The Main Bedroom: Confinement
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A surprisingly public space, the main bedroom of the Wylie House could have been used as another room for entertainment. The double doors would be opened and furniture pushed to the side, allowing for larger events to spill into this room. Again, this public use of supposedly private space exemplifies the contradictions of the domestic, woman’s sphere. Family letters indicate that this room may have also been Louisa’s room in 1881, where she stayed with her children while her husband, Hermann, lived away from the family, teaching in Williamstown, Massachusetts. But for the exhibit, the main bedroom has been transformed into a birthing room, a site of anticipation, fear, excitement, and womanhood.
“You don’t know how I hope, dear Hermann, that this little creature may be the means of making me a better human in every way. More unselfish, more loving, and more pure. . .There may be cases where a woman would feel that it would be better that she should not have children, but that she should feel so merely because she will be obliged to forego some of her pleasure in going out and enjoying herself in that way, I cannot understand. I know there is great care and responsibility and confinement where there are children and that mothers are sometimes so wearied and so overburdened that they feel their burdens are almost too much for them, but then what a pleasure and delight it must be to have a family sound in body and mind growing up around one.”
Most women saw childbirth as essential to their social role. While pregnancy and childbirth were largely controlled by women and centered around female connectedness, these experiences could be extremely lonely and isolating. While Louisa did write of the loving support of her mother, her first pregnancy and confinement, in 1875, reflects these feelings of seclusion. Like many other women who sought the advice and care of their mothers during this time of preparation, Louisa lived at the Wylie House, apart from her husband Hermann for several months. She wrote to Hermann almost every day, progressively more emotionally distraught.
In the nineteenth-century, appearing visibly pregnant in public was considered inappropriate. If an expectant mother left the home, she would be expected to wear a maternity corset with hopes of concealing her pregnancy. A maternity corset from the Wylie House collection reveals the agony of wearing such devices. Covered in sweat stains, the tiny bodice looks uncomfortable and painful to most, let alone a woman carrying a growing child. Because of the social restrictions on pregnant women, Louisa spent almost all her time at the Wylie House with little social engagement beyond her housemates. On April 18th, she wrote to Herman saying:
“I did not go to church today. Indeed I do not think I shall try to go any more. The last time I put on my corsets I had another of those faint spells so that I do not think it exactly wise and safe to put them on and without them I look too slovenly to be seen. I don’t like even to go about the house now where there are so many boys and a young lady, but I do.”
Increasingly, Louisa’s letters included sentiments of jealousy and fears of mortality. Not alone in these feelings of isolation and worry, women’s experiences of pregnancy and childbirth often included grappling with anticipations of injury or death or feeling excluded from the joys of social life. Anxious and emotionally alone, she implored her husband to come visit her, and he did – once. She wrote to Hermann on April 13, 1875:
“Of course I would think sometimes of the great uncertainty of the result, but the hardest thing for me now is this separation from you and the thought that even in the hour of extreme anguish you may not be able to be with me and that if I should die, I may not be permitted to see you again. But I shall try not to give up to such thoughts. Only I pray that I may be prepared for whatever may be before me. I have thus far been spared so much pain that other women suffer and I have so much around me to comfort me and make me happy that I ought not to complain of the one thing, my dear husband’s presence is wanting, since I know he loves me and thinks of me. For your sake, for your love, dear Hermann, I can bear the pain. If God in mercy spares my life and that of our child, I hope I may prove myself more worthy of your love and may be a wise and loving Mother.”
Despite her admission of fearing childbirth to her husband, it should not be assumed that these feelings were expressed beyond her private letters. The message of Christian moral mothering that came from advice manuals emphasized composure and emotional stability as central. On May 31, 1875, Louisa directly referenced this brand of advice literature on maternal composure:
“I have been exceedingly troubled sometimes for fear some harm was done then, for I feared I had lost your love forever, and I could not control myself. I have not however been at all contented with my temper and disposition since I have been home. I know I have not had the right spirit and I have felt very badly about it and tried to do and feel right, not only because it is right, but for fear of the influence over the little one. This book says “The woman in this condition becomes hasty, passionate, jealous and bitter” but I think I ought to be able to control myself somewhat.”
The quote came from the women’s advice manual, The Physical Life of Woman by George H. Napheys, M.D. This text recommended emotional stability, perpetuating the belief that the disposition of an expectant mother affected the developing fetus.
Fittingly, the experience of going into labor and delivery during the nineteenth-century was termed “confinement.” For much of the nineteenth-century, men were excluded from the birthing room and exerted little dominance over the realm of childbirth. However, as the century progressed, male physicians became more and more implemented as consultants to midwives or female relatives, still primarily overseeing the process. This shift to reliance on male medicine directly relates to the more scientifically-minded advice given in the later 19th century.
The Wylie women, who became mothers between the years 1867 and 1887, were likely attended by male physicians. Though women might feel a certain distrust or discomfort, physicians were slowly but sustainably being included in the realm of birth. In one letter to her husband, a pregnant Louisa wrote asking if he thought the doctor’s cancer might affect the infant during the birthing procedure. On April 18th, she wrote telling Herman that, while she was embarrassed to do so, she asked a visiting physician if the pain in her side was abnormal.
“Last night I did not sleep well. [German sentence] and when the doctor came to see Dory I asked him about it though I did not like to. But Aunt E didn’t know and Ma wasn’t here. He said he had no idea that anything was wrong, it was only a sign of a very vigorous child and as for this severe pain in my shoulder and other pains which I may have from this time they are only sympathetic. So I felt greatly comforted and I’m glad I asked him, for I don’t believe I’ll get much more rest tonight. He said though that it wouldn’t likely be always so bad.”
Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of this chapter in the life Louisa Wylie, is that the child she carried to term was stillborn. On July 14, 1875, Susan Emma Dennis wrote in her diary,
Miscarriage, Stillbirths, and Maternal Grief
“I cannot tell you in formal words how I sympathize with you. I too have gone down to Death’s door in that awful agony and know how useless words are in describing it. But we will thank God that it is past, and I hope nothing has interfered with your recovery . . . I wish I could sit down by you this afternoon and say it all; then there would be no need of scratches. It is just the day for chat; for sitting with friends who don’t mind if you fall away in long lapses of silence; friends between whom the silence is as eloquent as words.”
Each of the Wylie women experienced the pain of losing a child. After experiencing an emotionally fraught pregnancy, on July 14th, 1875, Louisa’s first child, a baby girl, was delivered stillborn. Almost two years later, in February of 1877, Seabrook’s first child, also a baby girl, died in infancy. Hardly no mention of this event appears in the family letters, a silence that speaks to pain of the loss. In September of 1880, two years after the birth of her first son, Theo, Seabrook, again, experienced maternal grief after giving birth to a stillborn baby boy. Again, no reaction from the grieving mother appears in the letters, but a note, dated September 16, 1880, from Louisa to her husband, Herman, documented the loss:
“I have sad news to tell you. Brown and Sedie’s little babe was born dead. It was a little boy, a large child looking very much like Cully [Theophilus Wylie, Seabrook’s eldest son]. Sede was quite sick but is getting along pretty well except for her nervousness.”
Less than a year later on June 23, 1881, Louisa, now the mother of two, miscarried during her fourth pregnancy. Family letters during this time vaguely remark on the health of Louisa, referring to her as being “sick”. Noting the event in her own journal, Louisa simply wrote,“Finale—little boy”.
The limited correspondence or expression related to child loss reflects nineteenth century ideas of composure and maintenance of one’s emotions. In addition to advice literature recommending emotional stability and calmness, authors emphasized the acceptance of God’s will. Advise author, Catherine Beecher wrote, “If a beloved child is laid in the grave, even if its death resulted from carelessness of a domestic, or a physician, the eye is turned from the subordinate agent, to the Supreme Guardian of all, and to Him they bow without murmur or complaint.” Advice dictated that “moral mothers” experience child loss as a religious moment, and to internalize the death of children as a part of a divine plan. This same moral tone occasionally appeared in the popular, fictional short-stories of nineteenth-century magazines. Featured in the Wylie’s 1856 May edition of “Godey’s Lady’s Book”, the short-story “Is She Happy” by Katherine Dean captured the religiously charged and composed experience of loss and mourning, while also marking the deep attachment of mother and child.
Told from the third-person prospective of her mother, the narrative follows a woman named Helen. While Helen has a privileged life with a respectable husband, her mother detects some unease. The text heavily implies that Helen’s unhappiness is the result of her childlessness. After Helen does give birth, her infant child dies, and her mother comes to be with her. Helen is emotionally void, yet simultaneously distraught.
“Mother, I have no tears; my heart is turned to stone.” With the same fearful calmness she watched them lay her beautiful treasure in his little narrow bed, and passively she stood beside the open grave as the tiny form was gently lowered to its last resting-place. . .”
The story concludes with Helen dying, and her mothering feeling relief that her daughter is finally happy. Significantly, the narrative, told through the gaze of the mother, emphasized motherly connection beyond the years of youth.
In 1894, Maggie Wylie Mellette, the only Wylie mother to outlive any of her adult children, experienced a uniquely painful loss. Her eldest son, Wylie, at the age of 27, delirious with typhoid fever, took his own life. Again, no letter remains that give insight into the emotional state of Maggie, through her own voice, as a grieving mother. However, a brief letter, dated November 6, 1894, from Maggie’s husband Arthur to Louisa read:
Through this difficult event in the life of Maggie, maternal grief appears situated in the context of moral composure and religious yielding, but also within a context of female connectedness. Through the shared experience of child loss, a commonly shared experience amongst women of the time, the Wylie women most likely found themselves profoundly bonded to one another and each other’s children. A letter from Seabrook to Louisa exemplifies “extended” mothering, the shared experience of mothering. Within the letter, Seabrook explained the loss of Wylie as a loss of her own, a loss she can sympathize with as an impoverished widow and mother living away from her children, at this time. She wrote:
“I don’t know when I have been so impressed with sad news as I was today when I opened your letter and read it. I can never wait when I receive a letter from home and I opened it just before my day’s work commenced, and all day the work was dragged out of me. I have finished a note to poor Maggie. I could not tell what to say. Death is dreadful and to me this is beyond every trouble. God grant her strength to bear it! I loved Wylie and this has brought back so many memories to me that I feel burdened tonight and almost without trust myself. I am glad you did not tell me his death. Don’t dear. I cannot bear to think of it. I must not for I am just now going through much and I cannot stand anything. I am almost tired of everything, and this is another sad event added to my life. Wylie and Charlie seemed like my own boys in one way.”
Confused on who's who? Take a look at the Family Relationship Chart at the end of this exhibit.