There's a tendency, at times, to think of our modern age as particularly afflicted while projecting onto the past a warm glow of wholesomeness. This is fairly natural. We know our own age up close and are much aware of all its faults. The past we encounter mostly through books, and it's easy to note the aspects we like without thinking so much of the rest.
What particularly struck me here is that this is a set of attitudes towards childbearing which sounds almost brutal now. After all, one of the things that makes the "contraceptive mentality" so attractive is that by rendering sex sterile, people can escape the unpleasant feeling of not liking "real" children. Either their conception can be avoided in the first place, or they can be aborted while they're "just a blob of cells". But in Russia circa 1870, we get this line of thinking out of Darya Alexandrovna (Dolly), a doting but often flustered mother, with a wandering husband and flagging strength:
At home, looking after her children, she had no time to think. So now, after this journey of four hours, all the thoughts she had suppressed before rushed swarming into her brain, and she thought over all her life as she never had before, and from the most different points of view. Her thoughts seemed strange even to herself. At first she thought about the children, about whom she was uneasy, although the princess and Kitty (she reckoned more upon her) had promised to look after them. ‘If only Masha does not begin her naughty tricks, if Grisha isn’t kicked by a horse, and Lily’s stomach isn’t upset again!’ she thought. But these questions of the present were succeeded by questions of the immediate future. She began thinking how she had to get a new flat in Moscow for the coming winter, to renew the drawing room furniture, and to make her elder girl a cloak. Then questions of the more remote future occurred to her: how she was to place her children in the world. ‘The girls are all right,’ she thought; ‘but the boys?’
‘It’s very well that I’m teaching Grisha, but of course that’s only because I am free myself now, I’m not with child. Stiva, of course, there’s no counting on. And with the help of good-natured friends I can bring them up; but if there’s another baby coming?...’ And the thought struck her how untruly it was said that the curse laid on woman
was that in sorrow she should bring forth children.
‘The birth itself, that’s nothing; but the months of carrying the child—that’s what’s so intolerable,’ she thought, picturing to herself her last pregnancy, and the death of the last baby. And she recalled the conversation she had just had with the young woman at the inn. On being asked whether she had any children, the handsome young woman had answered cheerfully:
‘I had a girl baby, but God set me free; I buried her last Lent.’
‘Well, did you grieve very much for her?’ asked Darya Alexandrovna.
‘Why grieve? The old man has grandchildren enough as it is. It was only a trouble. No working, nor nothing. Only a tie.’
This answer had struck Darya Alexandrovna as revolting in spite of the good-natured and pleasing face of the young woman; but now she could not help recalling these words. In those cynical words there was indeed a grain of truth.
‘Yes, altogether,’ thought Darya Alexandrovna, looking back over her whole existence during those fifteen years of her married life, ‘pregnancy, sickness, mental incapacity,indifference to everything, and most of all—hideousness. Kitty, young and pretty as she is, even Kitty has lost her looks; and I when I’m with child become hideous, I know it. The birth, the agony, the hideous agonies, that last moment...then the nursing, the sleepless nights, the fearful pains...’
Darya Alexandrovna shuddered at the mere recollection of the pain from sore breasts which she had suffered with almost every child. ‘Then the children’s illnesses, that everlasting apprehension; then bringing them up; evil propensities’ (she thought of little Masha’s crime among the raspberries), ‘education, Latin—it’s all so incomprehensible and difficult. And on the top of it all, the death of these children.’ And there rose again before her imagination the cruel memory, that always tore her mother’s heart, of the death of her last little baby, who had died of croup; his funeral, the callous indifference of all at the little pink coffin, and her own torn heart, and her lonely anguish at the sight of the pale little brow with its projecting temples, and the open, wondering little mouth seen in the coffin at the moment when it was being covered with the little pink lid with a cross braided on it.
‘And all this, what’s it for? What is to come of it all? That I’m wasting my life, never having a moment’s peace, either with child, or nursing a child, forever irritable, peevish, wretched myself and worrying others, repulsive to my husband, while the children are growing up unhappy, badly educated, and penniless. Even now, if it weren’t for spending the summer at the Levins’, I don’t know how we should be managing to live. Of course Kostya and Kitty have so much tact that we don’t feel it; but it can’t go on. They’ll have children, they won’t be able to keep us; it’s a drag on them as it is. How is papa, who has hardly anything left for himself, to help us? So that I can’t even bring the children up by myself, and may find it hard with the help of other people, at the cost of humiliation. Why, even if we suppose the greatest good luck, that the children don’t die, and I bring them up somehow. At the very best they’ll simply be decent people. That’s all I can hope for. And to gain simply that—what agonies, what toil!... One’s whole life ruined!’ Again she recalled what the young peasant woman had said, and again she was revolted at the thought; but she could not help admitting that there was a grain of brutal truth in the words.
UPDATE (based on some discussion with a friend, it struck me I should try to complete my thought process here a bit):
I think too often those of us who believe that contraception is wrong make an inappropriate leap into assuming that contraception came in and disrupted some idyllic situation in which families were huge and loving and every child was welcomed. But of course, that isn't the case. The reason why people adopted contraception so eagerly is because it seemed to be a solution to very real problems that made women and marriages miserable. Dolly (who really is an affectionate mother and wife, but who has a shallow and chronically unfaithful husband) is at the same time terrified of getting pregnant (which makes her unattractive to her husband, takes a toll on her body, and leaves her unable to cope well with the children which her husband is often happy to leave to her and the servants) and at the same time probably fears that her physical distance from her husband is one of the things that causes him to always be out chasing other women. And so she finds herself hating her fertility, and fearing motherhood, because it seems like it puts her in the place of denying her husband the one thing that might keep him around more. Now, does this mean that putting Dolly on the pill would have solved all her problems and made her marriage good? No. Her marriage is simply bad. Her husband would probably still cheat on her even if she were more available to him -- that's just how he is. She's in a terrible situation. It's probably a toss up whether contraception would really have helped her or not. But, it's completely obvious why if someone had offered her the seeming assurance of the pill, it would have seemed like a godsend to her.
In an odd sense, hearing this voice out of the past is a bit reassuring. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we, even if we stand in opposition to some elements of the culture, are still prisoners of it, and that when we find ourselves conflicted about these issues, that it is in some sense giving in. Really, though, "the contraceptive mentality" is simply the modern version of a conflict which has always existed for us in our fallen world and which will continue to exist as long as we do. It's hard to live by the limitations of what we are. So no, when we find these things hard, it's not because we've given in and been taken over by some spirit of the age. We're simply struggling with the same issues that people have always struggled with in marriages throughout history.