Reading Ursula Bowlby’s Letters (1939-1940): A Chronicle of First Time Motherhood
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Following the birth of her first child, Ursula Bowlby wrote numerous letters to her husband, Dr. John Bowlby. He was working away from home and returned only for brief weekend visits. Ursula’s letters express her absorption in mothering, as well as her struggles with depression, frustration, and anxiety. In a letter written shortly after the birth of her daughter, Ursula confided in John “[t]onight I feel somewhat tired and depressed...I have made the depressing discovery that Mary Hamilton is in my arms [always], so that by evening I really feel as though I never wanted to see her again.” Several weeks later, she described how“[i]t’s funny...how queer my head is these day, I can’t get really interested or contemplate on anything other than the baby.” She spoke in her letters about how “I often long for the time before M.H. came, when I was free...”. This paper draws on this extensive correspondence to explore Ursula’s understandings of and struggles with motherhood in the context of pre-War Britain. Notwithstanding Ursula’s privileged position in British society, her expressed views and feelings about mothering are in many ways both timeless and classless. Ursula’s experience is also significant since her husband was to become the world’s leading “expert” on attachment and a staunch advocate for mothers as primary attachment figures and as selfless participants in childrearing. Ursula’s letters provide a detailed chronicle of the ordinary experiences of motherhood. Juxtaposed to the formidable influence that “attachment theory” was to have in defining motherhood, Ursula’s letters also reveal what little influence her understandings and lived experiences of motherhood would have on her husband’s theoretical writings on the subject.