On Reproductive Consciousness and the Power of Creating and Sustaining Life

On Reproductive Consciousness and the Power of Creating and Sustaining Life

The Struggle for Power Throughout Nurturing History

Everyone agrees that war has a negative effect on children. That has also held true regarding the battle of the sexes. Although the term was not coined until 1973, to describe the famous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, the struggle between men and women to effectively share power has been going on for centuries.
In ancient times, before reproductive consciousness, or scientific knowledge of the human reproductive system, women alone were believed to possess the power of creating and sustaining life. Social customs reflected that belief in a number of ways, including the greater number of rights that women enjoyed in matrilineal societies. Those rights included almost exclusive ownership of the property upon which women carried out their sacred duties of single-handedly creating future generations.

The ancient mythologies and primitive religions of many societies also reflected the belief that men played no role in reproduction. Reproductive consciousness occurred in a number of stages. The first step was the observation of the reproductive behavior and biological realities of domesticated animals. Once it had been established that male sperm was indeed responsible for producing offspring, the balance of social power shifted drastically. While semen was a visible power, the female egg was not visible. Lacking proof of the female contribution of the egg in the reproductive process, men began to women as little more than fertile ground in which to plant their seeds.

The Rise of Paternity in Nurturing History

These faulty scientific beliefs were incorporated into both social customs and religious practices. Before the advent of Christianity, the religion of the Roman Empire was much like that of the Greeks. In fact, most Greek gods have Roman counterparts. For example, the Roman counterpart of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, is the Roman goddess, Venus. The Roman counterpart of the Greek goddess Gaia, or mother earth, is Tellus, or Terra Mater. Their respective pantheons of gods and goddesses were believed to play a large part in fertility and childbearing.

The Latin term “Pater Familia” originally referred to invoking the god Jupiter, the father of gods and men, and other male deities. However, the new consciousness of the male role in reproduction resulted in men being bestowed with the power that mothers had formerly enjoyed. Unfortunately, it is the nature of power to corrupt, which often leads to abuse of said power.

Some laws created during nurturing history, such as those of the Twelve Tables, viewed women and children as property and even granted fathers the right to sell their children into slavery. They also had the power to approve or reject their children’s choice of marriage partners. Adult males were not granted the status of head of household until the death of their own fathers. If they married, any property they purchased or children born to them were considered the property of the head of the household. In legal language, the term paterfamilias was used to refer to any male who was not under the power of a father or master.

The Role of Religion in Nurturing History

Myths and religions also began to reflect the newfound power of fatherhood in nurturing history. Just as societies had believed that motherhood elevated women to the status of goddess, people began to believe that fatherhood elevated men to the status of gods. Consequently, men desired to have as many children as possible. The Brhaddarma Purana, a Hindu religious text, states that “No rituals are performed for the man who has no descendants…. Sons are useful to give oblations to the ancestors” Without the prayers of his descendants, it was believed that a man’s spirit was doomed to wander homeless throughout eternity.

St. Thomas Aquinas, credited with synthesizing Greek philosophy with Catholicism, said that a father is the true parent, while a mother is only the “soil” in which his seed grows. He believed that fathers should be loved and revered more than mothers due to their active role in their creation and support, rather than the passive role of the mother. (The existence of the female egg would not be discovered by science for four hundred more years.)

Some religions attempted to temper paternal power by advocating love of all beings. For example, Buddha urged fathers to use their power wisely by emulating the nurturing history of mothers in their behavior towards children. In his Discourse on Universal Love, he said: “As a mother, even at the risk of her own life, protects and loves her child, her only child, so let a man cultivate love without measure toward the whole world, above, below, and around, unstinted, unmixed with any feeling of differing or opposing interests…. This state of mind is the best in the world.”

Evidence suggests that the pendulum of parental power, having swung from women to men during nurturing history, may be approaching a peaceful equilibrium, marking an end to the battle of the sexes. Just as creation requires both egg and sperm, children are happiest when both parents share the power, responsibility, joys and benefits of parenting.

nurturing history
Magical Stela, 360–34bc, Egypt, Alexandria, Credit Line Fletcher Fund, 1950
207.W Alchemie _ Mystik, Taschen, 2007, K?ln, p. 10

Female Deities, Mother Figures and Motherhood Symbolism

Ancient Female Contributions to the Nurturing History of Science and Math

According to Hindu scriptures, the Goddess Samjna, invented all the symbols that convey the meaning of what it is to be human, including art and the letters of the alphabet. Her name is the word for sign, name, and image. An important figure in the nurturing history of the Hindu religion, she is also said to have given birth to the Vedas, important texts considered revelations, as well as logic, grammar and all measurements of time and space. Those measurements include the scales which produce the music by which life is celebrated as well as the end of time which marks death.

The Sanskrit word for mother “matr” is the root of the word “matra”, which means “measurement”. Similarly, the Greek word “meter” means both “mother” and “measurement.” The linguistic derivation of the word mathematics is a combination of “mother” and “wisdom”. In addition to mathematical terms such as geometry, trigonometry, and hydrometric, the root word of motherhood also produced many other words, such as mensuration and mentality. According to the Vayu Purana, an ancient Hindu religious text, men once believe that women had the power to give birth due to their superior skill in measuring and figures vrvup3b. Further, there was a time in nurturing history when they believed that acquiring these skills would enable them to give birth as well.

Ancient Female Contributions to the Nurturing History of Linguistics

In addition to the contribution of the goddesses to mathematics, many other cultures also credited them for the creation of the alphabet. The Latin alphabet was believed to have been created by the Goddess Carmenta, who was also considered the mother of charms. In Egypt, the alphabet was believed to have been created by the goddess Isis, who is often depicted in art nursing a child. She is believed by some to serve as an archetype of the Virgin Mary.

In the Middle East, the last ruler of the Assyrian Empire, Ashurbanipal, took great pride in having learned the “noble art of tablet writing”. This knowledge was usually possessed only by learned scribes called maryanu. At the beginning of Babylonian civilization, numbers and letters were inventions of the Goddess and were the concern of priestesses. The Egyptian word for scribe, “maryen”, also meant “mother” or “great one”. Only women who had given birth were allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the municipal temple of Babylon, which was dedicated to the Goddess Mari-Anna, also known as Ishtar. The nurturing history of Hittite society also included priestesses who taught the art of writing as well as practicing medicine, keeping records, and advising kings.

Ancient Germanic society was guided in part by a number of female deities, including Sjöfn, whose name means “love”. Female writers were called Die Schreiberinnen, while the Roman mother of destiny was called Fata Scribunda, meaning “the fate who writes”. Before the advent of Christianity, the nurturing history of ancient Roman culture included several deities believed to perform certain functions throughout the process of pregnancy, childbirth, and child development. For example, Proverta, goddess of the past, was believed to prevent breech births. The goddess Rumina was believed to endow new mothers with milk for suckling infants.

The mother’s ability to nourish life as well as her role in creating it was revered in most ancient cultures. According to the Mahanirvanatantra, a sacred Hindu text, “Mother is superior to father on account of her bearing and also nourishing the child.” The Laws of Manu, some of which date back to the 2nd century BC, state that “A spiritual teacher exceeds a worldly teacher ten times, a father exceeds a spiritual teacher one hundred times, but a mother exceeds one thousand times a father’s claim to honor on the part of a child and as its educator.”

Women, able to nourish a child during its first year of life, certainly deserve a special place in the nurturing history of mankind. Fortunately, modern technology is making it possible for fathers to play a larger role in their children’s lives. The division of labor caused first by agriculture and then industrialization, is gradually being rendered obsolete by time and labor-saving technology that promises to allow all parents to participate more fully in their children’s lives. The world’s children of tomorrow can look forward to a fusion between the best of the past and the brightest of the future.

nurturing history
Alchemie & Mystik, Taschen, 2007, Köln, p. 10
187.W Draped Reclining Mother and Baby, sculpture by Henry Moore at the NY Botanical Garden, picture by Peter Rivera, Flickr CC

How Imagined Baby Care Guides Can Improve Parenting Perspectives

“I was born in ancient times, at the end of the world, in a patriarchal Catholic and conservative family. No wonder that by age five I was a raging feminist – although the term had not reached Chile yet, so nobody knew what the heck was wrong with me.”

–Isabel Allende

Childhood in ancient societies was far different than childhood today. In fact, the concept of childhood as we know it today didn’t exist until the late 18th Century. The policies of potentates often had more power to determine the fate of children than the power of parents. Children were often subjected to slavery and in some societies, were even used as a form of payment for debts.

The Code of Hammurabi is one example of the power of political leaders to influence the course of baby care history. It is one of the earliest surviving examples of government regulation of family life. The consequences of breaking a law were harsh indeed, the most common being that of being put to death. The baby care history of ancient civilizations is a bleak one.

The Code of Hammurabi granted fathers a great deal of power in Mesopotamian family life. It also legislated female sexuality, making it the property of husbands in order to ensure paternity. Teen-aged rebellion was not tolerated. In fact, according to the code, “if a son strikes his father, his hands shall be hewn off”. An example of what this ancient society would consider “liberal” would a change in the law that limited the amount of time that a father was permitted to sell a child into slavery to three years.

Similar patriarchal laws were made and enforced throughout much of baby care history. In the ancient Roman Empire, under the law of patria potestas, translated as “the power of the father” men had absolute power over children. Under this law, they were even permitted to sell them into slavery or kill them. It was not uncommon for fathers to decide to allow newborns to die of exposure to the elements and he was within his legal rights to do so.

Girls as young as 13 were given in marriage. That may seem young, but at the time, approximately one third of all children died by the age of 10. The average life expectancy of men was only twenty-two, and only twenty for women. That meant that only the most fortunate girls even lived long enough to have a child, and few lived long enough to raise a child to adulthood. Consequently, many laws allowing adoption and the inheritance of property to adopted children were passed.

In ancient Greek society, physical perfection was highly valued. Babies that were born with any kind of physical abnormality or perceived frailty were often abandoned and left to die. Sometimes such babies were rescued by slavers and later sold for a profit. The male head of the household had the right to either accept or reject an infant based on its gender and physical condition, as well as other criteria such as questions of legitimacy and economic considerations.

Baby care history in ancient Mayan culture included the practice of child slavery. Some children were born into slavery, while others were sold by their parents. Orphaned children were often purchased for use in religious sacrifices. Mayan babies were nursed by their mothers three times a day until they were old enough to walk. To keep them safe, toddlers were often placed in holes in the ground that served the same purpose as that of modern playpens.

Child Advocates in Ancient Civilization

There were a few child advocates throughout baby care history, such as the philosopher Quintilian who spoke out against corporal punishment, saying

“… it is a disgrace and a punishment for slaves… if a boy’s disposition be so abject as not to be amended by reproof, he will be hardened, like the worst of slaves, even to stripes; and lastly, because, if one who regularly exacts his tasks be with him, there will not be the least need of any such chastisement.”

Slavery was such an integral part of ancient societies that even most philosophers did not speak out against it.

Baby Care History in Greece

In ancient Greek society, the philosopher Plato spoke out against the family structure, saying that collective child rearing made for a stronger society. He was also against the harsh punishment of children and was quoted as saying

“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”

Christianity, which taught that children were gifts from heaven, was a welcome development in baby care history, especially for children. Roman emperors who had converted to Christianity imposed penalties for abandoning children and limited the practice of child slavery. However, it took three hundred years of Christianity to end child slavery, which had been practiced for 600 years. Sadly, the history of baby care contains very little care for babies. Happily, future accounts of modern baby care history will be far less bleak.

Draped Reclining Mother and Baby, sculpture by Henry Moore at the NY Botanical Garden, picture by Peter Rivera, Flickr CC
92.W Statuette of the (pregnant) Goddess Taweret, 332–30bc, Upper Egypt Credit Line Purchase, Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926

How to Raise Children: Insights from Plato, Quintilian and others

One article on 19th and 20th century baby care history presents much of the conflicting advice from child care experts over the last 100 years. According to the article, such advice is a conglomeration of pseudoscience, authoritative statements, and often unreasonable demands of mothers.

In one example, Dr. George H. Napheys, author of The Physical Life of Woman, cites a study by child care “expert” Dr. Henry Kennedy. According to the results of the study, parents that care about their infant’s health will ensure that their babies always sleep with their heads pointing north. Apparently, this was a form of the Chinese practice of feng shui before it became popular in the Western world.Disturbingly enough, many parenting manuals throughout baby care history, many “experts” in the 19th century used the world “eugenics”, before Hitler demonstrated the end result of that concept. Reading some of the popular parenting “advice” of the 19th century may well make modern parents wonder how any children survived baby care history with even a modicum of mental health.

In 1916, Drs. William and Lena Sadler, in their publication The Mother and her Child advised parents to

“Handle the baby as little as possible. Turn it occasionally from side to side, feed it, change it, keep it warm, and let it alone; crying is absolutely essential to the development of good strong lungs. A baby should cry vigorously several times each day.”

To most modern parents, this seems insensitive at best and abusive at worst. However, lest these parents be judged too harshly, some statistics of the time may be relevant. For example, according to the CDC, in 1900, anywhere from 10% to 30% of American babies died before they reached their first birthday. Many deaths were due to tainted drinking water or from unpasteurized cow’s milk.
Such a high death rate was one reason that American mothers were all too ready to take the advice of medical professionals, especially obstetricians and pediatricians. While the baby care history of experts contains some who were genuinely concerned for the welfare of parents and children, it is also true that once a few of these professionals had gained wealth and fame for their contributions to the child care field, others eagerly entered the arena.

Another reason for their success was that many people in American had moved west in search of employment opportunities. That meant that new parents were unable to utilize the wisdom and experience of the previous generation. Further, with smaller “nuclear” families, many new parents had very little experience with seeing others care for infants.

In her book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, author Ann Hulbert sheds light on the personal lives of some of these child care “experts”. Among those highlighted in the book are L.Emmet Holt, who wrote The Care and Feeding of Children in 1894, Arnold Gessel, and Benjamin Spock, who published the wildly popular The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946.

Since those books were published, baby care history has evolved into a more child-centered, rather than parent-centered, focus. Discipline has also come to mean teaching self-control rather than focusing on external punishment. You can hear an audio interview with NPR with Ann Hulbert in which her purpose, of pointing out the contradictory nature of expert advice over the years, is evident in her responses to real parents who call in to ask for advice.

In one review the book is described as a “chronological guided tour through the various psychological and sociological schools that have at one time or another held sway over the last century, pointing out the “inconsistent, often quickly obsolescent, counsel peddled to the public” and relating changing mores to other social shifts.” Like other types of history, baby care history is often not written by mothers themselves, but by those who benefit directly or indirectly from the still largely unpaid labor of mothers.

In a world in which child care advice “professionals” are all too ready to profit from the anxiety of new mothers, who are often deprived of the wisdom of mothers and grandmothers, in their desire to best care for their children, a voice which urges mothers to rely on themselves and one another is welcome. Her book helps parents differentiate between the often contradictory advice offered by experts, as well as dispelling some of the myths that have been widely propagated throughout years of such advice.

In some very important ways, she is in agreement with Dr. Spock, in that she believes that most mothers are better than they think they are, and the best support that mothers have is one another. The baby care history of the future will likely be written far less by experts, and more by mothers themselves.

baby care history
Statuette of the (pregnant) Goddess Taweret, 332–30bc, Upper Egypt Credit Line Purchase, Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926
mother and child portraits

On Mother and Child Portraits: A Future Foretold

Importance Of Mother And Child Portraits

Author and historian Juliet Heslewood studied the history of art at London University and earned an MA in English Literature at Toulouse. She led study tours of art and architecture in France for over 30 years. Her book entitled The History of Western Painting: A Young Person’s Guide was translated into 12 languages. For modern parents and posterity, she has assembled a collection of mother and child portraits in her book titled Child: Portraits by 40 Great Artists, which received several positive reviews.

A review in the Telegraph offers several examples of some of the most emotionally moving mother and child portraits featured in the book. Through these exquisite paintings, she helps illustrate the social changes in the view of childhood throughout modern history. Among the examples highlighted are those of Victorian painter George Dunlop Leslie, whose mother and child portraits can be compared to those of Lucian Freud, who painted a hundred years later.

Leslie’s frequent paintings of children successfully portray the attitudes and realities of English girlhood during that historical period. Viewers may learn as much about the social mores of the time as about how Victorian parents wished their children to be viewed. Painter John Everett Millais, a founder of the pre-Raphaelite movement, deviated from the Victorian style in what many considered a subversive manner. In his painting of his wife Effie, she is depicted asleep, with her hat off.

The advent of photography reveals another of the customs of the time. In one photograph of what appears to be two girls with their long hair in braids facing one another, it is revealed that one is actually a boy. In that era, boys didn’t have their hair cut until the age of ten, unlike modern times, in which a boys and girls are differentiated by the length of their hair at at a very young age.

One artist’s portrait of himself and his young daughter illustrates the difference in relationships between children and their fathers and those of their mothers. In much of mother and child portrait art, mothers are depicted educating and caring for their children, while in Carl Larsson’s Brita and Me, he is depicted playing joyfully with his daughter, even while working. This is in keeping with the division of labor in modern parenting in which women are the primary caretakers and the father’s role was viewed primarily as financially supporting and playing with the children. This view has since been challenged.

A modern exhibition of mother and child portrait art brought together the works of esteemed photographer Diane Arbus and painter Alice Neel whose contrasting styles reflect their views on the nature of childhood. The popular exhibit featured Arbus’s work from the 1960s and several of Neel’s paintings done from the late 1940s through the early 1980s.

Viewers were able to compare the differences between the conventions of mother and child portrait art in photography to those of painting. The power of personality, both of the subjects and the artists is illustrated in the works of these artists who are renowned for their skill in depicting children. Similarly, both artists, rather than simplifying children, portrayed them in their full complexity as unique individuals and future adults. Although both are considered expressionists, each has a distinctly original style. Another similarity between them was that both included twins in their collection of mother and child portraits.

Despite the similarities, Neel’s work was more optimistic and her subjects portrayed as colorful and self-aware. Many of her mother and child portraits are painted indoors, and their lives colored by their warm domestic surroundings. Arbus’s depictions of mother and child portrait art tend to be more bleak, perhaps made more so by the lack of color in black and white photography. Further, much of her mother and child portrait art was photographed outdoors suggesting both a greater vulnerability and a lack of protection.

Although the two artists have different outlooks, their portrayals of children in mother and child portrait art reveal the extent to which children are affected by the world of adults. Despite the concept of childhood, and the attempts of parents to create a separate and protected world for them, the works of these artists reveal the perhaps unrealistic desire to shield children from the realities of adulthood.

There have been mother and child portraits in art since artistic expression was confined to the walls of caves. Whatever technological advances are made, the sacred relationship between mother and child will likely continue to be portrayed in mother and child portraits throughout future history. However, we may hope that, like Carl Larsson’s portrait of himself with his young daughter, that artistic tradition may one day expand to include the equally important role of father and child. The children of the world deserve no less than both parents being equally involved, and therefore honored by art, for their roles in creating the future for us all.

mother and child portraits
Alice in Wonderland by George Dunlop Leslie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
On Good Intentions & Bad Outcomes of the Anxieties of Modern Parents

On Good Intentions & Bad Outcomes of the Anxieties of Modern Parents

“The components of anxiety, stress, fear, and anger do not exist independently of you in the world. They simply do not exist in the physical world, even though we talk about them as if they do.”

–Wayne Dyer

New Reasons for Anxiety in the Modern Period of Baby Care History

The 2004 book “Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Child-Rearing in America” by author, professor and historian Peter N. Stearns looks at the baby care history of the 20th century. He points to several factors that increased parental anxiety, including mobility, urbanization and smaller nuclear families. Many parents no longer have the advice and support of extended family that they did in the past. Another factor was the shifting societal view of children as being fragile and vulnerable, rather than resilient, as they had been considered to be in earlier generations.

A review of the book talks about the five main topics of the book, which are the degree of vulnerability of children, discipline, education, work outside the home, and entertainment. Parenting manuals from from earlier periods in baby care history were apt to focus on the importance of obedience and parents’ setting a good example, as well as information about health and gender roles. Rather than being written by experts in child psychology, they were often written by members of the clergy.

Today, parenting manuals cover nearly as many topics as there are diagnoses of mental and emotional illnesses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) Many emotional states that were once considered normal within the human continuum of experience are now considered to be mental disorders. Each edition of the DSM has increased the number of disorders, and today lists more than at any other period in baby care history. In 1952, it listed only 106, increasing to 265 by 1980 to 297 in the most current issue. Due to complaints about the ever-increasing number of “disorders”, has led to a new practice of creating subtypes of disorders.

According to an article in Slate magazine, a study compared societal levels of neuroticism, associated with anxiety, from 1963 to those of 1993 and found that Americans showed higher anxiety levels in 1993. Ironically, some of the increased anxiety parents experience is related to their fear that making parenting mistakes will result in a future diagnosis of a mental or emotional disorder. Other modern causes for anxiety include the discovery that germs cause disease and that the majority of fatal accidents occur in the home.

Reasons for Educational Anxiety in Today’s Chapter in Baby Care History

One impact of increased parental anxiety was an increase in parental involvement in education, leading to the development of the term “helicopter parents“, coined in 1969. While parental involvement in children’s educations can be positive, Stearn believes that excessive hovering, especially with adolescents, may increase their need to differentiate themselves from their parents and interfere with the natural process of emotional separation.

The U.S. has the largest percentage of home-schooled children in the developed world. Many attribute their reasons for home-schooling to their desire to have greater control over their children’s influences. For many parents, teaching children to do chores at home is more important for both future life skills and character development than completing hours of academic homework.

Others are concerned about what they view as declining educational standards in public schools. For example, in 1968, less than half of high school grades were A’s and B’s. However, since the focus shifted from academic achievement to self-esteem, the number of A’s and B’s rose steadily, and by 1994, 32% of high school students received A’s. Grades have continued to rise despite the fact that by 2002, 25% of all children in one Virginia public school system were designated as having special needs. Additionally, children in U.S. schools use 90% of Ritalin prescribed world-wide.

The Role of Entertainment in Today’s Chapter in Baby Care History

For the first time in baby care history, one of parents’ worries is that their children are bored. Boredom may in fact be a symptom of childhood depression linked to the constant availability of mass media entertainment. This entertainment is sponsored by advertisers that deliberately create feelings of dissatisfaction in order to sell more products.

A review in Salon magazine sums up many of Stearn’s most salient points regarding the reasons for an increase in parental anxiety during this period in baby care history. It also points out that modern mass media, dependent upon sensationalism to capture ratings, often exaggerates the dangers of modern life. Stearn’s book provides parents with the valuable service of presenting actual statistics regarding actual incidences of things that the media sensationalizes, such as child abductions, school violence, and abusive nannies. The review also gives him credit for superior research, as well as including a list of the most widely read child rearing manuals throughout baby care history beginning in the 1920s.

It seems that this book may give some parents some much-needed perspective and perhaps some relief from the anxieties of parenting in the modern world.

baby care history

mother and child portrait

Expressing the Essence of Motherhood Through the Portrait

“When you start with a portrait and search for a pure form, a clear volume, through successive eliminations, you arrive inevitably at the egg. Likewise, starting with the egg and following the same process in reverse, one finishes with the portrait”.

–Pablo Picasso

Importance Of Mother and Child Portrait.

The importance of the relationship between mother and child has been expressed in art throughout history. In the book Mother: Portraits by 40 Great Artists Juliet Heslewood has assembled a collection of art which expresses the essence of motherhood through the mother and child portrait.

In addition to being a favorite subject of artists, the relationship between mother and child has been considered sacred by many religions. Examples of art utilizing this theme date back as far as the 13th century B.C. The artistic form of the mother and child portrait enjoyed an increase in popularity with the advent of Christianity, which gave rise to Madonna art, which depicted the sacred relationship between the virgin Mary and the Christ child. The popularity of the mother and child portrait continues to this day. Mother and child portrait art even has its own Wikimedia page.

Portraits by artists of their own mothers are common. Being a new father himself at the time, between 1921 and 1923, Pablo Picasso painted a dozen works that focused on the mother and child portrait. Other artists who have painted portraits of their mothers include Rembrandt, in 1629, Cezzane in 1897, Whistler in 1871, Andy Warhol in 1971, and Tracy Emin in 1994. Artist Mary Cassat painted mother and child portrait series that celebrated the role of women in their children’s lives.

In the past, only wealthy families could afford to commission the services of an artist. Today, it is possible to commission an artist for a family portrait for as little as $500.00. There are also websites like A Stroke of Genius, and the American Society of Portrait Artists which provide contact information for mothers who may want to commission a mother and child portrait of their own. Rather than the family of subjects having to pose for long hours as they did in the past, today’s artists are able to work from photographs.
In the Victorian era in America, shortly after the invention of photography, the mother and child portrait often didn’t include the mother. Instead, the mother’s task was to hold the child still to avoid the photo being blurred while excluding herself from the portrait. In many of these “family” portraits, the mother’s head is completely covered, and only her hands are visible.

Photographer Linda Fregni Nagler assembled a collection of over a thousand such “family” portraits into a book titled The Hidden Mother. While sociologists cannot be sure of the reason for this phenomenon, one possibility is that mothers felt they were not valuable enough to even appear in photographs, but existed entirely to be of service to their husbands and children. Happily, after 1900, mother and child portrait art included mothers.

With today’s technology, anyone with a smart phone can create a family portrait. For those with little experience with photography, there are many articles that offer tips and tricks. Rather than posing stiffly and smiling, as most people did for family portraits in the past, portraits that reflect the personalities and favorite activities are becoming more popular. Many include family pets some even include family members’ favorite musical instruments.

Modern family portrait photographer Steve Wrubel specializes in what he calls “story pictures“. He creates a series of photographs that reflect “how a family or individual lives in this exact moment”. In portraits of the past, personality could only be reflected by expression, clothing and background. Today’s portraits can involve lighting, props, and elements of fantasy as well as reality.

While customs, social mores, and forms of artistic expression may change, creating family portraits that demonstrate and celebrate the special relationship between mother and child will likely endure until the end of time.

mother and child portrait
The Artist’s Mother Seated at a Table, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631
familiy life stories

How the Social Construct of Motherhood is Deeply Shaped by Literature

“Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way around.”

–David Lodge

Prior to the 21st Century, literature was dominated by the male perspective. Female writers, in order to be published, have often had to adopt male pen names. This practice has been both common and necessary throughout literary history and despite progress in women’s rights, continues to this day. Just as 19th century writer George Sand was actually Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, 21st century writer Robert Galbraith is actually Joanne, or J.K., Rowling.

Consequently, the perspective of women and children has been vastly under-represented in literature.

An article on motherhood in literature points out that the topic has often been portrayed in a negative light by male authors. Novels such as “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina” have served to present society’s definition of a “good mother” versus a “bad mother”. Female protagonists that were deemed bad mothers in these family life stories were usually punished, often by death. At the very least, they were socially shunned and relegated to poverty and obscurity.

Even today, mothers in the family life stories of literature are still judged according to modern social criteria. A recent BBC article celebrating motherhood in literature compiled a list of the best, as well as the worst, mothers in literature. One writer contributed their own list of the ten worst mothers in literature.

Feminists such as Nancy Chodorow have written about the extent to which women’s personal identities have been formed as a response to the social construct of motherhood. Others have pointed out that that most mothers in fiction are objects of their husbands’ or daughters’ narratives, rather than having narratives of their own.

Feminist literary critic Luce Irigaray argues that under a system of patriarchy, mother/daughter relationships are often transformed into rivalries. In such rivalries, the daughter emerges the victor, while her mother’s personhood is subsumed by the role she plays as a mother. Alison Fell presented an analysis of motherhood in the works of French female writers like Simone de Beauvoir, while Adalgisa Giorgio‘s work examines motherhood in 20th century Western European literature.

Family life stories in literature

Family life stories in literature in which women were portrayed as achieving moral goodness through motherhood, such as the mother in “Little Women” were far more common than the portrayal of women who rebelled against male authority. For example, in Anne Brontë’s second novel, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall“, written under the male pseudonym Acton Bell, the heroine escapes her alcoholic husband to protect her son.

This novel dared to suggest that sometimes being a good mother meant challenging the patriarchy and breaking the law. At the time the novel was published, 1848, women were permitted no way to legally exist independently, and fleeing a marriage with a child was viewed as the crime of kidnapping. The novel was so controversial that after the author’s death, her sister Charlotte prevented it from being republished. However, in 1913, women’s suffragist May Sinclair said that

“the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.”

Happily, a greater number of family life stories told from the perspective of women and children are being published and gaining a wider audience than at any other time in history. Diana Secker Tesdell, who has edited a number of Everyman’s Pocket Classic anthologies, has assembled a collection of family life stories that feature motherhood. “Stories of Motherhood” features some of the finest and most well-known female writers of this century including Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen, Amy Tan and Alice Munro . However, it also features some lesser known writers, such as Colm Tóibín and Anita Desai.

One review in the Guardian praised the collection, but pointed out that with the exception of one author, all the writers featured are from the United States. Despite this criticism, family life stories from a number of different ethnic cultures within the larger culture are vividly portrayed. This collection contributes the valuable perspective of mothers caring for infants such as Lydia Davis’s “What You Learn About the Baby” as well as the perspective of children, as in Ernest Gaines’s story “The Sky Is Gray“.

In life, as in literature, children represent both continuity and change, the past as well as progress. Their parents’ actions serve to illuminate the path towards posterity. By presenting family life stories in which mothers are portrayed not as good or bad, but as fully human, modern literature is helping to reshape destiny towards a more humane future.

familiy life stories
Daughter of Niobe (one of the 14 children killed) bent by terror, Niobe room in Uffizi gallery
maternal construct

How The Social Value Of Women And Mothers Has Changed

The Changing Social Value of Women

“Women’s maternal role has a profound effect on women’s lives, on ideology about women, on reproduction of masculinity and sexual inequality, and on the reproduction of a particular form of labour power. Women find their primary social location within the sphere of social reproduction”

Nancy Chodorow

The Introduction of Reproductive Rights and the Maternal Construct

As early as the 1920’s early feminists who helped found the modern women’s movement formulated three basic elements which they felt were necessary for women to achieve equal rights. Those elements were civil marriage, divorce, and abortion. Later, birth control would be added to this list of political demands that feminists have worked tirelessly to achieve.

Reproductive rights began to be included as an element of basic human rights beginning with the 1968 Proclamation of Teheran, which states that

“Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children”.

In 1969, the UN General Assembly in the Declaration on Social Progress and Development elaborated further by stating that

“The family as a basic unit of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members, particularly children and youth, should be assisted and protected so that it may fully assume its responsibilities within the community. Parents have the exclusive right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.”

The Maternal Construct Before Reproductive Rights

Historically, society’s shifting views on the ideology of motherhood had been reflected in the types of social programs created to support those views. The impact of social programs, or the lack of them, on society, is a substantial one. Feminism has played a large role in re-inventing the maternal construct and women’s role in society, which before the introduction of reproductive rights, had been created and maintained largely by religious organizations, including the Catholic church.

In early 20th century Europe and most parts of the world, the ideology surrounding the role of women in society was based on two basic premises navigate to this web-site. The first premise was that women were emotionally and intellectually, as well as physically, inferior. Therefore, it was believed that their survival was completely dependent upon men. Their primary value lay in their ability to give birth, and in exchange for their financial support, men claimed ownership of their sexuality, which included any children they produced. In this way, men were better able to ensure that that their possessions, and power, would be passed to their “rightful” male heirs.

The second premise of the maternal construct was that maternal instinct, and therefore the ability to be a good mother, could only be acquired by giving birth within a societally sanctioned heterosexual marriage. The social message underlying this belief was that women had to choose between their sexuality and motherhood. Those who became pregnant outside marriage were viewed as having chosen sexuality, which rendered them incapable of being good mothers. It was considered women’s duty to control not only her own sexuality, but that of men as well.

The Effect of Social Programs on the Maternal Construct

Industrialization was a contributing factor to a sharp rise in the number of single mothers. With migration to larger cities, smaller communities lost the power of peer pressure that often contributed to men marrying women when they became pregnant. The Catholic Church was among one of the first organizations to develop and implement social programs for single mothers.

Despite the fact that these women were often the victims of economic and sexual exploitation by the employers upon whom they depended for survival, they were viewed as sinners deserving of punishment. In addition to suffering the loss of their babies, which were put up for adoption, many of these women were also subjected to a lifetime of forced labor and physical abuse.

Other organizations provided less punitive and more therapeutic assistance to those considered “fallen women” which often included victims of incest or domestic violence and women forced into prostitution to survive. Anglican facilities called “penitentiaries” in Victorian Britain were among those that offered shelter and support to women who, not being considered fit mothers, had lost all value to society.

The Hull House Settlement in Chicago, modeled on Toynbee Hall in London, was begun by Jane Adams in 1889. Similar settlements, such as the Kozma Street settlement in Hungary, that provided a number of social services for women and children, were established in Europe. These programs helped change the prevailing maternal construct by demonstrating that unmarried women were in fact capable of being good mothers. However, many believe that this change resulted in male control being replaced by that of the state.

Science, in the form of brain research and modern birth control methods, has played an important role in changing the maternal construct. However, the history of forced sterilization points to the potential for abuse of its power by the state, which demonstrates the need for continued feminist activism to prevent such abuses. Science, combined with activism, has helped women demonstrate their true social value, completely independent of the maternal construct that once defined it.

maternal construct
Mrs. John Garden, Ann Garden and Her Children, John and Ann Margaret, John Hoppner, 1796
social change for boys

How Positive Social Change for Boys Benefits Everyone

“Believing there was a unique boyish essence that must be catered to, educators offered same-sex practical education with male role models. They did little to address the issues of poverty and discrimination these young men encountered. And they failed horribly when it came to getting young males to question some of the tenets of masculinity that contributed to the very problems that reformers were trying to eradicate.”

–Julia Grant

Julia Grant has been a professor at James Madison College since receiving her Ph.D from Boston University, where she served as director of the Women’s Studies Program. She has also received a number of prestigious grants, fellowships and awards, including a Spencer Fellowship, a Lily Teaching Fellowship, and the Teacher-Scholar Award.

Her work in women’s studies resulted in a great deal of historical research of childhood gender roles and how society has historically defined masculinity. This research led to many of her published works, including her 2001 book “When Science Encounters the Child: Perspectives on Education, Child Welfare, and Parenting“. Her latest work, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, “The Boy Problem: Educating Boys in Urban America, 1870-1970” provides a detailed historical overview of social change for boys during that time period.

The Role of Economics in Social Change for Boys

The research of the book demonstrates a clear link between economic class and both the quality and type of education boys received. In many ways, social change for boys has not kept pace with that of the expansion in social roles of women. For example, the societal definition of masculinity has included the ability to perform manual labor. That definition resulted in the establishment of “educational” programs that focused more on the development of those skills than academic skills. This was especially true for poor children, both boys and girls alike, of poor immigrants. Due to language barriers and poverty that required both parents to labor long hours, many of these children were left largely unsupervised.

Lack of parental supervision often resulted in delinquent behavior, which was addressed through the development of “special” education classes and “reformatories” which were part of the juvenile justice system. Delinquent behavior was defined differently for boys and girls, with the definition for girls having a sexual component. In this regard, girls with a sexual history were considered impossible to reform, and devalued. One of the goals for social change for boys was training which would channel their energies towards productive labor. It was not uncommon for juvenile facilities to utilize the labor of both boys and girls, while maintaining traditional gender roles by assigning outdoor labor to boys and domestic labor to girls.

Progress in Social Change for Boys

Today, social change for boys includes a much less rigid definition of masculinity. While there are still differences in social expectations for boys and girls, gender lines have begun to blur, especially within Western culture. For example, both boys and girls are now often permitted, and even encouraged, to play with both dolls and toy trucks. The range of choices in toys has been accompanied by parental encouragement for all children to both express their emotions and develop their physical strength.

However, despite a greater degree of social equality in education, there are still some important biological differences between boys and girls. An article in the Washington Post points to evidence from the best-selling book, “The Teenage Brain”, written by Frances Jensen, which suggests that boys and girls reach their peak of cognitive development at different ages. For girls, it is between 12 and 13 years old, while for boys it is 15 to 16.

That means that it’s possible that girls may be more ready for complex subjects sooner than boys. For example, rather than placing children in classes according to age and grade, an increase in learning potential would result by introducing more difficult material in accordance with the rate of brain development.

Should Boys and Girls Be Educated Differently?

The question of whether boys and girls should be educated differently, as well as separately, continues to be a topic of debate amongst professional educators. In the 1990’s research published in an article by the National Education Association, boys and girls exhibit very different behaviors in the average classroom. For example, research showed that boys called out answers eight times as often than girls, that teachers valued boys’ responses more than girls’ and encouraged boys to problem-solve independently more often than girls.

Those research results led to a greater awareness of gender inequality in education and to positive changes in education for both genders. Creating positive changes in the educational system is an ongoing process. In an article in Education Weekly, Julia Gray expresses the opinion that current educational initiatives supported by President Obama don’t address important surrounding issues. Just as immigration, assimilation, and economics were factors that negatively affected education for boys in the past, they continue to be factors in slowing positive social change for boys today.

The good news is that books like hers raise society’s awareness of those issues and the importance of finding creative new ways to address them.