Historically, did women ever devote themselves entirely to their children?

(56 Posts)
wanderingalbatross Mon 08-Oct-12 11:01:35

I was just reading this article on the Guardian about work-life balance of female Silicon Valley execs. I found it interesting as I have quite a flexible tech job. The flexible working pattern really suits me and I really hope it'll work around my kids in the future.

Then there are the usual comments, including the standard "why did you have kids if you don't want to look after them?" Which got me wondering, has there ever really been a time when women sacrificed work for their kids? I'd like to say people, but I suppose that men didn't do all that much of the child raising.

I admit that my historical knowledge is poor and mostly gained from fiction(!) but I get the impression that this 'golden age' when kids were looked after by a dedicated parent is a figment of our collective imagination. Sure, in the 50s plenty of women were SAHMs, but I imagine they spent a lot more time on housework than we do, and were't dedicating their days to broadening the minds of their little ones. And before then, I have heard said that most women just had to get on with work alongside raising their kids as they couldn't afford not to.

So where does this idea come from?

MsAnnTeak Tue 09-Oct-12 22:58:18

wanderingalbatross "Which got me wondering, has there ever really been a time when women sacrificed work for their kids? I'd like to say people, but I suppose that men didn't do all that much of the child raising."

Possibly not many career choices available until recent history, where women would feel it was a better option than looking after her children ?

"I admit that my historical knowledge is poor and mostly gained from fiction(!) but I get the impression that this 'golden age' when kids were looked after by a dedicated parent is a figment of our collective imagination."

Times changed last century - healthcare, decent single wage, not living with inlaws all allowed children being regarded as very different from adults. Childhood became a time of play, diminished work responsibilities, and formal learning. You could choose the size of your family (unless devout Catholic). Well paid careers to go back to after childbirth's a recent thing for women.

I don't get the impression women did happily give up jobs after the war. I talked about it a lot with my granny when she was reminiscing and she had great anecdotes (I know anecdotes aren't data). But I also found out that there were lots of magazines and clubs formed by women for 'self improvement' (= getting yourself out of the house/finding something to do!) and included women who were living on very low wages but who'd been pushed out of jobs by returning servicemen. And all that prescription valium/ cocktails at 5 in the 50s speaks for itself a bit.

My granny worked pretty much her whole life, she has a year off on maternity for her first child and went part-time with her second for a couple of years, but after that she worked full-time until she was in her 60s. She was still doing volunteer teaching once a week until the summer before she died. So I think the cosy, 'mum devoted to children' thing was definitely a myth for her!

I totally agree with summer about it probably not being 'sacrifice' so much as pressures that made it easier - some people would find that quite nice, others would hate it.

Btw, I don't know if well-paid careers after childbirth are that recent. I guess it depends what someone means by 'career' - wet nursing is mega lucrative and you could do if for years, but it might not feel like a career! But back when cottage industries were a very normal way of making a living, lots of women had work that was as well paid, or better, than men.

There are women who worked making books (and there are still extant manuscripts with illuminations done by women, which means they did the bits with gold leaf and I'd judge that adds more value to a book that the writing bit!). And brewing/running a pub was often done by women, not always widows.

The issue is that ownership of property is difficult for women, so it's so easy to exploit women even if the wife earns more than the husband. In some ways I think that still hasn't really changed enough. angry

NapaCab Wed 10-Oct-12 07:10:54

This is something that always bugs me, people describing SAHMs as 'traditional'. It's certainly more 'traditional' for women to spend their lives in a domestic setting rather than being out and about among the public but that doesn't mean that women didn't work.

Most work was within the home until the Industrial Revolution so it was only after this that 'work' became conflicted with 'family'. The truly traditional set-up is for men, women and children to all work together in a home setting as part a family enterprise like a farm, business etc. You don't hear many people saying that we should all move to that lifestyle though because it's 'traditional' because that's in conflict with how work is in modern society.

Personally, my view on things, having been an accidental SAHM since having DS a year ago (due to move abroad where I don't have a visa to work), is that the SAHM role was a deliberate social construct to dump drudge-work on women for the benefit of men and the rich. It lets men work long hours in jobs for The Man while women get poorer and less powerful.

Bonsoir Wed 10-Oct-12 07:22:15

"wet nursing is mega lucrative"

I am very curious to learn when and where wet nursing was a lucrative career option. All my reading about wet nursing indicates that it was a last resort option for the very poorest women in society.

No, I don't think so! It depends when you look, obviously. I will try to dig out figures, but medieval tracts on wet nursing make it very clear it wasn't particularly a poor woman's occupation. There are recommendations about how the woman should have a good 'character' (ie., for those medieval snobs, she should be a 'naice' woman grin), and good health. Which the very poor have not historically had.

I am sure it will have been a last resort at some point in society, of course. But not typically, I think.

FWIW, when there are famines or food shortages, one of the biggest causes of infant mortality amongst the poor is thought to be that their mothers didn't produce enough/any milk, so they were fed other things, which pre-formula is pretty dangerous. It's really sad. But obviously, you're not going to hire a desparate and emaciated woman as a wet nurse.

Btw, I just googled for this, but it looks reputable and quite interesting, on the page that's shown: books.google.co.uk/books?id=Z4SL2X3uHEAC&pg=PA115&lpg=PA115&dq=medieval+wet+nurse&source=bl&ots=kjn-KC5wFJ&sig=6gcGJmhkZZSXSj0593qLv3scjic&hl=en&sa=X&ei=xxV1UPSYGfS20QXc0YHgDw&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=medieval%20wet%20nurse&f=false

I suspect land grants from the king were not exactly normal, but still pretty impressive, if you think of other ways that woman could have earned money!

Bonsoir Wed 10-Oct-12 07:33:08

In France, wet nursing was a state-regulated profession in the 18th and 19th centuries. Women were supposed to be of good character etc. That didn't prevent them living in tiny rural cottages with terrible hygiene and letting their own children starve to death in order to feed the children they were being paid to wet nurse (and most of those died too).

Bonsoir Wed 10-Oct-12 07:34:25

"But obviously, you're not going to hire a desparate and emaciated woman as a wet nurse."

In France parents didn't usually meet their child's wet nurse.

That's really sad. sad

There's that English stereotype of terrible wet-nurses drinking massive amounts of gin and crushing the babies they were looked after - though I just read apparently this might well simply have been SIDS, which wasn't understood back then.

I don't think so, bonsoir - I think you just mean France in those centuries. Medieval France looks to be pretty similar to medieval England (which you'd expect, of course).

BriocheDoree Wed 10-Oct-12 07:40:21

I have read that wet-nursing is very much in vogue in China, particularly since the various formula milk scandals. I believe it is relatively well-paid. However, this is current rather than ancient history!
I believe that this idea of a woman's place being in the home with her kids is probably a 1950s construct. Doesn't mean it's a bad thing: I spent many happy years at home with my kids before going back to work part-time, but I do dislike people who claim that it is "traditional" or "right".

Bonsoir Wed 10-Oct-12 07:40:52

I think you think that parents employed wet nurses directly - but they didn't. There was almost always a paid intermediary. Children typically spent several years with a wet nurse in the countryside (as this was how poor rural women earned a living) while their parents worked in town.

Really?! Crikey.

Oh, sorry, that was to brioche.

bonsoir - no, why would I think that? confused

I'm just distinguishing between two periods of history several hundred years apart. It would be foolish not to.

Have a look at my link, it looks like a cool book.

Bonsoir Wed 10-Oct-12 07:46:22

I've got quite a lot of books in my bookcase already on this subject smile. I think you need to distinguish between the medieval aristocracy (who were not all the same across Europe) and the bourgeoisie of the 18th and 19th centuries (who, again, were not all the same across Europe).

I think you need to learn to read, don't you?

I never said the medieval aristocracy were all the same across Europe. England and France together do not constitute 'Europe', whatever you may think.

It is I who explained to you that you were conflating medieval times with the 18th and 19th centuries, so don't bounce your mistake back at me.

I think you have come here to try to stir things up because you're sore you got it wrong on another thread, so you're trying to pick a fight here. This is not very bright, and pretty rude when it's liable to derail the OP's interesting thread. So I am not going to participate in another tedious little demonstration of you trying to pretend you know what you're talking about.

Bonsoir Wed 10-Oct-12 07:55:37

Who is being touchy here, LRD wink. You linked to a page which was referring to the Florentine aristocracy. FYI, Florence is in a part of Europe which is now Italy, though it was a city state at the time.

exoticfruits Wed 10-Oct-12 08:11:39

It is only a recent thing to treat raising DCs like a career - the idea seems to be that if you get your DC to Oxbridge or into the Olympics etc you have won the 'mummy stakes' - it proves you were the best mother!
In the days when they traditionally stayed at home it was benign neglect- more an Enid Blyton or Just William existence where they went off doing their own thing. The 11+ was just an exam that you took- not 3years of tutors and parental angst.
The well off had people look after them. Jane Austin was farmed out to a village family for her first 2 years. The poor had to work- even if it was just potato picking or similar. The children worked young and the elder children looked after the younger.

Bonsoir Wed 10-Oct-12 08:21:01

exoticfruits - I can tell you for a fact that raising children as if it were a career was a popular middle-class occupation in the north of England after the First World War.

wanderingalbatross Wed 10-Oct-12 08:50:41

So, what I understand so far is that historically, poor women have always worked and have always almost had to work to keep things going. The rich have always been able to outsource the domestic work, including childcare, to the poor.

In medieval times, women typically worked in the home whilst keeping an eye (or not!) on their kids. Young children were expected to learn their trades and be useful much earlier than they are now. But, work was still segregated along gender lines, even though there was no moral objection to women working. Then, the industrial revolution came along and women still had to work, often while farming their kids out to others to look after. However, the legal situation, with women not being able to own land and being thought of as property means that things could never be equal. Did society think it was indulgent to spend time with your kids during these periods?

Then you had the wars, each with the effect of pushing women back into the home and to their families in the aftermath. Learning more about child development, including Bowlby's attachment theory, just added to the pressures to stay home. Now the post-ww2 period is seen as 'traditional', even though it was really an anomaly in the grand scheme of things.

Correct me if I'm wrong on any of this!

Exactly how recent is this trend to treat raising kids as a career? Is it something that has just popped up in the past few years with the recession, or has it been going on longer? I have only noticed it since getting pg with DD, but that was just 2 years ago so I really wasn't paying attention to attitudes towards motherhood before then.

I think that's pretty much it, wandering. Work has never, I think, been perfectly segregated along gender lines - there have always been jobs both men and women could do, and there have always been male-dominated jobs some women did, and vice versa.

It's not hard academia, but have you read the Stella Tillyard book 'Aristocrats'? It was made into a film, the book is a biography with enough footnotes to be reasonably useful if you want details - it is about four sisters in the late 18th-early 19th century, and provides a lot of quotations from their letters about how they raised their families. Emily Lennox certainly writes about it being an indulgence to be with her children - though she had, IIRC, about 22 of them, so it must have been a bit of a different experience! And her sister Caroline seems to have cared a lot about her children being successful. It's not the same as Oxbridge-mamma, but it's not a million miles away, I suppose.

I think there were medieval mothers who treated raising their children as a career, too. But it feels slightly different, because today the rhetoric is that you're raising your child so they can be successful, whereas then I think it's rather more openly obvious you expect to get financial security out of it.

I think probably things like pensions and the NHS make a difference to how people think about their childrens' futures, if that's not too cynical.

I think the recent trend has got much worse over the last 5-10 years. Certainly when I had DS (almost 19) having children and raising them was just something you did, and you went back to work or didn't depending on the practicalities for your family (income, family around for childcare, etc). Nobody that I knew thought of it as a career - it was a break in your career, or a chance to stop work, or just one more thing to juggle with your working life.

I think it's become much more of a "media thing" in the last couple of years, probably because some very "driven" people have found themselves outside of paid work and have been determined to make it into a "positive choice" and something to "excel at" rather than it just being one more aspect of life to be dealt with as well or badly as any other.

PostBellumBugsy Wed 10-Oct-12 09:33:04

For women from families of means, be they aristocratic or gentry, raising daughters to be marriageable was extremely important. Marriage was how families improved or maintained their social standing and mothers would have been very involved in ensuring that their daughter's were as well prepared as possible and made the best match.

OddBoots Wed 10-Oct-12 09:36:31

I know both my grandmothers worked from home in the millinery trade when bringing up babies post-war. I also know that the books of the time encouraged putting the baby in a pram at the end of the garden for a few hours a day and I do wonder if part of this was to make time to work.

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