Updated: Feb 3
Outside of their audacious (if ill-informed) feminism and their charming friendship, one of the things that made Eloise and Penelope two of Bridgerton’s most endearing characters, is the way they own their anxieties about motherhood. Though no longer as coveted or illusive as in the 1800s, family life, especially pregnancy and labour, still provoke many of the same worries for the modern woman as they did all those years ago.
Birthing a child is one of the bravest and most beautiful things a woman can do, but it’s no walk in the park - and Bridgerton doesn’t shy away from that. The tragic story of Simon’s mother is especially pertinent since current statistics show Black women in the UK are almost five times more at risk of maternal mortality than white women. Unfortunately, we don’t need to look to Netflix to see that represented, as real-world stories of Black women suffering difficult (sometimes fatal) pregnancies are too common. What the show does offer is an opportunity to relate to anyone with genuine fears, as well as encourage much-needed discourse on the difficult topic.
Medical racism aside, a lot of the problems facing pregnant women, both then and now, are due, unsurprisingly, to patriarchy. Historically, for example, most births took place with the mother either squatting, standing, or sitting (so that gravity might assist in the process), until around the 17th century when male physicians began replacing traditionally female midwives and insisting that it would be easier (for them, of course) if the women lay on their backs.
A 2018 study shows that there’s a narrowing gender divide in the NHS and though men still hold the majority of the decision-making positions, a pregnant woman today does have a lot more agency and choice around how and where they give birth.
Regardless, for those of us who are less gung ho about babies than dear Daphne, hesitation towards motherhood is often about more than just dread of a painful labour. For both parents, having a child is life-changing, but in many ways more so for women, as we’re often their primary care-givers. It’s important that no woman or girl feels pressured to have a child, but in a world where some girls are forced to marry as young as 12, and many women exist in the catch-22 of having to sacrifice career ambitions for their families, that’s easier said than done.
It’s aspirational then, that each coming generation seems more dedicated to valuing women outside of their marital or maternal status, but we mustn’t forget the value of mothering either. Nurturing and shaping young minds is crucial and exhausting work, an exhaustion many parents are now feeling ten-fold with lockdown home-schooling.
If technology doesn’t alleviate the stress for modern parents and if status couldn’t help the heaving-bosomed Regency mums, then I’m sure you can imagine that the reality was even harsher for working Regency and Victorian mothers. Faced with the double-edged sword of poverty and the social stigma of being perceived as having abandoned their children to work, they were amongst the most vulnerable groups of people. Kaye’s upcoming book, Hidden Dangers’, dedicates an entire Chapter to the plights of working-class mothers, exploring everything from the opiates that factory workers used to soothe their young children to early legislation around maternity leave.
When we learn how much things have improved for mothers over time, we can have a realistic idea of the work that still needs to be done. In all its decadence, Bridgerton gave voice to a spectrum of outlooks on motherhood and whether you’re more of an Eloise, Daphne, or Marina… whether you’re a mother, a woman who wants children, or someone who knows she doesn’t, it’s important to know your opinion is not for anyone to question and your womanhood is worth celebrating.
Written by Memuna Konteh