Thursday, June 28, 2018

Nora Doyle's "Maternal Bodies"

Nora Doyle is assistant professor of history at Salem College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Maternal Bodies: Redefining Motherhood in Early America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Maternal Bodies falls in chapter three, which explores the cultural idealization of breastfeeding in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Coincidentally, this was the piece of research that gave birth (pun intended!) to the project as a whole. Looking at historical debates about breastfeeding, I realized that my sources were really talking about the maternal body—how it should be used, what it should look like, and how it should feel. In chapter three, I explore how authors of maternal advice manuals portrayed breastfeeding, and I argue that in the late eighteenth century they began to emphasize maternal breastfeeding as the greatest source of women’s physical and emotional pleasure. This rhetoric of pleasure sought to transform motherhood from a physically grueling and often painful experience to a transcendent one. Or, as I write on page 99,
If pleasure was an inherent part of nursing, then good mothering must be by definition a pleasurable experience. A popular women’s magazine corroborated this idea in a sketch of the ideal mother: “She takes her child to her breast, and imparts that nourishment which the Creator has designed for its sustenance; and in so doing she is conscious of a new principle of delight, physically and morally. The turbulence of love is past, and she has now that tranquil enjoyment best adapted to her health and her moral and intellectual growth.” In obeying the dictates of God and nature, the good mother derived a new form of joy that permeated her body and spirit.
Also on page 99, however, I note that some advice writers acknowledged that breastfeeding could be a physically challenging and even painful experience for women, although they ultimately persisted in their representation of breastfeeding as a delightful experience. This passage gestures to the central tension that structures my book as a whole: the disconnect between the cultural idealization of motherhood and the physical experiences of real-life mothers. I argue that women saw motherhood as fundamentally rooted in the labor of their bodies, and they emphasized the physical challenges of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Their experiences of pain and exhaustion led them to regard motherhood with ambivalence. In American print culture, however, representations of motherhood began to efface the physical work of childbearing and childrearing. In fact, I argue that by the mid-nineteenth century cultural depictions of motherhood had made the maternal body largely invisible and the ideal mother was portrayed as an ethereal influence primarily defined by her emotional work.
Learn more about Maternal Bodies at The University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue