Parenting and Family Relations

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Parenting and Family Relations


Motherhood. For centuries, giving birth to a child and caring for a child were different activities. Parents frequently sent their children out to wet nurses, and wives were often preoccupied with other activities that were considered more important to the household economy than caring for the children. By the nineteenth century, however, child rearing appears to have become the major focus for a married woman. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, only the wealthiest families employed nurses or governesses. The domestic ideal of the middle classes was a mother caring for her children in her home. If the family were wealthy enough, a servant or two might be hired for domestic chores, but the task of raising the children was linked to the mother. Enlightenment philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) helped to form this concept of the mother’s natural duties in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century a myriad of manuals advised mothers about how to realize their natural destinies. Mothers were authority figures for young children of both sexes, but when a child reached the age of seven, gender defined the extent of the mother’s role. After the male child reached his seventh year, he was generally under his father’s control, while the responsibility for rearing a daughter remained with the mother. Daughters were expected to be subservient to their mothers throughout their lives, while mothers were supposed to prepare their daughters for their future roles as wives and mothers. The aristocracy still maintained a series of intermediaries between themselves and their children, but mothers of all social classes were heavily involved in their daughters’ upbringing in their later childhood and teenage years.

Fatherhood. Some historians have suggested that the changes accompanying industrialization during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought about a

redefinition of manhood and patriarchal authority. The increase in landless laborers undermined the traditional identification of landownership and manhood, and the increasing mobility of youths leaving home in search of work loosened the bonds of paternal authority. Because the French Revolutionaries linked political tyranny with paternal authority, they decreed in 1792 that fathers no longer held an unlimited paternal authority (puissance paternelle) over their children. Also, factory workers and businessmen working away from their homes and their children did not have as much opportunity to interact with their children as they might have had on a farm or in a small family business located in or near the family home—the typical pattern in pre-industrial Europe. Thus, many Europeans in the industrial era thought of their fathers as loving yet distant from their everyday world. Anna Korvin-Krukovskaia (born 1843), a daughter of a Russian nobleman, remembered her father as “essentially good and loving, but he surrounded himself with an air of inaccessibility as a matter of principle.”

Parenting and the State. By the late nineteenth century many European nations worried that their populations were dwindling, especially among the “socially respectable” middle and upper classes. Thus, philanthropic and government organizations worked to reinforce concepts of the natural duties of parents. As the philosophy of “Social Darwinism” adapted the theories of Charles Darwin to competitive relations between states, “survival of the fittest” was tied to a healthy and growing population. The Bordeaux Society for Maternal Charity in France, for example, was organized to help women of the lower classes learn how to care for their children and raise them to become proper French citizens and soldiers. By the late nineteenth century, French mothers who had many children were given medals resembling military awards for helping to populate the nation. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the British passed four separate government acts with the express purpose of overseeing the children of poor families in the interest of securing their survival and healthy development. The Education Acts of 1906–1907 mandated daily meals for schoolchildren and medical exams twice a year in schools. In 1907 the British passed the Notification of Births Act, which required all live births to be registered within thirty-six hours and a visit to the new parents soon after by a government health official.


Ann Taylor Allen, Feminism and Motherhood in Germany, 1800-1914 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991).

Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Barbara Alpern Engel, Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia of Nineteenth-Century Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Robert Nye, Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

Ellen Ross, Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870-1918 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).