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Ch. 14: Mothers, Natural and Unnatural

We use the word "natural" in many senses,—sometimes with warm approval, as indicating that which is best; sometimes with disapproval, as low and discreditable.

"Natural affection" is one familiar phrase, and "unnatural monster" another, which show a firm belief in the rightness of the working laws of the universe.

On the other hand, the whole story of human development lies in changing those conditions and habits which were once natural to the slow, laborious, hard-won advantages of civilisation. "The natural man" or man "in a state of nature" is a remote ancestor; and we do not allow unchecked freedom to animal passions and appetites among us on the ground that they are "natural."

It is natural to take revenge for injuries; it is natural to eat too much; it is natural to be too careless in youth and too cautious in old age. "Natural" means according to the laws of nature; and the laws of nature have a wide and long range.

In applying the word to any one creature, we have to limit it by time and circumstance. It is natural for an absolutely wild creature, which has never seen man, not to be afraid of him. It is natural for the same creature, when hunted, to fear man, and shun him. If long tamed, like the cat and dog, it is natural to come trustfully to the well-known friend.

Nature is essentially changeful. Its laws remain the same, but the interaction of those laws produces ever-varying results. "The nature" of any given creature varies with its circumstances,—give it time,—as in the above case of the dog and cat; but the whole scale of behaviour is "natural" in its place and time. "A state of nature" is not a period with an exact date, nor any one grade of conduct. That conduct which is most advantageous to a creature under given circumstances is natural. The only conduct which is "unnatural" would be that which was exhibited in contradiction to the laws of nature, if such were possible.

In this sense an ascetic life is unnatural, as meaning destruction to the individual and race; but, in the sense that the ascetic fondly believes he is acting for his ultimate benefit, his conduct is "natural," after all.

A wild rose is "natural," a garden rose or hot-house rose is "cultivated," a velvet rose on a bonnet is "artificial." Yet it is as natural for man to cultivate and imitate for his own good pleasure as for a bee to store honey. When we were in what we usually call "a state of nature," we did not keep clean, wear clothes, go to school or to church. Yet cleanliness and clothing, education and religion, are natural products of "human nature."

When we apply the word to human conduct, we ought to be clear in our own minds as to whether we mean "natural"—i.e., primitive, uncivilised, savage—or natural,—suited to man's present character and conditions. Primitive man did not send his children to school, but we do not consider it unnatural that we do send ours. Primitive woman carried her naked baby in her arms; modern woman pushes her much-dressed infant in a perambulator. But there is nothing unnatural in preferring the perambulator. It is natural to do what is easiest for the mother and best for the baby; and our modern skill and intelligence, our knowledge and experience, are as natural to us as ignorance, superstition, and ferocity were to our primal ancestors.

With this in mind, let us look at the use of the term "natural" as applied to mothers. What sort of mother do we praise as natural, and what sort do we blame as "unnatural"? Is our term used with reference to a period of development, "natural" motherhood, meaning primitive, savage motherhood? or is it used with reference to the exercise of that intelligence, acquired knowledge and skill, and array of conveniences, which are natural to civilised man to-day? I think it will be found that in most cases we unconsciously use it in the first sense, natural meaning merely primitive or even animal, and with but too good reason, if we study the behaviour we are describing.

Motherhood is pre-eminently a "natural" function in both senses. It might almost be called the natural function, as reproduction seems to be more important in the evolution of species than even self-preservation. It would seem as if the instinct of self-preservation were given merely to keep the creatures alive for purposes of reproduction; for, when the two forces come into conflict, the reproductive instinct is the stronger.

The reproductive functions are performed by both male and female; but, as species developes and more conscious effort is applied to the great task, the female has the larger share.

In furnishing nutrition to the young, order mammalia gives the entire task to the mother; and their care, protection, and defence are mainly hers.

With the human species, in proportion to its development, the scales have turned the other way. With us the father furnishes food, shelter, and protection, save for the first period of suckling. In many cases the mother fails even to provide this assuredly "natural" contribution to the child's nourishment. This would be a good opportunity to call her "unnatural"; but, if she is sufficiently assiduous with the bottle or wet-nurse, we do not. Beyond that period the human mother merely waits upon and watches her children in the shelter provided by the father, and administers to them such food, clothing, and other supplies as he furnishes.

Her educational office, too, has largely passed from her, owing to the encroachments of the school and kindergarten. She still moulds their morals and manners as far as she is able, and has command of their education during the earliest and most important years.

Now is it "natural" for a mother to take no part in getting food for children? If ever there was a natural function pertaining to motherhood, that seems to be one. If we use the word in its primitive sense, she certainly is "an unnatural mother" for relinquishing this primal duty. But, if we use it in the other sense, she is quite natural in accepting the conditions of civilised life as far as they are advantageous to the child. Is it "natural" for a mother to submit her children to the instruction of other extra-maternal persons? or to call the doctor when they are sick, engage the dentist to fill their teeth, and hire persons to help take care of them? These things are not primitive surely, but neither are they "unnatural." The "nature" of motherhood is to provide what is best for the child; and the multiplied services and facilities of our socially developed lives are as natural to us as our smooth white skins, once "naturally" brown and shaggy.

In all fair thinking, speaking, and writing, we should decide clearly upon our meaning, and see that it would be very unnatural for modern women to behave as was natural to primitive women.

The main duty remains the same,—to benefit the child. Methods and materials are open to choice and change. Motherhood is as open to criticism as any other human labour or animal function. Free study, honest criticism and suggestion, conscientious experiment in new lines,—by these we make progress. Why not apply study, criticism, suggestion, and experiment to motherhood, and make some progress there?

"Progress in motherhood" is a strange phrase to most of us. We would as soon speak of progress in digestion.

That shows how we persist in confounding the physical functions of reproduction with the elaborate processes that follow; and yet we do not apply our scornful term of "unnatural mother" to the weak, unhealthy woman who cannot compete with a cow in this stage of motherhood. We should think fairly one way or the other. Success in the physical functions of maternity we shall do well to keep up to a level with the performance of the "lower animals." The ensuing processes are the ones open to progress.

No bottle is as good as the breast. "You cannot improve on nature!" But you can improve in methods of clothing, feeding in later years, house and school building, teaching, and every other distinctly human process.

If the human mother does not compare favourably with other animals in the physical processes of reproduction, she is therein "unnatural." If she does not keep up with the opportunities of her race and time in all the ensuing care of the child, she is therein unnatural. Such care and culture as was natural to give a cave-baby would be unnatural to-day. Is not the average mother of to-day too prone to content herself with a very low-grade performance of a modern mother's duties, on the plea that her methods are "natural,"—namely, primitive?

The grade of "care" given by the mother of to-day is too often exactly that of the mother of many thousand years ago. We depend almost altogether on what is known as "the maternal instinct," which is a "natural instinct," to be sure, just as it is a natural instinct for the male to fight. The right education of a child to-day requires more than instinct to produce the best results. Because we have not used the helpful influences of association, study, and experience in this most important labour of life, we keep our progress as a living species far below the level of our progress in material improvements.

When anything is said of improving the human stock, we instantly think of the methods of breeders of cattle, and are at once convinced of the undesirability and impossibility of applying any such means to humanity.

But there remain open to us two immense avenues of improvement, both free to mothers. One is the mother's modifying influence upon the race through selection,—that duty of wise choice of a superior father for her children, which is "natural" enough to the lower animals, but which we agree to ignore in the bringing up of our young women. Careful and conscientious training to this end would have a great effect upon the race.

This does not mean the self-conscious forcing of a young heart to marry a "superior" man without the blessed leading of true love; but such open knowledge of what constituted an inferior or positively injurious man as would lower the likelihood of nice girls loving the undesirables.

The other and far more practical road of racial advance is in improving the environment of our young children, both materially and psychically, by the intelligent co-ordinate action of mothers. If we improve the individual as far as possible, it is better not to meddle too much with the subtle forces which lead to mating. These processes are not cerebral, and ought not to be made self-conscious. But educational processes are conscious, and should be studied.

The "natural" mother gives no thought to her approaching duties during youth. The animals do not, the savages do not, and our charming young girls do not. Is it not time for us to show a generation of mothers sufficiently "unnatural" to give honest thought and study to the great duty which lies before them? Clear-headed, intelligent girls, as yet unhampered by the blind brute instinct of maternal passion, might be able to plan together for the good of the child, as they never would be able to plan separately for the good of their own individual children.

A year or two of thorough study and practice in the arts and sciences of child-culture would soon convince the girl as to whether she was adapted to be an educator of little children or merely a mother. I say "merely a mother" in this rather derogatory way, alluding to the process of bearing young and perhaps suckling them. This is an essential physical function, common to all the higher animals, and usually fulfilled by them much better than by us. The continuous and subtle processes of education which come after, and the wise care required for the physical health and comfort of the child, do not come "naturally" to every mother. It is here that the skill and training are needed. Maternity is one thing, and education another.

It cannot be too strongly reiterated that maternal love does not necessarily include wisdom. It is "natural" for every mother to love her children, but it does not follow that she knows what is best for them. The animal mother does know by instinct; and we, content to take our pattern of motherhood from the beasts, have imagined that we needed nothing more.

The individual animal has the necessary knowledge of its kind lodged in each specimen. One bear, lion, or sheep, can teach its young all that any of them know, and care for them one as well as another.

There is an immense difference between this "natural" condition and ours, where individuals differ so widely in wisdom, and where the material conditions essential to the good of the child are not open to every mother to select from as instinct dictates and procure according to her individual skill, but are produced by us collectively, and only to be secured by combined intelligence. For our mothers to insure good conditions for their children requires more than maternal instinct.

The "natural" mother of to-day is reared without an inkling of what lies before her; and no preacting instinct warns her of the effect of her girlhood's wasted opportunities. She marries still by "instinct," which often leads her astray; or, when she uses her conscious reason, it is generally in lines of financial advantage, irrespective of the to-be-father's health or character. She fulfils the physical functions of maternity rather reluctantly and with poor success, being frequently much the worse for the performance, and then rather boasting of her enfeebled condition, as if it was in some mysterious way a credit to her.

Then she brings to the care and education of her children merely her rudiments of maternal instinct,—an instinct so far painfully lacking in wise prevision of the event and preparation for it.

Where failing health or "social duties" or any other causes prevent her constant attendance on the child, the rich mother hires a low-class woman to take care of him; and, if the poor woman has too much work to be able to constantly attend upon the child, she gets along as she individually can without taking much care of him. Or, if she is of that small class who do really "take care of" their children personally, the care she gives is the mere chance outcome of her personal character and conditions, and may or may not be beneficial.

All this conduct we call "natural," and see no blame in it. We assume that every mother knows how to care for her children; and, if we only see her keeping at it incessantly, we never criticise the methods or results. That is not, in general, a charge against motherhood. We do criticise individual cases very freely, yet make no deduction from our own wide observations.

Now let us picture an "unnatural" mother. As a young girl, she thoughtfully considers her approaching duties. She says to herself: "I am to be a mother; to contribute my personal share to the improvement of humanity by bringing into the world some one better than I am. I must do all I can to be better personally, in character and physique, for the child's sake. Whatever I may be able to do for it afterward, I will give it good endowment at birth." And then this unnatural young girl proceeds to train herself in all right living, avoiding anything in dress or food or late hours that might injure her health, because she hopes to be a mother some day. She studies child-culture eagerly, hoping that she may be fit for the splendid work, but is disappointed here perhaps, having a strong musical temperament, or a good head for business, or capacity for prompt and skilful manual labour, but not the faculties that go to make the good educator.

This is a blow, for she considers the training of little children as the highest work on earth, but she recognises that only about one in twenty has the requisite capacity; and the knowledge gained in her careful study in these lines shows her the importance of giving children the best conditions, which involves association with those specially endowed with the teacher's power. So she studies her own profession cheerfully, resolved to make good progress there, to be a mother her children can be proud of, and to be able to guarantee them all they need. She loves and marries, led by the deepest force in organic life, but governed by a clear and conscious wisdom even here. If she has the misfortune to be attracted to a man diseased or immoral or defective, she will not accept him, for the sake of her children. But marry she will, for this is the law of life; and the exceptions go to extinction. This fair woman, vigorous and beautiful, with her well-trained body, clear mind, and tender spirit of mother-love waiting within her, would not go unloved. She marries. She bears healthy, beautiful children, and nourishes them at her proud and loving breast. She has provided beforehand for their care and training, knowing from the study and experience she has given the subject, and the reading she has kept up, what are now the best obtainable conditions. Her home has been chosen with a view to its proximity to the best baby-garden and child-home she knew, where some of the teachers were old friends of hers, and all were known by reputation.

Having chosen a profession with a view to the physical limitations of motherhood, and prepared during her plentiful time of waiting such arrangement of hours and substitutes as shall enable her to meet the mother's duties properly, she takes a complete vacation for the months that need it; and then gradually resumes her work for part of the day, as her hours between nursing the child lengthen. She goes gladly to her work because she loves it, is well trained for it, and by doing it she serves her child. She comes more gladly to the child, the deep primal instinct coming out strongly; and at night the healthy little one sleeps near her in the quiet home.

Between the hours of nursing, the baby sleeps peacefully or wakes happily, in the beautiful home that his mother—working with the other mothers—have made for their children; and is watched and cared for by the wise and tender women who have proved their fitness for this precious work.

His mother is not worried about him. She knows that in that home there is no possible danger, in that trained care no least neglect; and that, if any sudden illness smote him, the visiting physician is there daily, and others in instant call. This place was made for babies, and is not in charge of servants. She is at ease about the child. Eagerly she goes to him when work is done. No weariness, no anxious uncertainty, only the glad triumphant mother-love which is content in knowing that the best possible conditions are secured to the child, and a constantly renewed delight in its health and beauty and good progress. Owing to her previous study, she knows enough not to undo the good effects by foolishness at home. She is in daily communication with the teachers,—and nurses and doctors, if necessary. She does not lose touch with the little life. Her untired affection surrounds him always, and to the child she is probably the most agreeable of the several agreeable persons in whose society he finds himself. Unless she falls terribly below the common standard, he will love her the best; for the beautiful background of nursing won and held his dawning affection, and the sweet home-coming every night is a constantly strengthening tie. Any clean, comfortable, human home should be suitable for a healthy child to sleep in; but it is in his impressionable day-time hours that he needs more appropriate surroundings.

It will be seen that this unnatural mother has her child in her own care for sixteen hours out of the twenty-four, and during the eight hours of a working day she herself places him in what she knows to be better conditions than her own home could offer. If she does chance to possess that degree of educational genius essential to the best care of young children, her eight hours of work will be spent in taking care of them, and the remaining sixteen in still taking care of her own. Thus the exceptional mother, who is also an educator, will have her own all the time; and her unusual ability will benefit many other little ones for part of the time.

The "natural" mother, of course, believes that her own care of her own child is better than any one's else. She can give no proof of this, and would be very unwilling to submit to any examination or competition. She simply thinks she is the best educator because she is a "mother." The sickness and death of her children, or the accidents which happen to them, or their inferior development and disagreeable behaviour, she never takes as proof of her incompetence. Where an experienced teacher could remove half a dozen bad habits in as many months without the child's knowing it, the mother scolds and spanks along the years, or resignedly lets the small people trample upon the rights of their elders, in serene conviction that her methods must be right; for is she not their mother?

The unnatural mother, who is possessed of enough intelligence and knowledge to recognise her own deficiencies, gladly intrusts her children to superior care for part of the time, and constantly learns by it herself.

The mother-love, which is so far strained by the difficulties of rearing children in the home as to frequently give way to irritability, weariness, and even bad temper, would be kept fresh and unworn by the eight-hour rest; and the child would never learn to despise his mother's irascibility and lack of self-control, as, unfortunately, so many children do. To the child, happy and busy in his day hours of education, the home-coming would be an ever new delight, and the home—"papa and mamma's house"—a lovely place to respect and enjoy.

Many will wonder why the mother is described as "working" during eight hours. The able-bodied and able-minded human being who does not work is a contemptible object. To take from the labour of others so large a share of human products as is necessary to our comfort to-day, and contribute nothing in return, is the position of a devouring parasite.

Most women do work, hard and long, at house-service. The "natural" mother is content to mingle her "sacred duties" of child-care with the miscellaneous duties of a house-servant; but the "unnatural mother," for the sake of her children, refuses to be the kitchen-maid, parlour-maid, and chamber-maid of the world any longer. She recognises that her real duties are too important to be hindered in their performance any longer by these primitive inconveniences; and, with combined intelligence, she and the others arrange their households on a basis of organised professional service, with skilled labour by the hour, and so each has time to perform some professional service herself, and pay well for the better performance of the "domestic" tasks.

This subject is treated in a special volume on "Women and Economics," but here it is sufficient to present the position of the mother, the "unnatural" mother, who would refuse to maintain any longer our grossly defective system of household service (either by herself or by a hired woman), on the ground that it was not conducive to the best development of her children.

To those who for any reason prefer, or are compelled by circumstances, to pursue the profession of private house-servant, it will, however, be of inestimable advantage to have their children taken out of the dirt and danger, and placed in proper conditions, while the mother follows her profession at home. The natural mother cares only for her own children. She loves and labours without knowledge, and what experience she gains by practising on her own children is buried with her. The unnatural mother cares for Children,—all of them,—and knows that she can best serve her own by lifting the standard of child-culture for all.

We have urgent need of the unnatural mother,—the mother who has added a trained intellect to a warm heart; and, when we have enough of them, the rarest sound on earth will be that now so pitifully common,—the crying of a little child.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman