said.  An article on sciencetimes.com raised the stakes still further reporting that the infant’s significantly (8 bpm) increased heart rate “could develop into emotional stress in later years.” The findings are reported as being at the cutting edge of scientific research. “To our knowledge this is one of the first times this physical effect has been seen in three-months old infants” according to the Daily Mail’s report.  Yet the idea that a mother’s thoughts and feelings can impact both physically and emotionally on their unborn child has very long and complex roots.

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Open the womb to receive seed again

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week Amy Kenny explores why superfetation was removed from The Comedy of Errors.

“Open the womb to receive seed again”: Removing superfetation from The Comedy of Errors

In the source material for The Comedy of Errors, Alcmena becomes pregnant with twins fathered by two different male suitors, a medical condition known as superfetation.[1]  Those familiar with The Comedy of Errors will recall no such plot twist in Shakespeare’s play.  So what accounts for the change in dramatizing gestation? What can this switch suggest to us about the play’s portrayal of pregnancy and twins?  Throughout the early modern period, multiple births were often considered suspicious because they played on the cultural anxiety surrounding gratuitous female sexuality.  If a woman could commit adultery even while pregnant, fathers feared the paternity of their heirs.

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“For ourselves, for our house, for this”

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. In this week’s post Jeni Buckley considers the  representations of motherhood and pregnancy in Game of Thrones

“For ourselves, for our house, for this”: Dialectics of Maternal Imagination in HBO’s Game of Thrones

Motherhood is a major trope of Game of Thrones, the narrative perhaps most famous for characters such as Daenerys Targaryen; ‘Mother of Dragons’, and Cersei Lannister; the sociopathic queen mother. The HBO television series, based on the novels of George R R Martin, is now a global obsession which arguably outstrips interest in Martin’s seven-book series ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. Academic interest in the phenomenon is also gaining momentum; this month will see the first international Game of Thrones conference at the University of Hertfordshire, where the George R. R. Martin Society will also be officially launched. My own interest in Game of Thrones centres on the way that pregnancy is presented in the series. For example, the seventh and most recent television installment of the franchise featured the announcement of Queen Cersei’s illegitimate and incestuous pregnancy with her brother-lover, Jamie Lannister. Given the show’s focus on the question of royal succession, it is perhaps inevitable that the issue of pregnancy receives attention; however I want to highlight the way that the representation of highborn pregnancy in the series is part of a wider discourse of maternal imagination and responsibility.

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The Disembodied Mother

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. In this week’s post Rachel Botha considers the visual representations of mothers in debates surrounding abortion.

The Disembodied Mother: the representation of motherhood in the visual
culture surrounding the abortion debate.

According to the Eighth Amendment in the Constitution of Ireland the right to life of the unborn is equal to the right to life of the mother. This legislation is ultimately transferred to the visual culture that surrounds the brewing debate of abortion in Ireland. In this piece I shall be honing in on the impact of visualising the foetus, and how it essentially disembodies the pregnant woman to exaggerate ‘life’- the life of the foetus as a separate entity to the mother.

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Gothic Pregnancy

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post from Louise Benson James explores the representation of pregnancy in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House.

Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House (2007) is narrated by Maja, a young Afro-Cuban woman living in London, and pregnant for the first time.  Pregnancy in The Opposite House is presented as a Gothic experience. Maja’s anxiety about the process of giving birth is tracked from monstrous images imagined in childhood – ‘I had vague ideas about one day having to do something large and bloody, put my eye out, or split my forehead open’ – to the adult fear that she will not survive it: ‘I am beginning to understand that at the end of this time there is going to be a need for strength, that as the skin over my stomach pulls tauter my centre descends, and one day I am going to have to push. I don’t know how anyone survives it, the thought or the happening. I will not’. [1] Maja expresses the alienating and disordering effect of her changing pregnant body: ‘my breasts are rotten lumps hooked into my ribcage, and I can’t touch my body at all, I can’t’ (p.17). Clare Kahane states:

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Conception – Past and Present

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post from Isabel Davis introduces us to a new project that examines conception in the past and the present.

Those undergoing IVF treatment look modernity in the face. Watching a cell fertilise and an embryo develop in a petri-dish necessarily inspires awe in modern science. Read, for example, this moving account of embryo transfer by New Zealand blogger Little Red Hen.[1]  At the same time as marvelling at reproductive technology, she spares a thought for the people of the past, who lived without these assistive technologies; in spite of her own struggles it makes her ‘feel lucky’.

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Missing Mothers: Maternal Deaths in the United States

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post from Laura Neff asks why there is not more debate about maternal deaths in the United States.

Introduction:

Ten years ago, I watched pro-choice and pro-life activists marching towards the US Capitol Building. It was a hot afternoon, and the muggy air felt like an oppressive sea to swim through in Washington, DC. Their signs were like oars in the ocean and the two opposing sides were like two great naval flotillas, gearing up for battle. At the time, I was an intern for the Office of the House Historian and I was fascinated with the social understandings of life and death in the womb. Yet, neither group debated life and death for the mother during pregnancy, childbirth or post-partum. Why is maternal death and its prevention not a larger issue in the US 2016 presidential election? And more broadly, have the risks associated with maternal death been overshadowed by the binary pro-choice/pro-life debate?

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‘Always Ready’: Handywomen and Childbirth in Irish History

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. This weeks post on the assistance during birth of handywomen in Ireland comes to us from Cara Delay, Interim Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the College of Charleston.

On duty in the west of Ireland, one of Lady Dudley’s nurses reported her experiences with a maternity case in 1910. She wrote:

Had just gone to another case when this patient sent for me. Then they went for [the] handy woman, who is a great scold. Doctor also had to be sent for, and he would not have me go whilst this woman was there. Afterwards I was called. The house is an old stable. There is no bed in the house, just a table, one chair and one stool; they are very poor. Patient was lying in the corner in a frightful condition. I got assistance and had her removed and made her comfortable.[1]

Revealing the practical difficulties involved in early twentieth-century Irish nursing—rural travel and poverty among them—this report also points to the tensions that developed between nurse-midwives, doctors, and traditional ‘handywomen’ during a time of transforming health care ideals and realities.

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The Pregnant Eighteenth-Century Actress

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week’s post is contributed by Helen Brooks and examines the pregnant eighteenth-century actress.

Writing in 1802 that a woman’s duties as a mother began ‘not only from the birth of her child, but even from the moment of its origin’ Christian Struve voiced the opinion of many an eighteenth-century commentator.[i] Maternal conduct literature often placed as much emphasis on the months preceding the child’s birth as it did on those following it. Women were advised to carefully moderate their levels of physical activity, and to avoid dancing, riding, or even walking. Yet at the same point they were warned of the dangers of idleness, indolence or ‘excessive effeminacy’.[ii] The ‘fatiguing dissipations’ of the bon ton also presented risks, whilst anything which might be described as ‘tumultuous pleasures, violent passions’ or ‘an irregular life’  could all lead to serious harm or miscarriage.[iii]

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Mothers, Motherhood, and Mothering in Popular Culture

WHO: Southwest Popular/American Culture Association (SWPACA)
WHERE: Albuquerque, New Mexico
WHEN: 10-13 February 2016
DEADLINE: 1 November 2015

Proposals are now being accepted for the conference’s newly established subject area, Mothers, Motherhood, and Mothering in Popular Culture.

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