Motherly love in pregnancy: On its historical emergence in German medical texts (1900-1950)

By Lisa Malich

Today, pregnancy is often considered a time full of tender emotions and motherly love. This is especially the case in representations of pregnancy in ’how-to guides’ for mothers. Nevertheless – contrary to our current assumptions – motherly love is not a timeless phenomenon but has a history. When did the idea that maternal emotions develop during pregnancy emerge? And how did it coalesce?

To answer these questions, I examine a selection of pregnancy manuals, advice literature and medical textbooks, taking Germany as an example. I trace idea of maternal love since the second part of the 18th century, showing that the first decades of the 20th century were key to the rise of the concept of motherly emotions during pregnancy.

Anna Fischer-Dückelmann, “The woman as family doctor” (1905 edition)


The impaired temper of pregnant women

Unlike today, maternal emotions during pregnancy were rarely mentioned in mothering manuals and medical textbooks from the 18th and 19th centuries. Although the ideal of maternal love played an increasingly important role in bourgeois Western cultures in this time period, characteristic emotions were generally ascribed to the time after birth, and especially to nursing, caring for and educating children – but not to gestation itself. Many physicians, like the German obstetrician Friedrich Benjamin Osiander (1759–1822), described the mood of pregnant women as ‘impaired.’ Like him, the majority of medical authors considered “nervous irritability,” “ill humor” and “hysterical fits” to be common symptoms of those nine months. The German physician and psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), for example, mentions “impaired temper” and “abnormal irritability” as often accompanying pregnancy[1] Thus, the idea of negative moods was predominant for at least two centuries.


This rise of the maternal instinct

The notion of impaired mood during pregnancy changed around 1900 when the idea of maternal emotions also began to enter considerations of gestation. This concept of motherliness during pregnancy had multiple origins. One of its first manifestations was as an instinct rather than as an emotion. The presumed ‘maternal instinct’ of pregnancy was connected to ‘quickening,’ the first movements of the fetus felt by an expectant mother. While quickening had been considered a neutral diagnostic sign of pregnancy before, it now became emotionally charged. In the first decades of the 20th century, one popular advice book for mothers stated that the “feeling of the child’s life” would “wake the maternal instinct.”[2] Maternity during pregnancy was thus framed not only as an instinct, but also as an affective response that could be caused by the sensation of fetal movement – almost like a nervous reflex triggered by a mechanical stimulus (echoing the once dominant model of the nervous system). By bringing together emotional sensations and nervous reflexes, maternal instincts during pregnancy were conceptualized simultaneously as an automatic and as a natural response.

As quickening was tied to maternal feelings, the emotions of gestation also became an object of scientific research. One of the first empirical studies on the psychology of pregnant women and their development of maternal joy was published by gynecologist Paul Willy Siegel in 1919. He surveyed 1000 women, concluding that “the maternal feeling is the natural feeling of pregnancy.”[3] According to Siegel, motherliness – which was conceived of as a feeling of joy and longing for a child – emerged and increased as gestation progressed towards term. He distinguished between “rejection of the child – indifference – joy”[4] and explained that more than 70 % of all pregnant women claimed to feel joy in the third trimester. Siegel speculated that the reasons for this phenomenon were “the rise of the fetal movements” and the “sensation of a living creature in the maternal body.”[5] He argued that “[o]nly when the child affects the mother enough that the maternal instinct dominates will she be able to cast away all doubts and worry and enjoy the feeling of becoming and finally of being a mother.”[6] Here, the instinct is blended with the joys of maternity and the child’s activity. The fetus is represented as an active trigger of instinctual affects, but also as an individual that evokes maternal emotions. In this way, the fetus emerged as an object of emotions, as a child that should already be loved and joyfully welcomed. Hence, on the level of emotions, the pregnant mother and the felt child were co-produced.

The emergence of pregnant motherliness was shaped by various medical and social developments. First, the survival rate of infants and the health of children improved at the beginning of the 20th century, with infant mortality decreasing by around 4% in Germany between 1880 and 1913.[7] In cities like Berlin, mortality even dropped by approximately 50%.[8] This leaves some room for speculation: The decrease in infant mortality – along with improvements in obstetric care, and a lower average number of births per woman – may well have altered perceptions towards assuming pregnancies would reliably end in the birth of a live child. Such a prospect might have supported a shift towards regarding pregnant women as future mothers.

The second development was fear of declining birth rates, which was voiced not only by the German government, but also by some medical organizations or national newspapers. This phenomenon had started at the end of the 19th century and intensified during World War I. The focus on declining birth rates was augmented by controversy about women’s rights and abortion at the beginning of the 20th century. Women’s groups, sex reformers and political parties like the communist party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschland) campaigned to liberalize the abortion law, whereas the churches, Christian political parties like the Zentrumspartei or the conservative German Medical Association wanted existing law to be upheld. This situation coincided with biopolitical strategies that focused on the size of the German population, meaning that campaigns of quantitative population politics problematized contraception and penalized abortions.[9] Nevertheless, (then-illegal) abortions were often the first choice family planning solution, and thus rose in incidence at the beginning of the Weimar Republic.

Flap image of a pregnant woman. Kress, “Geheimnisse Der Zeugung Und Das Geschlechtsleben Des Menschen” (Dresden: M. Wolfs Verlag, 1900/1920).

The study by Siegel cited above can be seen as one element within this constellation. In the text, Siegel referred explicitly to the danger of German population decline, and expressed hope that his findings would help reduce abortions in order to achieve the “great goal to always uphold our national strength” (1919, p. 205).[10] He argued for the political use of knowledge about the maternal instinct, because – according to his argument – if a woman initially wanted to abort an unwanted pregnancy, her wish could be dismissed because when she felt the movements of her child she would eventually welcome her pregnancy. The emergence of maternal emotions, then, was crucially shaped by quantitative population politics.


The happiness of motherhood – between euthenics and eugenics

But the rise of maternal emotions was also increasingly connected to a politics that focused on the perceived quality of the German population. Maternal feelings formed part of the general notion that the emotional condition of women would improve during gestation. Pregnant women – according to medical authors at the beginning of the 20th century – were by their very nature pleased, emotionally stable and enjoyed peace of mind. Within this discursive realm, motherly emotions were not necessarily labeled ‘instincts,’ but were connected to nature and associated with positive feelings such as contentment and joy. While irritability and nervousness were considered typical signs of pregnancy in the 19th century, many experts now argued that they were the unnatural results of an unhealthy lifestyle, of decadent modern culture, economic problems or degeneration. This was consistent with a call for returning to nature, voiced by representatives of various reform movements and political groups, from the youth and protest movement of the hiking Wandervögel to the society for racial hygiene (Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene).

The notion of the strong and emotionally stable pregnant woman oscillated between euthenics positions (which emphasized the influence of environment and lifestyle) and eugenic approaches (which focused on hereditary quality and postulated social Darwinist concepts).[11] Both positions idealized nature and criticized modern society. But while the euthenics approach highlighted external factors, eugenic approaches stressed internal and biological factors. Amidst the beginnings of modern genetics, increasing militarization and nationalism, the notion of eugenics took the lead over the somewhat rivaling notion of euthenics during the first decades of the 20th century

Pregnant woman taking a hip-bath. Anna Fischer Dückelmann, “The woman as family doctor” (1905 edition).

The best-selling manual “The Woman as Family Doctor” by Anna Fischer-Dückelmann (1865–1917) – a naturopath and one of the first female physicians to work in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century – advocated a euthenics position. The manual, published in 1917, claimed that women who live moderately and followed the rules of nature felt healthier, stronger and happier than before gestation.[12] According to Fischer-Dückelmann, even nervous women could experience a happy and stable pregnancy if they pursued the recommended natural lifestyle – by eating green vegetable and fruits, consuming meat only three times a week, taking hip-baths, wearing spacious clothing and exercise regularly. The book noted that a “bad mood”[13] during pregnancy was often the result of an unhealthy diet including coffee, eggs or beer.

In following decades, the focus moved from euthenics to eugenic approaches, which would become central within the political context of National Socialism (1933–1945). In a subsequent edition of Fischer-Dückelmann’s manual published 20 years later and thus long after the author’s death, behavior and diet seem less important. The idea that nervous women could become healthy during pregnancy is missing from the text. Instead, the 1937 manual emphasizes that hereditary traits and a “nervous predisposition”[14] are central to the well-being of pregnant women.

The physician Hermann Paull (1867–1944) contributed similar ideas in editions of his best-selling manual The Woman in the 1930s and 1940s which were missing from earlier editions. In the 1936 and 1941 editions, he claimed that “healthy” women with a “good constitution” and “excellent biological hereditary material” did not suffer “any pregnancy-related complaints,” but felt “full of joy” and “better than ever” during pregnancy.[15] Notions of maternal emotions, then, were part of a generally more positive perspective on the joy of pregnancy, itself the effect of contemporary utopian visions of the ‘new man’ – and the ‘new women’.

This discursive shift from euthenics to eugenics during pregnancy reflects an early twentieth century focus on qualitative population politics that intensified during National Socialism.[16] The eugenic and anti-Semitic politics of the Nazis attempted to improve the perceived ‘quality of the race’, influencing marriage and divorce laws and leading to discrimination, compulsory sterilizations, abortions and the mass murder of those who were thought to reduce this imagined ‘quality,’ The 1941 edition of Hermann Paull’s medical advice book for women, for example, reprinted the entire Nuremberg “Law for Protection of German Blood and Honor” of 1935, which banned marriages between Jewish and non-Jewish people. This edition also contained an additional text asserting that “interracial” pregnancies lead to more pregnancy-related problems, complications during birth, and discomfort.[17] By consulting Paull’s manual, German women became informed about their perceived eugenic duties.

Like many pregnancy manuals, Hermann Paull’s book continued to be published in modified editions after the end of World War II. While the National Socialist marriage law and the reference to ‘interracial pregnancies’ were removed from postwar editions, many of the implicit eugenic approaches remained. This was the case for the section explaining that only women with good genetic material felt happy and joyful during gestation, which persisted in the 1950 edition. Such representations of pregnancy subtly changed in many manuals written and published after 1950. But while the reference to heredity faded into the background, the idea of motherly feelings during pregnancy gained popularity in the following decades.

Overall, the idea of maternal emotions took several forms during the first decades of the 20th century against the backdrop of various political developments. It served as a useful argument against proponents of abortion, and was integrated in both quantitative and qualitative population politics. Hence, the history of motherliness during pregnancy helps to illustrate the impact of specific political structures on concepts of emotions. Motherly love is not a timeless and innocent feeling; rather, its rise was connected to the struggle for women’s rights, the emergence of medical ethics, and totalitarian biopolitical strategies.


Lisa Malich is an Associate Professor at the University of Lübeck (Germany). She has recently published the book Die Gefühle der Schwangeren (Transcript Verlag, 2017) on the history of emotions during pregnancy in Germany. Her research interests include reproduction, gender, knowledge transfer, and the history of psychology.



[1] “Verstimmung” and “abnormer Gemüthsreizbarkeit” (1868, p. 54), R. v. Krafft-Ebing, “Die Gelüste der Schwangeren und ihre gerichtlich-medicinische Bedeutung,” Friedreich’s Blätter für gerichtliche Medicin 19 (1868): 54.

[2] “mit dem Gefühl des kindlichen Lebens erwacht der Instinkt der Mutterschaft und dieser hilft selbst über die finstersten Stimmungen und Gedanken hinweg.” Hans Meyer-Rüegg, Die Frau als Mutter, 5 ed. (Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke, 1915), 26.

[3] “Das natürliche Gefühl der schwangeren Frau ist das Mutterschaftsgefühl.” P. W. Siegel, “Die Freude am zu erwartenden Kind: Ein Beitrag zur Psychologie der Schwangeren,” Archiv für Frauenheilkunde und Eugenetik 4 (1919): 203.

[4] “Freude-Gleichgültigkeit-Ablehnung,” ibid., 189.

[5] “das Erwachen der Kindbewegungen, das Fühlen des lebenden Wesens im mütterlichen Leibe,” ibid., 203.

[6] “Erst, wenn das Kind in der Frau gleichsam stark gewirkt hat (…) dass nur noch ihre mütterlichen Instinkte vorherrschen, erst dann macht sie sich frei von allen Bedenken, unbekümmert um die sie umgebenden Schwierigkeiten und geniesst voll und ganz das Gefühl, Mutter zu werden und endlich zu sein.” ibid., 203.

[7] Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte: Band 4: 1914-1949 (München: Beck, 2003).

[8] Sigrid Stöckel, Säuglingsfürsorge zwischen Sozialer Hygiene und Eugenik: Das Beispiel Berlin im Kaiserreich und in der Weimarer Republik (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1996).

[9] Cornelie Usborne, Cultures of Abortion in Weimar Germany (Oxford: Berghahn, 2007).

[10] “Das grosse Ziel muss immer sein: Erhaltung unserer Volkskraft,” Siegel, 205.

[11] Marika Seigel, The Rhetoric of Pregnancy (Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[12] Anna Fischer-Dückelmann, Die Frau als Hausärztin (München, Wien: Süddeutsches Verlags-Institut, Österreichisches Verlags-Institut, 1917).

[13] “verdrießliche Stimmung,” ibid., 294.

[14] “nervösen Veranlagung,” Die Frau Als Hausärztin (München: Süddeutsches Verlags-Institut Julius Müller, 1937), 125.

[15] “Schwangerschaft! (…) Diese glückliche und sorgenvolle Zeit ist nie und nimmer ein krankhafter Zustand! Die vollständig gesunde, aus hochwertigen Keimplasma stammende Frau, die Frau von vortrefflichem biologischem Erbgute kennt keine Schwangerschaftsbeschwerden! Ich kenne eine große Anzahl von Frauen, die mir freudestrahlend erzählt haben, dass sie sich nie so wohl gefühlt haben, als wenn sie ein Kind unter dem Herzen trugen.” Hermann Paull, Die Frau: Ein neuzeitliches Gesundheitsbuch (Stuttgart: Strecker und Schröder, 1936), 71–72.

[16] Peter Weingart, Jürgen Kroll, and Kurt Bayertz, Rasse, Blut Und Gene: Geschichte Der Eugenik Und Rassenhygiene in Deutschland (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1988).

[17] “Rassenmischungen,” Hermann Paull, Die Frau: Ein Neuzeitliches Gesundheitsbuch (Stuttgart: Stecker und Schröder, 1941), 12.





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