A good Puritan mother loved and cherished her children, but many died young and she was supposed to be okay with it.
A good Puritan mother was kind but stern in rearing good Christian children, but she was silent and deferential outside the home.
We know about Puritan motherhood from Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan mother of eight who sailed to New England as a young wife on the Arbella in 1630. She wasn’t always the perfect Puritan mother: She wrote poems, mourned the death of her grandchildren and sometimes chafed at being demure and passive.
Anne Bradstreet wasn’t just the first woman to be published in England’s North American colonies. She was the first Englishwoman to publish a book of poems and the first published American poet.
Born Anne Dudley on March 20, 1612, she married at 16 to Simon Bradstreet. Her husband, a businessman, became a colonial magistrate and governor of Massachusetts, like his father-in-law.
She was intelligent, educated, financially secure and deeply religious.
Though the Puritans typically started large families right after they married, Bradstreet didn’t have her first child, Samuel, until she’d been married four years. In a letter to her children, she wrote,
That was ‘a great grief to me and cost me many prayers and tears before I obtained one.
Anne Bradstreet survived having children at a time when 25 women out of a thousand died in childbirth.
She wrote that she brought her eight children into the world with ‘great pains, weakness, cares and fears.’
As one of her due dates approached, she wrote a poem anticipating death: “All things within this fading world hath end,/Adversity doth still our joys attend.”
Death was very much on the minds of the early Puritan mothers. The New England wilderness contained many danger, and infectious disease carried off many of their children. About 20 percent of children died in their first year, and as many as 40 percent failed to reach adulthood.
Bradstreet feared she couldn’t keep her children safe.
Alas my birds, you wisdom want,
Of perils you are ignorant.
She did keep them safe, though. All eight of her children lived to adulthood. But three of her young grandchildren died within a short period.
The good Puritan mother was supposed to wean herself from her attachment to her children. She should let them go to their heavenly reward — and be happy about it. Anne Bradstreet found that hard to do.
When her grandchild Elizabeth died at one-and-a-half, she deeply mourned her loss.
Blest babe why should I once bewail thy fate, Or sigh thy days so soon were terminate; Since thou are settled in an Everlasting state.
“Bradstreet, when writing directly about her loved ones, could not completely surrender to Puritan doctrine, especially in matters of mortality” writes Laura Major, in Anne Bradstreet: The Religious Poet as Mother.
Among her many duties, the Puritan mother had to make sure her children grew up as good Christians. But she wasn’t supposed to do much outside the home, and she certainly wasn’t supposed to write poetry.
Her brother-in-law took her poems to England to be published in 1650 under the title, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America. He claimed he did it without her knowledge, but perhaps he wanted to protect her reputation.
Bradstreet at least acted as if publication of her poems mortified her. She wrote a poem apologizing about her poetry. It began, ‘Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain.’ But she probably didn’t mean it.
She hinted that she chafed at being confined to household and children, silent and modest. Some scholars call her an early feminist, pointing to her poem about Queen Elizabeth.
Now say, have women worth, or have they none
Or had they some, but with our Queen is’t gone?
Nay, masculines, you have taxed us long;
But she, though dead, will vindicate our wrong.
Let such as say our sex is void of reason,
Know ’tis a slander now, but once was treason.
Anne Bradstreet died at 60 in North Andover, Mass. In Puritan New England, men frequently remarried after their wives died. Simon Bradstreet did. Anne Bradstreet wrote a poem asking him to think of her children when he chose a new wife.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me, These
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This story about how to be a good Puritan mother was updated in 2022.