In the Tate’s fine Manor House, Mrs Johanna Tate has received a letter from her mother-in-law. Johanna’s first pregnancy is a cause of nervous excitement, and everybody has advice of one sort or another. We can read over her shoulder:
12th March 1795
Are you confined yet my dear? You must be very large and I do not like to think of you walking around the gardens with my grandson growing inside you (I will love a granddaughter, but I cannot hide my preference for a boy). Be patient as you carry on the Great Cause of Nature.
Rumours abound that you have contracted Mr White – a man! – to be with you as “man-midwife”. It is the talk of the tea tables. Johanna, I am an old woman and perhaps a little conservative but I do stand that the birth room is not a place for men. Even setting aside the mortifying exposure to immodesty, there are enough things in this life which husbands and fathers do partake in (and even sons, though I bless ‘em and love ‘em above all), without letting men into that sacred chamber of female companionship and love. I am not closed minded to all new fashions – throw the windows open if you wish, and hold your baby to your own breast by all means, but what do men know about the pangs of childbirth?? I do hope you will reconsider.
It is a mother’s way, but I cannot but worry about my son at this time. How will he manage the household while you are in bed after the birth? Two weeks is long enough for a household to fall quite to pieces. He has been much indulged and never had to deal with servants etc. And the housemaids will have much to do carrying hot water, washing sheets. And all the visitors! The best people from miles around will be flocking to see the new arrival. I do think it be best for all if I come to stay in the Manor House for three months and resume my duties as housekeeper. I shall not intrude without invitation, but as soon as one arrives I shall be in the coach,
Believe me, your best wishing mother-in-law,
p.s. when I come I shall bring the christening robes my mother made for my first born. God rest his little soul. ‘tis all her own work you will marvel.
You can hear Johanna’s reply in the Small Stories exhibition. For now, here’s a peek at the preparations in the lying-in room: