Introduction | A Woman's Power | Breastfeeding  | The Mother's Duty | The "Dangerously Good" Mother | The "Naturally Bad" Mother

The "Naturally Bad" Romantic Mother

The CradleSome Romantic era mothers did not possess a natural affinity for children or parenting. Such mothers' behavior was often neglectful or even dangerous for their offspring.
Despite the Romantic belief that women were naturally sympathetic and disposed to maternal affection, not every woman enjoyed motherhood. An 1801 description of the Countess of Westmorland, for example, remarks: "She is again breeding, which greatly vexes her, for she hates children." Mary Wollstonecraft noted that such a mother "seldom exerts enlightened maternal affection; for she either neglects her children, or spoils them by improper indulgence." Mary Musgrove in Jane Austen's Persuasion embodies the habits of a neglectful mother. Lacking in "natural" maternal feeling, she is constantly irritated by her children and uses any excuse to shirk her maternal responsibilities and place her boys in the care of others. She is often plagued with unexplained illnesses resulting from the stress of these unwanted maternal duties, and her children are unruly and undisciplined because of her neglect and incompetence.

Loving mothers could also become bad mothers when their naturally strong attachment led to extreme actions to prevent harm to their child. However, these extreme actions to protect the child often resulted in a greater harm. In Bryon's Don Juan, the young Don Juan's mother censors his education so severely that he is completely ignorant about sexuality. Because of the ignorance that this sheltered upbringing produces, he becomes the easy prey of an older and more sexually experienced woman, which ironically leads to his criminal prosecution and exile from his home and his mother.

Other extreme mothers of Romantic era committed infanticide as the ultimate act of overly protective love, preferring to kill their children rather than subject them to lives of suffering. The unmarried and poor working class woman who became pregnant faced immense social and financial obstacles, and during the Romantic era, there was concern that these mothers' children were at increased risk of danger at the hands of their desperate mothers. Felicia Hemans's poems such as "The Suliote Mother" and "Indian Woman's Death-Song," portray infanticide as a sympathetic and heroic action of desperate mothers in the face of fears about subjecting children to lives of social injustice.

For children of unwed mothers, illegitimacy carried with it significant and oppressive social stigma. When the 1834 Poor Laws denied relief to such mothers, financial support of their children became increasingly difficult. This new legislation echoed the popular opinion that offering relief encouraged women to continue having children since that would increase the amount of money that these mothers were entitled to receive. However, the desperation resulting from the new Poor Law’s restrictions also contributed to a rise in infanticide rates.

Julia McLeod

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