childhood and family life

What did childhood and family life actually mean during Colonial times?

My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.

said George Washington about his own mother. It seems indeed that all mothers want the best for their children and hope that they grow strong and healthy to maturity, and during Colonial America and its European counterpart, this was also true. However, standards about childhood and family life were very different then than they are today.

Childhood and family life in Colonial Times

Many things that children take for granted now were forbidden. Children needed to help with chores and learn their appropriate place in society. Many practices of child rearing, childhood and family life in colonial times could, by today’s standards, be considered child abuse and neglect, though all were common and accepted as the norm during the time period.

The Colonial Period was marked by high infant mortality rates. Because of this, all efforts were made to ensure that babies grew strong. In infancy, for example, mothers, midwives, and wet nurses kept babies swaddled, but not in the modern sense of the word. Rather, they were bound in fabric until their limbs were straight and immobilized, and slept in narrow cradles. This was thought to help them develop strong and straight bones. In early childhood, children usually wore a girdle or stays to ensure they continued to develop good posture. While perhaps not necessarily child abuse and neglect, it did inhibit natural infant development.

Crawling, strapping, walking, and passing out

Childhood and family life was not a cakewalk. When children learned to walk, they were typically forbidden from crawling. Crawling was seen as a form of animal behavior and therefore, teaching the child to walk was important.

Some tools used were pudding caps, a padded hat that would protect the head when the child fell so that their mind was not turned to, essentially, pudding, and babies and toddlers, regardless of sex, were kept in long petticoats and gowns that inhibited crawling and made it easy to toilet train.

Leading strings were also used to help a child learning to walk. The straps attached to a child’s clothing and were used to guide them as well as keep them from sitting down. Walking stools were another tool utilized to ensure children learned how to walk, roughly similar to a more modern walker without the body support to allow a baby to sit down.

It is documented that children might pass out from exhaustion due to standing for prolonged periods of time while in a walking stool, and by today’s standards might very well be considered child abuse and neglect.

Child abuse and neglect

Child abuse and neglect are strong words that bring with them a particularly abhorrent meaning today. This was not always the case. It was considered normal practice during childhood and family life,  that children in the colonies and Europe were expected to help with household chores, even burdens we might consider inappropriate, help with the family business, and learn a trade.

By the time boys went to grammar school, they were also expected to behave like an adult and threatening to put boys back in petticoats was used as incentive to behave.

Corporal punishment was acceptable by a school teacher when necessary, something considered most definitely to be child abuse and neglect.

And what about school?

Basic arithmetic and reading was taught, reading being important for learning how to read the bible. Religion was also taught in the classroom. Boys were frequently expected to learn a trade alongside their schooling, or were prepared for university. Girls were not generally allowed in the classroom unless they were enrolled in a dame school or if they were Quaker, but were taught domestic duties. The standards of childhood and family life or schooling seem to have changed.

Childhood and family life without holidays and gifts

For young children, even in puritanical New England, toys were permissible. But for school-age children, toys and playing were not the way of normal life. Even holidays such as Christmas were not children’s holidays, and celebrating in any form was forbidden in New England. In the middle colonies where Catholicism was more dominant, celebrating included feasting and merry-making, though no mention of including children is made. Children, just like servants, might be given gifts such as coins or other tokens of gratitude, but gift giving only went from parents to children, from masters to slaves or other help.

Punishment could be physical, and when a crime was committed, a child might be “bound out” or indentured as a servant for a specified period of time, up to a number of years, until the punishment had been worked off.

Children were very strictly expected to be seen and not heard, even at the dinner table, where they were made to eat quickly and depart, or sometimes were not even allowed to sit with their parents. Childhood and family life were in a sense kept separate. They were sometimes not even allowed to eat many of the things adults did because they were not deemed appropriate for children.

Inexisting concepts of child abuse and neglect

It was not until the Victorian Era that the concept of childhood as we know it began to slowly take shape. Imaginative play was accepted more and more into the twentieth century as innocent. Cribs as opposed to tight swaddling were used to allow children to move about safely. Concepts of child abuse and neglect slowly began to take shape and emerge. Even though child labor laws and other restrictions outlining inappropriate treatment of children had not yet been established, the mindset was beginning to change.

For further reading, here are some great resources:

And more on motherhood and childhood in the 17th century, is be found here.

childhood and family life
The Happy Mother, Jean Honoré Fragonard, 1760
Maternal craft

Maternal craft in 1850-1900: Disciplinary education

By the end of the nineteenth century not only medicine and science would have an impact but political and social changes as well. The imperial nations were in need of healthy and educated children. Maternal craft was essential. Social and racial progress was important for the welfare of its country.

The idealization of motherhood was strengthened. And moral reform came around the corner. Now women needed to stay virtuous and religiously dutiful but now also sentimental. Passivity and altruism were the virtues of a good wife. Open expression of feelings and emotions were condemned. Women became frail and sickly because they were educated this way. A day in bed when menstruating was a minimum. Prudery was an obsession. Not a coincidence this came in a time where paternal authority were promoted by state and church. Not a coincidence this came with total submissiveness of women to husbands and maternal craft expertise.

This is the time where extreme disciplinary education of children came to be.

The Beginning of the Maternal craft

Mothers read Elizabeth Chesser’s books on Mothering craft where the ideals of personal vocation and racial and national progress were put together. To provide morality, chastity and a desire to be a superior race were to be provided by the mothers only and nobody could do that task better. Women were born to do so.

Motherhood now a ‘science’ was thought through maternal craft courses

A scientific interest was omnipresent and Child Science and The Mothering or Maternal Craft was born. Motherhood was for the first time a ‘science’ that could be thought through courses. Important to note that the notion of maternal instincts, or natural bonds can not be further be removed.

The Child Study Movement, the Child Study Association, the Childhood Society, and the Parents’ National Education Union were all bodies that emerged in this period. They emphasized for the first time the importance of the first year of a child and the possibilities within a child to be realized according only to specific childcare methods and the mothering or maternal craft.

Now,  the mother role…

James Sull for example said that

“fathers rather than mothers should do most of the important observations of the development of the child. Mothers were likely to be  too involved, too sentimental and eulogistic.”

In America there was G. Stanley Hall the first American psychologist and also president of Clark University. He was the one who brought Freud to the US for his first visit and wrote many childcare manuals. He stressed the different development stages of children and the managerial tasks of the mother.

Women had fought their way into college and the first college educated women started to graduate. And it was at the same time that society believed it was absolutely crucial to be college educated to be a mother. And so the diploma of ‘mother’ or the maternal craft was invented. The demands of education were getting so high one needed to study four years to prepare for motherhood.

‘Women cannot conceivably be given an education too broad, too high, or too deep to fit them to become the educated mothers of the future race of men and women born of educated parents. The pity is that we only have four years of the college course to impart such knowledge to women who are to be mothers.

said Martha Carey Thomas, the American educator, suffragist, linguist, and President of Bryn Mawr College, in 1908.

Of course it was too good to be true to be both educated and be a mother and stay at home. Nothing in a woman’s life was more important than motherhood. The cult of motherhood was peaking. The reasons were multiple but are imbedded in its society. There were Darwin’s ideas: The Origin of the Species was published in 1859. And colonialism and the ideas on quality of race to begin with. But the Romanticism and the importance of religion had an equally important influence on the matter of Motherhood.

If you want to move  into the first part of the 19th century, head over to the spiritual education style during 1800 and 1850.

Maternal craft
Joseph Highmore by Joseph Highmore – The Yorck Project 10.000 Meisterwerke der DIRECTMEDIA Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Social Change of Motherhood

Early Feminism and Social Change of Motherhood

Motherhood was just left out by early feminists

… or at least did not complain of the burden as it would later on.

The care of children in their infancy is one of the grand duties annexed to the female character by nature .(…) We should then love them with true affection, because we should learn to respect ourselves.’

Mary Wollstonecraft said. The eighteenth-century English writer was regarded as one of the founding philosophers in feminism,  and is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

“A woman as a slave to every situation to prejudice, seldom exerts enlightened maternal affection. The formation of the mind must be begun very early with affection tempered by reason. (…) To be a good mother, a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands.”

It was not the first feminist that said the words,

“An independent mind improved the abilities to raise children

She emphasized the importance of education of women in general and she believed that further education and an independent mind improved the abilities to raise children. She clearly leaves the child minding to women because of –what she calls- the naturalness of the female character. Later feminists would not disagree and brought along the social change of motherhood roles.

Social change of motherhood roles

Most of the women active in early century feminism were married mothers. From their writings we see no issue in motherhood. Most of them did not see the boredom or tiresomeness where future feminists would at times complain about.

‘It fills up all the gaps of life just in a way that is most consoling, most refreshing

says Margaret Fuller. Fuller is another women’s rights advocate and active in early feminism. She was an American journalist and critic. By the time she was in her 30s, Fuller had earned a reputation as the best-read person in New England, male or female, and became the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College. Her seminal work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, was published in 1845.

Feminism : Social Change of Motherhood

The emancipated mothers belonged of course all to the upper class. Servants and nannies did most of the tiresome and boring tasks that are part of raising children. The mothers would see their children one or two hours for tea in the play or drawing room or library. The emancipated lady brought social change of motherhood roles. Mothers were obviously loved by their children. When mother came it was ‘playtime’ or appraisal time’ or ‘time for a kiss on the front head’. Motherhood fills indeed the gaps of the day.

We understand why motherhood was not an issue for this feminist.

An educated woman, of active, methodological habits, blessed with good servants, as good mistresses generally are, finds an hour a day amply sufficient for her housekeeping. Nothing is gained by spreading it over a longer time.’

Emily Davies wrote in 1866 in The Higher Education of Women. However from the Victorian Gazette we see that not only feminists but indeed all mothers were not supposed to be all day with their children.

A professional woman spending a short time a day in the superintendence of her nursery and enjoying the society of her children, would find it a means of rest and refreshment.

A short day was enough. Apparently no instinct or natural impulse would make women unhappy if they stayed away from their children for most part of the day. The bond that tied mother and infant together was seen differently and far more pragmatically.

Slow process of feminism with heavy impact on motherhood

When women got the vote early in the twentieth century they did not vote in large numbers or for very different topics than did men. An average election in New York early 1920’s would have one third of the women have seen voting. They would vote similarly as their husbands and they did not vote for typical female issues or any other concerns different of the men’s issues. The vote did not bring the social change of motherhood .

As with voting, women did not go to work in great numbers immediately after the laws on equal pay and laws against discrimination at work. Women gradually started working throughout the twentieth century.

There was a backlash in the eighties and a percentage of the women going out to work returned home again. These backlashes are typical for each period where sharp advances have been made and seem to correct the general growth line a little bit. Susan Faludi, an American humanist and author, made that very clear in her book Backlash in 1991. Faludi is part of the very early Third-wave feminism. Third-wave feminism seeked to avoid the over-emphasis on the experiences of upper-middle-class white women. She describes each of the backlash periods we have known throughout the last 130 years of women ‘s liberation. But in the nineties the evolution of women going out to work picked up again.

Social Change of Motherhood
Motherhood by Thomas Hawk, CC
family life

Work, Religion, and the Threat of Abandonment: Family Life in the Middle Ages

“We are certainly influenced by role models, and if we are surrounded by images of beautiful rich people, we will start to think that to be beautiful and rich is very important – just as in the Middle Ages, people were surrounded by images of religious piety.”

said, Alain de Botton

Child mortality

While birth and childhood is a necessary part of growing up, our views of what childhood and family life should be, has changed throughout recorded history. In the twenty-first century, children are the most treasured people in a household and beacons of hope for the future. The family life of a young child during the Middle Ages, would, on the surface, look similar to what a twenty-first century child would experience. Yet, on a deeper look, most children would have far more knowledge of death than current day children do. Death was omni-present in family life at the time.

During the Middle Ages, a time of economic growth, warfare, and feudalism, childhood was much shorter and far more focused on work than it is today.  It is estimated that nearly one-fourth of children died in their first year of life, and about one-sixth did not live to see their fourth birthday. Generally, life expectancy was fairly dismal by today’s standards as the average life expectancy was 43 for women and 48 for men.

Women, on average, did not live as long because of routine complications during childbirth and from undiagnosed infections afterwards. It is estimated that 20% of women would die giving birth or in their immediate postpartum recovery. The likelihood, then, that a child would grow up experiencing the deaths of parents or fellow siblings was high.

Family life and the forbidden

“What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”

said Sigmund Freud. The meaning of books has changed. And their influence on our lives. A major difference for children in the Middle Ages is that education during this period was not compulsory. For lower class families, their views of family life and the world were created almost exclusively by the church, which was a major economic force during this period.

There is evidence as early as the seventh century that monasteries took in boys for religious education; these children would live, work, and worship with the monks in preparation for a religious life as a monk or priest. Parents could also send their daughters to nunneries for education if they wished for her to become a nun. Family life as we know it, was here not existent. By the eleventh century, aristocratic families would send their children to established schools outside of religious organizations. Although religion was still a key component to their education, these schools also taught Latin, English, or French.

Work and play

While family life and education was limited, children were encouraged to find a trade early. Between the ages of 12 and 14, children were either put to work on the family farm or inside the house, or they were sent away to be trained for a trade elsewhere. Girls could train under a midwife and assist at births; during the Middle Ages, midwifery required skills to keep both mother and baby healthy. For some of the very poor children who were sent to be apprentices, their experiences were only slightly better than child slavery; apprentices were joined to their masters, who could work them as hard as they were able. Wealthier children (usually boys) had more options, as they could join another aristocratic household as a page, continue on their education in the hopes of joining the church or becoming a lawyer, or undergo military training.

Child slavery and abandonment

Sadly, even these educational options weren’t available to some children. During the Middle Ages, child slavery–along with adult enslavement–was somewhat common across Europe and parts of Asia. Those sold in child slavery came from two different sources: families who willingly abandoned their children and countries at war.

Unlike today, child abandonment was seen as a viable option for families who could not or did not want to keep their child. Without an adoption system in place as many countries have now, families who were overburdened with too many mouths to feed had few resources. Some families were also compelled to abandon their babies and children if they were the products of incest, had birth defects, or would cause too much tension on inheritances. In some cases, the parents would abandon their children at a church, while others (who were desperate for additional money) would sell them into child slavery. Many factors went into the final sale price of these children including if their parents were slaves or free, and the child’s health, gender, age, and size.

Child slavery was also a result of the wars, clashing political factions, and religious struggles of the Middle Ages. During their reign of power (from the 8th-12th centuries), the Vikings collected slaves from Ireland, Russia, Sweden, and beyond. They would often raid monasteries for the young men there and would sell them into child slavery in southern Europe: because they were educated, these boys brought higher prices.

While the flow of adult and child slavery was generally from northern Europe to southern Europe and the Middle East, there are records of Saracen girls being sold into French families in the 1200s. By the end of the Middle Ages, the main sources for child slavery were moving from eastern Europe and the Muslim world and over to Africa, an area that was the focus of the slave trade from the 1500s onward.

Family life and childhood was certainly more difficult and came with more risks that it does today. However, considering the death rates and brutality of the Middle Ages, such treatment of children fits into the larger cultural tone of the era.  And yet, child slavery still exists today. I have to agree with Alexis Herman who states

“If we can’t begin to agree on fundamentals, such as the elimination of the most abusive forms of child labor, then we really are not ready to march forward into the future.”

More on motherhood and childhood in Colonial Times, is be found here.

family life
Woman teaching geometry to male monks. 1309~1316. British Library from its digital collections.Catalogue entry Burney 275. Public Domain.

Instinctive motherhood and how to educate in the 17th century

“I think I may say that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education.”

wrote  John Locke (1632 – 1704), the English philosopher in his outline on education, Some Thoughts Concerning Education. The philosophy of the Enlightenment had affectionate and tender-hearted ideas of what a household was and had warm, chummy thoughts on children. This was new. Guidelines on how to educate were absent in philosophy or sociology books. They never had  very much attention for children in literature. But John Locke in the 17th century and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the next century changed all that.

John Locke  expresses the belief that “education maketh the man”, or, more fundamentally, that

the mind is an empty cabinet”.

Locke wrote also on infants and helped mothers to take care and educate,

“the little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences.”

And children’s education came into being. He believed that the associations of ideas that a young person makes is not only more important that those made later but only defines the person. These associations of ideas are the foundation of the self: they are written at an early stage on the tabula rasa. “Associationism” had quite an influence throughout this period particularly educational theory and children’s education.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was firstly a philosopher, but he influenced political, sociological, and educational thought. To educate was a central theme. He was himself greatly influenced by Locke. His educational thought is explained through his novel Emile, or On Education, a treatise on how to educate a whole person for citizenship. He exemplified the late 18th-century movement known as the Age of Sensibility, that had a bigger focus on subjectivity and introspection that later characterized modern writing.

Locke’s and Rousseau’s impact on mothers and how to educate children

Locke and Rousseau were popularized in this period and were read by teachers, parents and doctors. For the first time intelligent people could get interested and not only in the end process but enjoy also the process. The idea was that a child had tremendous possibilities if taken care of in the proper way. A child was also absolutely positive and good-natured at the start and society could corrupt him later but he is born with a good nature. To bring up babies with ‘rational tenderness’ would the only thing necessary.

Rousseau was also known for his plea to mothers to nurse their own children and not to send them of to wet-nurses. Both men believed in instinct of the caregiver and the baby and also in the individuality of the baby. Mothers were encouraged to seek the pleasures of running a nursery and to educate themselves rather than attending again the same and boring social activities. Fathers were encouraged to have a genuine and heartfelt relationship and interest in the development.

Already in 1798 mothers were told (source – Sir Eardley Holland, J. Obst. Gynae. Brit. Emp. 1951. 58.905ff.) that

the first object in the education of a child should be to acquire its affection and the second to obtain its confidence…. The most likely thing to expand a youthful mind … is praise.

Despite Locke’s continuing influence  today on motherhood and children’s education, the current “nature vs. nurture” debates are more present then it was the case in Locke’s century. Philosophers believed indeed in a more rosy and promising environmentalism, now less supported by science.

If you want to know more about motherhood and childhood during the 18th century, head over here.

Giovanni Segantini Two Mothers upload by Adrian Michael, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
extended family

Moral education and the extended family governed Motherhood in 1800-1850, not Mother love

Motherhood was about creating the religious and dutiful house

Once the nineteenth century started things changed. There was increased concern with the children’s moral and spiritual development. Science and religion will much determine this century and this will have an impact on childcare. The ideal of domesticity was reinforced by the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars on the continent. These were times of patriotism, loyalty and reproduction of striding and defending soldiers and soldier wives.

Mothers needed to look after the moral and spiritual development and their good example would shape the mind and hearts of the children, less Mother love itself. The extended family played an important role. And propaganda towards a religious and dutiful house was what mothers left alone kept going. They were told that taking care of the children would be just as useful and sacred to society than their husbands fighting to defend the country.

The importance of the extended family and no mother love

However there is no mention at all of the emotional attachment from the child to the mother and dangers of separation of the mother were simply not an issue at the time. Members of an extended family did  often most of the work. Mother love seemed not to exist at all. That was not before Freud would arrive on the scene. Ideas of mothers have changed radically with the role of women in general. By that time mothers were needed to stay at home but not for sentimental reasons. Too much sentimentality and softness could even be bad for children. The mother did not only to look after the morality of the children but also had a responsibility in providing a safe haven and refuge for her husband who worked ‘outside’ in a corrupt and hard world. Yes, her responsibility was also making the home peaceful, harmonious and uplifting for husbands and children which is still different than the emphasis in Mother love we have today. She was the good spine for all relatives. With the help of the extended family, she ‘managed’ family life and children.

The appearance of childcare books

By the mid nineteenth century a massive amount of books in childcare debarked. All with a similar message: the moral and spiritual welfare. The books came with loads of good advice.

Mothers are the best teachers for their children and this job is the most rational and pleasing employments in which human mankind can engage’


‘It ought… to enter into the domestic policy of every parent to make her child feel that home is the happiest place in the world; that to imbue them with this precious home-feeling is one of the choicest gifts a parent can bestow

are two examples of two very popular childcare books in that time, Advice to the Teens by Saac Taylor of Ongar , from 2nd London ed., Boston, 1820 (p.64) and H. Montgomery Hyde. Mr. and Mrs. Beeton, re-edited in London, 1951 (p. 98).

Although this might sound similar to the advice experts would give today the reality is very different. Mothers were cold and intolerant to their children. They were very little with their children either because they were educated by nurses or extended family if they were at least middle class or the mother and sometimes the children would be working. Mother love would not be useful or provide the needed results. The duty to love was more prevalent than the love itself. Children were treated like guests when entering in the living room if there was one and could eat in the kitchen with the servants.

But all in all, the nineteenth century had been good to children in general because it was the first time since long that they were not seen anymore as small adults. It began to be less obvious to let them go to work for fourteen hours a day. Childcare, a new science, was for some interesting as a new fashion and for others a tool for a better soul or a way to be (seen as) a religiously good and faithful person. All good reasons really if this period ended up providing better living conditions for children.

Children and their needs appear in literature

Since the end of the eighteenth century there had never before been so many books about children. Literature in general was unconcerned with children. It did not exist as an important or continuous theme. It actually simply did not exist at all. But that changed. In the written world, the child became the symbol of creativity in an increasingly mechanical and industrial society. The child was pure and innocent in a world of bigger communities and alienation. The child represented escape and refuge because his world was smaller, simpler and perceived as happier. William Blake, Wordsworth, Dickens and Mark Twain all used these themes when writing about children our childhood.

The birth of the family unit versus the extended family

One could say that from the nineteenth century family and children took a bigger dimension in most parent’s lives. The unit “family” increased its significance in opposition to the “larger community”  or extended family of this industrial area. The family had never had such a big importance in society nor did it exercise such an influence on it. The economic dependence on a larger community or extended family had diminished and people organized themselves more around a few members and intimacy and privacy became important notions.

Sentimentality, feelings, small habits and routine, gave comfort and identity, were remembered at old age. Family’s idealization had started. The family before was loosely together and open and unprotective of privacy. A family (and not the extended family) existed no longer for only materialistic and economical reasons.

If you want to move  into the second part of the 19th century, head over to the more disciplinary education during 1850 and 1900.

extended family
Eleven Stages Of Womanhood 1840s. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Common
social change

The Seventies: Negative Motherhood, Social Change and the Celebration of Women Power

The sanctity of motherhood is a modern concept

Although there was a wave of social change and women’s liberation in the 1920s throughout the world, which led to women’s suffrage, as the world got pulled into war, the realization of such women power became a little diluted as the world strived toward bringing back peace. Women were not yet soldiers, but did help out amply in the war efforts, either as nurses, military officers or various forms of support.

With the end of the war and soldiers returning home, the world was now concerned with peace time needs and rebuilding. Industry mushroomed in the western world as did families. Soldiers rushed back to their wives or to find wives and much of the western world in the late 40s to the late 50s was devoted to building families. This was the era of social change before birth control became popular and a time in history when women themselves were almost like commodities. Once they married, at the average of 20, they then officially “belonged” to their husbands as did any of the property they owned. When a women married in this era, she pretty much signed her rights over to her husband.

Also, at this time, in the 1950s, women were only offered the very basic jobs, the usual ones dedicated to women: secretary, nurse, librarian, or teacher. Fewer women went to college in 50s than in the 20s.

Luckily, this type of social behavior began to be put into question, like much of the status quo, in the 1960s. An air of social change was blowing and affecting all of western society, including women and women power. Everything from the past was being redefined to suit modern-day society, including women’s roles. Social change was taking place. The sixties led the way for social change in large stride throughout most of the western world.

Social change  from the sixties on

This was a powerful era for women and from it emerged strong women archetypes that were no longer pinned to the role of the commonly accepted woman at the side of man, having his children. Birth control made it possible to no longer be controlled by the birthing process; social change in marriages meant divorce became a way for women to leave marriages when they no longer felt fulfilled or happy without having to prove wrongdoing. Women became free from the heaviness of roles from the past, which were often inflicted on them, and many strived to make a difference in the world. In short, it was truly an era of growing women power and social change.

The angry seventies

As a result, the seventies was an era where the concept of motherhood took a great beating. Because this was something previously forced on women, many were only too happy to publicly knock it, and to drag the concept of motherhood through the mud, using another one of the concepts birthed in the sixties: Free speech, which although it had been around for a long time, got a real boost in this era.

This became visible in the way women presented themselves in the seventies: Women were in their power, quite naturally. From a psychological perspective, the seventies could be viewed as an individuated period that followed the permissiveness of the 1960s, which was in reaction to the authoritarian model of the 1950s. As mothers were finding their voices, so were there children. This was a period that could be referred to as under-mothering, where moms with kids did not necessarily put their kids first, as modern-day moms frequently do. There was still distance between parents and children and children were left more on their own to develop.

But next to this wave of mothers, were women who were downright indignant with the whole image of motherhood referring to it in a very negative manner publicly.

Car stickers appeared announcing,

Babies are Pollution
World pollution is YOUR baby

Earlier Simone de Beauvoir had written of the ‘ordeal of pregnancy’ (though, to her credit, she also writes a lot of good sense about mothering). Juliet Mitchell writes of maternity as possession. One writer discusses ‘the negative role of Mum’.

Another writes

‘The big push to have children, whether we are married or not, should be viewed as one of the strong links in the chain that enslaves us.’

Kate Millett writes that a woman is

‘Simply by virtue of her anatomy … prevented from being a human being.’

Some feminist writers are downright hostile to the whole business. Penelope Leach quotes an example from a widely-read women’s liberation magazine which describes the full-time care of a baby or very young child as:

‘Like spending all day, every day, in the exclusive company of an incontinent mental defective.’

Shulamith Firestone in her Dialectic of Sex describes pregnancy as ‘barbaric … shitting a pumpkin’ and announces:

‘Pregnancy is the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species.’

She ends her book with the following announcement:

‘With the disappearance of motherhood, and the obstructing incest taboo, sexuality would be re-integrated, allowing love to flow unimpeded.”

Women power or Motherhood

Modern articles today look back on the seventies as a time of social change and a unique time where women could be themselves and mothers at the same time, the true definition of women power. It is portrayed as a more laid back time where children required less care than today’s modern children. This could be due to the fact that women were choosing motherhood instead of feeling it thrust upon them. It was also before the time when women inflicted the role of wonder women on themselves, attempting to juggle home, office, family and personal life all at once. As one writer says,

A life is long enough to do everything we want, only we can’t do it all at the same time.

Seventies’ moms seemed to instinctively know this and if there is a lesson to take away from that period, it would be this, which is the true source of women power.

Want to know more on the origins of feminism and motherhood, head over here.

social change
Head of the Artist’s Mother, Umberto Boccioni, 1915. Metropolitan Museum of Art
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