A Transition in Motherhood

I’m thinking about starting a new series here on my blog consisting simply of snippits from my research and studies that I think my readers might find interesting. So today you get a section from Julia Grant’s Raising Baby by the Book (page 15) on the transition from extensive to intensive mothering:

For seventeenth- and eighteenth-century colonial American women, child rearing was only one of a multitude of tasks shared by neighbors and kin. With the help of older children, mothers supervised numerous offspring – their own and those of neighbors and relatives – while attending to household needs – sewing, washing, preparing food, and caring for the sick.

Historian Laurel Ulrich defines colonial mothering as “extensive,” explaining that “mothering meant generalized responsibility for an assembly of youngsters rather than concentrated devotion to a few.” (She uses the terms “extensive” and “intensive” to differentiate between two forms of mothering.)

During the colonial period mothers raised an average of seven or eight children to adulthood, but during the nineteenth century women’s fertility rates declined dramatically. By midcentury most women were having five or six children, and by 1900 the average woman had three or four children at close intervals and ended her childbearing at an earlier age than her grandmother had.

With fewer children to share their resources of care and affection, middle-class mothers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries increasingly engaged in “intensive” parenting – that is, they concentrated their attention on the physical and emotional nurture of individual children.

Certain mothers, however, continued to engage in extensive mothering: those who were living in slavery, raising large numbers of children, struggling to make ends meet, caring for children alone, or working for wages inside or outside the home.

I have to say, I really found the above section fascinating, because I think many Quiverfull mothers revert to extensive mothering without having any idea that that is what they’re doing. I also think that smaller families can engage in intensive parenting in ways that especially large families simply cannot, which makes sense appearing that the author seems to be tying the growth of intensive parenting to a decrease in family size over the years. I also wonder if some of the accusations I heard growing up in my parents’ huge family regarding small families “spoiling” their children results simply from the extensive/intensive mothering difference as well. Your thoughts?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Wendy

    This is fascinating. What are you studying in graduate school?

  • Anonymous

    In colonial times, extensive style child rearing may have been adequate because children needed far less education to work the family farm. Girls in colonial times were often not educated at all.Today society is much more complex and parents need to invest a lot of education if a child is grow up and function in society. This is true for every job or vocation, even that of homemaker. An uneducated child is severely handicapped.The patriarchy movement fosters a romantic longing for a past that never existed. We cannot go back to the subsidence lifestyle of colonial times. Nor do we want to revert to an era when infant mortality was 50%, scores of women died in childbirth and a simple scratch could lead to a fatal infection.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Anonymous – "The patriarchy movement fosters a romantic longing for a past that never existed. We cannot go back to the subsidence lifestyle of colonial times. Nor do we want to revert to an era when infant mortality was 50%, scores of women died in childbirth and a simple scratch could lead to a fatal infection."EXACTLY. Yes, families used to have an average of eight children spread over twenty years, yes, older children used to raise the younger ones, yes, adult children used to be very controlled by their parents through control of the family farm, etc, but things are not the same today. You can't just go back to that, and you really shouldn't want to. Just because something was done that way in the past doesn't mean that it should be done that way today.

  • Anonymous

    Did she also mention that while fertility rates declined during the 19th cen. childhood mortality also went down? Just curious – since it's been my experience as a history major that most people forget/don't know that infant mortality was around 50% until the industrial revolution. (It dropped even further when antibiotics came along.) So yes fertility declined but so did the number of children who died before they were 18. I don't know if there is a conscience cause and effect, but if you are fairly certain that all of your children are going to live to adulthood a large family – statistically replacing the deceased children* – is not always in the best interest of the living children. Also the industrial revolution took people away from the farm and into the cities – thus reducing the need for children as labor and deceasing the amount of space a family has to live in, but rising the standard of living overall? So when you are no longer fighting day to day just to stay alive, you have more time to invest in yourself and your family. The IR and the Victorian age really changed how children, family, and childhood was viewed. It’s rather interesting IMHO.Just food for thought.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Yes, she discusses declining childhood mortality, although interestingly enough birthrates fell before mortality did. I had not realized that. Child mortality did not fall until the 1880s, but birthrates began falling immediately after 1800. The industrial revolution absolutely affected falling birth rates, though, as children became more expensive to raise, especially in the middle class. You had new expectations of schooling and of consumption, making children more expensive to raise and decreasing the payoff you received from their labor. Naturally, a smaller family is the result. With fewer kids, you can invest more in each and hopefully get a better return. At least, that was the reasoning. Birth rates were very low by the mid 1900s, and the baby boom, with its typical families of three or four children, was actually an abnormality for the time.There's more, too. In 1870 children were valued as economic assets, but by 1930 they were valued only as emotional assets. Seriously, Viviana Zelizer has an awesome book on this transition, it's called Pricing the Priceless Child.

  • Anonymous

    I have a friend with a large family. Once, I was asking her about how she finds time to spend one-on-one with her kids. Her answer was something like "That's worldly thinking, they have their siblings to play with." Truthfully, I think this was an excuse and that she may feel guilty about be spread so thin.I find it funny and pathetic how many large homeschooling families denigrate those who let their kids go to school because of the "pack mentality," yet think their own large group of kids at home just need each other, and not too much attention from mom, except to teach first time obedience as a toddler.