Years ago I worked as a full-time nanny for newborn twins during the first year of their lives. When I think back to this time, I remember being so tired and stressed and alone—not just because taking care of twins can be hard, but also because my anxiety and depression were starting to get worse at this time—and I wonder how much it would have helped to read quality resources on nurturing children. I’m not a mother myself, but so much of what I see seems too cliché to do justice to the deep and complex emotions and decisions involved in motherhood.
Though I would never judge a mother for using whatever resources encourage her, I think the poetry and letters of Lucy Hutchinson (1620–81) may contain some of the best thoughts I’ve read about motherhood. First, Hutchinson was educated in literature, theology, and Latin, so she had the proven skills of writing to elicit certain thoughts and emotions in the reader. Second, Hutchinson had nine children and thus lots of experience with mothering. Third, Hutchinson wrote on motherhood in her theological writings, showing she was thinking about motherhood theologically. Fourth, she wrote an entire theological treatise for her daughter Barbara after Barbara got married, saying she believed it was her duty as a mother to educate her child about the most important aspects of life. I hope that if you’re a mom, Hutchinson’s words will help you lament the hard times, celebrate the good times, and most importantly, develop a habit of thinking about motherhood theologically.
A Lament for Mothers
Hutchinson’s epic poem on Genesis called Order and Disorder includes a canto that addresses the punishments given after the fall. Undoubtedly drawing on her own experience, she devoted several verses to the pain experienced in childbirth and said that this pain did not end with labour but continued on since a mother is pained by her child and will also feel the pains her child feels throughout life:
How painfully the fruit within them grows,
What tortures do their ripened births disclose,
How great, how various, how uneasy are
The breeding-sickness, pangs that prepare
The violent openings of life’s narrow door,
Whose fatal issues we as oft deplore!
What weaknesses, what languishments ensue,
Scattering dead lilies where fresh roses grew.
What broken rest afflicts the careful nurse,
Extending to the breasts the mother’s curse;
Which ceases not when there her milk she dries,
The froward child draws new streams from her eyes.
How much more bitter anguish do we find
Labouring to raise up virtue in the mind
Than when the members in our bowels grew:
What sad abortions, what cross births ensue:
What monsters, what unnatural vipers come
Eating their passage through their parent’s womb;
How are the tortures of their births renewed,
Unrecompensed with love and gratitude.
Even the good, who would our cares requite,
Would be our crowns, joys, pillars, and delight,
Affect us yet with other griefs and fears,
Opening the sluices of our near-dried tears.
Death, danger, sickness, losses, all the ill
That on the children falls, the mothers feel,
Repeating with worse pangs the pangs that bore
Them into life; and through some may have more
Of sweet and gentle mixture, some of worse,
Yet every mother’s cup tastes of the curse,
And when the heavy load her faint heart tires
Makes her too oft repent her fond desires.
A Celebration of Motherhood
However, Hutchinson also rejoiced in the good things that motherhood brought. In addition to the affection she expressed for Barbara in her letter (shown below), she also reflected on the fact that motherhood means passing down one’s life to another person, which is even seen in physical ways:
When the declining mother’s youthful grace
Lies dead and buried in her wrinkled face,
In her fair daughters it revives and grows
And her dead cinder in their new flames glows.
An Example of Mother as Teacher of Theology
Last, Hutchinson wrote an entire book about Christian theology and practice for Barbara, to which she added a letter dedicating the work to her. It’s worthwhile to note that what is arguably Hutchinson’s best prose work was intended to be a personal document used by her daughter to remind her of the truth. I think she wrote with such passion, clarity, and urgency because her motivation for writing was the best motivation one could have, that is, the duty and affection a mother feels to raise and care for her child well. Furthermore, the fact that she wrote this for her daughter shows she thought it was important for women to be knowledgeable in theology and personally close to the Lord.
There are several themes in her letter that show two sides of one coin: she exhibits solemnity about doing her duty as a mother to teach her daughter the truth, and affection for her daughter who she constantly prayed for and worried about; she admitted her own weaknesses and said there were many great books her daughter could read, but believed it was important for her daughter to hear from her own mother and that her words as a mother should be regarded as authoritative insofar as they aligned with God’s Word; she recalled the many distractions that almost kept her from writing this document, and reflected on how much writing it even reminded her of what was most important in life; she pleaded with Barbara to not stray from orthodox doctrine, but also warned her that saying one believes something without showing it in actions is useless; she taught Barbara age old truths, but said them in a way that would help Barbara in her specific context. In the end, Hutchinson gave the fruits of her study, her best thoughts, and her most persuasive arguments to Barbara as a way to work out the love she had for Barbara, and the duty she had to care for Barbara, in concrete ways.
My dear daughter,
Although my infirmities and imperfections joined with my outward ill successes have much weakened my authority and made it of no force with all persons yet I cannot be wanting to my duty, though I want that encouragement from myself and others, which perhaps through human frailty would carry me better on in it then I can proceed with so many clogs upon me, far be it from the advancement of the kingdom of Jesus Christ and the establishment of your soul upon certain and safe grounds. If any attempts have been made to shake you in principles I bewail it as my neglect of fixing them by precept and example and have written this little summary for you, not that I think it is anything but what you may more methodically collected find in many books already written and as usefully gather for yourself out of the same spiritual garden where I had them, but that it may lie by you as a witness of those sound truths I desired to instruct you in and as my last exhortation that you would take heed you would not be seduced to factions and parties in religion from the catholic faith and universal love wherein all that are true Christians must unite. As of old neither circumcision nor uncircumcision availed anything but a new creature, so now neither this or that outward form of admission into Christ but a real and true union with him is in the first place to be sought and when this is obtained, which is always made by his Spirit taking possession of our souls and inhabiting and abiding there, that Spirit of truth will lead us into all truth that is absolutely necessary for us.
. . .
In [Christ’s] name, therefore, I beg of you to study and exercise universal love to every member of Christ under what denomination soever you find them. I shall more at large if the Lord give me life lay this duty before you and leave with you what rules I have received from the Lord for walking at this day.
. . .
It is much more in the principles of religion the study of which . . . yet I find now so instructive and advantageous to myself that I cannot but recommend it to you and advise you to exercise your own knowledge therein by instructing your children and servants . . . In the mode of compiling it you will find many frailties—cover them as Shem; but the substance of it the truths themselves are of God and for his authority mine ought to take some place with you. I have had many distractions of spirit and interruptions in setting down these things which I send you as a testimony of my best and most tender love to you who cannot consider the age and temptations you are cast upon without great thoughts of heart and earnest prayers for you many times when you sleep and dream not of the spiritual loving care I have for you.
Your truly affectionate mother.
Lucy Hutchinson, Order and Disorder (ed. David Norbrook. Oxford: Blackwell Publications, 2001), 70-71.
Lucy Hutchinson, The Works of Lucy Hutchinson: Volume II, Theological Writings and Translations (ed. Elizabeth Clarke, David Norbrook, and Jane Stevenson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 189, 190, 191, 193. Spelling adaptations mine.