It is rare in the twenty-first century that one might see a woman struggling to find solace in maternity. Today, the challenges women face as they enter into motherhood are not nearly as obtrusive as those women battled years ago. Literature from the early nineteenth century conveys how women during these times were forced to contend with the pains of labor before and after the birth of their children. Society was different. Hardships were greater. There was more to be feared. And for these reasons, a direct correlation is established between motherhood and trauma. Through the works of Harriet A. Jacobs and Angelina Grimke, a pattern of trauma is conveyed in the two stages of motherhood; before birth and after birth.
Even before a child was born in in the late 1800s and early 1900s, women suffered from the regret of conception and fear of birth. In Harriet A. Jacob’s slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs revealed the mortifying internal battle she faced when she lost her virginity to Mr. Sands: “I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me” (84). The phrases “struggling alone,” “powerful grasp,” and “demon Slavery” suggest the magnitude of inner turmoil Jacobs faced; more than Mr. Flint or Whites, she personified and blamed Slavery itself for the conception of her child. Slavery was that into which her child was being born, and it scared her that the “monster proved too strong” for her to fight alone. However, she only lost her purity, lost the respect of her grandmother, and lost respect for herself, in hopes that giving birth would be her chance at freedom. In reality, it was her lack of freedom which caused her to take this risk and inflict upon herself greater turmoil and moral anguish. The emotional plight through which Jacobs struggled had destroyed her sense of self. Conceiving her child was only the beginning of Jacobs’s trauma.
In Angelina Grimke’s 1919 work, The Closing Door, the woman protagonist, Agnes, faces difficulties of the same echelon as Jacobs when her pregnancy is revealed. While unlike Jacobs, she was not forced into pregnancy, Agnes was still unable to enjoy the thought of motherhood for even a moment. After the news of her pregnancy sent her into a spiraling depression, exacerbated by the news of her brother’s lynching, she came to the conclusion that having the baby was the gravest misfortune she could face. “I—An instrument of reproduction!—another of the many!—a colored woman—doomed!—cursed!—put here!—willing or unwilling! For what?—to bring children here—men children—for the sport—the lust—of possible orderly mobs—who go about things—in an orderly manner—on Sunday mornings!” (Grimke, 140). Agnes could not love her child. She was driven to madness because she saw her baby only as a product of society and she the instrument cursed to bring it into the cruel world. She saw motherhood as punishment for a colored woman. She had no hope for a better life, and instantly became defeated. It seems as though at that point, she decided to give her child as much love as she felt she received from the racist society. For both Agnes and Jacobs, stepping over the threshold into motherhood was the traumatic turning point in their lives.
Both mothers endured greater challenges after the birth of their children; Jacobs struggled to keep her children alive because she loved them, and Agnes struggled to continue living with her child because she could not love him. After Jacobs gave birth and escaped, leaving her children behind with her grandmother, her attempt to care for her children caused more agony. The situation drove her to confess, “I was daily hoping to hear that my master had sold my children” (154). In dire situations would a slave mother ever wish for her children to be sold. This line indicates the severity of Jacobs’s desperation. She expresses further feelings of trauma when she reflected, “I was encountering dangers for the sake of freeing them, and must I be the cause of their death? The thought was agonizing”(156). Loving the children whom she was forced to conceive caused Jacobs stress beyond repair. She was caught I a viscous cycle that really could have to possible positive outcome. It is maternal instinct to put everything on the line for the well-being of children, but Jacobs’s saturation transcended that instinct. The incident is another case of how motherhood is a punishment.
By contrast, Agnes did not risk her life for her child; instead she dealt with torment from choosing not to love her son. Lucy described two incidents when Agnes’s torment was visible: once when she had stolen a look at her child when she thought no one else could see, Lucy said, “I never wish to see such a tortured, hungry face again” (144). The second was when Lucy found Agnes sobbing at her baby’s crib. The hunger and torment Lucy saw in Agnes in the first incident swelled inside her and brought her to tears in the second incident. It was clear Agnes wanted to love her child. She was a mother and therefore had to have felt the need to love her child as all mothers do. She was plagued with desire and castigated by circumstance. Her inner struggle caused her descent into insanity. However the greater struggle was against the oppression of society. Because Agnes felt personally victimized as a colored woman, she saw her child as much of the same victim. She forced herself to see her child as a product, an object—an object which was a constant reminder of the oppression colored people encountered in society. The constant subjugation of society mixed with the torment of being a mother and the fear of loving her child, ultimately lead to Agnes’s infanticide. The ultimate tragedy in the sphere of motherhood is the loss of a child, and Agnes was reached that point because of her motherhood.
The concept of motherhood is bound so closely to the concept of womanhood that the two are nearly synonymous. In considering the question “What does it mean to be a woman?” we have to also consider “What does it mean to be a mother?” Because she is born with motherly instincts, a woman already had a clos e bond with her children. The strength of these bonds however is where the problem lies. The love mothers have for children is the reason they have undergone such trauma before and after the birth of their children. If they did not innately love their children, they would not care about bringing them into the world. Jacobs would not have escaped. Agnes would not have gone mad. Through these texts, it is seen how motherhood controls womanhood, and both have caused severe turmoil in lives of women; but it has only been recently that women have been able to separate motherhood from the ostensibly inevitable trauma that seems to be its mate