A Short History of Motherhood Offers Simple Advice: Trust Your Instincts

A review of the advice that mothers have been given over the decades concludes that no one's exactly sure what they should do.

The Doctor Will See You Now

New mothers would be saving themselves a lot of grief if they paid less attention to books and more attention to their own instincts when raising their baby.

This is one of the points that emerge in historian Angela Davis' new book, Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945-2000.

Dr. Davis, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Warwick, interviewed 160 British women of all ages and backgrounds about their experiences of motherhood, including how it has changed through the years. And one point that continually came up was how inadequate motherhood manuals had made new mothers feel.

The experts' answers have varied through the years, but one thing that hasn't is the tone of their advice. Whatever the answer, it's always been given as an order, with a threat of dire consequences if the order wasn't followed.

Should you feed your baby at the same time each day or vary the routine? Should you immediately comfort a crying baby who won't go to sleep or allow them to cry it out for a bit first? Should your baby sleep in your bed, or is this so dangerous as to be nearly criminal?

Some mothers have very clear ideas on how to handle these issues. Others don't and often turn to motherhood manuals, parenting books written by baby 'experts,' for answers to these questions.

The experts' answers have varied through the years, but one thing that hasn't is the tone of their advice. Whatever the answer, it's always been given as an order, with a threat of dire consequences if the order wasn't followed. These commandments usually have demanded unattainably high standards for mothers and their babies, sometimes leaving the mothers feeling like failures when reality intruded and they weren't able to meet them.

It hasn't helped that the actual advice has changed almost as often as clothing fashions. The earliest manuals all preached that babies need strict routines. As the years passed, the trend was towards less strict and authoritarian approaches. Around the 1990s, the pendulum began to swing back the other way towards a more regimented approach again.

After more than 50 years the experts still can't agree on the basics of motherhood. Maybe that's because the real experts are the mothers themselves.

Dr. Davis often spoke to women from different generations of the same family. The oldest were able to reflect back upon their own upbringing, as well as their children's and grandchildren's. Many were still unsure which of the experts' child rearing approaches was best.

So what's a confused mother to do?

From her interviews, what stood out most to Dr. Davis was that all babies and all mothers are different. The approach that often worked best was not to follow the "experts'" advice to a tee but for mothers to adapt this advice to their own personal situation. For many, this meant navigating a middle ground, adopting some elements of a routine-based approach but ignoring others, allowing them to be much more flexible in meeting their babies' needs.

Dr. William Sears's attachment parenting manual, The Baby Book, turned 20 this year. Benjamin Spock's book, Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, has remained in print for over 65 years. Perhaps one reason it's been so enduring is its opening advice to new mothers: "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do."

Timeless advice for perplexed mothers.

Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945-2000 is published by Manchester University Press.

This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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