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Ch. 12: Meditations on the Nurse Maid

"The trouble with these household problems which vex women so much is that we do not give our minds to them sufficiently," said earnest little Mrs. Blythe. "Now I mean to give my mind to this nurse-maid problem, and work it out."

It is high time that somebody did. And it is not only on my own account: this is something which affects us all,—all who have nurse-maids, that is. I suppose the mothers without nurse-maids have their problems, too; but I must consider mine now.

Now what is the matter with the nurse-maid? She does not suit me. She has palpable faults and deficiencies. I want a better nurse-maid. So far I have trusted to the law of supply and demand to produce her, but it does not seem to work. I demand her, just as I have demanded a better housemaid for some time; but the supply is not forthcoming. So now I mean to think it out, and see if I cannot find a way to the invention, discovery, or manufacture of a better nurse-maid. And I mean to be very clear and logical in my thinking about it, so as to come out in the end with proof. I want to prove what is the matter with the nurse-maid and how to make her better.

In the first place, what are my objections to the nurse-maid now? She is careless and irresponsible. She is ignorant. She is ill-mannered. She is often deceitful. I can't trust her.

Now it doesn't seem right that my child should be placed in the care of an ignorant, ill-mannered, careless, and irresponsible person,—even if not also untrustworthy,—does it? And it does not relieve me of the care as it ought. I have to take care of the child and the nurse-maid, too. What I want is a careful, responsible, wise, well-mannered, honourable young girl. She ought to have special training, too. It is really dreadful the way these ignorant girls undertake to care for children. We need schools—training schools—and diplomas. They could have practice classes on the children of the poor—or in institutions; and yet that idea does not quite suit me, either. My child is very individual and peculiar, and I don't believe that practising on poor children would fit a nurse-maid to take care of my child. But nice people would not want their children to be practised on. They would have to take the poor ones: it would do them good, anyway. They get no care now: their mothers are shockingly ignorant and neglectful.

But, after all, I don't have to arrange the training schools. I only know that she ought to have special training, and it ought to be practical as well as theoretical; and that means practising on some children somewhere, somehow. And they certainly would have to be poor, because rich people would not let their children go to be practised on. Maybe the poor people would not, either. Then it would have to be orphans, I guess, combining nurse-training schools with orphan asylums, and foundlings, too.

Well, now these nurse-maids would go to these training schools to improve themselves, would they! Come to think of it, they only go to nursing because they need the pay; and, even if the training schools were free, they'd have to wait longer for their money. And, if they got no more with training than without, they would not go, I'm afraid. We should certainly have to pay them more trained than untrained. That is perfectly logical, I'm sure. And, of course, that would be an obstacle. If the training schools were not free, we should have to pay them more yet,—enough to make it worth while to study the business of caring for children. A short course might do,—six months or a year.

I've heard my mother say that she knew something about taking care of children by the time Charley was born. But that was,—well, I was eight, and I'm the third,—that was about twelve years. Oh, but she wasn't in a training school! That would teach them faster. There would be more children to practise on. Let me see: if it took my mother twelve years to learn by practising on five children (Charley was the fifth,—four children), how many children would it take to learn on in one year? I'll get John to do that for me: I'm not good at figures. Besides, it's different,—altogether different; for my mother was a mother, so she knew how, to begin with, and nurse-maids are not. So—to be strictly logical—it ought to take nurse-maids longer, I'm afraid. The training schools will have to be free: I'm pretty sure of that. And that means public or private endowment. We might as well think it all out clearly.

Should it be added to the public-school system,—open to all girls,—perhaps compulsory? Why not! Why wouldn't it be a good thing for all girls to know something of the care of children? But could we do that? Public schools are in politics; and that is awful. It would take forever to get it that way; and my child wants a nurse-maid now! Private endowment, I guess. So many rich people want to help the masses. This would furnish employment, raise wages, and give us nurse-maids. I'm sure it would appeal to any philanthropist.

Yes, some rich person must endow a training school for nurses,—that sounds like hospitals; for child-nurses,—that sounds like wet-nurses; for nurse-maids,—why need they be maids, though? Well, if they were married, they would have children of their own of course, and couldn't take care of ours. One would think, though, that motherhood would give them more experience,—that they would know how to care for children better. But, then, they wouldn't want to leave their own children to take care of ours. And they couldn't take care of them together. A mother would naturally do more for her own: she wouldn't be fair.

A training school for nurse-maids. After all, "maid" does not mean "unmarried" in this connection: it means simply "servant." And "nurse" comes from the time when mere nursing was all that was required,—a kind of a survival of old customs. How these things do open up, when one thinks about them! Why "nurse-maid" at all! Why not have a new and attractive name: that would help make them go to the training school, too.

Nurse, nursing,—it isn't nursing our children want. They are not sick, and they don't stay babies all the time they need this person. What is it that our children need? Of course, they do need direct, personal care; and, when they are babies, they need real "nursing,"—just somebody to—to—well, they have to be fed,—and that only needs a knowledge of infant physiology and nutrition; to keep the bottles clean, of course, and be very accurate, and follow directions. They don't need to know so much after all: the doctor tells what to give it to eat and what not to. And the mother understands the child's needs! Still, even for babies, they need some kind of training,—the nurses, I mean,—not the mothers: it is divinely implanted in the mother. And, then, mothers are studying these things now. I know ever so many young mothers who are taking child-study now; and about nutrition, too.

But the trouble is they can't depend on the nurses to carry out instructions. If they were only trustworthy! Will the training schools make them honourable? I suppose so. They would get some sense of the importance and dignity of their work. They would be graded and marked, of course, in their diplomas, so that one could pick out the dependable ones; and that would gradually elevate the standard. The trouble is, of course, when they go out. Children must be out of doors; and, in cities where we have no yards, they cannot be under the mother's eye, so they must be out with the nurse-maid. That's perfectly logical. Then there are the other nurse-maids. One cannot keep them isolated: that's out of the question. And if they have admirers, as they do, of course,—young girls always will have admirers, and training schools will not alter that,—why, if they meet their admirers, it has a tendency to make them careless. That is natural. We must allow for such things. And it is a perfectly natural temptation to take the baby to see their own families. We forbid it, of course; but I admit that it is a temptation. And there are all those awful risks of diseases and things. Now, if their families were nicer people and lived in nicer places,—but then they wouldn't want to be nurse-maids! But if the training school raises wages and standards, that will have an effect on the class of people who take up the work.

It certainly is the noblest, most beautiful, most important work in the world,—the training of children. I wonder why our own girls do not take it up,—our college girls. But then, of course, they wouldn't be "nurse-maids." Perhaps, if it had another name—

Now let me think, and be fair. Would I want my sister Jessie to be a nurse-maid? She is taking a kindergarten course, and we all approve of that: it does help one so in all those problems that perplex a mother! But, if she went to Mrs. MacAdoo's as a nurse-maid— The MacAdoos are nice people, too; and the children are as nice as any I know. They have a Swedish nurse-maid now,—a big, hearty, wholesome-looking girl, but stupid. Why, she cannot answer the simplest questions Harold asks, hardly; and he's always asking them. Jessie has him in the kindergarten where she is. I don't mean that she's the principal, but she is training there; and she tells me what a bright child he is, and what stupid things Christine has told him. And you see he has Jessie only three hours a day, and Christine all the time he's awake. Jessie is taking a special course in infant psychology, and she says Christine is doing him a world of harm. But she is so good-natured and faithful that they keep her. They don't realise that her being stupid is any harm to the children, I suppose. But, if Jessie had him all the time, Harold certainly would develope more rationally and more easily. And yet I am sure Jessie would not take Christine's place. You see we visit the MacAdoos, and it would be so awkward. Now, I think,—logically,—I am approaching a—I forget the name of it, but it's a thing there's no way out of.

We would like our nurse-maids to be ladies, but ladies are not willing to be nurse-maids. Now will the training school make ladies—or, at least, partial ladies—of our nurse-maids? And, if it does, will that make them disinclined to be nurse-maids? Or can we arrange the position of the nurse-maid, so that ladies will be willing to take it? What is the real difference between Jessie's position and Christine's? Why, Jessie has a lot of children come to her part of the time; and Christine has a few children, and goes to them all the time. And Jessie has,—or will have when she's graduated and has a kindergarten of her own, as I daresay she will,—she has control of the children while they are with her, and can carry out her principles. The mothers even consult her sometimes.

But Christine has to carry out the mother's orders. She does what she is told—or ought to. No, Jessie never would be willing to take Mrs. MacAdoo's orders about the children. Mrs. MacAdoo is exceptionally stupid about children, I do think. She doesn't think Christine's telling them stories about things to frighten them is any harm,—says they'll outgrow it. And anybody who knows anything of infant psychology knows how dangerous it is to frighten children. And yet, of course, to be perfectly fair, I wouldn't want a nurse-maid to dictate to me about my child. It is out of the question—absolutely. Why, it would destroy the mother's influence and authority altogether! And—come to think of it—I suppose a trained nurse-maid would have views of her own, and they might conflict with the mother's—

Now, where I have got to so far,—it is beautiful, thinking things out clearly,—we want our children taken care of by ladies, honourable, intelligent, educated, refined, and specially trained for the business. I'm quite certain about that. Like Jessie, for instance. She is just born for it,—always did love children, and knew how to manage them from the time she was a little girl. And she's studying all the science of it and practising in the kindergarten,—on the same kind of children, too. Jessie is the ideal. It is really wonderful to see her with them. They love her, and they do what she says, too; but she never seems to be making them do anything: they just do it. Those MacAdoos behave very much better with her than they do with their mother. I believe most of the children do, for that matter. Except little Cassie Wells. She has the most devoted mother I ever saw. It is a lesson to us all. She never lets her out of her sight, I do believe. Often comes to the kindergarten, just to be with her. And, you see, Cassie just depends on her for everything; and nobody else can do anything with her. It is beautiful,—such absolute dependence and absorption. Yes, as I said, Jessie is the ideal. But, then, Jessie is not a nurse-maid, and never would be.

Of course, if there was any way that Jessie could have the children with her and have her way with them, as she does in the kindergarten— But you can't do that with little children,—you cannot separate the child from its mother! When they are older, they go to school, of course; and, when they are older yet, they go to college, and so on. But the little child needs its mother every hour. And, as its mother cannot possibly give it every hour, we have to have the nurse-maid. If mothers had no other claims, then, of course, you would have the highest ideal relation. Cassie Wells's mother has given up everything else. She doesn't go out with her husband at all. Says that society has no claim beside that of the child. Of course, he stays at home with her—mostly.

I'm sure a man ought to value his wife's society more than any other, especially when she is such a devoted mother. She takes all the periodicals about children, and reads all the books; and then she modifies it all to suit her particular child. I never knew any mother so conscientiously given up to the care of a child. She really talks of nothing else. And, when that child is sick,—and she is extremely delicate and always having dangerous illnesses,—her mother is simply glued to her bedside: they can't drag her away. It is a pity that the child is not better material; for she isn't particularly bright, nor very well behaved, I think. But, then, her mother is doing everything that can be done.

Jessie says that child is being mothered too much,—that she needs more freedom and an impartial outside management. But, then, Jessie is a good deal of a theorist; and, after all, she isn't a mother. Nothing can really equal the mother's care for her own child! Still, we simply can't do it,—all of us,—as families increase. We owe something to our husbands, I am sure; and we have our social duties; and our health is not always equal to such a strain. No, the mother must have help; and that means the nurse-maid. It's no use talking about Jessie. Even if she would do it, there's not enough of her to go around! We never can expect that "faculty with children" in everybody: they simply don't have it. Most girls don't care much for children, nor know anything about them. Of course, after they become mothers, it is different. Then it all comes to them.

Now, if nurse-maids could be mothers first— But I argued that out before. If they were, they wouldn't be mothers of our children; and motherhood only teaches how to do what is best for one's own children. Besides, we couldn't hire them then, because we would not separate mothers from their own children; and, if they had their children and ours, too, they would not treat them fairly. And we would not want them brought up with ours, either. No, they've got to be "maids," that's sure.

Now the average young girl does not know or care much about children. Therefore, she has to be trained. (What a comfort it is to be really logical!) And, as there is no place to train them now, we have got to make a place. It all comes round to the training school for nurse-maids. That's the logical outcome.

Again, since we must have private nurse-maids under our orders,—really a servant,—we cannot expect ladies to take such positions. And—this ought to be bracketted with that last—since we cannot, of course, pay more than so much, that is against ladies doing it, too. Some people can, I know. Jessie told me of a very nice girl she knew,—a classmate in college and a trained kindergartner,—who was unable to get such a position as she wanted, and took a place with some very rich people as a sort of lady nurse-teacher to the children. But she said it was perfectly horrid, especially in travelling, having to eat with servants and be treated as such. I can see that it would take a kind of heroism, and we cannot really count on heroic nurse-maids. No, it has to be from the lower classes that we take our nurse-maids. I think that is proved. The average employer simply couldn't pay them enough to attract a higher class of labour. These are really questions of political economy in part, you see.

The ordinary young girl of the lower classes,—that is the raw material of our nurse-maid. Naturally, she is ill-mannered or unmannered, and careless and ignorant and all those things. Therefore, we must train her. In order to do that, we must first provide the training school, and, second, make her go to it. Now I wonder how we could do that. The higher wages would be an object of course: that would have to be insisted on. And we might "create a sentiment." That's it! That's what we must do,—create a sentiment.

But it's no use doing anything till we've got the school. And I worked that out as having to be done by private endowment. That involves agitation, of course; and we must set about it. We can get teachers plenty, there is so much interest in child-study now; and it will be a splendid thing for the lower classes to take their young girls and train them thoroughly in the theory of child-culture. It will make them so much better mothers afterward, when they do marry, after spending some years in taking care of our children,—putting their theories in practice! But wait. That looks queer. Looks as if the rich people were furnishing elaborate instruction free,—to young women of the lower classes,—and then paying them good wages for practising on the children of the upper classes, so that the poor women might be better mothers afterward.

I must have made a mistake somewhere. I'm going to reverse that position, and see how it would work. Suppose young girls of the upper classes took elaborate instruction in child-culture, and then practised on the children of the lower classes, in order to be better mothers afterward. That seems more satisfactory, somehow; yet it means a lot of work. It would do our girls good—I can see that—and do the children of the lower classes good, and, no doubt, make the girls better mothers. Besides, I'm wasting time,—"arguing in a circle," John would say; for that upper-class-girl hypothesis wouldn't give us nurse-maids. Now where was I? Mothers have to have help; i.e., nurse-maids. These have to be private servants at low wages: therefore, ladies would not do it. Therefore, we must have our children taken care of by girls from the lower classes. They are not suitable persons to take care of children as they stand: therefore, we must train them.

Now I mean to really work for this thing,—to create a sentiment. I'll begin early in the autumn, as soon as we get back. And I'm so glad I'm going to have such a lovely summer to make me fit for it. You see I'm very much pulled down. Little John has been such a care, and the nurse-maids I've had have been so unreliable. Why, the child has been sick again and again just through their carelessness. I'm sure of it. And mother said I simply must go away and build up, for the child's own sake; and John agreed with her—for once. And there's such a lovely arrangement for the summer: nothing ever happened more conveniently. You see Jessie is such an enthusiast about children. And she has planned to be at home this summer. Our home is perfectly lovely, anyway, and very healthy,—quite in the country, and yet within easy reach of town. They're going to have the Summer School of Child-study there at Seabay this year, and Jessie has several of her class visiting her. And she said, in her solemn, funny way, that they must have specimens to work on,—first-class specimens! She insisted on little John, of course, and she's persuaded Clara and George to let her have their three for a while; and the little MacAdoos are to be there, too. It will be a regular picnic for the children. It took a long time to bring me round to it. But, then, it's my own lovely home. I know how healthy it is. And mother will be there. And one of Jessie's friends is a doctor, and in a children's hospital, too. She ought to see that everything is right for their health. So, if they are happy in that lovely old place, and healthy and well taught and safe, why, I suppose I can leave.

Of course, I wouldn't for anything on earth but health. Mrs. Wells was perfectly horrified when I told her. They asked Cassie, too; but she wouldn't hear of it. She said nothing but death should ever separate her from her child. And, dear me, Cassie looked so white that it really seemed as if it would. She made me feel guilty again; but John can't come to any harm with my mother's experience and Jessie's knowledge and natural talent. That's the main thing. Jessie always cared more for children than I did,—except little John, of course. They've fixed the place up on purpose for children. Such arrangements for bathing and digging and mud-pieing and gardening and so on you never saw. There is something for those chicks to do all the blessed time, and these nice girls—my own friends—to be with them every minute. You see they take turns and relieve each other, so they are always fresh for the children. And, then being so enthusiastic and scientific, it isn't drudgery to them. They are studying all the time. And how glad I shall be to get back in the fall! Then I can work up that training school for nurse-maids.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman