What was motherhood like for a woman in the ancient world?
A mother today can walk down the baby aisle at a store and find everything she might possibly need to prepare for motherhood and to raise a child: pregnancy tests, pregnancy vitamins, diapers, formula, bottles, baby toys, pacifiers, and more. What about ancient mothers?
A hymn to the Babylonian goddess Gula describes a woman’s life cycle as a daughter, bride, spouse, and housekeeper. The most significant role of a woman, however, went without saying: motherhood. The unstated significance of bearing children is highlighted in the tradition of giving a dowry and bride price; both payments were not due in full until the birth of the first child, emphasizing the fact that a woman’s ability to bear children was of utmost importance.
The Hebrew Bible demonstrates the importance of motherhood through barren women narratives. Rachel, for instance, sobs: “Give me children or I shall die!” (Gen 30:1). Barrenness brought with it mental and emotional trauma, along with the social alienation of not fulfilling an expected social role.
Women could pursue means of curing their barrenness via magical-medical practices. Babylonian texts suggest herbal preparations that could be used to “unblock” the womb, and in the Bible, Rachel turned to mandrakes, a plant thought to provide fertility (Gen 29:14-22).
Women could also become mothers in other ways. Sarah gives her handmaid Hagar to Abraham, so that she may “build up” a family through her (Gen 16:2). This practice is akin to how we might understand surrogate motherhood today. Adoption was also a possibility (Gen 30:3; Gen 48:9-12), and adoption contracts from Mesopotamia attest to formal adoptions of both boys and girls. While most legal documents were contracted by adult males, some adoption contracts are done by couples, and some solely by women
When it came to feeding their children, most women nursed, but wet-nursing was an available alternative (Exod 2:7-9). Babylonian wet-nurse contracts indicate that a child was nursed for two to three years. Discoveries of little feeding cups and juglets with cloth impressions covering the spout suggest that bottle feeding may also have occurred.
Images from Mesopotamia and Egypt, and possibly biblical texts (Isa 66:11-13), indicate that attachment parenting was known and practiced. Baby-wearing was a way for mothers to care for their young while completing their daily tasks.
Mothers strove to keep their babies safe through intangible means, like prayers and lullabies, and tangible items, like birth wands and amulets of protective deities (Pazazu and Bes). Yet, with a high infant mortality rate, a woman had to face the fact that her child might succumb to an early death.
If a child reached adulthood, texts suggest that a mother would enjoy care and respect. Inheritance contracts from Ugarit state that children who cared for their mothers would get an inheritance, while children who dishonored their mother would be disinherited. Similarly, biblical texts exhort children to honor their mothers and find pride in them (Exod 20:12, Prov 17:6).