Childcare during..., History

Parental bonds in 18th Century England: Infanticide and Mind Control

parental bonds

“The principal destination of all women is to be mothers.”

This was an ever present concept in the 18th century. Parental bonds were solely with women. No longer was becoming a mother seen as an option for women; rather, it was the very thing that defined their femininity. If a woman chose to be single or not to have children, she was judged as being “unnatural,” as it was believed that the main purpose of a woman’s life was to bear children. These views likely influenced many women who were not longing to be mothers to bear children, in order to avoid the ridicule and judgment that came with being a childless old-maid.
Additionally, excessive pressure was placed on mothers to be the perfect parent and raise compliant children, resulting in often poor parental bonds.

The Absence of Parental Bonds: Infanticide

“Infanticide has typically been defined by the rhetoric of monstrosity,”

and those who commit infanticide have been called “Mothers of Inhumanity” (Francus, 1997). Infanticide, which demonstrates the enormous lack of seriousness some women had for parenting or parental bonds, was a relatively common occurrence of the 1700s. Two hundred women were indicted for murdering their new-born children in the courts of Yorkshire, Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland between 1720 and 1800. However, of these two hundred, only six women were found guilty (Jackson, 1996). The leniency displayed by the courts may be due to the fact that infanticide did not qualify as a legitimate crime until 1922. Many times, the reason infanticide was committed by a mother was in order to maintain her ability to work. This was somewhat accepted when it occurred in the lower-class, and it has been suggested that

“the willingness of society to recuperate these women—most of whom were single and working-class—back into the work force, suggests that socio-economic realities were of greater concern than the ethics and psychology of infanticide” (Francus, 1997).

While society was opposed to infanticide and demanded that these monstrous mothers be prosecuted, there was not much done to create parental bonds or care for unwanted children. The first effort to care for these children came with the establishment of Coram’s Foundling Hospital in the mid-1700s, however there were many restrictions on the children that they would take in. The main concern of many recent mothers in the 18th century was not raising their children with love and care, but rather to use any means necessary to rid themselves of the responsibilities of having a child.

Authoritarian Parenting Styles Used to ‘Train’ Children

Bad parenting was exhibited throughout the 18th century through an authoritarian parenting style in which parents aimed to control each factor of a child’s life. Obedience and appropriateness were seen as the most important traits of a child and proof of parental bonds and were taught through harshness rather than love.

The main goal of parental bonds in 18th century England was to train their children and shape their minds. A great deal of mothers wrote diaries detailing their hesitance in their ability as a parent, primarily concerned with their capacity to train the child. Mothers indicated in these entries that

“the child was not depraved but pliable and their duty as a parent was to bend the child’s will in order to achieve respect and obedience.” (Pollock, 1983)

An additional goal was to

“conquer a child’s mind ‘in order to control its insides’”.

This strict and rigorous style of parenting resembles the ideologies of Locke, who believed that children should not be coddled or raised tenderly, and that each aspect of the child’s development should be determined by the parent. Parents did not long for warm, strong parental bonds but rather aimed to control the minds, feelings, and needs of children through use of guilt, threats, and harsh punishments. As society has departed from the strict, authoritarian parenting styles of the 1700s and moved towards an authoritative parenting model, much more freedom in both parent and child behaviors is observed.

Today, we encourage our children to make their own decisions and choose their own pathways in life to follow. No longer do mothers aspire to ‘train’ their children; nowadays this term is reserved for pets or husbands ;).
In addition, women are able to decide for themselves whether or not they choose to become mothers, and there is less judgement based on their decisions. We learn how we came to think about parental bonds and about parenting. For instance that parenting styles are seriously determined by culture and historic setting.

If you feel inspired, you can find here some references that treated the topic in more depth. The last two are out of print but captured on Google.books.
Monstruous Motherhood: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Ideology of Domesticity. 2012. By Marilyn Francus
The Making of the Modern Self. 2004. By Dror Wahrman
Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. By Linda A. Pollock.
New-born Child Murder: Women, Illegitimacy and the Courts in Eighteenth Century. 1996. By Mark Jackson

If you want to deep dive into the 19th century, you will have too choose between the spiritual education style during 1800 and 1850 or the more disciplinary education during 1850 and 1900.

parental bonds
La bonne mere (The good mother), Jacques Gabriel Huquier, 1770 Paris. Metropolitan Museum of Art
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