Standards of mothering often change


To err is human, unless you're a mother.

Held to an impossible standard, blamed for problems she can't control, it's no wonder 20th-century mom is a basket case.

It wasn't ever thus, says Shari L. Thurer, a Boston University psychologist who spent four years researching mothers through history. Some of the child-rearing practices she unearthed would send Spock into shock.

Swaddling? Wet nursing? Nannies? How did humanity survive it all?

"There are probably many good ways to mother. There isn't only one way," says Dr. Thurer, author of "The Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother."

She is traveling around the country promoting the paperback edition (Penguin, $12.95) of a book the New York Times called an "entertaining romp through history" designed to bolster the notion that "the modern mother cannot possibly do worse than her predecessors."

Happy Mother's Day. You're not as inept as you thought.

Dr. Thurer, 47, said she has yet to treat a mother who doesn't harbor shameful fears that her thoughts or deeds have damaged her offspring.

Dr. Thurer herself was so intimidated by the "mother-bashing" in the psychoanalytical cases she studied in school that she was afraid to have a child. (Maternity prevailed. Daughter Sally is 17 and doing fine.)

"Now that we have these very educated mothers, they take all this so seriously," Dr. Thurer said, "and they're so guilt-ridden when things go wrong."

Much of this worry is needless, she contends, because not only is the "good mother" continually redefined, but mothers' power is limited. "Mothering," she says, "is only one factor in how your child turns out."

It's healthy to take stock of our notions about raising children, agrees Dr. Robert Hauck, Seattle pediatrician and a spokesman for the Washington chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"I think we need to do it constantly," he said, "because our world is changing so fast, and there's no baseline formula on how to do it right."

Bill Womack at the University of Washington said gender roles are under the microscope as never before, as society tries to accommodate everyone's right to develop and contribute to society.

"That does change the role of the mom as being the caretaker of the family," said Dr. Womack, associate professor of child psychiatry and co-director of the Children's Hospital Stress Management Clinic. "Knowing about history allows us to be less judgmental. The point is, women have had varying roles in society throughout history."

But historical relativism has its limits. The fact that different child-rearing practices flourished centuries ago doesn't prove their worth.

"That's why we're in the mess we're in today," Dr. Hauck said with a laugh.

Dr. Hauck and Dr. Womack said all children, regardless of time or place, have certain basic needs.

"These things," Dr. Womack said, "have to do with having consistent adult figures around you who care for you from birth."

Dr. Hauck's prescription is much the same: "They need a good dose of unqualified love and acceptance.

When they get to be a little older, they need consistent limits -- reasonable, humane limits. It all starts with children that are wanted, too."

Through history, however, everything from discipline to bonding has swung to extremes. Historians debate whether medieval mom even loved her children, given the harsh conditions and the high death rate. One constant, Dr. Thurer said, is that child abuse rises in eras that hold women in low esteem.

As she tells it:

* The ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans abandoned unwanted children in droves, leading to the creation of huge foundling homes that flourished until the 19th century. (Unfortunately, they were so unsanitary that most babies died.)

* At the turn of the century, a new breed of scientific experts advised against kissing or cuddling children for fear of spoiling them and spreading germs.

Dr. Thurer is especially fascinated by the long history of wet nursing, in which children were farmed out to surrogate mothers until they were weaned. "The kids were just taken away immediately," she said, "and they didn't see their own mothers for two or three years."

Wet nursing was common in ancient Egypt and Greece and flourished in Europe through the 18th century, she said, even though it violates our modern belief in the sanctity of the mother-child bond.

She concedes "we don't know" how the practice affected children. "But we can't assume it was a bad effect," she said, "because it went on for so long."

Womack disagrees. "I think it's a lousy way to raise kids," he said, stressing the need for consistent, nurturing care in children's earliest years.

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