“When you hold your baby in your arms the first time, and you think of all the things you can say and do to influence him, it’s a tremendous responsibility. What you do with him can influence not only him, but everyone he meets and not for a day or a month or a year but for time and eternity. I looked on child rearing not only as a work of love and duty but as a profession that was fully as interesting and challenging as any honorable profession in the world and one that demanded the best that I could bring to it.”
Needless to say, Rose Kennedy was often quoted on the subject of motherhood.
Early Life of Rose Kennedy
Of her own upbringing, Rose Kennedy said of her father
“My father was a great innovator in public life, but when it came to raising his daughters, no one could have been more conservative.”
His conservative view was reflected in his refusal to allow her to attend Wellesley College, enrolling her instead at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Boston.
Born Rose Fitzgerald, her father was John Fitzgerald, often called “Honey Fitz”, a politician who served a term as a congressional representatives before becoming the mayor of Boston. She met her future husband, Joseph P. Kennedy, when she was quite young, as their families often spent summer vacations together. Joe and Rose married in 1914 and had nine children together over the next 18 years. He had the additional distinction of becoming the youngest bank president in history.
Having been raised in the political spotlight made her very aware of, and subject to, public opinion. Her Catholic faith was also very important to her. Despite her high expectations for her children, she believed that
“children should be stimulated by their parents to see, touch, know, understand and appreciate”.
In 1951, the Vatican honored her with the title of papal countess in 1951 for “exemplary motherhood and many charitable works“. It was her faith that sustained her through the many losses she endured as a mother.
A Mother’s Anguish
Rosemary, their third daughter, was born with a mental disability, and received a lobotomy in 1941, which later resulted in her having to be institutionalized. Her eldest son, Joe, Jr., who aspired to become president one day, was killed in action in 1941 during a mission for the U.S. Navy when his plane exploded.
Kathleen, another daughter, also died in a plane crash in 1948 while on her way home from Europe. Her death was especially difficult for Rose Kennedy, as they had a great deal in common, such as a love of travel and languages. She felt that Kathleen, nicknamed “Kick” was the child most like her and admired her sense of social justice. In her diaries, Rose Kennedy quotes her daughter as having said
“… in having this high standard of living for a few people, we have trodden a lot of others under foot in this country and in other countries…”
In 1963, her son, and one of the most beloved Presidents of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Just five short years later, her son Robert, a senator, would suffer the same fate. The very next year, her youngest son Theodore was involved in a car accident that resulted in the death of a young woman that resulted in a political scandal because he did not immediately report the accident.
Personal Glimpses of Rose Kennedy
A more complete picture of Rose Kennedy than the mass media and politics afforded was made possible upon the release of her letters and diaries in 2006. These documents paint a picture of a woman struggling to maintain her identity even while putting her own interests and ambitions aside to play a supportive role for her family.
Some of her diary entries make it clear that being a mother of nine was not without its frustrations as well as joys. In a 1972 diary entry, she writes
“When the children needed to be spanked, I often used a ruler, and sometimes a coat hanger, which was often more convenient because in any room there would be a closet and the hangers in them would be right at hand.”
This entry also serves to illustrate the stricter child rearing methods of the era.
Throughout her many triumphs and tragedies as a mother, she remained grateful for all of her experiences, viewing life as a balance between the two.
“…I cannot find in literature or in life many people whose lives we envy. Most of course proceed on a middling course, not many great thrills — the normal number of deaths and disappointments.”
Rose Kennedy, of course, experienced more of both than most. She lived to the age of 104, surrounded by her five remaining children, and 69 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.