Last week I purchased the latest issue of Family Tree magazine. Great! One of the articles this moth’s issue includes discusses 19th-century women who became mothers late in life, a somewhat common phenomenon which has again become recurrent these days for a number of reasons.
The article mentions several well-known cases of women who bore children beyond their fortieth birthday, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who after four miscarriages had her only son when she was 43 years old; another case was Mary Glynne, later Lady Lyttelton, who died in 1857 after giving birth to twelve children, some of them in her early 40’s. Charles Darwin’s wife Emma (née Wedgewood) had also a history of late pregnancies, and in fact her youngest son, Charles Waring Darwin, died prematurely aged only 18 months; recent studies have concluded that he probably suffered from Down’s Syndrome, which may not have been identified at the time. The fact that Darwin and his wife were first cousins may also have contributed to the child’s poor health.
The fact that I, my parents first-born child, was born two days away from my parents’ fifth wedding anniversary clearly demonstrates a change in social attitudes towards the purpose of marriages and the urgency of childbearing. My mother may have been the only case in my female ancestry who actually had the means and the opportunity of deciding when to start having children. With the introduction of contraceptives in the 1920’s and the medical advances in the area (like the invention of the contraceptive pill in the 60’s) gave women the power to decide whether to have children or not. Naturally feminism played a key role in this field as well.
But going back to older mothers, I have gone through several branches in my family tree hoping to find any cases of a scandalously older mother. I haven’t been too lucky, but it has made me realise how often most of my female ancestors were pregnant during their often short lifetimes. My great-great-grandmother Elizabeth married when she was almost 30, a fairly old age at the time, considering that the average life expectancy for a woman in 1900 was just (get this) 51 years! Her marriage to my great-great-grandfather produced four healthy children plus a son who was stillborn and a daughter who didn’t reach a fourth birthday. By the time Elizabeth gave birth for the last time she was a few weeks shy of her 41st birthday, which could have been a contributing factor to her youngest daughter’s early death. Her sister-in-law Ellen actually married when she was already 33 – her husband was three years younger- and gave birth for the sixth and last time in 1901, when she was almost 46. In her case, happily, all her children lived long lives.
My maternal great-grandfather’s aunt-by-marriage, Valentina, was also an experienced mother by the time she gave birth to her youngest son in 1902, after twenty years of marriage and an astounding seventeen live births (sadly, seven of the babies died young). One of my more remote female ancestors on my maternal side also gave birth to a lot of children (twelve in total) in just thirteen years of marriage, which means she must have been constantly pregnant. I can imagine her early death in 1812 aged 54 was the product of pure and simple exhaustion.
Child-rearing has changed a lot, and it has also gone a long way in making family planning a reality, by also (sadly) making families far smaller than what they used to be decades ago. Perhaps in one or two generations our descendants will research their family tree with a somewhat disappointed look on their faces, sighing every time they find an only child springing out of an older couple here and there. But at least they will also hopefully read into it all (especially regarding the female individuals on this somewhat Lilliputian family tree) a message of evolution, courage and female self-determination.