Mothers in the Romantic Period: Delight, Duty, and Danger
The Romantic mother's "naturally" sympathetic nature made her particularly fitted for the job of rearing children.The emphasis on reason that dominated the Enlightenment shifted in the Romantic era to favor an individual’s experience and feeling, particularly within nature, as the basis for true knowledge. As reflected in Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality, people in the Romantic period came to believe that children, because of their innocent and untainted "natural" state, possessed a particular access to knowledge and truth. Accompanying this new emphasis on the child was an increased debate over the role of mothers as child bearers and rearers, and writers during this period actively engaged in the arguments about motherhood.
Because they could bear children, women were seen as possessing a biological power worthy of both admiration and fear, and the female body came under close scrutiny as scientists sought to understand and direct female reproductive processes. Increasing medical knowledge about pregnancy and childbirth fostered new developments in medicine that challenged the older methods of midwifery, promoted doctor-supervised deliveries, and employed the use of new obstetrical technologies. Great debate also focused on the importance of breastfeeding as a practice to ensure the health of children and as a way to cement the mother-child bond. An increased focus on birth control as well as changes in legislation for punishing concealment of pregnancy demonstrate the era’s concerns about regulating the reproductive power of the female body.
Romantic ideals of motherhood were based on a belief that women possessed a naturally sympathetic temperament that made them uniquely equipped to nurture children. However, when taken to extremes, this emotional nature could become dangerous. This debate over the nature of a mother's temperament, along with the increased emphasis on childhood as an important developmental phase, led to significant changes in childrearing during the Romantic period.
Since the home was considered the initial place for fostering future citizens of the British Empire, great emphasis was placed on care and training that children received there. Romantic literature demonstrates the fears that surround entrusting the nation's future to mothers' care. The "dangerously good" mother was troublesome in two ways. If she loved her children excessively, unchecked by rational approaches to childrearing, she risked becoming overly indulgent and making them into spoiled, selfish adults incapable of putting others’ needs before their own. Excessive affection could also cause her to risk acting in dangerous and self-sacrificial ways that would lead to her own demise (by starvation, for example). The "naturally bad" mother, operating at the mercy of her overly emotional constitution, risked two extremes of action. The exceedingly selfish mother lacked the ability to control her own feelings and desires, so that she neglected or harmed her children, while the overly sympathetic mother, particularly one living in severe poverty, could become murderous, committing infanticide in order to protect her child from a life of misery.
The debates over reproduction, birthing practices, and parenting in the Romantic era reflected the political, medical, legal, and social concerns of the time. The increased understanding of childhood as an important formative period fostered the ideals of motherhood that came to dominate the Victorian era and continued to influence decisions about parenting in the twenty-first century.
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