Making the Personal Historical: Reflections on Pregnancy and Birth

Lady and Children

“A Lady & Children,” 1780 mezzotint, the British Museum.

Human reproduction is simultaneously unchanged and radically different over time and across cultures. This paradox has preoccupied me for over a year as I carried and gave birth to my first child one year ago today, and as I watched my sister follow the same path soon after. Throughout my pregnancy, delivery, and now early motherhood, I’ve found myself thinking often long-dead women and pondering how vastly different our experiences of the same condition must be.

Pregnancy and birth generate intense  feelings. Most parents experience joy, hope, and fear. As a historian, I regularly identify with the women I encounter in the archive. The empathy born of our shared biological and emotional experiences generated two additional emotions that most new parents may not: gratitude, on the one hand, and anger on the other. Continue reading