The "Dangerously Good" Romantic Mother
Children were a source of joy to Romantic era mothers, but Romantic era beliefs about the naturally sympathetic nature of women led to fears that excessive maternal love could become dangerously overindulgent.The Romantic child was a powerful potential source of joy and inspiration for adults. Many mothers, including Anna Letitia Barbauld welcomed the arrival of children, and her poem "To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible" expresses her maternal joy.
However, Romantic era beliefs about the naturally sympathetic nature of women led to fears that excessive maternal love could become dangerously good and overly indulgent. In Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft warned about the dangers of excessive maternal love: "It is . . . want of reason in their affections which makes women so often run into extremes, and either be the most fond or most careless and unnatural mothers." Novels of the time often portrayed women whose over indulgence created unruly, spoiled children. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen contrasted the sensible and rational Mrs. Gardner, whose young children are delightful and well behaved, with the silly Mrs. Bennett, whose indulgence of her selfish daughter Lydia results in a thoughtless elopement that nearly ruins the family's position. Sense and Sensibility's Lady Middleton is so indulgent and incompetent that her children are able to manipulate her with crying and bad behavior that is reprehensible compared to the other characters.
Mothers governed by excessive feeling proved dangerous in other ways. In Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria, Maria Venables's anguish during pregnancy harms her daughter, and the child is born sickly and "debilitated" by her mother's grief. Overly self-effacing mothers were dangerous as well, as their self-sacrificial tendencies tended to result in their own deaths (by starvation, for example), an act which made them the worst of mothers because they would be ultimately absent from their children's lives.
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