Mothering

Peter Laslett

  • L’Amour en plus by Elisabeth Badinter
    Flammarion (Paris), 372 pp, £6.80, May 1980, ISBN 2 08 064279 0
  • Mari et Femme dans la Société Paysanne by Martine Segalen
    Flammarion, 211 pp, £6.30, May 1980, ISBN 2 08 210957 7

Last year a book was published in Paris with the following sentences written on the back cover:

Is motherly love an instinct which proceeds from ‘the feminine character.’ [une nature féminine]? Or is it rather for the most part a matter of social behaviour, varying from epoch to epoch as customs change?

History shows us that the idea of motherly love is peculiarly subject to evolution. After a long period of indifference [presumably of mothers towards their offspring], a new type of feminine behaviour came into being at the end of the 18th century. The 19th century exalted and amplified this ideal of motherly love, and it is notable how much the work of Freud and the psychoanalysts has strengthened the hold of what has become an established value.

Crisis has now overtaken this mental configuration which we have inherited from the past. The growth in the number of working women, their insistence on equality, the increasing tendency of male and female to share their tasks between them, are some of the things which mark the transformation. The least expected outcome of all this, but not the least important, will no doubt be a new creation, fatherly love.

The book had the title L’Amour en plus and the subtitle Histoire de l’Amour Maternel, 17e-20e Siècle. The author was Elisabeth Badinter, who teaches philosophy at one of the Grandes Ecoles, perhaps the last one you would expect – the Ecole Polytechnique.

The outcome has been one more intense disturbance in the perpetually cyclonic literary atmosphere of Paris. Mme Badinter now finds herself faced with the body of French demographic historians arrayed against her because of the way she has used their evidence. The Société de Démographie Historique has arranged for a survey by interested members of the evidence so far available from French historical sources. In November they will report on mothers and wet-nursing; on motherly love in relation to infantile mortality; on expressions of motherly love and the rejection of infants through abortion, infanticide and abandonment in the foundling hospitals – institutions so widespread in Catholic Europe, so little in evidence amongst the Protestants. The controversy is not confined to Paris and the French, however: authors writing in English are amongst those under examination. Lloyd de Mause, for example, in his History of Childhood proclaimed in 1974 that the further you go back in time, the less love is to be found in the family, and the more brutal the treatment of children. Edward Shorter’s The Making of the Modern Family (1975), now read in many European countries, defiantly announced that mothers have not always loved their offspring. Lawrence Stone, whose book Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (1977) prints some horrifying passages about maternal indifference and neglect. When he lectured on this subject in Cambridge in 1975, Stone painted a dismal picture of swaddling: peasant mothers binding their babies to the swaddling boards, hanging them on nails so as to get them out of the way, and leaving them to fester in their excrement. But experts on the psychology of infancy in our own day, like Dr Richards of the Child Development Unit at Cambridge, maintain that the swaddling board is an excellent instrument for the handling of very young children, and rear their own babies in this way.[*]

For every instance of indifference or brutality brought forward by Shorter, Stone and the rest, other historians and historical anthropologists have been able to cite examples of tenderness and affection. Most of these have come from the privileged minority, it is true, but examples have been found amongst the humblest individuals in societies where life was hard and manners correspondingly coarse. Even the practitioners of infanticide, or those forced to connive in such doings, have shown signs of affection and tenderness. When I was in Japan, for example, I was told that little memorials could still be seen which had been put up by mothers in memory of their new-born babies sacrificed to familial policy in Tokugawa times. Japanese families, it has been discovered, sometimes shaped the group of children to the parents’ taste, and according to economic necessity: so many boys, so many girls, at deliberately decided intervals. Even the disposing of infants, therefore, may not have been incompatible with maternal or parental affection, any more than inflicting punishment or hardship was. It all depends, as it always must, on the culture, the attitude, the situation at the time: on the family concerned, on the personality of those who took the actions.

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[*] ‘Swaddling, Cradle Boards and the Development of Children’ by J.S. Chisholm and M.P.M. Richards. Early Human Development, 2.

[†] Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 22, No 3.