Lilli De Jong forced to flee her family and Quaker community after she discovers she is pregnant and the father is nowhere to be found. She discovers a home for “wronged women” to live at while she waits for the birth of her child. The caregivers at the home try to convince her to give up her daughter, but she swears she will do everything in her power to keep her child. Unfortunately, in 1800’s America, society has rules that block single women and mothers from living and surviving on their own.
Janet Benton’s book is thoroughly researched and not only shares a universal theme of motherhood with her readers, she helps them better understand the history of breastfeeding and wet nurses in America. It didn’t surprise me wealthy women hired mothers to nurse their children, but I hadn’t considered some of the mothers were forced to give up their own children to take care of someone else’s family. Single mothers were a vulnerable population to fill the demand from women who were unable or unwilling to breastfeed. The unwed mothers were often forced to give their own children up for adoption or sent to an orphanage. With so few options for income, the women had to do what they could to survive and hopefully provide a better life for their child.
If the mothers refused to give up their babies, they were not allowed to bring the child with them to their employer’s house. Without family support or friends, she would have to take her child to a woman who promised to take care of and feed her child for a fee. Many women took advantage of the mothers by taking her money and not feeding and taking care of the babies as promised. Children were mistreated and many died. I can’t imagine how hard it was to leave your child in someone else’s care not knowing if they would be taken care of or even be alive when you returned for them. All while you showed love, attention and affection for children who weren’t your own.
The book shows example after example of how women were treated and discarded. It would have been easy for a family to save a daughter from a life of begging and poverty but how often families joined the community in shunning women who found themselves pregnant. Not only that, but how dependent women were on men and parents to take care of them because there were so few jobs they were permitted to do.
What surprised me most in the book was the Quaker community’s response to what they consider “sin.” I think of the Quaker’s as a denomination of equality and freedom, but this book shows every faith has its blindspots. It paralleled for me the current evangelical movement and its focus on purity and judgement of those they deem to have broken these unwritten rules. Lilli’s experience should be a warning call for all Christian communities to evaluate how it talks about and embraces single mothers.
Lilli De Jong is a book every woman should read. It provides a perspective on motherhood and women’s equality that feels as relevant now as it was back in the 1800’s. Society may not shun unwed mothers, keep them from working, or publicly humiliate them, but it is still a hard, uphill battle for single mothers.
What Should I Read Next?
You can find my reviews of The Mothers here and Little Fires Everywhere here.
Learn more about Janet Benton here.
More information on wet nurses in America here.
History of Nursing here.
History of Quakers here.
What historical fiction books have made you think about women’s struggle in a new way?
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