Advice to New Mothers: Victorian Style

With Mother’s Day coming up in many countries around the world, this historical romance writer thinks it might be interesting to take a look at motherhood during the Victorian era.  Strip away the sentimental gauze which covers the 19th century and you’ll find some alarming advice given to new moms.

A young bride could go from complete ignorance about sex to motherhood within the first year of her marriage. And in an age where widespread knowledge of contraception did not exist (and providing it was often a crime), the average middle class Englishwoman would give birth four more times over the course of her life. (Provided she did not die of puerperal fever or the effects of a complicated birth.) Then, as now, advice books to help her through the process of raising a family abounded.

However, attitudes differed from our day. For one thing, women were not encouraged to follow their own mothers’ advice or their own common sense. The (mostly male) writers of books on ‘the management of children’ urged their readers to defer to “the superior wisdom of medical experts.”  While the possession of a functional uterus does not automatically make a woman a good mother, some of the ‘wisdom’ offered is astounding. In a bad way.

New mothers who wanted to breastfeed were discouraged.  Even where the occasional doctor might acknowledge some advantage to the practice, nursing for longer than three months interfered with a woman’s perceived duty to her husband and household.  Also, advice books opined that breast milk was not nearly as nutritious as ‘pap’ — a concoction of bread soaked in water and sweetened with sugar. (And they wondered why so many infants didn’t survive to their first birthday!)

In the ideal painted by experts of that time, mothers did not spend excessive amounts of time with their babies and young children.  Instead a nurse, nursemaid, or nanny provided most of the care, with the mother in a supervisory role.  The old maxim is “Children should be seen and not heard.” While that is still an excellent piece of advice, especially when we take our kids out in public, in some families in the 19th century, children were barely even seen. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were considered model parents for visiting their two oldest children once a day.  Their younger children got much shorter shrift, as the Queen noted in a letter that she scarcely saw them more than once every three months.  While I believe that children are small wild animals that need to be trained in at least the appearance of civilized behavior before we let them loose on the rest of the world, this is extreme even for me.

So is the Victorian concept of proper food for growing children.  Meals were to be plain. Highly flavored food might arouse passions (especially dangerous in girls)! Fruits and vegetables were suspect, and even fresh bread and butter might lead young people astray. Mrs. Beeton suggests day old bread is good enough for the schoolroom. Jam was considered inappropriate for children.  One young woman only tasted marmalade for the first time after her marriage!

What about you? Would you have enjoyed raising children or growing up in this era?

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2 thoughts on “Advice to New Mothers: Victorian Style”

  1. The Victorian Era has always fascinated me, but I would’ve gone against what society dictated and spent time with my children. Personally, I would choose to grow up during the Regency instead. Thank you for such an informative post!

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  2. Hi Diva J! I’m with you — I would have been one of those neurotic mothers who wanted to spend time with her children. Honestly, I’m not sure if I would have wanted to grow up before the 20th century. I really love my modern plumbing and microwave, not to mention the computer and iPod!

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