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.

France has the best-established scholarly tradition with respect to popular living, a tradition with its headquarters at the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris. If L’Amour en plus is compared with an authoritative treatise originating there and published at about the same time, Mari et Femme dans la Société Paysanne by Martine Segalen, the contrast is striking. There are important reasons, in my view, why Mme Segalen should find the popularising literature represented by Mme Badinter unacceptable, and for the note of indignation, even of exasperation, which marks the current debate. For there can be no doubt about the universal sense of outrage against those who have been found ill-treating, neglecting or simply withholding affection from children.

Even today, of court records kept by the police, those dealing with the treatment of children make the best copy for journalists, because they give rise to such strong feelings. To imply therefore, as their critics suppose de Mause and the others to have done, that earlier generations of Europeans treated their children callously, or even with indifference, is to accuse our ancestors of moral obliquity. To write as though this was true of the lower classes, but much less so of the educated and aristocratic, which was the charge levelled at Stone by E.P. Thompson, is to convict yourself of class contempt: not easily forgiven in our generation. There are further offences which might seem rather academic to the working wife, or to the mother dogged by a sense of failure, but which are real enough to professional historians. It is a breach of the traditional historian’s code to imply, as de Mause seems to have done, that middle-class, late-20th-century professional people in the West stand at the head of time, and that the whole of the past can be seen as leading up to them. This offence has the technical name Whig, after Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History.

The historical sociologist, dealing in demography, familial composition or kinship systems, understandably resents the outsider’s use of his materials rather in the same way as other scientists tend to do. It is tempting for such readers to conclude, for instance, that where infant and child mortality is high, parental indifference is understandable. Who would invest a great deal of emotional capital in a little creature so likely to perish after a month or a year which, if really wanted, would have to be replaced? But those who undertake the intricate and time-consuming work of establishing such things as the figures for infant and child mortality in the past nearly always find their figures cited without understanding, the extremes taken for the ordinary case, and a tendency for authors with a message on their minds to prefer the vividly worded account of a contemporary to the scholarly work of our own day. We have found it quite hard going to convince even well-informed inquirers that infant mortality in England from Elizabethan to Victorian times was often below a hundred per thousand, instead of the two or three hundred which is usually expected. It is even more difficult to persuade them to recognise that death in childbed, though tragically common compared with what it is now, was never severe enough in traditional England to affect women’s life chances very seriously. There were always more women than men at the later ages. As for wet-nursing, so much at issue in the current debate because it is taken to betray indifference in the biological mother towards her child, it could scarcely be called a common practice, even in London.

The many well-documented accounts of the failure of mothers to visit their infants at nurse make distressing reading, as do the horrifying descriptions of how foundlings were treated. It must be true that such practices were more common in France, and especially in Paris, than they were in England. But no one whose knowledge was confined to books like that of Mme Badinter would be likely to suspect that the estimate of the proportion of children put out to nurse in the Parisian basin arrived at by the French National Unit for Research on the History of Population is no more than about 15 per cent. Mme Badinter prefers to stress the testimony of M. Lenoir, Lieutenant-General of the Paris Police, who blankly asserted in 1780 that of 21,000 children born in the city in that year, only 1000 were breast-fed by their own mothers. The recital of such impossible figures as these must have echoed uneasily through the halls of the Ecole Polytechnique, that citadel of accurate statistics and justifiable statistical inference.

The Europe-bound, ethnocentric quality of this material is a further cause for depression. The ‘history’ of the passage we have cited is the history of France, and of France alone – in this book anyway. What sort of history it is should be apparent in a moment. It is surely for the ethnologist to decide how such practices as those mentioned above bear on the issue of instinctive – that is, universal – motherly love: whether, for example, it makes sense to suppose that the Australian aboriginal who exposes an unwanted newborn baby is nevertheless naturally affectionate towards his offspring. To argue from such an episode about the extent to which an English middle or upper-class mother can be said to love the little boy whom she sends to endure the rigours of prep school and public school may lack conviction: but once the words ‘natural’ or ‘instinctive’ are employed, all varieties of experience have to be considered.

Recent progress in historical sociology has certainly reduced the gap between the chronological and the ethnographic records in Western Europe. For instance, it has been established by Charles Phythian-Adams, in his splendid study of 15th and early 16th-century Coventry, Desolation of a City, that a division between home and workplace was so common in that city at that time that the absentee father can no longer be considered a product of industrial society. It is no more a novelty in our century than is the nuclear family itself. As for maternal experience, records have now been laboriously recovered, in England especially, which establish family sizes, birth intervals, effects of varying degrees of wet-nursing on the next conception and so on, over a period of several hundred years. It has even been possible for a historical sociologist to extend the range of known human behaviour, or at least to contradict what has always been regarded as an established negative principle of ethnography. Keith Hopkins, in his astonishing study of brother-sister marriage in Roman Egypt, has now effectively laid to rest the dogma about a universal taboo against incest of this kind.[†] When this onrush of new social knowledge from the past is set alongside the theories and information about parenting in a book such as Nancy Chodorov’s The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), the intellectual fracas going on in Paris begins to look a little parochial.

With all this in front of us we can, I believe, say that to ask if maternal love is instinctive is to ask an inappropriate question. This is not what human parenting is like. Nothing in human behaviour, except perhaps the actions of suckling and copulation, can be called instinctive in the sense which this question seems to imply. It is reasonable in genetic terms to suppose that both mothers and fathers might be programmed to act to preserve their offspring, because each child shares their genes and no others. It does not, however, follow from this that maternal and parental love are dictated by something called nature. Even those geneticists who, like Richard Dawkins, have taken to sociobiology with enthusiasm, admit that the principles of gene preservation make little sense in relation to human evolution. For human evolution is a cultural affair, and this means that it is the cultural record which has to be established in order to understand such behaviour as mothering. The history of one’s own culture is the most satisfactory source of legitimation for attitudes and practices struggling for adherence, recognition and general acceptance. What wonder, then, that the champions of women’s liberation, and everyone concerned with justice between the sexes, should be anxious to know how far the records of their own country testify to the fixity of a feminine character and to its being finally determined by the facts of motherhood?

We must therefore make up our minds whether we are in a position to know whether Badinter, Shorter, Stone and the others have got the record straight. On this point I think we can pronounce with confidence. It is highly unlikely, indeed impossible, that any of them could have written an account of the history of motherhood, in the countries they have undertaken to study, adequate to the legitimatory purposes which Mme Badinter at least may be supposed to have in mind. This is true if only because historical sociology has as yet no notion of what such a complete and accurate record would look like if ever it could be worked out.

It has to be concluded, however reluctantly since the study is so challenging and so interesting, that what Mme Badinter is offering her readers is one more book about books, although she has bolstered it here and there with that use of the historical demographic record which, as we have seen, has now come to irritate the historical demographers. The intellectual story which she pieces together in this lamentably conventional way is of considerable importance and it is skilfully told. She convinces us, for example, that the great literary movement called Romanticism was accompanied by a marked increase in the idealisation of maternal love and of such practices as breast-feeding, along with an exaltation of the ‘good’ mother and an excoriation of the ‘bad’. The texts from the sacred scripture of the French Romantic movement, the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, are underlined again and again. Our author does not go as far, however, as other ‘philosophical’ users of these accounts have sometimes done. She admits that these texts could not themselves bring maternal love into being, and even that it would not be right to claim that maternal love was created out of the void, so to speak, in the period under examination.

The saddest and most serious episode of all, and here Mme Badinter excels herself, is that which unites Freud with the earlier 18th and 19th-century tradition. She demonstrates that Freud’s justification of the masochistic character of femininity by the use of what is now thought by many to be a crude organicist argument about the absent penis and penis envy continues a well-established tradition in the European literature bearing on the topic over the preceding century or more. To have these Freudian arguments put in their historical place in this way is useful. But when all is said and done the arguments we are faced with here, and in this body of literature in general, are patently insufficient for their purpose.

It never seems to occur to Mme Badinter, for example, that Romanticism itself has to be accounted for as a literary fashion, and that Romanticism in the past observer may have, indeed must have, coloured or determined what he chose to observe. Professional historians like Stone or Shorter are more cautious, and consequently vaguer, on a point like this, insisting, as they should do, that the whole historical construct rests on the as yet unworked-out principles of literary sociology. Until or unless we can be certain what Rousseau’s statements on maternal love actually mean in terms of experience, or those of the journalists and magazine writers, or even those of the observing medical officers and prescribing doctors, we shall not be able to pronounce with any certainty on the history of parental love, at least as an attribute of a whole society.

Attitudes to children, to their nurture in their earliest years, to their schools, to child-rearing in general, show a volatility which can only bewilder the patient seeker after truth. We may illustrate this point from a case strangely omitted from Mme Badinter’s text: the case of Dr Truby King and his supersession by Dr Spock. Truby King, with his insistence on regular routines for babies and on never picking them up until the appointed time for nursing, was indisputably dominant in the English-speaking world from the late 1920s till the early 1940s. There must surely still be those who recollect the sense of humiliation, the feeling among women of having ‘failed’ as mothers because they were unable to do with their offspring what the great Truby King had told them they must do. How dismayed they must have been when Dr Spock and the still contemporary school of mothering suddenly appeared to tell them that they should never under any circumstances have been doing what Truby King commanded. Who is to say how many mothers in the English-speaking world actually carried out Truby King’s instructions? Who can pronounce on the extent to which Dr Spock has been literally obeyed – a different matter from the amazing number of copies his book has sold for decades on end, his media visibility and his political influence? Above all, who can say why it is that fashion has changed so emphatically?

These are only some of the questions which a historical sociologist has to ask. For if it is impossible to write about a transition in attitudes amongst all mothers in our own century, at a time of universal literacy and swift communication, how are we to assess such transitions in pre-industrial society, when literacy was so much more restricted, communication so much slower, and the relation of the tiny élite to the generally unknowable mass so entirely different from anything we now experience, that the character and pace of change in attitude or practice are simply unknown to us, and remain so forever? As of the present, the historical sociologist can be more confident about the existence of brother-sister marriage in Roman Egypt than he can about possible changes in the parenting practices of whole populations as recently as the 18th and 19th centuries.

Badinter may be right to forecast, as Chodorov and her feminist colleagues have argued more persuasively, that fathering is about to become of considerable consequence in Western familial practice. In my opinion, we would do well to acknowledge that it is not yet known how far this would be an innovatory practice, and how far one which has always existed but is only now being sought out by intellectual fashion, as if it were the inevitable next phase in our cultural evolution.

[*] ‘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.