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?