May 9, 2013, by Ezra Harmon
Mother’s Day is just around the corner, which inspired me to do some digging into what Victorian motherhood was like.
Beginning in the early 19th century, motherhood was idealized in American and British cultures. No longer just a reproductive function, it had been elevated to a level infused with symbolic meaning. At the same time on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, motherhood was becoming a social responsibility. Women were being charged with the responsibility of bringing up responsible, educated citizens. In America, this philosophy was later dubbed republican motherhood. And in order to do this, mothers had to be taught the best way to do so. Motherhood was no longer something natural and innate; it was something to be learned. Instructional publications were widely circulated throughout the 19th century which reinforced domestic femininity and a woman’s focus on her husband and children and would recommend advice on raising children, proper nursery conditions, and good foods for infants and children.
A Victorian-era woman was expected to marry, a wife was expected to become a mother, and a mother was expected to be constantly present for her children. Marriage marked entry into maturity, but motherhood meant she passed into the world of female fulfillment. An affirmation of her identity, domesticity and motherhood were considered all the spiritual and emotional fulfillment that a Victorian-era woman needed. Even single women without children were encouraged to find work that would fulfill this need by becoming a governess or nursery maid. The same woman for whom the era was named after, Queen Victoria, became a symbol of femininity focused on motherhood, family, and domestic virtue with her brood of nine children.
The real experience of motherhood in the Victorian era differed greatly depending on one thing: the mother’s class status. Middle-class mothers spent more time with their children, breast-fed their babies more often, and played with and educated their children more than the previous generations of mothers. In industrial cities, high mortality rates were blamed solely on the working women who were not there for their children (even though factors like poor sanitation, overcrowding, and disease were truly the cause). Working mothers were often labelled irresponsible and neglectful even while they struggled with the challenge of balancing the need to work with the demands of home life.
This idealized notion of motherhood waned in the 20th century as Freudianism gained influence. Americans began to see the close-knit bonds of mother and child (particularly sons) as unmanly and what was called “uplifting encouragement” was retermed nagging. And by the 1940s, the idealization of mother was under attack by educators and psychiatrists who believed women should stop seeing themselves as guardians of familial morality, an abrupt about-face from the previous century.