The Jury Is Out

The last post and the comments it provoked had me thinking about the way that ideas of motherhood and parenting have changed dramatically over the centuries. The notion of childhood didn’t exist at all before the 17th century, and it took that monumental sulk, Rousseau, to flesh out the concept with his woebegone belief in a halcyon period of freedom and joy before the traumas of adulthood set in. Since then, opinion has gone back and forth over who should care for children, mothers not always qualifying for this role, and how much care should be lavished or not on the child. It’s a vast topic so I thought I would simply let some of the ‘experts’ speak for themselves:


1762   ‘Fix your eyes on Nature, follow the path traced by her. She keeps children at work, she hardens them by all sorts of difficulties, she soon teaches them the meaning of pain and grief. They cut their teeth and are feverish, sharp colics bring on convulsions, they are choked by fits of coughing or troubled by worms, evil humours corrupt the blood, germs of various kinds ferment in it… One half of the children who are born die before their eighth year… This is nature’s law; why try to contradict it? … Experience shows that children delicately nurtured are more likely to die. Accustom them therefore to the hardships they will have to face.’  Rousseau


1829   ‘A great deal in providing for the health and strength of children depends on their being duly and daily washed, when well, in cold water from head to foot. Their cries testify to what degree they dislike this. They squall and twist and kick about at a fine rate, and many mothers, too many, neglect this, partly from reluctance to encounter the squalling, and partly, much too often, from what I will not call idleness, but to which I cannot apply a milder term than neglect. Well and duly performed it is an hour’s good tight work; for besides the bodily labour, which is not very slight when the child gets to be five or six months old, there is the singing to overpower the voice of the child.’  William Cobbett


1886   ‘[A mother] was bound to feel in and for the baby too deeply to carry calm pulses and judgement through the daily routine of “taking care” of that which is a dearer part of herself…. Babies who are entirely tended by their mothers are almost without exception troublesome by reason of their ceaseless exactions.’ Marion Harland


1890   ‘Adaptation to the wants, feelings and nature of the infant – so different in many ways from those of the adult – ought to be made the leading principle of our management… accordingly the child ought as far as possible to be allowed the choice of its own occupations and amusements and to become the chief agent in the development and formation of its own character. In later life, the independent child will show far more promptitude and energy than the ‘puppet’ dominated by parents and trained in moral slavery.’ Andrew Combe


1896   ‘Let no mother condemn herself to be a common or ordinary ‘cow’ unless she has a real desire to nurse…Women have not the stamina they once possessed: and I myself know of no greater misery than nursing a child, the physical collapse caused by which is often at the bottom of the drinking habits of which we hear so much.’ Mrs Panton


1896   ‘The dreams that a young mother is supposed to dream over the cradle of her new-born baby are about as real as her supposedly passionate desire for children. She dreams principally about herself, she longs to be out of bondage. A little indignant at the manner in which the child engrosses everyone’s time and attention, the while she is abjectly terrified that everyone who touches it will do it a mischief… wondering how many more minutes it is going to live. She even wishes she never got married… These thoughts may not be noble, but they are universal, and therefore the girl who feels them agitating her breast need not write herself down as a monster – the phase will soon pass.’ Mrs Panton


1928   ‘The sensible way to bring up children is to treat them as young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behaviour always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them. Never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extremely good job of a difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.’ J B Watson


1934   ‘Truby King babies are fed four-hourly from birth, with few exceptions, and they do not have any night feeds. A Truby King baby has as much fresh air and sunshine as possible, and the right amount of sleep…. After he has gone through his regular morning performance of bathing and being ‘held out’, and has had his breakfast, he sleeps all morning. If he wakes a little before his 2pm meal, all that one knows about it is a suddenly glimpsed chubby little leg or foot waved energetically from his cot for inspection, or a vigorous jerking of his pram.’ Mary Truby King


1951   ‘[T]he child needs to feel he is an object of pleasure and pride to his mother; the mother needs to feel an expansion of her own personality in the personality of the child: each needs to feel closely identified with the other… The provision of mothering cannot be considered in terms of hours per day but only in terms of the enjoyment of each other’s company which mother and child obtain….such enjoyment and close indication of feeling is only possible for either party if the relationship is continuous….The provision of constant attention day and night, seven days a week and 365 days a year, is possible only for a woman who derives profound satisfaction from seeing her child grow from babyhood, through the many phases of childhood, to become an independent man or woman, and knows that it is her care which has made this possible.’ John Bowlby


1982   ‘Many women from [the upper class] and much further down the social scale, when faced with the necessity of caring for their own children, as they mostly were after WW2, had mixed feelings of fear and excitement tied with remnants of their own childhood and the idealized views of mother which they had developed in the nursery… Once she was actually caught up in the business of childrearing as a 24 hours a day, seven days a week occupation, she was likely to deal with this by idealizing it even more. For by that time she had discovered that rearing children was not easy at all, that machines could only help with washing and cleaning, not with unrelenting exposure to babies and children, continual interruptions or the constant necessity for watchfulness and attention. The only thing for many mothers to do at that stage was to idealize it still further or else have a nervous breakdown.’ Ann Daly


1994   ‘The grieving of a baby who loses her one and only special person – her lone mother who dies, for example, or the lifelong foster mother from whom she is removed – is agonising to see because we know we are looking at genuine tragedy. But the pain of separations we arrange and connive at every time we change caregivers or leave a baby in the day care centre that has new staff – again – or with an agency babysitter she has never seen, may not be as different as we assume.’ Penelope Leach


1996   ‘[T]he historical construction of intensive mothering demonstrates that its early blooming was directly connected to the ideological separation of public and private spheres, a separation according to which the values of intimate and family life stood as an explicit rejection of the values of economic and political life….The relationship between mother and child continues to symbolize, realistically or not, opposition to social relations based on the competitive pursuit of individual gain in a system of impersonal contractual relations. In pursuing a moral concern to establish lasting human connection grounded in unremunerated obligations and commitments, modern-day mothers, to varying degrees, participate in this implicit rejection of the ethos of rationalised market society.’ Sharon Hays


14 thoughts on “The Jury Is Out

  1. Interesting how such a list, drawn from an extremely narrow section of class & culture over time, projects an idea of a ‘universal’ that can’t possibly be anything but what it is–a through-a-pinhole history of an evolving ideology–and even in that limited frame–not so much as a hint of what actual practice may have been like. Sort of a history of the tyrannical, cultural superego of predominately Anglo/American middle class motherhood.

    Is there anything closer to true evil in this world than the word ‘should’ in the minds of gooders with severely limited inner lives?

  2. Fascincating, LLove. I read your post yesterday and had meant to head back over to check what I was sure would be a very lively comment thread. I am headed thither anon.

  3. How fascinating! I am still giggling about William Cobbett singing loudly while bathing his protesting children in icy water – or maybe he never actually did that himself, being a man and all…

    Mrs Panton surprised me though, more compassionate than many later writers.

  4. Fascinating, so contradictory, and yet the same themes seem to recycle, back and forth between permissive and harsh, close and distant, with not much consideration for mothers–except perhaps Mrs. Panton.

  5. What a fascinating research, Litlove! For some reasons, my mind was occupied by the child instead of the mother as I read this post. I can’t help feeling sad. How fortunate it is to be born today than say 150 years ago. I keep thinking even the writer I admire, Jane Austen, is said to have an avoidance of children. But of course, Dickens is much more sympathetic I suppose. Can’t help too to think of the evolution of children literature, or children in literature. I’d love to read your account on these topics!

  6. Excellent evidence of how our understanding of good child rearing is not universal but has changed over time—even within European dominated culture. Just a couple of additions to the timeline.

    1600s in New England. Women were pregnant or nursing most of their adult lives. Some of their babies died, but often they raised orphan nieces and nephews along with their own children. Motherhood was extensive with no child getting much individual attention. ( A rather widespread pattern with status, region, and town/country differences.)

    late 1700s. Rousseau introduced new more emotional childcare, but had totally different recommendations for boys and girls. Girls were to be raised to be attractive, obedient, and pleasing but not to think or read.

    1850-1950. As birth control spread, mothers were expected to give more attention to fewer and fewer children insuring their perfection. Intensive, rather than extensive mothering became the norm—sought in the middle class at least. Fathers were less involved and mothers, with few other options, lived through their children. We still live under some of those expectations even though our lives don’t fit them.

    Having been smothered as a child myself, I returned to grad school as a single mother when my daughters were just entering grade school. I still think we were all better off because of my decision.

  7. Fascinating. The first writer I can think of who showed love and interest for her child is Madame de Sévigné. In my opinion, Rousseau is particularly cheeky to give advice about parenthood and children when you know he abandoned his.

    Two MAJOR things happened in France in the 1960s on the issue of motherhood and parenthood in general:

    1) The Neuwirth law that authorized contraception ==> children are wanted and do not fall upon you.
    2) Françoise Dolto, who brought a new vision of children, promoting discussion and relieving mothers from guilt.

  8. Wow–things really have changed. I hope Mrs Panton wasn’t a mother–if she was, she doesn’t sound like she liked it much! 🙂 I’m glad I didn’t live during Rousseau’s day either…

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