Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Mother: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, Part 4

For a full month Nancy Shippen Livingston's return to her parents' home in Philadelphia freed her to attend to parenting her little daughter Peggy. The warm April air carried hope as the lilacs and weeping cherry trees began bloom. So what was motherhood like for Nancy?

Like most elite women, Nancy hired a nursemaid--Besty--for her child. Betsy lived with Peggy and cared for the girl whenever her mother wanted time for her own activities, much like a nanny today. Since Peggy was now about 16 months old, her mother was freed from the never-ending cycle of breast feeding. The toddler could now be safely left for hours at a time in the care of her nursemaid while Nancy attended social visits, embroidered (she embroidered most mornings, often on tambour work like that shown in the Gilbert Stuart portrait at right), wrote letters, kept her journal, read, walked, and rode horseback.

April 28--Spent this day with Mrs Bland working Tambour returned about 8 this Even[ing] Found my baby asleep.

With Betsy's assistance, Nancy had time to write in her journal all but six days between April 11th and June 1st. She left the house without Peggy to visit with friends seven days in the first two weeks that are recorded in journal (including once to visit the wife of Chancellor Livingston, who had just given birth April 11th), and she received guests without mentioning her daughter's presence twice. One day she spent "entirely alone, enjoying my own meditations..." When Peggy woke early at sunrise, it was also Betsy's duty to rise with her, take her from her mother's bedroom, and entertain her so that Nancy could continue to sleep.

But all of this time to herself did not mean that Nancy did not feel a strong attatchment to her daughter. On the contrary, Nancy valued a close relationship with her child. Sentimental relationships between parents and children are evident in contemporary literature and portraiture. And whatever her un-recorded ordeals had been with her abusive husband in Rhinebeck the previous year had only deepened the bond that she felt with the girl. Even with the assistance of Betsy, Nancy took time out of every day to be with Peggy.

May 6-- Spent this day at home, w[ith] Lord & Lady Worthy (her parents). We we were all alone--my sweet Child amused us all.

May 7--It being a very fine day I rode out & took betsy & the child with me

As mentioned in a previous blog, Nancy took great pleasure in dressing Peggy and repeatedly describes showing physical affection with kisses and caresses. Sometimes she mentions playing with her and introducing her to friends. Despite having a cradle, Peggy slept most nights in her mother's bed.
When Peggy was "taken sick" with fever on April 29th, Nancy also devoted herself to four anxious days of care. "She will now engross all my time & care," she wrote. Without fever-reducers or anti-biotics, illnesses in the eighteenth century--especially for children--could become serious very quickly, and this must have been a frightening few days for her mother.

Perhaps for the twenty-year-old, the responsibilities and pressures of parenthoodhood still felt daunting. In addition to enertainment and dressing, she was responsible for her daughter's health, socialization, and education. A relatively new mother, she still sought advice where it was needed. On April 21, she spent the entire day with her mother "directing & advising" about child-rearing. "I need it much," she wrote, "for sure I am a very young & inexperienced Mother." During a very serious illness later, she also sought her father's advise as a doctor for her daughter. She also sought advise in books, in keeping with the eighteenth century pension amongst the elite for self-improvement through written material.
Apart from occassional the occassional intrusion of jealous letters from her husband, Nancy, her daughter, and her parents were enjoying a world apart from the harsh realities of the past year. But on May 16th, Nancy was again plunged into despair.

Papa told me at breakfast that I must send my darling Child to its Grandmama Livingston [Margaret Beekman Livingston]; that she had desired Mrs Montgomery to request it of me, as a particular favor. I told him I could not bear the Idea of it, that I had sooner part with me life almost than my Child...When will my misfortunes end! I placed my happiness in her! She is my all--& I must part with her! cruel cruel fate...

But whatever Nancy's attachment to Peggy and the risks of returning her to her father's family, the family's concern was for the child's financial future, as it had been from the beginning when Nancy married Henry in the first place.

He told me it was for the future interest of my baby, that its fortune depended on the old Lady's pleasure in that particular--beg'd me to think of it, & to be reconciled on it.

Nancy spent the next day sealed in her room until dinner, and the following day she still would not leave the house. Her mother tentatively poked around the painful subject, and her father avoided it all together while Nancy made her decision. She had one month; in June Janet Livingston Montgomery would be returning north, expecting to take the little girl with her.

What to do? Nancy's life had already been marked by separation from the one she loved when she selected Henry Beekman Livingston as her husband, leaving behind the sentimental Louis Otto. Now she was faced with a similar choice, but with the added complexity if its effect on her daughter: love or security? Stay with her beloved child or secure her fortune with its "Grandmama." The Livingston fortune had extraordinary leverage that was now prying away at motherly attachment.

While she decided, Nancy's journal became even more filled with words about how much she loved Peggy. "I spend so much of my time with Peggy that I allmost forget I have anything else to short I neglect the day." Time was short, and Nancy knew it.

Time was slipping away, and when Peggy became very ill through an accident at the end of May, the idea of separation became only more heartbreaking.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting to read of such things. How ironic to sacrifice one's personal happiness for the sake of family. And then to sacrifice your child for it's own sake. So very sad