Childhood and Child Rearing
Mother And Child: The First Dyad
Women alone give birth to children, although in the simplest band-level societies, child rearing is a more collective enterprise than among later agriculturalists, and even among agricultural peoples, social structures such as kin groups (clans and lineages) and polygynous marriages often lead to families in which children acknowledge multiple adults who raise them, and adults correspondingly recognize their responsibilities toward children other than their own birth children. In history, those children who survived were reared by mothers or mother surrogates. Even in advanced societies, the most powerful of human bonds has been that between mother and child, and the metaphor of motherhood is often used by other adults in expressing their bond with a child, as Gracia Clark has shown in her studies of West African motherhood. The dependency of the child on the mother, and the implication of the mother in the life of the child, is expressed in artistic representations of the mother-child dyad that appear in many different cultural settings—most famously, for Western civilization, in the image of Mary, the virgin mother, and the child Jesus. In recent years, however, African-American and Chicana scholars, while emphasizing the significance of motherhood within their cultural traditions, have used concepts such as "Othermothering" to underscore that mothering is typically a task shared among kinswomen, in contrast to the isolated white mother of the middle-class Euro-American nuclear family.
The importance of motherhood is further expressed in mythologies and cult objects: mother goddesses, fierce and gentle, the consorts of their sons, the guarantors of the fertility of the fields or of safety in childbirth, conspirators at times against the power of men. The fantasies of maternal power are also expressed in fantasies of matriarchal societies—although scholars now generally agree that there were none truly such—such as that of the Amazons.
Although anthropologists, linguists, and literary critics have been the primary observers of the ancient figure of the mother, real and mythic, historians have also examined the circles of women who surround the mother. These were the women who, across cultures, gathered to assist mothers in childbirth—female kin, friends, servants, and neighbors—while the skilled expert among them, the midwife, took charge. (Male physicians retained control of the theoretical literature about childbirth until the eighteenth century, when they took on the obstetrical role as well.) The same communities of women gathered to mourn the dead, or to provide advice at times of crisis and illness. John Riddle has shown in his works on abortion and herbalism that these informal women's groups wordlessly transmitted medical and physiological information across generations.
In some societies, such female communities lived in physical isolation within larger households, as in the gynaeceum of the ancient Greeks, or the "inner quarters" of elite Chinese families. Here children of both sexes were raised until about age seven, and girls remained until they were wed. The harems of the Chinese emperors and Ottoman sultans constituted more formalized versions of such female communities. In these separate worlds, women gave birth, raised children, tended the sick, spun thread, and mourned the dead.
Supported by female networks, mothers faced that first essential task after childbirth itself: breastfeeding. The health and survival chances of all children before modern times depended on the availability of a lactating mother or mother-surrogate, as Valerie Fildes has shown in her comprehensive history of nursing. The alternatives that were attempted, including artificial feeding of nonhuman milk and nursing from animal teats, often resulted in infant death. In societies such as ancient Rome and the Americas, slave nurses nourished and reared the children of their masters. In the premodern West and later colonial and postcolonial settings, paid wetnurses were hired to feed the children of the nobility, and later of urban, colonial, and racial elites. Gilberto Freye's classic psychosocial analysis of Brazilian society, The Masters and the Slaves (English trans., 1947), dissects the effects of this infantile closeness with the black female body, and concomitant distance from the white mother, on the sexual development of Brazil's upper classes. This practice was commonplace in pre-modern Europe despite the universal advice of expert physicians, theologians, and philosophers. In the West, as in China and the Islamic world, injunctions to mothers to nurse their children account for a large part of all advice literature pertaining to children.
Mothers regularly experienced the deaths of their offspring in childbirth, in infancy, and in early childhood, an experience that is still common today for the world's poor, as documented in Nancy Scheper-Hughes's penetrating analysis of motherhood in urban Brazil, Death without Weeping (1992). The toll of infant death prior to modernization was in the range of 20 to 50 percent of live births, statistics that remain all too common in impoverished areas of the developing world. In the near-absence of birth control, fertility was high, and women commonly gave birth to many children, with totals of more than twenty not uncommon; yet mothers often saw only a few children reach adulthood. The high rate of infant and child mortality is the single most important fact to be culled from the history of childhood; as Scheper-Hughes documents, childhood signifies differently when few children reach adulthood.
Most babies died of disease or malnutrition, from which perils their mothers could not protect them, as they still cannot today. Others died also from accidents, neglect, or infanticide, the last of these an act most often perpetrated by mothers—and sometimes by salaried or servile nurses. Impoverished mothers, often servants, slaves, or prostitutes, or others whose conception and parturition was deemed "illegitimate," were often, and disproportionately, infanticidal. Enslaved Africans and American Indian mothers often chose to terminate their infants' lives rather than see them grow up under the tragic circumstances in which their mothers lived; for slave women, this horror was compounded by the knowledge that the children belonged to the master, and not to their own parents.
Mothering varies, of course, according to economic status. Among working families, the labor of absent mothers earning cash to support their children counted as material symbols of maternal love, whereas in middle-class, mid-twentieth-century American families, it was the presence of the mother inside the home rather than in the workplace that demonstrated her commitment to her children. In wealthy households, mothers are often freed from the constant demands of children by the services provided by hired help—nannies, babysitters, and tutors. In contemporary American and European societies, this labor is provided by immigrant women whose own children are often a continent away, cared for by grandparents or other female kin.
In Western society, the profound detestation of maternal, and more broadly female, endangerment of children is witnessed by the condemnation and, sporadically, prosecution of abortion and infanticide. The idea of the evil mother appears to have triggered profound passions expressed in the fantasies of the evil deeds done by witches (in Europe, especially the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries); by Christians (as perceived by the Romans during the late-ancient era of persecution); or by Jews (as perceived by Christians during anti-Semitic outbursts). All of these persecuted malefactors were believed to have sickened, killed, and cannibalized children.
The vulnerability of children was thus a source of great anxiety to the adults who, nevertheless, sacrificed children to divine forces in a practice that was once nearly universal—as Martin Bergmann, among others, informs us. Although mothers were not the only agents of child sacrifice, the connection already seen of women with death and mourning, with the often fatal event of childbirth, and with frequent child death, indicates that connection.
Successful mothers of child survivors were, in addition, the primary educators of children. Modern social science has established that mothers and mother substitutes are the first teachers of language—in the Western world, a fact reflected in the term used for the natal language as the "mother tongue" (lingua materna, Muttersprache). In the United States, the notion of "mother language" took on special poignancy for the young children of immigrants. Warm childhood memories of the smells and sounds of their monolingual mother's kitchens contrasted with life at school and workplaces, where they struggled to master the language and customs of an alien and sometimes racially and ethnically hostile world. Throughout history, male suspicion of mothers and nurses as shapers of language also testifies to their important role: the ancient Roman statesman and author Cato the Elder (234–149 B.C.E.) would not have his children spoken to by nurses, and the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466?–1536) disdained the linguistic environment of the nursery and urged the swift conveyance of the child to a qualified tutor. In contrast, Chinese theorists celebrated those heroic mothers who prepared their sons from infancy to study for the civil service examinations.
The maternal role was probably more potent than these experts feared. Before written texts, the values and traditions of a culture were probably transmitted in story and, even more likely, in song, sung by mothers and nurses to generations of infants. In more developed societies, mothers and mother-surrogates were the first agents of religious instruction, a powerful welder of civilizational loyalties.
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