Punished for Pregnancy: On the Radical Power of The Millstone by Margaret Drabble in a Post-Roe World

In the swinging scene of 1960s London, Rosamund is an anomaly: a socially liberal graduate student who is completely uninterested in sex. Her string of platonic boyfriends ends one night with an unlikely encounter with George, a charming, unassertive BBC radio announcer who, Rosamund suspects, is actually attracted to her friend Joe. Given what we know about her and him, it seems impossible that a shared drink at a bar would lead to Rosamund’s flat would lead to sex on her parents’ settee (“Oh god, how pointless this is,” mutters George afterwards), though not as impossible as its consequences.

Against all odds, Rosamund gets pregnant. When she realizes what has happened as the result of her few hours with George, she knows what she’s supposed to do: have an abortion, which, given the times and Rosamund’s limited funds, means a bottle of gin followed by a blazing hot bath. She goes through with it, but it’s a half-hearted attempt at best.

After a few of her friends stop by and drink half the alcohol, Rosamund is still too drunk to manage the bathtub’s finicky faucet. The water is freezing cold when it should be scalding, and after the briefest of icy dips, she doesn’t try again.

This is the point in Margaret Drabble’s 1965 novel The Millstone where Rosamund should hide herself from polite society until she gives the baby away. Between 1949 and 1976, an estimated 185,000 British women, mostly unmarried teenagers, were forced to put their babies up for adoption. Many were sent to wait out their pregnancies in homes run by state, religious, or so-called charitable institutions. Forced menial labor, done as penance for their situation, was common.

And at the end, whether the women wanted to keep their babies or not, those children were taken away. “I had to hand my baby over crying and pleading again for help and to be allowed to keep him,” wrote one mother who was interviewed for a 2022 investigation by the UK’s Joint Committee on Human Rights. Said another, “The pain [of giving my baby away] was unbearable.” The adoptions were justified by the prevailing view of unmarried mothers as promiscuous, irresponsible, emotionally disturbed, and unfit for raising children.

Between 1949 and 1976, an estimated 185,000 British women, mostly unmarried teenagers, were forced to put their babies up for adoption.

And yet, almost from the start, Rosamund resolves to keep the baby. Adoption remains an oblique threat: in the “U” for unmarried they tag to Rosamund’s hospital bed, in her worry that the students whom she tutors will fire her when they find out she’s pregnant and she won’t have any income on which to raise the baby. Her friends and family are more direct. Joe forbids her to raise the child, convinced it will “ruin her life.” Her sister, who is married with three children of her own, councils her to get out of the “absolutely rotten” situation by giving the baby up for adoption.

And the reader? The ironic circumstances of Rosamund’s pregnancy are funny, but they also seem to be Drabble’s way of sussing out the reader’s belief that unmarried women who become pregnant are, to put it plainly, asking for it. “I had asked for it as little as anyone who had ever got it,” says Rosamund, and it’s hard to imagine a reader who wouldn’t agree.

On the other hand, Rosamund is not, as some people in her circle suggest, simply obsessed with the idea of having a baby. Quite the opposite; she’s understood what’s at stake from early on. Her mother is a feminist who brought her daughters up to be equal, and in a world where mothers are mostly confined to the home, equality feels indivisible from independence.

“I believed dependance to be a fatal sin,” says Rosamund, who finds that pregnancy gives her ideals a serious blow. To be pregnant is to be in “a human limit” for the first time in her life, and she is honest about its toll on the female body. The pregnant women Rosamund encounters have exhausted faces and varicose veins, milk-stained sweaters and greying hair. At the antenatal clinic, she is literally reduced to tears by “the variety of human misery that presented itself.”

Given how far we’ve come in normalizing the ups, downs, and gas of pregnancy, it can be hard to remember how radical Drabble’s candor would have been for contemporary readers. In the mid-twentieth century, pregnancy was still considered an inappropriate topic for public conversation, an awkwardness that a woman should minimize and keep to herself. (When the actress Florence Henderson, best known for playing super-mom Carol Brady, became pregnant during her run on The Today Show in 1960, the network forced her to hide her growing stomach from the audience. As she recalled, “They put me behind potted plants, desks, anything.”)

If pregnancy limits a woman’s body, motherhood, Rosamund fears, limits a woman’s life. “You can have no idea what it means to have to think of someone else, twenty-four hours of every day, and not for a year or two but for ever, more or less,” writes her sister when counseling Rosamund to go through with adoption. The title of The Millstone suggests that this is what the novel will be about: a woman who gets pregnant and is ground down by the weight of caring for her child.

It’s a surprise to both the reader and Rosamund that when the baby comes, a daughter whom she names Octavia, Rosamund isn’t merely happy, she’s completely overwhelmed with joy. She admits to watching her daughter’s small hands and face for hours, is swept away by her smile. It’s the first time, Rosamund says, that she has experienced love in her life.

The Millstone has always been radical for its refusal to let multiple realities preclude each other; Rosamund can hate pregnancy’s toll on the body but still want to become a mother…

When Joe visits Rosamund in the hospital, she tries to explain this to him, but he dismisses her: “What you’re talking about is one of the most boring commonplaces of the female experience. All women feel exactly that, it’s nothing to be proud of, it’s not even worth thinking about.”

Rosamund doesn’t convince Joe otherwise, understandably giving up on the herculean effort of trying to convey motherhood to a man who believes he already understands it, but by the end of the book, her case is nevertheless made. Motherhood is something to be proud of. It is important. And it can be empowering.

Drabble makes this point early on through the unusual circumstances of Rosamund’s pregnancy. At a time when having a baby outside of wedlock often meant losing access to that baby, choosing motherhood is one of the most empowered things Rosamund can do. Readers might still wonder what happens after, and if childrearing necessarily sucks the agency right out of Rosamund’s courageous act. Drabble seems to anticipate this, too.

Though she has said on more than one occasion that her books are not “about feminism”—and certainly The Millstone stands on its own—Rosamund’s concerns reflect a question that became increasingly divisive during the ideological splits of second wave feminism: what do we do about motherhood?

Motherhood and feminism have always had an uneasy relationship. How could they not? Feminism is about giving women choice and, for most of history, motherhood has been forced on women at the expense of their doing almost anything else. To become a mother was not just to be asked to stay home; mothers were—and often are— told to act, look, and even love a certain way. By who? It’s not the babies.

In her 1972 book Of Woman Born, the poet and activist Adrienne Rich coined the term the institution of motherhood to describe the societal and economic policies, expectations, and pressures put on mothers. The institution of motherhood has been historically defined by men and is, crucially, not the same as the actual act of mothering, or the private relationship that exists between a woman and her child. Having a baby can be joyous; being told this means you can’t have a job is not.

By accident, Rosamund finds herself on the outskirts of the institution of motherhood. No one expects that she’ll become a devoted tender of hearth and home. In fact, they have no positive expectations of her at all. When Octavia is diagnosed with a heart problem that requires surgery and has a four-to-one chance of survival, Rosamund is infuriated by the knowledge that everyone else would see her baby’s death as a blessing in disguise.

The stigma attached to unmarried mothers is painfully real, but once Octavia is home, Rosamund also realizes she has more freedom than others to define her relationship with her baby—and to enjoy it. She loves Octavia more than she will ever love anyone else, and she doesn’t have to prove it under the terms that her married friends do: by being a traditional, feminine, stay-at-home mom. When Rosamund visits an old friend from Cambridge who is now “nothing but a wife and mother,” she realizes, “really I felt I was the better off of the two.”

She’s better off than most. Why can Rosamund keep her baby at a time when so many other unwed women could not? She is the first to admit that it’s because of her class:

Had I not been who I am, and born and reared as I was, I would probably never have dared; I only thought I could get away with it, to put it briefly, because those ambulance men had collected me from a good address, and not from a bed-sitter in Tottenham or from a basement in ever-weeping Paddington.

Being (upper) middle-class gives Rosamund the confidence to fight for her baby, and it ensures she’ll be treated with a certain respect. She also has financial stability. Her parents are living in Africa and letting her live rent-free in their huge flat in the fashionable area of Marylebone. Rosamund only has to tutor a few students a week to stay solvent, otherwise she can focus on her passion project, a thesis on an admittedly esoteric branch of Elizabethan poetry.

After she gets pregnant, Rosamund lets her friend Lydia move in for free in exchange for the occasional babysitting, though she also ends up hiring Mrs. Jennings, an older nanny, to come a few days a week for extra support. Rosamund might not have social approval, but she does have a steady income, shelter, community, child-care, access to doctors and healthcare, and steady—and meaningful—employment.

The Millstone has always been radical for its refusal to let multiple realities preclude each other; Rosamund can hate pregnancy’s toll on the body but still want to become a mother, she can love her baby and her job, she can rely on other people while still being the primary responsible parent. But I wonder if we need Rosamund’s story more than ever now, in post-Roe America, where few women have Rosamund’s support structure and where, once again, women are at risk of losing their babies.

In February, judges in Alabama used the same laws that repealed women’s right to abortion to deny women’s access to pregnancy via IVF. Though the affected women and their doctors successfully fought to regain their rights, the case is still in flux and fertility clinicians remain worried about the future. I doubt the painful irony of this case would surprise Margaret Drabble at all. Legislating women’s bodies is not about babies, morals, or motherhood. It’s about choice.

“It was a question of free will,” realizes Rosamund after she gets pregnant. “Up to this point in my life I had always had the illusion at least of choice.”


The Book of Mothers: How Literature Can Help Us Reinvent Modern Motherhood - Mullins, Carrie

The Book of Mothers: How Literature Can Help Us Reinvent Motherhood by Carrie Mullins is available via Harper.

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