Birth Advice from Leo Tolstoy

Birth Advice from Leo Tolstoy September 5, 2016

Popular notions about baby-making, religious or not, often have been peculiar.  The soon-to-be-in-theaters Warner Brothers’ film, Storks (“In the beginning…storks delivered babies”) underscores this afresh.  Unlike the stork story, some of these notions do better than others in appraising the life-sustaining, life-changing, life-giving work women do in nine months’ worth of bearing with.  

Tolstoy certainly thought so.  In the late nineteenth century Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), whose fiction explored love, marriage, infidelity, and family life, encountered a cluster of ideas that he considered providential.  Critiquing European shifts from arranged marriages to romantic-love matches, Tolstoy was intrigued by a few things coming from America, some pioneered by religious groups and reformers.  He thought, for instance, that the Shakers were on to something with their insistence on celibacy. Another writer who interested him was Alice Bunker Stockham, author of the bestseller,  Tokology: A Book for Every Woman.  A reformer embracing some movements common among the high-minded at the time–hygiene, vegetarianism, refined sexual mores, eugenics–Stockham’s speciality was what we now might name “reproductive health.”  While there were more than a few other books on similar topics published at the time, Stockham’s was unusual on several counts.  Tolstoy liked it.  Accordingly, after he read Tokology he invited its author to visit him and even agreed to write a preface  for a Russian translation of the book.

In his preface, Tolstoy praised the book’s subject as “the science of the birth of children.”  Admitting that “[t]here are all kinds of very strange sciences, but no such science as this,” he declared, “next to the science of how to live and how to die, this is the most important of sciences.”  He forecast wide influence for the book in Russia, as it would teach expectant women to avoid debasing substances for the good of their offspring.  The novelist urged the book upon “every thoughtful woman,” who would find in it a kind of liberating health regime.  Women had “not the slightest necessity…to continue living so blindly as old women and young girls have been living,” but could use Stockham’s prescriptions to “find better ways of living.”

Tolstoy was right: Stockham’s book is fascinating.  Some of it offered what was at the time conventional advice for pregnant women.  They should get plenty of fresh and eat moderately, eschewing fats and sweets (“With many, potatoes cause sick headaches especially if mashed with a great deal of butter”).  They should avoid constricting garments (“When women are freed from the trammels of dress, they will have taken a long stride for freedom from invalidism”).  Corsets, Stockham decided, should be condemned by Christians and philosophers alike.   Stockham was plain-spoken on some topics, like the need for dietary fiber–“A lady in Iowa had had very obstinate constipation for years”–but waxed romantic on others, as on the importance of mental stimulation for expectant mothers: “the systematic pursuit of some study as geology, natural history or botany, will make conditions for satisfactory pre-natal culture.  Who knows but by throwing her whole soul into the search, and thus being carried out of herself by these ennobling pursuits, she may become the mother of a Humboldt, an Agassiz or an Audubon.”

As with other nineteenth-century prenatal guides, some of the advice resembles our own.   “Common sense shoes,” smooth digestion, and sitz baths could go a long way to making pregnancy comfortable.  Several aspects of Stockham’s counsel, though, are strange to us, even downright bizarre.  Like many of her contemporaries, Stockham hypothesized that “savage” women had less painful labors than civilized ones, with Americans perhaps worst sufferers of any.  Further, while Stockham believed in a kind of underlying harmony of interests among fathers, mothers, and babies, where these temporarily fell at odds Stockham would resolve conflict in the woman’s favor.  For instance, after itemizing a balanced diet, Stockham endorsed a regime with radically insufficient calcium and excesses of acidic fruits, in order to make women’s labor easier by impeding development of the child’s bones, since “if a pregnant woman [would] avoid foods rich in elements that nourish and develop bone, labor would be comparatively easy and painless.”   As proof of good outcome, Stockham described a child born after this prenatal diet, “a boy, was finely proportioned and exceedingly soft, his bones resembling gristle.”  Not a case where the mother’s gain yielded harm for the child, Stockham reassured readers that bones could grow later, and “[I]n most cases the gain for the child is as great as for the mother.”

In another counsel unlikely to appear in our own current guides, Stockham, perceiving that the marital debt might present conflict between man and pregnant woman, chose chastity as the solution.  Not only did prenatal abstinence seem to be in harmony with nature (and approved by Tolstoy), but Stockham also predicted it could make mothers smarter and nicer.  Women not dissipating energies in marital coupling would have a new “element,”  she suggested, which may be “taken up by the brain and may be coined into new thoughts–perhaps new inventions–grand conceptions of the true, the beautiful, the useful, or into fresh emotions of joy and impulses of kindness, and  blessings to all around.”

Stockham’s book, while replete with curiosities, should not predominantly interest us as an old-fashioned curiosity.   As Lily Gurton-Wachter recently suggested, we lack of a “familiar canon of nuanced literary or philosophical texts about the experience of having a child,” and material is among the many sources that can contribute to correcting this lack.  Further, Stockham’s book deserves attention for two other reasons. First, while what Tolstoy names “science” changed the way men and women understood reproduction, “science” alone does not account for the moral meaning of the behaviors involved in childbearing. Second, as Tolstoy and Stockham recognized, because what women do during childbearing influences generations to come, culture and popular attitudes should support that work.   This “most important of the sciences” leaves room for religion, literature, and manners to help devise means of offering that support.  

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