Friday, May 11, 2018

Interrupted Mothers' Letters

Frequent use hones mothers' multitasking skills into an art. Holding a child on her hip while cooking, chatting up a toddler while trying to finish some paperwork, or folding the laundry while persuading an independent-minded youngster to put on their shoes, a mother navigates simultaneously through her own world as well as her children's. This does not always go smoothly. Letters written by mothers of young children help uncover the mingled joy and frustration that childcare yields.

In 1854, Emma Clark Greene of North Bridgewater, Massachusetts, tended to her young infant and her rambunctious toddler. "Eddie has carried on and trained around all day like a witch because 'twas Sunday I suppose, was off to bed before 6 he is all noise and bustle, boy-like," she related with a perceptible level of exasperation. "It was past 1 oclock to day before I got my work done," she continued, astonished at the way time flies when you are occupied with little children. "Got breakfast cleared away, got the young ones clothes together, mended about half a dozen garments, washed and dressed Eddie (rather do half a days work), then the baby, and then at my work. You better believe I get most dreadful tired and discouraged, taking care of babies...but-- then we were babies once. I think of our poor Mother and wonder how she got along with 7." Pulled in many directions, frazzled women stole what time they could to commiserate with friends and family. Thinking of their own mothers, they joined a community of women who shared the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of raising children.

That these letters were written at all was no small feat. The archive teams with flustered asides written by mothers documenting the conditions under which they were trying to pen their correspondence. Our Appleton-Aiken Family Papers include an undated letter that Harriet Lord wrote to her mother, Mary Aiken, explaining why she was so delayed in sending it. "I have intended to write you every eve. for a week, dearest mother, but the children do not go to sleep till nearly nine & then I am so stupid & sleepy that I am in no condition to be entertaining." Fatigue was not the only thing hampering her efforts. "I have no less than four times dropt my pen since I commenced writing today to attend to the little folks & many more I have stopped to put in a word for them," she sighed. "Hatty lies on the floor at my feet with her hands & feet stretched out as tho' she meant to make her own way thro' the world before long." Exhaustion and frequent interruptions made it difficult to pen a sensible letter. 


The page includes an aside in what appears to be a child's hand, "Pese Mama write Mamy," and then a transcribed message that begins, "Master Willy is so unskilled in the use of his pen & so prone to cover his hands & face with ink, that his mama prefers to put down his thots for him." Evidence of children's active (if perhaps unsolicited) participation in writing letters are charming contributions in hindsight. Another example appears at the bottom of a May 1848 letter from our Mary Jane Hale Welles Papers, labelled "Edgars letter."


 Young Edgar's message to his grandmother shows not only what was on his mind (balloons) but also how closely he was engaged in his mother's daily activities. "I am writing with a great noise around me," she explained, with Edgar an unnamed but likely culprit, later adding, "I cannot write there is so much confusion." The busy chaos of childhood made its way into the archive.

The Hill Family Papers, part of the Blandina Diedrich Collection, offer an especially vivid picture of Alice Hill's experiences as a wife and mother in the Civil War-era. She wrote frequently to her husband who had left home for extended business trips to Colorado. She tended to their two children, Crawford, a toddler, and Isabell, an infant. "Just now, he is out for his afternoon walk with Miss A. & Miss Bell is asleep, so I can find a minute for you," she hurriedly wrote shortly after her husband's departure in June 1864. "My heart is full & I could write volumes, but my time is so limited: I am busy from morning till night, with housework, sewing, but principally & above all, taking care of babies." Her letters are peppered with asides about what the children were doing as she wrote. "Crawford stands by my side, shaking the table & shouting 'Charcoal' to a coal man in the street. He is a darling little nuisance at times" (July 12, 1864). Or, "Bell lies on the floor by my side, kicking up her heels in the air & sucking both fists. Crawford is making believe he is a dog & is barking at her" (July 31, 1864). As a mother, she existed right at the heart of the household, and stealing a moment to write could be challenging, finding quiet to focus on what to write even more so.

"Crawford just this moment is writing to his papa on a piece of brown paper, much against his will however, as he wishes to write on my sheet," Alice noted, describing the conditions surrounding her writing table. "What he may be doing in another minute, I can't tell: some mischief you may be sure." (June 26, 1864). Distracting a child long enough to accomplish something is a useful talent, but not a foolproof one. On July 1st Crawford was not so readily turned away. Alice's statement, "Crawford is bothering me almost to death," shifts suddenly into an altered hand. "Dear Papa I want to see you. I love you dearly." Alice explained, "He has just written you, the above. I held his hand."


It is easy to imagine the scene-- a mother trying to write a letter while her children are near by, the toddler gaining interest, the inability to shoo him away, the concession of defeat, and finally holding the child and directing his hand to satisfy his desire to participate. This give and take, teaching a child manners and boundaries while still making space to welcome and foster their interest and individuality, is something to celebrate through the centuries. It is not easy, and it never has been. These mothers' interrupted letters stand as a testament to how childrearing is both the ultimate test of patience and the inspiration for boundless love. A mother's days are not defined by getting everything done quickly or perfectly, but rather by sharing your world, your day, your heart, and occasionally even your page with a child.

Jayne Ptolemy
Assistant Curator of Manuscripts

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