An intimate history of mother-baby care in the English-speaking world: Introduction

For, with all her knowledge of history, Alice had no clear notion how long ago anything had happened. 25

Once, I spent three days in England with a friend. We located two stone reliefs hidden in the Somerset countryside, high on the mossy walls of early Gothic churches. They were sheela-na-gigs, their crudely hewn, spread-open thighs and birthing vulvas celebrating new life, even as their hag’s upper bodies and skeletal grimaces spoke of death. Around 1000 AD, when these reliefs were carved, early marriage was inevitable, and child-bearing relentless. In traditional cultures, back then (and still now), babies may not have cried much, but to be female was to know intimately, from girlhood, the mortal danger of child-birth. This is why the local midwife not only knew the behaviours which supported the synchrony of the mother and baby’s nervous system and hormones (that is, their neurohormonal synchrony) in birth and breastfeeding, she knew protective prayers, spells and rituals.

Sheela-na-gigs belong to these rituals of protection, and their location in the oldest surviving churches in the British Isles marks the transition from earlier folk religions to Christianity. In the thousand years since, the Virgin Mary of the Christian church has been the dominant artistic and written representation of the new mother in the West. Cultural representations are important, because they help determine how we feel about ourselves as new mothers, and what the permissible social behaviours might be.

Lively images of the Virgin did flourish between the 13th and 16th centuries as the old religions faded: the medieval Madonna could be plain, she could be tender or feisty, she could be distracted and playful, she could be plump and broad-thighed. She was even the exuberantly lactating Madonna, Our Lady of the Milk, who exposed her breast, dripping with milk, in pious nourishment of the Christ Child. Subsequently the Virgin Mary ‘Mother most pure, Mother most chaste,’ became purified, sentimentalised, cerebralised. She became Our Lady of Sorrows.

Shockingly, the protestant iconoclasts hacked out the vulvas of the sheela-na-gigs and chiselled off the faces of the Virgins. Though the Madonna of the resurgent Counter-Reformation defied them, she was permitted only very narrow representations, her breast buried under layers of heavy blue cloth. By the time of the industrial revolution in England, my non-conformist forebears worshipped in front of by bare altars, surrounded by empty walls, never a Madonna in sight, and this gap meant that cultural representations of the new mother were ready to be taken over by the new, secular, scientific stories of the medical men.


Adapted from Douglas, Pamela, 'Appendix 1: An Intimate History of Mother-Baby Care in the English-speaking World,' The Discontented Little Baby Book, UQP: 2011;pp. 208-221.



Carroll L, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published Macmillan and Co., London 1866; Books of Wonder, William Morrow & Co., Inc. New York 1992.

Image credits

Pamela Douglas