Wed
Dec 4 2013 2:00pm

A Pattern of Perfection: Childbirth and Motherhood in LaVyrle Spencer’s Morning Glory

Morning Glory by LaVyrle SpencerSet in a small town and an isolated farm in Georgia in 1941, LaVyrle Spencer's classic convenient marriage romance Morning Glory in some ways feels more like Americana stories set in the 19th century than the 20th. Until the war begins, it's a world of homemade lye soap and slop buckets, fresh eggs delivered in wagons, buttermilk kept cold in a well. Yet as I read it, certain parts seemed strangely familiar. It wasn't until I got to Elly's homebirth that I realized why: when I was pregnant, at around the same time the book was written, Elly was the woman every pregnant woman and mother I knew wanted to be.

Our very first image of our heroine Elly, through the eyes of our hero Will, is of a mother rather than a potential object of desire:

A woman appeared in the doorway of the house, one child on her hip, another burrowing into her skirts with a thumb in its mouth.

She is also, we shortly discover, “pregnant as hell.” And with her husband dead, she's the only adult on their farm, in charge of literally everything. But no matter how stressed she might be, she's devoted to her children:

“I guess you're wondering about me,” she said at last. She smoothed the back of Donald Wade's shirt with a palm, waiting for questions that didn't come. The room carried only the sound of the baby slapping his hand on the wooden tray of the high chair. She rose and fetched a dry biscuit and laid it on the tray. The baby gurgled, took it in a fat fist and began gumming it. She stood behind him and regarded Will while repeatedly brushing the child's feathery hair back from his forehead.

Neither Will nor Elly feels an immediate physical attraction. Elly decides to marry Will because he seems quiet and hard-working. Will, an orphan who never knew a loving family, has a more complex reaction to her:

She had fine-textured skin, strong bones and features that, if taken one by one, weren't actually displeasing. Her cheekbones were slightly too prominent, her upper lip a little too thin, and her hair unkempt. But it was honey-brown, and he wondered if with a washing it might not turn honeyer. He shifted his study to her eyes and saw for the first time: they were green. [Will's favorite color — somewhere in his memory, a woman with green eyes was kind to him.] A green-eyed woman who touched her babies like every baby deserved to be touched.

He decided she'd do.

Elly isn't only a good mother. Despite desperately needing help to manage her rundown farm, her house smells of fresh bread. Her towels are sparkling clean. She sews and crochets, makes soap, milks the cow, cooks wholesome food, and keeps hens and pigs, all while suffering from morning sickness.  Her everyday life is all about homegrown food and textile arts, unconsciously embodying the yearning many feel for a less commercially driven, more hands-on life.

But it's as a mother that Will most admires Elly, and her natural parenting style coincides almost perfectly with what is now called “Attachment Parenting.” Keeping your babies physically close as much as possible, spending lots of time with your children, being their first teachers:

Will had never walked with a woman and her children before. It held a strange, unexpected appeal. He noticed her way with the children, how she carried Baby Thomas on one hip with his heel flattening her smock. How, as they set off from the porch, she reached back for Donald Wade, inviting, “Come on, honey, you lead the way,” and helped him off the last step. How she watched him gallop ahead, smiling after him as if she'd never before seen his flopping yellow hair, his baggy striped overalls. How she locked her hands beneath Thomas's backside, leaned from the waist, took a deep pull of the clear air and said to the sky, “My, if this day ain't a blessin'.” How she called ahead, “Careful o' that wire' in the grass there, Donald Wade!” How she plucked a leaf and handed it to Thomas, then let him touch her nose with it and pretended it tickled her and made the young one giggle.

Watching, Will became entranced. Lord, she was some mother. Always kind voiced. Always finding the good in things. Always concerned about her boys. Always making them feel important. Nobody had ever made Will feel important, only in the way.

 They went around to the back of the house where the dishtowel flapped on a line strung between teetering clothespoles that had been shimmed up by crude wood braces. Beyond these were more junkpiles before the woods began—pines, oaks, hickories and more. Sparrows flitted from tree to tree ahead, and Eleanor followed with her finger, telling the boys, “See? Chipping sparrows.” A brown thrasher swept past and perched on a dead limb. Again she pointed it out and named it.

Elly's unassisted homebirth (without a doctor or midwife) isn't chosen for health concerns or ideological reasons, but is based on her almost pathological need not to interact with the people in town. Still, the descriptions of her preparations, so calm and sure, are enviable:

“Hey, Will?” she interrupted teasingly. “Guess what.”

“What?”

“Dinner's ready.“

“Well, it's about time.” He tried to rise, but she remained on his lap.

“Guess what else.”

“I dunno.”

“My labor's started.”

His face flattened as if she'd struck him across the Adam's apple with the pipe wrench.

“Elly. Oh, my God, you shouldn't be sitting here. Lord, did I hurt you, pulling you down? Can you get up?”

She chuckled at his overzealous reaction. “It's all right. I'm between pains. And sitting here took my mind off 'em.”

After two previous homebirths, Ellie knows exactly what needs to be done — the bed prepared with absorbent cotton flannel sheets, harness straps rigged to hold onto during contractions, and comfrey boiling to make a poultice if her skin tears. But as always, her child is her first priority:

“Only use the sterilized rags I laid on the dresser. Everything else you need is there too. Scissors, strings, pledgets, alcohol and gauze for the baby's cord, and Vaseline for under the cotton when you bandage her. You'll do that after you give her a bath. Make sure you keep enough warm water for that, and a tubful of cold for the sheets, 'cause you'll have to change them when it's over. When you give her a bath don't use the yellow soap, but the glycerine. Make sure you hold her head all the time—soon as it comes out of me, and while you're waiting for the rest of her body to be born, and when you give her a bath, too. But, Will, you got to remember, through it all, the baby comes first. The most important thing is to get her breathing, then bathed and dressed and warm so she doesn't get chilled.”

Quietly she said, “Now walk with me.”

“Walk?”

“It'll bring it on faster.”

Only when it comes to nursing is Elly's situation a little different from the modern view: she uses bottles and watered-down milk in the days before her milk comes in, and she weans at 8 months. (Which is still considerably longer than the reported American average of 3 months.)

The story is very aware of Elly's attractiveness as a mother figure; Will even tells her, “Sometimes I think I halfway wanted to marry you 'cause you were such a good mother and I never had one.”  And he idealizes her changed body:

He stood for a long moment holding both her hands letting his eyes drift over her — weighty breasts, enlarged nipples, rounded stomach and pale skin. Had he the power, he would not have changed one inch of her contour. It spoke of motherhood, the babies she'd had, the one she was nursing. He wished it had been his babies that had shaped her this way, but had it been so, he couldn't have loved her more.

I don't think Spencer intended Elly to be any kind of image of perfection; the beauty of Morning Glory, in fact, is that the characters are so seemingly ordinary yet discover an extraordinary love together. Neither Will nor Elly is well educated or wealthy or strikingly attractive, and certainly neither has high self-esteem. Yet intentionally or not, Morning Glory hits a particular ideal of womanhood square on the head. If the term “mommy porn” has to exist, this should be what it describes.


 


Willaful has been diligently reading and reviewing romance for the past seven years, but for some reason just can't seem to catch up. She blogs at A Willful Woman and Karen Knows Best.

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6 comments
Evan
1. Evan
Ew. I've come to feel that idealized perfect-homemaker imagery is as harmful to women in its own way as photoshopped barbie-doll beauty standards are. I suspect this book would really bother me.
willaful
2. willaful
And I didn't even mention the slut-shaming!

I don't exactly disagree with you, but I do find it a beautiful vision in its way.

But I think you should read it and give me your impression of the images of masculinity in the book.
Kareni
3. Kareni
Thank you for a new view on one of my favorite books, Willaful. Morning Glory has been on my shelf for years now and is a book I've reread many times. You tempt me to reread it again.
Evan
6. Thalia Helikon
Morning Glory brings emotional immediacy to women's lives and circumstances prior to birth control and "Women's Lib"-- the laws passed in the 1960's and 1970s which permitted women to have credit in their own names, sign contracts, and establish identity separate from a man.

Also, the backbreaking, endless physical labor of housekeeping without "labor saving devices." These tasks were the reasons that wives and mothers had to stay at home.

When they say, "history comes alive in fiction," I think of cherished books like Morning Glory.
Mary Lynne Nielsen
7. emmel
Willa, thanks for highlighting one of my favorite books. Yes, Will does initially perceive Elly through her maternal aspects. But it's nice to see how his perception grows to include her as a person and as a woman. As well, Elly's personal journey to independence is one of the best things about this wonderful novel.
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