Some historians think that in England in 1945, she would have been far too exhausted to even know what a pandemic was. They may be right. Mothering is a hard and admirable occupation. And war, when all around you are dying, can take its toll. But there is also a line of thought that says that a mother’s pride might not hold up to the strain of caring for her sick or abandoned child. In 1990, Robin McKie in The Sun and the Sea compared the contrasting experiences of a woman who had lost three children in a war and a mother who’d lost a child to a pandemic. Even after that experience, this woman could not bear to work for a few months and watched her daughter’s life fizzle out: “When he went back to school in the autumn, she was a mess.” Meanwhile, this mother had to nurse her husband back to health. “I wonder how my mother must have felt,” said the daughter, “if she’d left the kids in the street all night long in the cold, wouldn’t they have fallen over? I think it must have put a strain on her as a parent that she couldn’t have let.”
Meantime, back at the front, a woman in the Tank Corps keeps her baby with her in the trenches. Her son is always in her thoughts, and as the enemy attacks she says, “They’re coming in round the bend, and my belly’s like a topographical map with faces on it.” Her son, says the son, “is a little constant reminder of why I’m here.”
Again and again, there are accounts of children being left at home to fend for themselves. In The New Science of Mothers by Margaret Myers, published in 1973, a mother in rural Ireland is lying on her back asleep when the first child, who is only five months old, rolls out of her bed and follows her, his arms outstretched in front of him. The mother suddenly moves her eyes away to avoid the vision of the child’s body and falls back. “She had been sleeping with the kitchen knives,” writes Myers, “but it was inexplicable. The theory was that the baby would rather die than awaken his mother.” It happened twice more in the next hour.
A 1947 survey of Wolverhampton hospitals showed that one in four mothers had left a child for hours, on two occasions in a day. The high divorce rate was partly explained by the fact that many married mothers were playing the motherly hand-maid to long-suffering husbands. But many women as well found that the separations made it more difficult to stay on, because of the extra daily care.