Some Mother's Day advice: Don't take any

Understanding the fear that drives moms to the distraction of the self-help shelves

I have spent the past few years reading old advice guides for mothers and writing about mothering. Now I have my own piece of advice: Don't believe what anyone tells you about how you ought to raise your children. Especially if you don't like what they're saying. Oh, sure, if it makes you feel better, or actually seems to solve a practical problem, go ahead and indulge. But otherwise, ignore them.

Advice books have sold well for centuries because mothers have perennially feared making mistakes that might damage or even kill their children. Rather than help moms recognize the fear as a normal but manageable response to the responsibilities of mothering, advice-givers have tended to legislate maternal behavior in silly, if not reprehensible, ways. Definite opinions have far exceeded knowledge.

For instance, John Locke, a popular 17th-century philosopher and advice writer, felt it was unhealthy to give water to a thirsty child without giving him bread first; and harmful for children to eat melons, peaches, and grapes, because they were "unwholesome," though strawberries and cherries were just fine.

In the next century, Jean JacquesRousseau thought water for thirsty children was fine; but red meat wasn't, because it might make the young too fierce. He suggested a diet of cake and milk.

The fact that no one in either era understood nutrition mattered not at all. The fact that Locke was childless, and that Rousseau made his mistress put all five of their children into a foundling hospital, where they died, didn't seem to affect their advice-giving entitlement either.

Modern advice as suspect as the old

Nor was the 20th century any sounder or steadier in its proffered wisdom: Feed them by the clock. Don't feed them by the clock. Hug them. Don't hug them. Set limits. Don't be rigid. Let them cry. Don't let them cry. Give them a lot of red meat. Don't give them red meat. Give them a lot of milk. Milk may be bad for them. Give them fruits and vegetables. But maybe the pesticides will poison them. Don't let them into your bed, it will traumatize them and make them weak. Oh, OK, let them in, it will help them "attach" better. But it may suffocate them.

What has been consistent for several centuries - and frighteningly so - is how the subtext of advice has been, in the words of Rousseau, aimed at keeping mothers "within the four walls of the home." Moms have long tended to feel unreasonably responsible for any difficulty their child experienced. Rather than alleviating that overload, pundits have played upon it, seeking to heighten distaff dutifulness by elevating angst.

Indeed, advice-givers have repeatedly blamed mothers for children's deaths anytime they violated rules about what constituted correct maternal behavior.

John Flavel, the 17th-century Puritan theologian who advised mothers about how to bear their grief in mourning dead children, warned them that their children may have died because they loved them too much, and thus made God jealous.

William Buchan, a famous late 18th-century advice-giver, told women if they wore tight stays (read: sexy) under their dresses, their girl children would likely be nippleless and unable to nurse their own offspring.

Furthermore, this Scottish "Enlightenment" doctor, the Dr. Spock of his era, opined: "A mother may blunder on, as most of them do, till she has killed a number of children, before she is capable of rearing one." Why? He believed that education destroyed mothers by alienating them from nature. A "genteel education" could make women so ignorant "of everything with which a mother ought to be acquainted that the infant itself is as wise in these matters as its parent."

Uppity moms - deadly?

When, at the end of the 19th century, infant mortality took a plunge (a fact some historians have attributed to cities finally learning to cover open sewers), and moms could no longer be pinned with infant death, the new discipline of psychology rushed in to fill the void. They blamed uppity mothers for causing all sorts of deadly psychological harm.

The famous pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott noted that mothers who failed to abandon the larger world completely might not give infants the total focus he felt they needed early on: "When a woman has a strong male identification she finds this part of her mothering function most difficult to achieve ... [leaving] but little room for primary maternal preoccupation."

The list of afflictions Winnicott elsewhere claimed were caused by such early maternal failure included autism and "schizoid personality."

During the past decade, some psychological pundits have claimed that a child's healthy brain development rested on mothers leaving work and staying home with infants for the first three years; likewise, they claimed that good "attachment" and correct emotional development similarly depended on maternal proximity.

Does the research support such assertions? No. Does that seem to stop anyone from making them? Not that I can see.

Many people - historically a large proportion of them men or childless women - have made lots of money telling mothers how to raise children.

My reading suggests that most of what's been said, though profitable for the sayers, has been of little objective use to mothers.

Few advice-givers have cared about the mother's actual experience. Fewer still have cared about facilitating her work raising children. If they did, the world would be vastly different.We'd have more equitable wages for working mothers, longer birth leaves for parents, more job-hour flexibility, better social services, Social Security compensation for the stay-at-home parent, safer housing, better day care, universal health benefits, lots of programs to help at-home mothers return to the workplace when their children are grown, and on and on.

As half-right as everyone else

Indeed, when a society comes along that really wants to benefit children, we will recognize it by the way it supports mothers ... and, of course, fathers. Not in talk, but in action.

Until then, as D.H. Lawrence once recommended, examine the teller, not the tale. And if the pundits' words of wisdom make you feel bad, don't pay any attention.

In the meantime, have a happy Mother's Day. You're probably getting child rearing as half-right as everyone else.

Janna Malamud Smith is a writer and clinical social worker. Her newest book is 'A Potent Spell: Mother love and the power of fear.'

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