Judy Dunn

Judy Dunn publications include Distress and Comfort: theFirst Year of Life, written with DavidShaffer. A Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge,she works for the Medical Research Council on ChildDevelopment.

Unhappy Mothers

Judy Dunn, 17 July 1980

It is hardly a new discovery that becoming a parent is full of problems. In every society there have been at least some parents who have had a huge stake in the survival of at least some of their children. However high the mortality rates of pre-modern societies, we do not know of a time when parents did not often feel acute distress and anxiety over their children’s health. This is as true now for women in West Africa or India as it was in the houses of Augustus or Henry VIII. It must also have been true in all societies that some relationships between parents and children were of great emotional significance. It would be absurd to suggest that, in societies where the probabilities of illness and death were much higher than our own, the level of concern about illness can have characteristically been lower, yet much popular writing about parental attitudes and feelings in earlier societies appears to presuppose just this. Many today are eager to find discontinuities (over time or distance) in ideas of childhood, and in the consequent tone and character of emotional relationships between parents and children. No doubt there have been many such discontinuities over time (as there are, after all, between the attitudes of different groups and individuals in our society): but, incautiously pursued, the avid search for them readily leads, not to their discovery, but rather to their invention. Philippe Aries, for example, in Centuries of Childhood, cites Montaigne as evidence for the change in European conceptions of childhood before and after the 17th century. But the terms of Aries’s quotations make it clear that Montaigne himself was well aware that his attitudes on this question were far from universally shared: indeed, that they may well have inverted those which most of his contemporaries conventionally expressed. ‘I cannot abide,’ he wrote, ‘that passion for caressing newborn children, which have neither mental activities nor recognisable bodily shape by which to make them lovable, and I have never willingly suffered them to be fed in my presence.’

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