Elisabeth Bandinter’s book (loosely translated as ‘The Myth of Motherhood’) raised a stormy controversy in France, has been denounced by psychologists, educationists and the clergy, and clearly deserves to be read. Unfor-tunately, at present the book is available to us in India only in French, and it is to be hoped that the English trans¬lation comes to this country soon. Because it is inacces¬sible to the general Indian reader on this account, an attempt has been made here to sketch the main themes of the book fairly fully. The question this study poses is, simply; is there such a thing as a natural maternal instinct, with its attendant values of love, protection and sacrifice for the child, or is not what we in the 20th century assume to be inborn and instinctive in a mother’s attitude to her child in fact a social value to which mothers of our times have been conditioned? In other words, do we have here a social fact, rather than a supposedly universal psycholo¬gical attribute? Badinter takes the reader through three cen¬turies of French history to examine the whole range of attitudes that have prevailed towards motherhood, child¬hood and parenthood.
She argues her case on the basis of a wide range of sources: i census and public records, medical writing, Church re¬cords, personal diaries, liter¬ature and painting. Her con¬clusion: that there are major excep-tions that would under¬mine the popular 20th century assumption that mothers are endowed with a natural mater¬nal instinct for their children, and that this has been so throughout human history, regardless of time or place. Mother love, says the author, is ‘extra’, it is not part of the fact of being a mother.
17th century France, with which period this study begins, strongly devalued women, and centred around an all-power¬ful male authority. This was sanctioned by three major influences: that of Aristotle, who held that the man’s auth¬ority was natural; that of the Church, which held that it was divinely inspired and that of political ideology, which proclaimed both. The man, as Father/Husband/Master, re¬presented to his wife and chil¬dren what the absolute king did to his subject and God to the king.
The attitude towards children was essentially antagonistic, partly because of the legacy of St Augustine who regarded the child as the embodiment of original sin. He described the child as ignorant, impas¬sioned and capricious,—evidence of man’s corruption and propensity towards evil. For this reason tenderness and over- indulgence by the mother was denounced, including the too ‘voluptuous’ feeding of babies. Children were expec¬ted to be rigorously disciplin¬ed. For most people, how-ever, their children were simply a nuisance, rather than inherent¬ly evil. Many parents were unable to devote themselves to their children for economic reasons, but many more re¬fused to do so. A large number of mothers abandoned their babies, attaching to the child’s clothes a small label bearing its name, or a note justifying their action. Some babies were dumped on the wayside with a little bundle of valuables next to them, evid¬ence that the rich did it too.
Though not every mother, of course, adopted this course of outright rejection of the child, the refusal to breast-feed babies was common—this at a time when the mother’s nurturing function was the only reliable guarantee of the child’s survival. Most women relegated this role to a wet-nurse who either took the child away with her, or came to the parental home. This practice prevailed in France between the 13th and 18th centuries; initially only among aristocratic families who con¬sidered breast-feeding degrad¬ing and unfashionable, but later, by the early 17th cen¬tury, among the middle classes as well. And by the 18th cen¬tury it seems to have percola¬ted down to all urban classes, except the very poor, in small provincial towns as well. In 1780, for example, according to a lieutenant general of the Paris police, of 21,000 child¬ren born in Paris every year, less than a thousand were nursed by their mothers, about a thousand were looked after by wet-nurses who came to the child’s home, and the remaining 19,000 were sent away from home to wet-nurses in the country. Of the total number, about two to three thousand came from well-to-do families and did not have to go beyond the suburbs of Paris. The others, less fortunate and from poorer families, were sent further away.
During the child’s stay at the wet-nurse’s, few parents took any interest in its well being The case of the statesman Talleyrand, for instance, was typical: he was sent away to a wet-nurse within a few days of his birth in 1754 in Paris, During the four years that he stayed there, his mother did not visit him once, or enquire after him. It was not until much later that she learnt of the accident that had befallen him there, which left him with a club-foot. This fact also led to his being rejected as heir to his patrimony, in favour of his younger brother.
Another feature of the times was the selective nature of the parents’ interest in their child, depending on its sex and its place in the family. A girl counted for little as she repre¬sented a financial burden in terms of the dowry to be paid for her marriage. If she did not marry, there was the con¬vent which had to be paid for her upkeep, or else a job to be found for her as a servant in some home. Among male child¬ren, affection and nurturance were forthcoming only to the eldest son, for the practice of primo-geniture, which applied only to males, made him the sole heir to the patrimony. He also represented a source of security to his parents, particu¬larly his mother, for if she were to be widowed she could hope to be looked after and provided for by him. The younger sons were on their own, and could be trusted to find themselves jobs in the army, or to serve as domestics to their brother or in a neigh¬bour’s household. If lucky, they might in exceptional cases be able to find an heiress to marry themselves; or, if healthy and relatively well educated, might even become monks.
Through all this, the education of children of aristocratic or middle class families, during the 17th and especially the 18th centuries, followed a three-step pattern; the aban¬donment to the wet-nurse, the return to the home, and depar¬ture to the convent or board¬ing school. In effect, the child was still abandoned even after its first few years. In 17th and 18th century France, child mortality was consequently between 26 per cent and 27 per cent for children below one year. Differences prevailed between legitimate and illegiti¬mate babies, between those sent to a wet-nurse and those simply abandoned in a state hospital (in the latter case, bet¬ween 50 and 90 per cent died).
The death of a child, unlike today, caused no sense of loss in either of the parents—or if it occasionally did, the fact was much talked of and com¬mented upon. The greatest evidence of this lack of inter¬est is in the parents’ attitude to the funeral and interment of the child. If the child was less than five months old at the time, often neither would attend the funeral; if it was older, one or the other pro¬bably would. And if the child was away at a wet-nurse’s home at the time of death, many parents learnt of the event only some considerable time later.
How is it, asks the author, that parents did not learn by experience after several of their babies had died, that the wet-nurse and the state hos¬pitals were poor substi-tutes for the mother? A mere two or three months in the mother’s care immediately after birth would have saved the lives of perhaps one-third of those who died in their first year.
Many plead that the parents were ignorant and poor. How¬ever, they could not have remained ignorant for long, and not all were poor. Others claim that the husbands drove their wives to it. Yet here too, says Elisabeth Badinter, there were husbands who would have preferred their wives to look after the children them¬selves. Where was the ‘instinct’ for motherhood at this time? The truth seems to lie in the fact that when society devalues motherhood (as it did in France and England during this period), mothers feel free to pursue their individual and egoistical interests; only when society forces them to do otherwise do they respond to the demands of motherhood. In fact, it took generations to change the situation in the late 18th century, by appeal¬ing to the mother’s sense of duty, blaming her for not ful¬filling this duty, and threaten¬ing her, finally, in order to bring her back to her function of nurturer, which today is said to be natural and spon-taneous.
It was not until the latter half of the 18th century that there took place a revolutionary change in thought in France, when suddenly women were advised and even ordered to be mothers above all, and resume their nurturing func¬tion. The concept of the instinct for motherhood was invoked, and maternal love was held up as a value both natural and social.
There were several reasons for this new emphasis, the most important of them being the emergence of a new science, demography, and the impor¬tance that came to be attached consequently to the national population. Demography had been unknown until the mid-17th century and was still very tentative in the 18th. In fact, several 18th century writers, such as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau, sounded the alarm that the population was declining (in fact this was not so, though the increase over the previous century was slight). The idea gained ground, and it began to be seen as a problem about which some¬thing had to be done.
The child also began to be seen as a potential source of economic wealth for the coun¬try. Not only would he be economically productive later on, but he would also augment the country’s economic strength. Another aspect of the matter was France’s colo¬nies. If infant mortality could be reduced, the French colo¬nies could be peopled that much more with her own citi¬zens. In addition, strong and capable hands were also required in agriculture, especi¬ally when the military took young men away to war. On the eve of the Napoleonic wars, in 1870, appeals went out to French mothers to fulfill their duty, i.e., to ensure the survival of their children.
Ideas of equality and indivi¬dual happiness were also gradually gaining ground. Rousseau, for example, who was influential in changing concepts of the family through his ideas expressed in The Social Contract, considered the male child the potential equal of his father, neces¬sarily dependent for the first few years of his life, but thereafter independent and equal. The woman, however, was still defined in relation to the man. Montesquieu, writing after Rousseau, recognized that women could not fulfill themselves as individuals with¬out a greater degree of edu¬cation, and that men had created the situation which now made women appear inferior. Thus did ideas change and the status of women slowly improve—though in fact by the end of the 18th century they were still by no means regarded as equals. Nevertheless, the idea of a loving relationship between man and wife was coming into vogue, and men of liberal out¬look wanted their wives to play a more important role in the family.
Among the many appeals that went out to women at this time was that which spoke of their pivotal role in the family, and which drew parallels between this and the ‘natural’ function of animal mothers and mothers in primitive societies, all of whom, it was said, nurtured their babies in the first stages of their lives. Civilization, it was said, had lured the mother away from her natural and original involvement with her children, and had ultimately spelt its own doom.
Women responded diversely to these various appeals, many ignoring them entirely. It was primarily the middle-class mother who responded posi¬tively. Neither poor, nor particularly rich or brilliant, she saw in this new function the opportunity to raise her status and emancipate herself in ways the aristocratic wo¬man, who had social outlets for her ambitions, did not look for. The middle-class woman saw in this a means of achiev¬ing an importance in society, respect and role in the family, that she had never had before. Since public roles were denied her, this gave her a means making herself indisputable head and pivot of the house¬hold, and recognition thereby, she hoped, to an equality with men.
By 1800, changes were visibly taking place. The number of children placed in wet-nur¬series, for example, was declining. Progressively, the practice of putting children in swaddling-clothes in order to restrain their liberty and make the mother or wet-nurse more mobile, also began to change in the cities, and more slowly in the rural areas. This change in the style of chil¬dren’s clothing made a marked difference in the mother’s relationship with her child. She was now able to hold her baby close, to know him better, and to feel tenderness for him. The child, in turn, responded. Cleanliness of clothing also came to be seen as an attribute of the cared for child. The mother began to regulate her diet during pregnancy, following Rous¬seau’s advice, and to clothe her baby in loose, floating garments. The family doctor also became increasingly important during the 19th century. Not to love the child came pro-gressively to be regarded as an inexcusable crime. The number of board¬ing schools went down by the mid-19th century. Parents now preferred to send their children to day schools and, moreover, the mother also began to feel responsible for the child’s education. In fact, as time went on, more and more duties came to be asso¬ciated with the mother. Although there continued to be many women who refused to accept these duties, they were now weighed down by a sense of guilt they had never felt before.
Since mothers were now expected to take an interest in their children’s education, it followed that their own education had to improve. Hitherto, women had been expected to learn only the rudiments of their religion, to know how to read and write and to practise needlecraft. In the 17th century, there had already been a feminist move-ment for the liberation of women and a group of women, known as the Precieuses, had eschewed marriage and sought to become learned in science and philosophy. However, such attempts had naturally been discouraged and frowned upon. Even Rousseau, who had ushered in a movement for liberation with his Social Contract, had looked upon women as inferior to men. This attitude prevailed down to the First. World War, but women’s education did im¬prove with the course of time.
Thus it was that, due to vari¬ous forces, by the end of the 19th century, the man’s primacy in the family was replaced by that of the woman—and later the state too took over some of the father’s original functions, when it took education out of the hands of the family. Freud, and his theory of what consti¬tuted the good mother, further reinforced the centrality of the woman’s role in the family as a mother. According to Freud, a woman’s fulfilment lay in giving birth and mothering a child. Women who rejected this role were by definition abnormal.
The author concludes that the primary role of a woman as a mother is an acquired value and points out a parallel in the 20th century situation in which an increasing number of women are rejecting this role in favour of professional careers. She feels that there is a new and increasing trend towards men sharing in the tasks of bringing up their children. This, she says, is the pattern for the future.
Elisabeth Badinter’s conclu¬sions should be of particular interest to psycho-logists and sociologists, and to the Indian public generally. The attitude to children in India is almost universally indulgent, and the book will probably arouse the indig-nation and incredulity of many of its readers here, as it has done elsewhere. Neverthe-less, it is a most thought-pro¬voking book. Its ideas are presented without any of the stridency that one associates with feminist writings and it makes its – case forcefully. I hope a translation will make its appearance in India soon.
Usha Sanyal is Editor, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.