The old nursery rhyme about the mother with too many kids seems to have taken off a very different idea. The original poem found on poetryfoundation.org read as:
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
According to Psychology Today, this nursery rhyme is regarding high fertility in many societies. In such societies, women are meant for child bearing, and thus expected to have multiple children. Any form of contraceptive is seen as sinful, so the chance a woman could get pregnant during intercourse is much greater. Of course, the more children a family has, the more money is required. Many families with greater amount of children are in high poverty. In the same article, it makes mention of an Albanian mother who sells a child in order to help the rest of her family. The article read “In spite of living in such severe poverty that she is forced to sell her children, the woman had recently given birth to her 8th child.“ The article then goes on to discuss how women’s bodies tire out after having too many children, which can lead to a higher death rate amongst infants, since the child was not fully healthy in the womb. The main focus of this nursery rhyme, however, is on the affect a large family has on the children. A family in poverty would have less food, and of course this less amount of food must be spread over a large amount of children, so they get even less. Many children in these families are starving and malnourished.
However, this riddle connects into the British Empire. The old woman who lived in a shoe is believed to have been about Queen Caroline. Queen Caroline was married to King George the II and had eight children. All 8 children were members of the British Parliament. According to rhymes.ork.uk, this is reason enough to suggest the bed represents Parliament. Furthermore, according to the same site, “even today the term ‘whip’ is used in the English Parliament to describe a Member of Parliament who is tasked to ensure that all members ‘toe the party line’.” Of course, it is also rumored that the “old woman” could have been King George II, as he was nicknamed the old woman for beginning the powdered wig trend. Obviously the children play the same role in both theories.
Then of course there is Patience Agbabi’s version of “There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe” which I believe is a modern take on a family in London. This woman has a bad marriage. “There was an old bottle who met an old shoe.” She is a broken brown bottle. She is fragile, and an alcoholic. He is the lace up-leather shoe. He has been weathered down, but is still held together, and his past has made him tough. He holds expectations for her that she cannot fulfill, which causes her to drink more. I believe this relates to the idea that it is expected for women to bear children. The children are glass boots.
“There was an old woman: there was an old shoe.
She lived like a foot till the sole was worn through.”
Ultimately, the pressures in her everyday life led her to alcoholism. Once they tried to get her help, it was already too late.
“There was a brown bottle, empty and broken,
a pair of glass boots in a box they can’t open.”
The struggles that women used to go through are relatable to what they go through today. Women still have certain expectations in tradition families, and I believe this poem can show a different outcome of that lifestyle. This woman clearly did not get what she wanted out of life, and ultimately cost her life.
“She died alcoholic, she died in her bed,
she died when they severed the boots from her head.”