Nutritious Chemistry: The History of Maternal Milk, Wet-nursing and Infant Formula

“When we trust the makers of baby formula more than we do our own ability to nourish our babies, we lose a chance to claim an aspect of our power as women. Thinking that baby formula is as good as breast milk is believing that thirty years of technology is superior to three million years of nature’s evolution.”

Christine Northrup

Maternal Milk and Ancient Societies

Infant feeding rituals have been around for centuries. Surprisingly, the practice of wet nursing was recorded as early as 2000 BC and continues into this century. It began as a response to need, as mothers died during childbirth more often before the advent of modern medicine. Wet nursing was an organized and regulated profession throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In ancient Greek society, wet nurses utilized by wealthy women of the highest social class were highly valued and even granted authority over slaves. During the Roman Empire, wet nurses were often contracted to feed infants abandoned by the poor and purchased by the wealthy to serve as future slave labor. Such contracts were normally for 3 years.

Jacques Guillemeau, a 17th century French obstetrician, advocated women nursing their own children rather than using wet nurses. According to his theory, wet nursing could result in babies being switched, the child could form a stronger bond with the wet nurse than the natural parent, and her milk could transmit her genetic imperfections to the nursing infant. His advice was met with considerable resistance because the aristocracy believed that nursing ruined women’s figures in addition to being unfashionable.

The Development of Formula to Replace Maternal Milk

Before bottle feeding became common in the late 19th century, cows’ horns were among the many different devices used to deliver animal’s milk to infants. The use of unsterilized devices and the lack of refrigeration led to bacteria that resulted in the deaths of approximately one third of all babies fed artificially before they reached their first birthday. Nicholas Appert developed a food sterilization technique that utilized sealed containers in 1810.
Evaporated milk was patented by William Newton in 1835. 1n 1853, the addition of sugar resulted in the popular infant food called Eagle Brand Condensed Milk, still sold today. One of the first powdered formulas, called Liebig’s formula, consisted of cow’s milk, wheat and malt flour and potassium bicarbonate. While at the time, it was considered the perfect infant food, it was later revealed that many processed infant foods, while fattening, lacked sufficient nutritive value. Nutrients were added individually over time. The first rubber nipple was introduced in 1845.

Maternal Milk and Modern Economics

Many baby formula manufacturers developed aggressive advertising campaigns to promote their products as superior to maternal milk. Many believe that some of their methodology was unethical. For example, Nestle was accused of distributing free formula in hospitals, then charging for it once the mothers had stopped lactating as the result of bottle-feeding. Clean water to mix with the formula was often not available, resulting in infant deaths as the result of formula tainted by bacteria.

Bottle feeding fell out of favor during the 20th century as the result of studies showing that mother’s milk, in addition to being nutritionally superior, also contained immunization properties. At one point, the rate of breast-feeding had risen to 90%, but has since decreased within the 21st century to approximately 42%. The increasing necessity for both parents to work in order to provide for even their children’s most basic needs is partly responsible for this reversal. Many believe that aggressive advertising also downplays research which shows that formula-fed babies are more likely to develop atopy and diabetes mellitus, as well as being more susceptible to childhood obesity.

A Return to Maternal Milk

According to the World Health Organization, maternal milk from a donor is the next best option after a mother’s own breast milk, which has led to a resurgence in the age-old practice of wet-nursing. While genetic imperfections cannot be passed through nursing, infections can, which is why anyone intending to serve as a wet nurse should be thoroughly screened for infectious diseases. Additionally, because babies require different nutrients at different ages and the composition of women’s breast milk naturally accommodates those changing needs, it’s recommended that the wet-nurse have a child of approximately the same age.

Experts agree that bonding does indeed take place during the process of nursing. That’s one reason that cross nursing has been used by adoptive mothers to stimulate their own milk production. Scientific observations show that babies still know the difference between their own mothers and a wet nurse. Mother-infant bonding is not just the result of nursing, but of the infant being imprinted by the sound of her voice and facial expressions. One infant refused to suckle when his wet-nurse spoke because he did not connect the voice with the mother to whom he had emotionally bonded.

While science has significantly improved the quality of baby formula in recent years, all scientific evidence still concludes that maternal milk is best.

Virgin-and-Child-Joos-van-Cleve-ca-1525-Credit-Line-The-Jack-and-Belle-Linsky-Collection-1982
Virgin-and-Child-Joos-van-Cleve-ca-1525-Credit-Line-The-Jack-and-Belle-Linsky-Collection-1982
maternal institution

Women and Childbirth: Taking Back Our Birthright

“A mother does not become pregnant in order to provide employment to medical people. Giving birth is an ecstatic jubilant adventure not available to males. It is a woman’s crowning creative experience of a lifetime.”

John Stevenson

A Century of Changes in the Maternal Institution of Pregnancy and Childbirth

The first known book written about midwifery, written by Jane Sharp, was published in 1671. In her opinion, the profession was unsuitable for men who could never have the first-hand knowledge and experience of the female body equal to that of a woman. She expressed this opinion because even then, the male midwifery that would over time be transformed into the profession of obstetrics, was becoming more common. One of the reasons for that was their suspicion that female midwives participated in the practices of abortion and infanticide. Although many midwives were highly respected within their communities, some were even suspected of witchcraft. Author Tania McIntosh’s book, A Social History of Maternity and Childbirth: Key Themes in Maternity Care

The English Midwifery Act was passed in 1902, largely due to the efforts of nurse, midwife and suffragette Rosalind Paget. Before that, most midwives were unlicensed, although some were licensed by the church. One of the first inventions to was forceps, which are used in difficult breech deliveries. Obstetrics became a specialty when men took over midwifery. The field of obstetrics was devoted to the study of the gestational process and involved developing guidelines for what constituted normal versus pathological. The control over childbirth gradually went from midwives to general practitioners to obstetricians.

Medical Technology That Improved the Maternal Institution of Pregnancy and Childbirth

Before the invention of the fetal monitor in the1960’s a baby could only be monitored with the use of a stethoscope. Today, there are a number of monitoring devices and methods, including the Doppler ultrasound, used to detect the baby’s heartbeat. There is also a device that can be placed on the baby’s head during an internal exam to measure the electrical current generated by the heart.

In addition to devices, the medical profession has also developed a series of screening tests that can often diagnose potential medical conditions even before the baby is born. For example, the prenatal Quad Screen can identify an increased risk of a woman giving birth to an infant with Down’s Syndrome, and the process of amniocentesis can accurately diagnose that condition.

In addition to forceps, the vacuum extractor was developed as another tool to assist in difficult deliveries.

Another medical advance, which many claim is overused, is the cesarean section. Statistics show that Cesarean births have reached nearly 30% in the United States. Part of the reason for this is that more women are choosing it as an elective surgery to prevent potential future complications such as incontinence. Surprisingly, the use of labor-inducing drugs has also risen to an estimated 40% of women in the U.S. even though only 10% is for medical reasons.

The use of an IV is also now part of standard maternity care, while episiotomies are no longer done automatically, as they once were.

State Regulation of the Maternal Institution

Medical advances made during WWII, such as blood transfusion and anti-biotics served to improve infant mortality rates. That was important for the country since as a result of the war, many women began working outside the home, which caused a decline in the birth rate. These advances also led to what some call the “industrialization” of the maternal institution. Increasingly, the health care system began to operate on a strict time schedule. With the use of scans, monitors and surgery, births were scheduled rather than occurring naturally. This scheduling continued after birth, with obstetricians advising feeding and sleeping times.

The professionalization of medical care in the form of education, licensing, and state regulation in many ways transformed women into consumers forced to purchase medical services from a maternal institution increasingly influenced by the state. Some of the benefits to the state provided by the industrialization of the maternal institution includes readily available census data. Hospitals are required to register every birth, as well as information regarding race and gender.

The Effect of Birth Control on the Maternal Institution

Perhaps the medical advance that most impacted women’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth was birth control because it helped give rise to equal rights through feminism. Some early feminists argued that childbearing was partly responsible for the subjugation of women. Women began taking more control of their bodies, and midwifery enjoyed a resurgence that continues into the present.

Among the women responsible for reclaiming the maternal institution of childbirth for women was Janet Balaskas, childbirth educator and founder of the Active Birth Movement. As the name implies, the movement encourages women to take a more active role in creating their own childbirth experience rather than allowing the medical community to dictate it. The movement educates women about effective birthing positions designed for mother and child rather than the comfort and convenience of hospital doctors. It also makes information about alternative birthing options, such as water births, available.

The many changes in the maternal institution over the last century would indicate that progress hasn’t always been positive. Today’s mothers face the daunting task of determining the best of both old and new to make their childbirth experience healthy, safe, and joyous. Luckily, there are now more options available that can help make that possible.

maternal institution
Limestone statuette of a childbirth scene, Period Hellenistic, Date ca. 310 – 30 BC, Culture Cypriot CC by 4.0
social change for women

Maternal Instinct: It’s Not Just For Good Girls Anymore

Ye of the coarser sex who often rave
At fallen women, but never try to save;
Inform me, tell me if you can,
What art thou—but a fallen man?

T. Augustus Forbes Leith

Social Change for Women—From The Fallen Woman to The Single Mother

Fallen women have been represented in patriarchal art, often inspired by religious texts such as the Bible. Religious institutions have been instrumental in shaping society’s beliefs and attitudes about sexuality and motherhood. Throughout history, women have been pressured by society to choose between motherhood and sexuality. Before the relatively recent social change for women brought about by the feminist movement, women were viewed as intellectually inferior as well as physically weaker and in need of protection from men. Ironically, that protection was mostly from other men. According to religious dogma, the price of that protection was obedience.

Marriage was presented as a refuge from danger for women as well as a reward for her abstention from sex and her ability to produce heirs.

One of the most important developments that brought about the greatest social change for women was the birth control pill. Because society’s patriarchal structure is dependent upon controlling reproduction, abortion rights continue to be a political issue. In the past, pregnancy, because it is a visible sign of sexual desire, was viewed by religion as a valid reason to devaluate women. The social impact of that devaluation upon their lives was often devastating.

It was believed that women who chose to exercise their sexuality placed greater value on sex than on motherhood, and therefore lacked maternal instinct and would be unfit mothers. Women were expected not only to control and repress their own sexual desire, but that of men as well, an expectation in which it was often impossible for them to succeed. These religion-based expectations were often legislated into law. For example, in 1837, an Irish legislator stated that

“Irish females should be (…) guardians of their own honour, and be responsible in their own person for all deviations from virtue.”

However, poor women were often at the mercy of wealth employers who demanded sex in exchange for continued employment. The rules of social etiquette such men were expected to adhere to within their own social circles did not apply with women who had no recourse to social or legal remedies for their violation. As a result, many poor women who became pregnant were forced to enter homes for unwed mothers and give up their babies for adoption when they were born. While there, they were often expected to work without pay and were subjected to beatings as punishment.

These homes, often run by the Catholic church, existed in Europe, Canada and the USA, up until the late 20th century. One book, “Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945” describes the social change for women throughout that period.

Social Work—An Important Development in Positive Social Change for Women

One important aspect of social change for women regarding single motherhood was the shift from religious to secular organizations providing social services. With that change, the goal shifted from rehabilitating fallen women to providing protection and equal opportunities for single mothers and their children. Today, there is an exhibit dedicated to the memory of all the fallen women who often suffered for a lifetime by not being permitted to raise their children.

The theory behind the modern social programs designed to support, rather than punish, single mothers is that maternity should be regarded as work deserving of a living wage. Slowly, that theory was accepted and legislated into law. In the U.S., the first state to enact a law providing a pension for mothers was Illinois in 1911. Thirty-nine more states had enacted similar legislation by 1919. Perhaps for the first time in history, mothers in economic need without the support of a husband, whether single, divorced or deserted were offered aid rather than punishment.

In today’s society, there is still some judgment regarding both sexuality and motherhood. However, women are no longer expected to have to choose between them to be considered a good mother. There is still criteria that modern men use to determine who will be a good mother, but like recent social change for women, it too has changed for the better.

social change for women

commodification of baby care

Advertising and The Commodification of Childhood: How Targeting Children Misses the Mark

“These industry professionals have become increasingly influential in the social, cultural, and economic construction of childhood. They affect children’s sense of identity and self, as well as their values, behaviors, relationships with others, and daily activities. They help shape the normative vision of childhood that is held by both children and adults. In this sense, they are creating, transforming, and packaging childhood as a productive cultural concept that they then sell to the companies who make the actual products that children buy”

–Juliet B. Schor

Modern Advertising and the Commodification of Baby Care—How Media is Redefining Childhood

In his book The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer, Daniel Thomas Cook points out that even the layout of department stores is evidence of corporate power to create an advertiser’s vision of childhood. He also points out the extent to which advertisers have begun targeting children rather than their parents. The commodification of baby care is further apparent in the massive number of items for sale that specifically target parents. According to Juliet B. Schor, professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of “Born to Buy: Marketing and the Transformation of Childhood and Culture”, there has been an increase in the study of children’s behavior specifically for the purpose of targeting them as consumers.

In 2010, it was estimated that Canadian children viewed an average of 20,000 television commercials per year. Since those 2010 statistics, laws have been passed in some places against advertising that specifically targets children.  In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission studied the issue in the 1970s but placed no restrictions on advertising to children.

The commodification of baby care in the form of advertising has been blamed for a number of negative social trends, including the high incidence of childhood obesity in the U.S. According to one source, 50% of all ads targeted towards children in the U.S. are for snacks, candy, fast food, and sugary cereals.

Another modern venue for the commodification of baby care is YouTube. According to an article in Time Magazine, Google has an app called YouTube Kids. While the name might inspire confidence in the belief that children using it will be directed towards age-appropriate content, it turns out that they are also directed towards an inordinate number of advertisements directed at them.

Television advertising safeguards don’t apply on the internet, causing a complaint to be filed with the Federal Trade Commission. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry was among those who signed the complaint.

Organizations Opposing The Commodification of Baby Care

Among the organizations fighting to resist the commodification of baby care are The Center for Digital Democracy, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. A recent article in the Guardian pointed to extreme levels of the commodification of baby care in which proponents of advertising to children suggest that it can help teach children critical analytical skills. The director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Susan Linn, says that

“Marketing targets emotions, not intellect. It trains children to choose products not for the actual value of the product, but because of celebrity or what’s on the package. It undermines critical thinking and promotes impulse buying.”

Numerous studies that have demonstrated just how much influence children have on what their parents purchase. According to an article in Time magazine, in many families, it is the children who decide what is eaten for breakfast and lunch.

Further, in addition to food, 71% of parents polled ask for their children’s opinions regarding purchases of clothes and even where to go on vacation. Businesses consider what children buy with their own money, how they affect what adults buy, and what they will buy when they become adults themselves.

The commodification of baby care is a business strategy with the goal of securing life-long customers. Proof of the effectiveness of this strategy can be demonstrated by the fact that in 2012, McDonald’s spent nearly $42 million dollars on advertising for its children’s Happy Meals.

Despite the potential for profit and the lack of legal restrictions, the advertising industry does regulate itself to some extent. Ian Barber, the communications director of the Advertising Association in the United Kingdom, outlined some of their restriction by saying

“For example, you cannot make a child feel inferior or unpopular for not buying a product. You can’t take advantage of their credulity, or suggest that they’re lacking in courage or loyalty. You can’t encourage them to actively pester their parents, or make a direct exhortation to a child to buy a product.”

As any parent knows, children don’t need much encouragement to pester their parents to buy the latest most popular item. It is no small wonder why in many countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain and Greece, advertising to children is severely restricted, and in Sweden and Norway, advertising to children under 12 years of age is actually illegal.

commodification of baby care

Holy mother and child

Holy Mother And Child —The Sacred Vocation

Holy Mother And Child Relationship

Art is a powerful force capable of both expressing and influencing the values of the society in which it is created. The value of motherhood as a sacred vocation has been expressed in art throughout history in every culture. Much of that art has been religious in nature and presents an idealized depiction of the exalted holy mother and child relationship. The book Holy Motherhood: Gender, Dynasty, and Visual Culture in the Later Middle Ages, written by Elizabeth L’Estrange, a lecturer in the History of Art at the University of Birmingham in 2012 provides a historical tour of such art throughout the middle ages and presents evidence that shows just how influential art can be in creating and maintaining  social roles for women within patriarchal society.

The extent to which religion has shaped the role of motherhood cannot be underestimated. Separation of church and state is a fairly recent development. Throughout the middle ages, the land and political power of nations were dependent upon inheritance. To insure the genetic identity of royal progeny, it was necessary to cultivate a strict social environment of sexual chastity. Religious art which elevated motherhood to a sacred status served this purpose.

Scriptures of all organized religions and even mythologies elevate motherhood to an exalted state and attainment of the holy mother and child relationship to the highest social ideal. For Christianity, images of the Madonna, so chaste as to be virginal even in motherhood, was presented as the religious role model for women to emulate. For the Hindu religion, the goddess Devi-Ma represents the holy mother and child relationship. For some African religious traditions, it is represented by Yemaya, a creation goddess. Even in Buddhism, Prajnaparamita is represented as the mother of all Buddhas.

Although women were elevated to an exalted state worthy of worship and respectful adoration as a result of their power to produce life, that power has also been feared. Just as obedient women have been credited for human creation, disobedient women have been blamed for human destruction. Within the Christian tradition, Eve serves as the negative example of the consequences of female disobedience to the whole of mankind.

Another example is that of La Malinche, a Mexican princess who was given given as a slave to conquistador Hernán Cortés. She both served as a mediator and bore him a child. In native mythologies, she became a traitor responsible for the destruction of the whole Aztec Empire. Conversely, the Virgin of Guadalupe, attributed with the values of self-sacrifice is revered. Artistic depictions of her can be seen in virtually every city in Mexico.

One of the social effects of the patriarchal laws of inheritance is that a woman’s central purpose becomes her reproductive function. Artistic depictions of the holy mother and child relationship serve to maintain social awareness of, and adherence to, this value. The dangers associated with childbirth further elevates the social value of motherhood. In nearly all human societies, women about to give birth are tended to by their extended families, and the birth of a healthy baby is a cause for celebration.

The majority of artwork throughout history have upheld the idealized image of mothers as virginal and self-sacrificing. This is due in large part to the fact that those who benefited most from women’s self-sacrifice, the royal families, were among the only people that could afford to commission artwork. Today, rather than through paintings and sculptures, idealized images of mothers are transmitted through the airwaves in television commercials. Technology and clothing styles may have changed, but the social expectation of maternal chastity and self-sacrifice remains the same.

Even today, mothers whose sexual behavior casts doubt on the paternity of a child is treated with contempt. Popular television show hosts like Maury Povich and Jerry Springer reveal the results of paternity tests on national television. Live audience members hurl insults and moral judgments, and home viewers enjoy a brief sense of moral and social superiority.

In a very real sense, the lack of separation between church and state resulted in the separation of motherhood and sexuality. In response to the image of the virginal Madonna, its opposite, the whore, was born.

Despite continuous historical media bombardment of these two opposite and extreme images, in reality, mothers are just human. They do indeed sacrifice for their children and cultivate values sacred to humankind, such as patience and love. They also occasionally lose their patience. In fact, most mothers are losing patience with social expectations of exalted perfection.

Holy mother and child
Virgin and Child in an Apse, Copy after Robert Campin, Netherlands, 1480
parental rights

Parental Rights : Really A Right Or A Privilege?

“Your children are not your children, they come through you, but they are life itself, wanting to express itself.”  – Wayne Dyer

Meaning Of Parental Rights?

Parental rights is a term most often used within the legal system in custodial cases. The history of parental rights is a long one. Not everyone agrees on the definition, but with the help of philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists, that definition continues to evolve.
One of the earliest definitions was termed propertarianism.

According to this theory, children are the property of their parents. While the children have no rights, parents have the obligation to care for them. This theory is based on the concept that parents own the genetic material that produced the children. Since most people now find the concept of owning another human being offensive, with few exceptions, this extreme view has been largely replaced by other more progressive theories.

Biology coupled with advances in reproductive technology made it necessary to rethink the basis of parental rights. For the first time, it became possible for people to donate genetic materials to create children for parents other than themselves. Even in cases of adopted or step-children, there is no “ownership” of genetic material. Some adherents of the biology theory claimed gestation as the basis for parental rights, and that men could only acquire those rights through marriage and adoption as allowed by the mother. It held that when there was a conflict between genetic and gestational mothers, the law should favor the gestational mother. The once all-important biological connection has lost much of its power in favor of other important aspects of parenting.

Parental rights based on biology alone was replaced by parental rights based on the best interests of the child. This theory is still often used in custody cases where there is suspected abuse or neglect, or when one parent proves more capable of meeting the child’s needs than the other. Another closely related school of thought focuses on the interests of parents and children. According to this theory, parents satisfy some of their own needs, such as the need for closeness and intimacy, through satisfying the needs of their children. Children need individual attention and guidance based on their dispositions and preferences, the knowledge of which is gained over time through consistent interaction. In this way, strong familial relationships are forged, relationships that can be damaged by excessive intrusion by the state.

Critics of this theory developed another called constructionism, which argues that the rights and obligations of parents aren’t based in biology, but are in fact social constructs. According to constructionists, parental rights are the result of a social agreement between prospective parents and the social community responsible for the care of its youngest members. One manifestation of this community is the state. In the contructionist’s view, sufficient care and nurturing is more important than biology, and the state plays a larger role in ensuring a minimum standard of care.

The Children’s Liberation movement holds that parents should have no rights over children and that children should have the same legal status as adults. Since they aren’t able to reason as adults, proponents of this theory argue that to make decisions, they can consult adults they trust who do have that capacity. Good parenting according to this theory is the process of assisting children in becoming fully autonomous. It concludes that it is not possible for parents to simultaneously have rights and satisfactorily perform their parental duties. Closely related is the right to an open future theory, which holds that parents shouldn’t limit their children’s future options with their own personal beliefs or preferences. Some examples of what would constitute such limiting would be an arranged marriage or an expectation that a child follow in a parent’s professional footsteps.

The pendulum swing from children being considered the private property of parents towards children’s rights went so far that philosopher Hugh LaFollette suggested licensing parents. In his view, enforcement could consist of tax incentives and other benefits for those in compliance. Alternatives to licensing that have been suggested as ways to improve the quality of parenting include paid family leave, government day care, and mandatory birth control. Most agree that monitoring or counseling is better than licensing due to the potential biases and fallibility of the educational content and testing process for such a license.

The rights of parents and children alike are best served by a shared sense of responsibility for the care and nurturing of children by the entire community in which they live. Like justice, a lack of human rights for anyone results in fewer human rights for everyone. The refinement of the definition of the rights and responsibilities of parenthood will continue to evolve with each new scientific and technological development. Whatever direction the pendulum may swing next, the one basic parenting principle with which everyone has always agreed is the unchanging importance of love.

Broken Eggs, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1756, Credit Line Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920
Broken Eggs, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1756, Credit Line Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920
family life and war

In Family Life And War – The Roles Mothers and Children Assume In Armed Conflict

“If you insist upon fighting to protect me, or ‘our’ country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or protect either myself or my country. For, the outside will say, in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world…”

Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) England

Family Life and War—Harsh Realities

The book War and Motherhood: International Perspectives, written in  Dana Cooper, in 2014, expands our understanding of wartime experiences and zooms into the mosaic relationships between mothers and children, and the divers roles both have assumed during periods of armed conflict. Dana Cooper is Associate Professor of History at Stephen F. Austin State University, USA.

Military publications acknowledge and write about the negative aspects of family life and war. Some of those adverse effects include increased stress, PTSD, and financial difficulties. The military has begun making a greater effort to lessen the potentially destructive power that these side effects of war often have on families. Through counseling and education, families are being provided with more tools to effectively deal with the life-altering realities of their loved ones having experienced the violence of war.

While throughout history the majority of combatants in war have been men, women and children are often caught in the crossfire. Among the many ways that children are affected by war, among the most common are psychological difficulties caused by the extended separation from a beloved parent. Children are extremely sensitive to the emotions of the adults around them, and spouses of military members experience a constant level of fear surrounding the possibility that they will be killed in battle. Such an event would result in the loss of both a life partner and a supportive parent for their child. Today, it is no longer just men and fathers who participate in physical combat, but women and mothers as well.

Women In War

Back in 2010, it was estimated that over 30,000 of the 200,000 women serving in the U.S. military were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were mothers. In addition to the risk of rape by the enemy, many of these women faced sexual assault from their own fellow soldiers. Statistics vary, but reported incidents range between one in three and one in five. Disturbingly, one of the most common consequences of reporting an assault was that the victim was involuntarily discharged from military service. That means that reporting an assault most often resulted in the loss of an entire career.

Another phenomenon that demonstrates the incompatibility of family life and war is rape. According to Gita Sahgal of Amnesty International, rape is regularly used as one of the weapons of war.

“Rape is often used in ethnic conflicts as a way for attackers to perpetuate their social control and redraw ethnic boundaries… Women are seen as the reproducers and carers of the community…Therefore if one group wants to control another they often do it by impregnating women of the other community because they see it as a way of destroying the opposing community.”

The devastating effects that rape has on women, children, and communities is well documented.

Hope For an End to War

Throughout history, women have been portrayed as peacemakers, yet as relatively powerless. One major literary exception to this portrayal was Lysistrata, a play written by Aristophanes and performed in 411 B.C. In the play, the women strenuously object to the negative combination of family life and war. Their strenuous objection results in their uniting and refusing to have sexual relations with their husbands until they ended the war and began living in peace. Similarly, in Iceland, in 1975, women united and went on strike to force passage of an equal rights amendment guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, and won. The power of women when they are united in purpose is capable of creating positive changes of great social magnitude.

Partly as the result of women’s political activism against war, in 2000, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1325. The goal of the resolution is to increase women’s global participation in negotiating peace during wartime. In 2011, The U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), the Peace Research Institute-Oslo (PRIO), and the Royal Norwegian Embassy hosted an international symposium in which action plans for the next decade on the next decade were discussed. With an increase in women, and mothers, global participation in important peace negotiations, perhaps one day, as in Lysistrata, they may succeed in bringing about an end to war.

family life and war
Gaza strip, Palestine, 1988 Robert Croma
Maternal Ideal

Maternal Ideal – The Changing Definitions of Motherhood

Before the 18th century, marriage, rather than motherhood, was considered woman’s crowning achievement.

The production of heirs by women who had married into the aristocracy was considered more important than what later came to be defined as motherhood, or any notion of the maternal ideal. The definition of maternal ideal developed in the 18th century included such criteria as

“all-engrossing tenderness, long term maternal breast feeding, personal supervision and education of young children, complete physical restriction to domestic space, absence of sexual desire, withdrawal from productive labor”.

This is according to author and literary scholar Toni Bowers in her book “The Politics of Motherhood: British Writing and Culture, 1680 -1760”. The book uses a stunning array of art, including plays, novels, songs, paintings, and even social propaganda, to illustrate motherhood and the maternal ideal. In this way, she successfully demonstrates how the changing definition of motherhood reflects the political and economic conflicts of the times. This is no less true today than it was in the 18th century.

Motherhood and Politics

Just how much are women and mothers still politically affected by the outmoded and contradictory maternal ideal of motherhood that was formulated in the 18th century? According to one article on the Politics of Motherhood, the United Nations recommends that at least 30% of elected officials be women in order to accurately reflect women’s political concerns. In Canada, considered fairly progressive in terms of women’s rights, only 16% of mayors are women. Further, elected officials do not enjoy health insurance which covers maternity leave. Current statistics for the United States show that women make up only 19.4% of Congress, despite comprising 50.8 of the population.

Australia comes a bit closer to the U.N. recommendation, with the number of women in Parliament at a little less than one third, although less than on fifth of ministers are women. Similarly, Britain recently achieved an all-time high of 29%. Other countries rankings also show disparities in political representation for women. Just as women are consistently under-represented in government, women in history are similarly under-represented.

Changing Maternal Ideal

It would seem that her argument that Western civilization and the present and future role of women in history continues to be limited by the conflicting idealistic images of mothers and the maternal ideal created in the 18th century is a valid one. In addition to current statistics demonstrating political inequities, there are also a number of other ways in which women and mothers continue to be marginalized by Western societies.

According to one review of the book “Politics of Motherhood” for Bower, literature dealing with women in history both reflects and serves the interests of the ruling classes, rather than shaping social ideology. In Bowers analysis, Queen Anne’s unsuccessful attempts to produce a living heir transform the definition of motherhood and maternal ideal to one of failure and a loss of personal and social power.

One of the conflicting characteristics of the maternal ideal of motherhood that she points to is the one in which women are expected to simultaneously be powerful mother figures and compliant, subservient wives.

Motherhood and the State

Another article, while examining the current state of marriage and family in Western civilization, clearly demonstrates the role of the state in perpetuating traditional family life for its own purposes, both economic and military. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1950, married couples represented 78% of the population, while in 2010, that number was only 48%.

Much of this decline is attributed to the influence of individualism combined with consumer capitalism. Additionally, social programs began to replace the family unit for both economic and social support. Children began being educated by the state, rather than by their mothers at home.

The alarming statistic that 40 percent of single-mother families live in poverty is attributed by some to a decline in morality. However, there are few examples of women in history that haven’t suffered economic hardship as a result of their failure to marry well. Those who argue against feminism point out that children living in two-parent homes typically perform better academically and are more likely to succeed in life.

This increase in academic performance can be attributed to an increase in both supervision and economic resources. However, rather than raising the wages of single working mothers to match those of the men which formerly provided for and controlled the family by controlling the finances, they suggest a return to the former paradigm.

Mothers Defining The Maternal Ideal

Like the paradigm of the 18th century, it is still implied that women who wish to escape economic and social control are selfish to put their own needs above those of their children, and are therefore bad mothers. Further, not only are they portrayed as bad mothers, but bad wives and members of society who are contributing to the downfall of Western civilization as well.

Modern day mothers are subject to many of the same conflicting social demands and the current idea of maternal ideal. All mothers, and fathers, would do well to recognize the impossibility of those conflicting demands in order to avoid being dehumanized by them. After all, parenting at its best is just the opposite, a process of humanization.

Maternal Ideal
Mrs. Robert Shurlock, Henrietta Ann Jane Russell and Her Daughter Ann, by John Russell, 1801
Maternal Ideals

Maternal Ideals – Mothers in Literature and Film

The definition of mother has changed a lot over time, especially since the birth of the nation-state, and America is no exception. Throughout history, literature and film have provided us with representations of motherhood and maternal ideals that reflect the social realities of the time and place. The book Motherhood and Representation: Feminism, Psychoanalysis and the Material American Melodrama” takes a look at some of the ways in which literature and film have presented society’s changing notions of motherhood and maternal ideals.

Nineteenth Century Motherhood

In Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, set during the civil war, Mrs. March is portrayed as the quintessential lady of the time period. She doesn’t have a career of her own, but she is not a lady of leisure. She spends most of her time outside the home doing charitable work such as tending to those less fortunate and helping with the war effort. Mrs. March is very religious, a perfect housekeeper, and a role model of maternal ideals who always has patience with her four daughters, safeguarding them while allowing them enough freedom to grow. Tireless and unfailingly kind, she represents more of an ideal than a real person, yet her character provides insight into how motherhood was defined in the nineteenth century. Those who deviated from these maternal ideals, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, were portrayed as committing social, and sometimes physical, suicide.

Kate Chopin, author of The Awakening a novel still taught in universities today, was herself a mother on the forefront of the women’s rights movement. In addition to her novels, she also wrote feminist essays and kept a journal about parenting, which provided enormous insight into what motherhood was like in the late 19th century. She wrote about the sacrifices she made to care for her five sons as well as her ailing mother. She was one of the first women to say publicly that motherhood and maternal ideals should include providing children with a role model of women’s true capabilities.

Maternal Ideals in the Twentieth Century

The twentieth century ushered in the suffrage movement, with women winning the right to vote in Tennessee in 1920. That was partially thanks to Pheobe Burns, the influential mother of Harry Burns, the young member of the state legislature tasked with voting on the issue. With the vote, the voice of motherhood became stronger.

In the 1950s play A Raisin in the Sun“, by Lorraine Hansbury, a widowed mother living with her family in a small apartment, receives an insurance check from the death of her husband. She decides to buy a house in a middle-class white neighborhood and resists efforts of residents to bribe them to stay away. Her strong convictions and courage convince her family to take the house and live according to their principles rather than in fear. This was one of the first modern literary and dramatic representations of a mother and different maternal ideals, this time represented as strong decision-maker and social activist.

By the time the two-income household was commonplace, mothers were expected to play as big a part in society and the world as they did in their homes. Simultaneously, divorce rates were sky-rocketing and single-parent homes becoming more common. One of the best portrayals of ideal motherhood and maternal ideals during this time period was the 1998 film “The Parent Trap”. While the story follows two twin girls, the mother is young, beautiful, divorced, and financially successful. Other movies with motherhood as the theme began to focus more on the strengths of women.

Motherhood in the Twenty-First Century

Modern movies tend to portray a much more realistic definition of mother. The 2012 novel-turned-movie The Fault in Our Stars provides a great example of modern motherhood. The main character, Hazel Lancaster, is diagnosed with cancer at the age of 13. Her mother sets aside her career to be her caregiver and teacher. She encourages Hazel to follow her dreams and never lets her act like a victim even though she has cancer. In the end of the novel, it is revealed that Hazel’s mother has been so moved by the experience that she begins working towards a master’s degree in counseling in order to help other families with similar struggles.

However, modern society, through the widespread media coverage of celebrity moms like Kim Kardashian, still puts a great deal of pressure on women to remain sex sirens despite childbirth and 2 a.m feedings. Celebrity moms like Melissa Joan Hart, former star of Sabrina the Teenage witch, who write about the difficult realities of working parenthood receive far less media attention.

Is today’s definition of mother a self-sacrificing lady, a professional role model or a superwoman? The answer seems to be yes. Rather than one view being replaced by another, it seems that more aspects are being added. Perhaps, over time, dramatic representations of mothers and maternal ideals will more truly reflect the complexity, and diversity, of actual mothers.

Maternal Ideals
Mamma Mia ABBA 2008 By Daniel Åhs Karlsson CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
parenting styles

Motherhood and Parenting Styles Influenced by a Series of Different Feminisms

Motherhood and Parenting Styles

To understand the meaning of motherhood today and parenting styles in general, then understanding other currents and movements of our society is a good start. Feminism was an important movement for women in the last 150 years that evolved and influenced our understanding of motherhood and parenting styles greatly. The way we see motherhood and the way we are parents, behave as parents and apply our parenting styles is influenced by many factors. Movements of feminism is off course just one of them.

A coherent, all-encompassing feminist ideology

Any attempt to define a coherent, all-encompassing feminist ideology is doomed. Most feminists agree on the questions that needed to be asked, like for example the origins of gender differences  or the roots of sexual violence, but feminists rarely agree on the answers or solutions. Feminists in general stay far away from motherhood or parenting styles or flavors.

There is not one feminism, but there are many types of feminisms.

  • There were Anarcho-feminists who found a larger audience in Europe than in the United States, lead by Emma Goldman. Their Strategy: dismantling  institutions like the family, private property, or state power.
  • There were the Individualist feminists, who disagreed with other feminists over the issue of turning to government for solutions to women’s problems.
  • Amazon feminists advocated liberation through physical strength.
  • And there were off course the Separatist feminists and they  included many lesbian feminists. Their Strategy:  women need to liberate themselves with at least a period of separation from men.
  • Another types of feminism, the Socialist feminists saw the problem as a combination of male domination and class exploitation because women in different class systems face different issues.

Three major types of feminism surfaced

Ultimately, three major streams or types of feminism surfaced.

  1. The first were Liberal feminists. They believed the problem is simply one of prejudice and so the system just needs to be corrected. Strategies: A group concentrated on lobbying governments for reforms and influencing decision makers. They were for more equal-rights legislation or protective legislation such as special workplace benefits for mothers which had then also an impact on parenting styles. They saw a great deal in the increase of positive role models,  and improvement of confidence of girls.
  2. Then there were the Radical feminists, who wanted to reshape society and restructure its patriarchal institutions. They believed the role of a woman in society was too closely knot in our society. Strategies: Women campaigns and demonstrations, and the existence of a women’s space and a women’s culture. They also put heavy emphasis on the violence of men against women, such as rape and pornography.
  3. And then Cultural or Difference feminism, the last of the three movements, was against the idea that men and women are intrinsically the same and advocated celebrating the female qualities, such as their greater concern for affective relationships and their definition of care and nurture. For them it was denigrating to attempt to make women more like men.

End of the 20th century

European and American feminists began interacting with the similar movements of Asia, Africa, and Latin America by the end of the 20th century. But they had great difficulties learning about and dealing with the wear of veils in public, female infanticide,  forced marriage, or female genital cutting. They believed saving was needed but they had little knowledge of the real lives and concerns of women in these regions. The role of women declined significantly only when Countries in Africa were actually faced with European colonialism.

“Third World women noted that they could not very well worry about other matters when their children were dying from thirst, hunger or war,”

wrote Azizah al-Hibri, a law professor and scholar of Muslim women’s rights about the on the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo. Women from the Third World expected to talk about ways that underdevelopment was holding women back, when the focus of the Conference was abortion and contraception.

The third and current wave of feminism

All these types of feminism were part of the second wave, the first being the 1920’s suffragette’s movement. This third wave emerged in the second part of the 1990s and sought to question and mainly redefine the ideas, words, and media that transmitted ideas about womanhood, beauty, sexuality, motherhood and parenting styles. It was mainly about becoming conscious of one’s gender identity and sexuality have been shaped by society and then intentionally constructing one’s own identity.

They played on seemingly sexist images and symbols. The spirit of this wave is very present in the the anger of punk rock’s riot grrrls movement or the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women artists who use gorilla masks to fight discrimination against female artists. The stereotypical images of women (passive, weak and faithful, or  domineering, demanding and slutty) were redefined as assertive, powerful and in control of their own sexuality.In popular culture this redefinition was evident: Disney heroines changed drastically and powerful media icons like Madonna, or Queen Latifah came to be just like series such as  Sex and the City (1998–2004), and Girlfriends (2000–08).

This last or current movement has its criticism like all the others. But these types of feminism evolve with their societies. Feminist movement have indeed influenced greatly how a society views a women, and in point of fact Motherhood and parenting styles. And they will continue to do so.

parenting styles
Towards the Infinite, Kamila Gibran, mother of the artist, Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese, Bsharri 1883–1931 New York, Date 1916