My first ideal of motherhood, before Bringing Up Bébé or the phrase “attachment parenting” or the ascription of maternal devotion to months of breastfeeding completed, came from the framed print of Mary Cassatt’s Mother and Child on a Green Background hanging in my childhood bedroom. I’d chosen the print from the Musee D’Orsay when my mom and I visited just before my brother was born. I was seven years old and already beginning to sense, especially with the knowledge that there would soon be an infant in the house, that my own childhood was quickly moving behind me. I was also beginning to see babies and sponge baths and prams as something sweet and gentle that I wanted to miss, wanted to feel a little sentimental about.
In Mother and Child on a Green Background, a young Victorian mother, her brown hair in a neat but soft bun, nuzzles against the cheek of her baby, who is facing forward, dressed in a white nightgown and sucking on a plump hand. As in many of Cassatt’s paintings, there is something preternaturally kind about the mother and something cherubic but not cloying about the baby. Even in years of adolescent grouchiness, of lonely young-adulthood, I kept the print (though in my closet instead of on the wall), and now it hangs in the bedroom that was first Thea’s and then Simon’s.
Trying to ascribe value to the work that mothering requires can sometimes rely on caricaturizing or even mocking children—the sometimes-mundane nature of feeding, cleaning and dressing of young babies, the inane requirements of preschool social events, the potential to lose sight of oneself in the demands of parenting. At the same time, understanding the demands of motherhood also requires acknowledgement of those same children’s vulnerability, openness, wonder, and the resulting threat, as a parent, of becoming overwhelmed.
And yet, a narrative that positions motherhood as an ordained social, moral or even religious Good, not just for children but for the women who become their mothers, evokes Victorian-era notions of the Cult of Domesticity and 21st-century forays into biological essentialism. The truth of what makes both mothering and having been mothered valuable to me contains the mundane and inane, the acknowledgement of vulnerability, and, tricky as it can be to articulate, the moral responsibility that comes with raising children carefully.
The truth of what makes both mothering and having been mothered valuable to me contains the mundane and inane, the acknowledgement of vulnerability.
At some point as an adult, I learned that many people find Cassatt too sentimental. I understand this perspective, but do not share it. The gentleness of her mothers, the bare baby bottoms, the mix of longing and fulfillment in both sets of eyes, the wooded paths and row boats and sitting rooms and park benches all evoke a personal confidence in the purity and endurance of maternal love. The conflation of motherhood with purity has the potential to be both sentimental and dangerous, but I think Cassatt’s paintings are neither.
I love Mary Cassatt’s paintings because they remind me of how it feels to have been raised by my loving, generous, gentle, thoughtful mom. Cassatt’s work also evokes the physicality—the round cheeks, the bathtubs, the holding close—of the early years I spent with my own children. What I feel about my children is sentimental. The desire I have to hold them tight and clean and safe is so all-consuming that it exists on both literal and abstract levels at the same time. I prepare meals, put on sunscreen, require bike helmets, clip car seats and stroller buckles; and even now that they are not plump, cherubic babies, but long-limbed children, I feel an intense mix of relief and purpose and satisfaction when, wet-haired and freshly clean from the tub after a long day playing in the woods, they fall asleep against me while I read aloud from a book about the magic of fairies or wizards or talking foxes.
In “Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman or the Cult of True Womanhood,” Norma Broude explains the lens through which Cassatt, a woman who never had children and achieved a great deal professionally and publicly, came to be championed by a certain subset of conservative Victorian women: “Cassatt’s images of happy and fulfilled mothers, surrounded by children who are the personification of goodness and innocence, these pictures that deify motherhood and its joys, were painted in an era of great, even hysterical public concern over declining birthrates in France,” a concern loudly echoed in contemporary American conversation.
Victorian attitudes toward women’s worth were often narrowly constrained by arguments about the morality of motherhood—women deserved respect because motherhood was profound moral and ethical work—and the neat Victorian sorting of men and women through “the concept of ‘equality in difference,’” a philosophy that “advocated the sexual division of labor in society and the family.” Certainly, motherhood ought to be valued, including for the profound ethical and moral work that it involves. But that Victorian tendency to define women’s value by motherhood alone complicated both Cassatt’s work and its reception: if a woman’s value is defined by her work as a mother, what about depictions of motherhood made by a woman who is not herself a mother?
In so many of the fairy tales or classic children’s novels I read to Thea and Simon, loving mothers, women who are warm and soft, are juxtaposed with women who are cold and distant. Sometimes these women are stepmothers or witches or begrudging caretakers of orphans. When my children spend hours in the worlds of their shared imagination, the villains of worlds are mashups of A Little Princess’s Miss Minchin and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s Jadis, and Rapunzel’s kidnapping witch-mother from the Disney movie.
I like to tell myself that perhaps in these imaginary scenarios, Mary Cassatt mothers, who I hope I might resemble on my best days, are just out of scene waiting to draw them a bath. The good mother archetype to counter the bad. After all, many of the images of Victorian motherhood, like the ornate, expensive pram as prized consumer object that’s owned by the elite but used primarily by the servant class, are directly in conversation with archetypes of mothers and caregivers.
In Irish writer Roddy Doyle’s short story “The Pram,” Alina, a Polish nanny—maybe a modern update to Cassatt’s nurse?—with an unnerving mix of sympathetic back-story and murderous delusions, spends her initial days with a wealthy Dublin family pushing their youngest child on long morning walks in an old-fashioned pram. Alina’s employer, a withholding, controlling and cruel woman, has told her older daughters that the baby’s pram is haunted. Alina loathes these spoiled and cruel older children but cares tenderly for the baby, and with him she walks a path along the water where she meets a lover, an act for which she is eventually humiliated.
The conflation of motherhood with purity has the potential to be both sentimental and dangerous.
Doyle’s story, written in 2005, reads as contemporary, and as a result, the pram feels deliberately anachronistic. Alina observes that she hasn’t seen anything like it in years, and that it reminds her of the perambulator her grandmother used to use. At the same time, the pram is an important piece of equipment for Alina’s employer, a cellphone-attached woman with a high-status career who, even to her children, goes only by her last name (O’Reilly)—seemingly even more important than the baby inside. “Don’t scrape the sides,” she tells Alina, “it is very valuable.” When Alina asks if the pram is a family heirloom, O’Reilly replies “No… we bought it… just be careful with it.” By contrast to the cumbersome, old-fashioned pram, the other women Alina passes on her daily walks “pushed modern, lighter baby-conveyances, four wheeled and three. Alina envied them. The pram felt heavy and the wind from the sea constantly bashed against its hood.”
Many Victorian images of babies in prams—black and white stiff-bodied photographs, or Mary Cassatt’s The Nurse: Child in a Garden, for example—show not a mother, but a paid caretaker with the child. It’s as though, as Irene Wembui implied, the rigid sides of the pram, the literal arm’s length from the caregiver pushing it, are understood to signal an emotional rigidity and distance as well.
In Doyle’s story, the mother’s focus on the pram’s monetary value and resulting eagerness to make the baby’s mode of transport into something frightening in order to preserve it illustrates her coldness. But even Alina, who is warmer in her engagement with the baby, uses the pram as a means of distancing herself from him. When Alina meets her lover on her daily walks with the pram, the baby lies off to the side while the couple kiss. “[The baby] smiled; he bucked. He started to cry. The pram rocked on its springs.”
Writing for the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Molly E. Ferguson sees The Deportees, the collection in which “The Pram” appears, as centrally concerned with the ways Ireland was renegotiating its relationship with emigration in the early years of the 21st-century. Through this lens, the relationship between Alina and her abusive employer feels emblematic of a larger reckoning with class and power. When Alina begins to expand the story O’Reilly has been telling about the pram being haunted into a ghost story to scare the entitled older daughters, she does so out of malice. Alina hates them and wishes to kill them, though “she would not in actuality, kill the girls. She could not do such a thing… she would however frighten them.”
Alina’s haunted pram story involves woodcutters, a witch in a dark forest who kidnaps all the babies in town, taking them away in a rusty old pram in order to steal their skin. The tale becomes so vivid that both the older girls and Alina herself begin to believe it. At “The Pram’s” conclusion, Alina murders her employer in the midst of a psychotic break and then walks the pram into the sea where, through the luck of mucky low-tide, the wheels are stuck and the baby is rescued before he is carried away by the water. The story ends with an image of the empty pram being swallowed by the Irish sea: “He lay on [a quilt] on top of the mud. The tide was out but coming back. The water was starting to fill and swallow the quilt. They lifted the baby and the struggling woman onto the bridge. They left the pram in the rising water.”
The police find only one baby, we learn, in that expensive, valuable pram, despite the stories Alina had begun to believe about it being haunted by many. But, even if it’s not haunted in the sense Alina’s story suggests, the pram with its Victorian aesthetic and impracticality and status signaling does come to seem like a dangerous relic, the smashing together of things that are out of synch: traditional and quickly changing Ireland, a pram and a cell phone, the presence and rigidity of the big, unwieldy pram alongside the softness of a tiny infant, an aloof and cold mother, a neglectful and violent caregiver, safety and danger, infancy and mortality.
When I asked my friend Sarah about Germany’s child-friendliness, in addition to her insights about infrastructure and accessibility in public places, she pointed out something else—it can be difficult to distinguish child-friendliness from traditional notions that women and men ought to occupy separate spheres:
One other thing that seems important to mention is that some of [Germany’s] child-friendliness, especially in less urban environments/more conservative areas…is also coupled with old-fashioned sexism—when I saw your email, one of the first words that popped into my head was “Rabenmutter,” which means raven mother and is an insult still used for women who work and thus “let their children be raised by someone else.” Schools sometimes still have non-standard hours (one day longer than another, home for lunch, whatever), and one of the reasons Germany adopted family-friendly policies was that women were looking at the obstacles and choosing not to have children, so the birth rate fell.
Revering motherhood, even lauding the important work of motherhood, comes close to revering women specifically and only for motherhood and is both limited and limiting. In this way, the notion of a haunted pram or the threat of a baby separated (pushed away in L.N.’s words) from its mother being vulnerable to exploitation or harm by encroaching mobs, witches, psychotic nannies, endangered by their rabenmutters is tapping into that same insistence on tying women’s worth to their status as mothers—the insistence that women are either deserving of respect only in spite of being mothers or only because of being mothers.
In my quest to find photographs and paintings of old-fashioned perambulators and baby carriages, I came across a still from the 1925 movie The Battleship Potemkin. The image shows a crying baby in a pram, headed down stone steps strewn with dead and wounded bodies. I’d not yet seen the film, but the image was viscerally familiar.
Revering motherhood, even lauding the important work of motherhood, comes close to revering women specifically and only for motherhood.
The Battleship Potemkin is a 1925 Soviet silent film about a mutiny aboard a Russian ship and the resulting confrontation between supporters of the revolution and the military on the streets of Odessa. In the film’s fourth act, called “The Odessa Steps,” unarmed civilians are shot—elderly men and women, a man without use of his legs, a child who is trampled as he lies bleeding, and a mother who collapses against her baby’s pram, sending it down the long, cement steps to certain death.
Writing for Salon, Andrew O’Hehir argues that the scene on the steps has been profoundly influential not just because “the terrifying massacre staged by Eisenstein on the seafront steps of Odessa has been repurposed any number of times, from Brian De Palma’s ‘The Untouchables’ to George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith’ to ‘Naked Gun 33 1/3,’ but… [because] ‘Potemkin’ pioneered what became a staple Hollywood genre, the heavily fictionalized, inspirational retelling of historical events, built around easily recognizable archetypes of good and evil.”
When we moved to Switzerland I was in the first grade. I knew no one and no French and so I spent a lot of time at home alone reading. I especially liked Roald Dahl’s books in those years, I think in part because of the very clear—cartoonish, even—division between good and evil characters. Some of the adults in my world were, like so many of Dahl’s adults, controlling and vindictive. My parents were loving and patient and did everything they could to make living in a foreign country a cosmopolitan, delicious, beautiful adventure, but the nuns at my Swiss school might as well have been caricatures of both Swiss and Catholic school stereotypes of cold, rigid discipline.
I sat quietly in the back row where I’d been assigned due to my dictation and penmanship scores being among the lowest in the class, I was spared the corporal punishment some of the other students received (ruler slaps, heads held under cold water—something I now find it almost impossible to believe actually happened). The combination of feeling powerless and lonely and odd and misunderstood and indignant about the cruelty of adults made scenes like the one in which Matilda gets revenge on her cruel teacher satisfying, or the possibility of child-killing witches roaming barely-disguised among us resonant.
The film version of Dahl’s The Witches came out in 1990. No matter how many times I watched it, a scene that I had somehow barely registered when I read the book always made my stomach drop. Angelica Houston as the Grand High Witch pushes a baby pram, with the baby inside, off a cliff. Perhaps it was because by then, I had a baby brother and my mom had often pushed him in an old-fashioned pram, our cocker spaniel’s leash looped around the handle, as we walked into town, and because I knew how delicate a baby was, how soft its head, how much care was required to keep one safe.
When I watched the scene recently, I did so on mute because Simon was in the other room and I couldn’t bear for him to hear the baby screaming while Luke, the story’s hero, chases after the pram. Even without the sound on, all the hair on my arms stood up and, without realizing it, I brought my hand over my mouth in horror. The baby cries, the witches— holding their noses because children smell like feces to them—laugh and cheer with glee, and Luke and the baby’s mother chase frantically after the pram until Luke grabs its handle at the very last second. The fear evoked in the scene is so primal—it’s impossible not to imagine the baby’s head being dashed on the rocks below, while its mother watches helpless to save her child.
When I told Nick about Battleship Potemkin’s pram scene as the inspiration for a variety of similar scenes made in homage or parody, he asked me if I remembered the pram scene from Ghostbusters II. Susan Sarandon, balancing two brown paper bags of groceries and a stately pram down a Manhattan sidewalk, pauses to talk to a passerby. While she’s stopped, the pram begins to roll away, and then, as if steered by a deliberate and invisible maniac, weaves in and out of people and traffic before she’s able to grab it. The baby’s face is so sweet and full of frightened wonder that it made the entire movie unwatchable to me as a kid. Had I not left the room crying as a child, I would have seen that it also sets up the imperative for the Ghostbusters to succeed in the context of real threat (even if it is campily-rendered) to innocent bystanders.
I’d also understood the danger of those careening prams to be much more real, to be pointing toward something universal and visceral.
In Ghostbusters II, The Witches, Battleship Potemkin and “The Pram,” babies and their prams function as archetypes of innocence. That it’s the pram, rather than a baby itself, thrown down cliffs and steps feels significant beyond the dramatic tension brought by the (however small) possibility of the child’s survival. It is ironic that the babies’ vulnerability comes from the very thing intended to keep them safe. It’s as though the protection, structural stability, and high-class status a pram signals is not only incapable of truly protecting the infant inside, but the wheels, the rigid sides, the separation from the mother is a primary and potentially even insurmountable risk. The pram as a central object in these scenes feels Victorian not just because the pram itself looks Victorian but because its rigid fussiness seems to distill something about the Cult of Domesticity and idealized notions of motherhood and femininity that defined that era just as the travel-system and carbon-fiber running stroller might reveal something about our own.
Even L.N.’s very 21st-century rant about the stroller’s symbolic meaning gets at the same questions Broude is asking about Mary Cassatt’s depictions of motherhood and caregiving. The implication is that the wheels, the very convenience of pushing a baby through the city streets, is itself a risk. And it is—though not necessarily a greater risk than a child breaking free from his mother and darting into traffic or being left home alone, as was the alternative in the case of one mother whose need for a stroller in a 1910 New York Times classified ad.
How dangerous are strollers in real life? How likely is it for a child to be fatally injured while riding in one? I held my breath while I read the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPCS) statistics on stroller deaths. It made no difference that the report, “Injuries Associated with Strollers,” stated multiple times that there had been only 20 stroller-related deaths in the years between 1990 and 1999; with each anecdotal explanation of a stroller dropped while being carried on the stairs or a baby becoming entangled in unclipped harness straps, I ran back through an instance when I had put Thea or Simon in a similar situation.
By the time I had read halfway through the agency’s report, my head throbbed from grinding my teeth. Twenty deaths in nine years is vanishingly small, I told myself. My children are mostly out of strollers. Almost all of those babies were sleeping, were under six months, surely strollers are safer now, the regulations about straps more strict—surely this could not happen outside the screen or the page or the newspaper and in my own goldfish-crumb encrusted, non-archetypal life. Through these mental acrobatics, I realized that even as a little girl, I’d sensed the possibility of loss in Cassatt’s paintings. In fact, the awareness is what had always kept the tenderness of those paintings from seeming sentimental. I’d also understood the danger of those careening prams to be much more real, to be pointing toward something universal and visceral, rather than a convenient trope of fantasy or science fiction.
Excerpted from Stroller by Amanda Parrish Morgan. Copyright © 2022. Available from Bloomsbury.