Sunday, May 4, 2014

Remembering Mothers of Clermont

In just over two hundred years Clermont was home to nine mothers and 29 children.  With Mother's Day just around the corner, it seems like the right time to honor some of Clermont's moms with their own bios.  Each had their own set of expectations and challenges and advantages, but each one devoted their blood, sweat and tears to helping their children grow into the best adults that they could.

Margaret Beekman Livingston:
This stalwart mom gave birth to eleven children.  That's about 104 months of being pregnant for anyone who's counting.  She had one child about every two years, making it so that from 1743 (Janet's birth) until 1765 (the year after Edward was born) she always had at least one infant and one toddler in house.   

For wives in Margaret's generation, motherhood was not a choice; it was both a duty, and (for most) an unavoidable side effect of the marriage bed.  That is not to say that it was always a burden or that it was unrewarding or even unwanted.  But repeated pregnancies were simply a fact of life.  Nevertheless mothers and fathers loved their children and did their best for them, and Margaret was no exception.

While she most likely took advantage of the family's considerable financial resources to hire nannies that would help her manage her youngest children, she still believed that "the feelings of a mother" meant being concerned about her children's happiness, well-being, and development, and it was vital that a woman demonstrate this concern.  When her granddaughter Peggy was staying with her in 1783, Margaret was at first "most Mortifyed" when the mother sent no letters to inquire after the girl.  It turned out that the three letters that had been sent were only delayed, and Margaret breathed a sigh of relief that her daughter-in-law was a suitably-concerned parent before spelling out the critical details of the little girl's life.  She was proud to announce that the 20-month-old girl had grown "quite fat" and she was "as happy as an Angel."  Although Margaret did her best to describe the little girl's precocious development, she felt that her adoration for the child made her a biased judge, and she tried not gush too much.

Most telling about the affectionate relationship that Margaret held dear with children were her frequent descriptions of kisses and other physical contact with her granddaughter.  "No person especially Gentlemen enters the Room, but she goes to them and says upe, and sites on their Lap..." she wrote, and also "she knew of no way to shew her affection but by taking betsey in one hand, and peggy the other; then kissing one, then the other, repeating it five or six times to each."  (Peggy Lewis and Betsey were the little girl's 3-year-old cousins)  Even while Margaret was writing the letter, her granddaughter stood at her knee and kissed the paper that way destined for her mother.

The Livingstons were a particularly close-knit and affectionate family.  In fact, Margaret continued to have direct involvement with her children's lives all the way through adulthood, once admonishing her 29-year-old son Chancellor Livingston to practice moderation while he was attending parties in Philadelphia during the American Revolution and later interceding between her son Henry and his wife Nancy during their troubled marriage.

There is no denying that motherhood was huge part of Margaret's life from age 19 when her first baby was born until the day she died at age 76.  Her family was always around her, be it when she lived at Clermont in the summers--with her eldest son next door at Arryl House and other children mostly within a short carriage ride--or in the winters when she was in New York City in the townhouse she once shared with her husband.  Letters show that she was constantly surrounded by her children and grand children.

For Margaret we have lost much of the day-to-day information about motherhood.  Temper tantrums and dirty diapers and telling stories and bedtime are all lost.  Even so her ideas about the importance of affectionate family life can be construed through later letters about her grandchildren, and the sense that she needed to keep advising her grown children speaks to her concern and her sense of her own importance in their lives.  For Margaret, motherhood was her duty for life.

Elizabeth Stevens Livingston:
Like her grandmother, "Betsy" gave birth to eleven children, including one set of twin girls.  Her first child was born while she was in France in 1802, which makes it entirely possible that she was in the early stages of pregnancy when she undertook the hazardous trans-Atlantic journey from Boston to France.  In addition to all of the probable first trimester discomfort, she endured a terrible storm while on the boat, and all passengers were quite certain that they would be sunk.

Betsy's experience as a mother always makes me a little sad because she lost six children over the course of her life before finally passing away herself at the young age of 49.  In the space of just five years (1810-1915), Betsy gave birth three children and lost another three.  Child mortality was a hard fact of life, and many babies did not survive past infancy.  The figures, depending on the study and location, are as high as 50% of children not seeing their first birthday.  Even the family members of new babies kept in mind that their survival was not a given.  When Betsy herself was born in 1780, her own aunt Janet Montgomery wrote to Sarah Jay, "As this girl is designed for your Boy, whom I admire extremely, I can only pray that she may live to cement our familys in a still closer union." (emphasis mine)

This looming knowledge or even pragmatism did not mean that women did not bond with their new children.  They still took great pride in their new babies.  Even while Betsy's aunt Janet was acknowledging the risks of infancy, Betsy's mother bade her "tell [Jay] a hundred fine things of her daughter."   Still, women had to keep in mind that infancy was a treacherous time for their children.  It was said by some mothers that it was much harder to lose older children, and most of Betsey's children made it past age two.

Diseases like Scarlett fever, whooping cough, dysentery, smallpox, pneumonia were common killers and so were accidents, including falls or encounters with large animals and other daily hazards.  What was a mother to do to defend her offspring?  Removing from the city to the countryside in the summers was common for the well-to-do, and the Livingstons were no exception.  Crowded cities, where people, animals, sewerage, and garbage were pressed against one another on a daily basis were often site of summer epidemics, and even Betsey's uncle Edward was once nearly felled in an 1803 epidemic of yellow fever that struck New York City.

Women, even elite ones, were also the trusted medical advisers in their homes.  It was their job to know how to nurse fevers and minor injuries.  Mothers taught their older daughters as a matter of course, and some learned additional tricks through published manuals (for instance, the 1837 "Family Nurse" at right).  Professional doctors were in increasing demand by this time (even her father the Chancellor built up a relationship with a doctor of his own), but women were still serving as their family's first line of defense and primary nurse.

After Betsy's early death in 1829, her husband eventually found another wife by the name of Mary C. Broome.  It is possible that, like many widowers, he felt that he needed female assistance to oversee the household raise the four children who were yet unmarried.  In fact, for several generations, while Livingston widows tended to remain single for the rest of their days, their widower counterparts were much more likely to remarry.  The moral?  A house without a mother just wasn't complete.

Emily Evans Livingston: 
Married to John Henry Livingston, Emily Evans (also called "Bessie") did not give birth to any children of her own, but she took on the role of step mother to both her husband's daughter Katherine, and his nephew Clermont.  When Emily married into the Livingston family in 1880 at the age of 39, Katherine was 7 and Clermont was 12 years old (having already lost both parents and his sister to an assortment of illnesses).

At least in literature, step mothers were viewed with some suspicion in the Victorian era, as though they could not love their new children the same as their biological children (think Cinderella's wicked stepmother favoring her own children).  But the fact is that blended families and stepmothers were very common.  Particularly in cases where a widower had young children, a woman was needed to step in an oversee their care and feeding, early education, and their emotional and moral development.   Women were generally (though not always) considered to be indispensable for these tasks.  For example, after John Henry's first wife passed away, his daughter Katherine was sent to be brought up for a time with her Hammersly aunts.  It was not until Emily married into the family that Katherine could move back into the family unit at Clermont.

So Emily certainly had her battles to fight.  In addition to working against the public stereotype of neglectful stepmother, Emily was also considered an "outsider" to the Livingston family--that is, her family was not related to the Livingstons, but instead came from the Philadelphia area. 

It's hard to know what the home life was like at Clermont for this blended family-of-four, but we do know that daughter Katherine became as close as a sister to her cousin Clermont.  It seems pleasant to imagine a life of cozy family time in the drawing room (pictured at right in the 1880s), a nest decorated by Emily in her characteristically energetic style.  I say Bravo! to Emily for building her family at Clermont in spite of any public opinions.

Alice Delafield Clarkson Livingston: 

As the last resident of Clermont who documented her life and those of her daughters so prolifically, much has already been said about Alice.  But I feel that she deserves some respect as a woman who truly threw herself into family life at Clermont, and I can't imagine a post about motherhood without her.

As a woman of 34 years when she got married, you might think Alice was starting to wonder if motherhood was going to be in her cards at all.  Often we in the modern era think of having babies in your mid 30s as being on the late side (boy, was my 34-year-old friend stung when her doctor labeled her pregnancy "geriatric" last year!).  But you have to remember, although women of the 18th and 19th centuries usually began having children in their early 20s, without many birth control options, they often continued having children until their 40s or even 50s.  So Alice's first baby at age 36 (Honoria Alice Livingston on Feb 7, 1909) was not quite a rarity.  Her second baby arrived 14 months later (Janet Cornelia Livingston on April 11, 1910), and Alice's family was complete.

In spite of having the assistance of two nannies, Alice appears to have been an involved mother.  Her daughter remembered her by declaring merrily "Yes, she loved being a mother and bringing us up..."   Alice had matured as home photography was becoming increasingly available, and she often snapped albums full of pictures of her girls as they grew.  Posed pictures, candids, travel photos, costumes--you  name, Alice did it.  

The photos suggest a mother who wanted to preserve the memories of her children's early days--much as many mothers do now.  The photos were all lovingly pasted into albums, and she even created albums for each of her two daughters to have when they got older.  This was not the "Downton Abbey" idea of "1 hour a day with your children" for wealthy mothers, but rather a mother who brought her children into the garden with her (nannies still in tow to keep an eye on them), who helped them plan their own garden, and who accompanied them sledding or into the rabbit hutch. With her husband retired from work, Alice's family was all around her at all times.

To be sure, having a full house staff meant that Alice had help.  This was not a mother who stirred the cookpot with one hand while she bounced the baby with the other.  She had a coachman to take the girls for rides in the pony cart (at left).  She had a cook to make all their meals.  She had two nannies (they later down-sized to just one).  There were governesses, house maids, and even a ladies' maid for Alice herself.

But one might argue that this meant that the time that Alice spent with her children was not burdened with work or some secret longing to get away for some "me time."  Instead Alice was free to make sure that their exploits together were in pursuit of mutual pleasure.  It may not be how it's done by most of us today, but to any mother who's ever tried to recall the last time she saw a grown-up movie or drew a big sigh as she cleaned the toys off the living room floor (again), there are parts about that which might seem appealing.

And just like Margaret Beekman Livingston 150 years before her, Alice staid a part of her children's lives.   Honoria married in 1931, but she and her husband returned to Clermont each summer to live in a Sylvan Cottage on the edge of the property.  They shared afternoon pleasantries with Alice in her shady backyard at Clermont Cottage.

Janet came up from the city on weekends (where she'd gotten a job as an investment banker) to help her family care for the estate.  Alice even built a garage addition onto her little cottage with several rooms in it just for her younger daughter.

These four Livingston women all lived very different lives at Clermont with social expectations that changed vastly over 150 years.  But all of them shared the same primary concern: raising healthy, happy children who would go on to be productive adults.  They faced the English army, staggering family losses, and even a Great Depression along the way.  Others faced much quieter crisis that weren't recorded in history--the exhaustion and discomfort of repeated pregnancies, unruly children, illnesses nursed through the middle of the night, even the simple emotional strain of doing the best you can as a parent.

Bravo to all the mothers of Clermont and happy Mothers' Day to the other moms out there who are reading this blog!

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