Just before Samuel Slater arrived in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and unleashed the Industrial Revolution this side of the Atlantic, women made all the clothing needed by their families. Not for hobby, not out of a profound sense of affection, but out of necessity.
She would pick the flax she’d grown in a plot just outside her door, she’d separate the seeds from the soft fluff she needed to then card, spin, and weave on a loom – to then measure and sew the actual garment. A process which took one to two years.
One to two years! For one garment of clothing!
Our tour guide at the Slater Mill historical site told us that weaving five yards of fabric a day was only one of a woman’s daily duties during this time period. She also tended to the garden – weeding, harvesting, maintaining. She rose well before the family to start the fire in the hearth – the only heat source for cooking – and continually tended and adjusted it throughout the day according to their needs. She baked bread. She scoured the wooden troughs from which her children communally ate. She cleaned the house. And she, you know, mothered.
Around the time we viewed the loom larger than my bathroom at home, I got the sense that I could never complain again about loading and emptying the dishwasher. An overwhelming heaviness overtook me, thinking of all the duty and drudgery to which a woman of that time was subject.
We modern mothers are overcome – stretched to the limit with carting and carrying, worry and work, busyness and pains in the butt. But really, if we don’t get to the watering and our lettuce wilts at the root, we can go to the drive-through and buy a salad in a pretty plastic clamshell. It is not a matter of life or death. We can order clothing online and it magically appears at our door. Knitting is done for fun, for stress-relief.
But, still, it’s hard.
So how do any one of us – down through the eons – complete the insurmountable task that is nurturing and growing a family to fruition?
Did the woman who sat at this now-wavy glass window lament her daily list of chores? Did she wish to prick her finger and fall to sleep indefinitely? Or did she revel in the present moment – unhindered by history and future? Handing herself over to the inevitability of the the task at hand and the survival of her family?
Another mother chaperoning our trip said they must’ve prayed for berry season. ‘Berry salad for dinner, kids!’ ‘Even they had to find ways to make life easier, right?’ Perhaps they did. Perhaps they created their own historical life hacks. Their artifacts and traditions live to tell their tales so something stuck.
I should feel my life is easier in comparison to what I saw that day. In the thick of my own mothering melee, I appreciate the lesson, but don’t yet feel it in my bones. Still, I do feel solidarity with all the mothers down through the eons who have and do fight the good fight.
It is woven into the fiber of our being.