Why American Mothers Fail

"Women fret themselves and others for the right to vote, and they do not see that their son's vote, their brother's, their friend's, is verily their own."

A mother with her children, January 1908, New York

"You wish, O woman, to be ardently loved, and forever, even till death! Be, then, the mother of your children." —Lenana

Mothers are the gardeners of the human race. There is no office under the divine government that approaches theirs, because none other is so closely allied to it.

Any system of education that fails to impress upon our girls the immense civic value of motherhood, its imposing dignity, its grave responsibilities to the state itself, fails of its purpose. Any system of education in our republic that does not instill, from the start, into an American boy, the fact that this government is rooted in his vote and that of his comrades, fails doubly of its purpose.

Our much-vaunted public-school system, which we shake like a banderole in the face of Europe, does neither of these things; or rather, it does the former not at all, and the latter most perfunctorily and inadequately.

The reason that girls are not taught the dignity of motherhood is only too obvious: it is but the usual crude, shamefaced American way of totally ignoring the wholesome primal elements of human life. Our schools shirk the responsibility by claiming that such counsel should come from mothers. And the mothers are rare indeed who do not ignore, generation after generation, this fundamental problem.

Between the two negligences girls practically are never given this larger point of view, which would be good not only for the state, but also for their own personal uplift above that sense of personal failure that so often comes to us all.

The boys are not inoculated with the germ of citizenship because their education is too often left in the hands of routine teachers totally incapable of any large outlook upon life, or else of those whose hands are tied by convention. Again, neither parents nor schools do their duty by the boy any more than by the girl. There are no state or federal laws to force recognition of such vital questions; to direct, at once, the hearing of American boys and girls to that deep national note that would bind them to life's bigger harmonies, to those larger relationships of the individual to government and society. These two sentiments alone, thoroughly instilled in the flexible minds and hearts of our young people, would, later on, stay many a hand bent on the social suicide of divorce; and also in two generations would begin to make for good in the world of politics.

Unfortunately, educational legislation is slow to recognize its own shortcomings, slower still to rectify them. American men, as a whole, are as strangely weak and invertebrate in their relations to their children as they are in their relations to their wives. The quicker remedy lies there. But only a riper, sounder civilization, with enlarged vision, will see its utmost needs, and make its demands.

So, after all, it is to the mothers one must speak with lowered voice: to the gardeners, some wise and some unwise; some patient and some restless; the strong of vision, and the near-sighted gardeners, working among the human seedlings and young plants in the great garden called Society.

Fathers are seldom more than the florists connected with the hothouses. They deal almost solely with effects; after the mothers have done, well or ill, the work down in the dark under the blossoming plant, digging sometimes very blindly among the twisted roots of cause.

So it has come about that, when the young children in her care grow awry, we inquire of the mother and her methods; just as we bespeak the truck-gardener when our vegetables are amiss, or a horse breeder when our cattle breed down along degenerate lines.

A successful mother (fighting both heredity and individual bias) is a more important factor in a municipality than any merely successful man in it; much more important, were she but made to realize it. For motherhood is a thing apart, " a distinct and individual creation; different from anything else God ever thought of," said, in all reverence, an American preacher. Her position has in it all the tragedy of lifelong isolation in the performance of her work; all the pathos of vast expenditure of vitality with no personal reward. The millionaire railroad official, once an office-boy, gets his reward for tremendous Iab0r, in power and money; the scientist gets his in the world's recognition of his accomplished work. The mother's reward is spiritual, and lies only in the work itself, for she has not the stimulus of an audience, and few indeed are the children who v recognize their mother's struggles, their mothers sacrifices. As to her love, they accept it as they do the air they breathe; and who of us stops to thank Oxygen and Nitrogen for combining so conveniently for our benefit?

All of this purposely leaves out the mother's emotional reward, for reasons that will appear later. Much more important than any matter of sentiment is it that she should learn that she is doing something for her country, apart from all the very best efforts of man. It would not be amiss if in every home one found this sentence of Phillips Brooks's, illuminated, and hung well "on the line": "No man has come to true greatness who has not felt, in some degree, that his life belongs to his race, and that what God gives him He gives him for mankind."

There is a pathetic hopelessness about many mothers. One so often hears them wearily say, " I Ve given up my whole life for years to my children, and yet it seems to have failed. They are not as I meant them to be, nor as I hoped that they would be. What is wrong? I wish someone would help me."

It is suggested, in all humility and tenderness, that there are several things going amiss in the human garden. In the first place, it takes something besides feminine hearts to manage men and the offspring of men; it takes feminine brains, every wisdom-tipped arrow in a woman's quiver. Nine times out of ten, women put too much emotion, and not enough judgment, into both wifehood and motherhood. Everything has combined for centuries to bring this about. Much of the discontent of the present day among women is based on the fact that they do not yet realize that their life-tasks are not properly merely emotional at all, but preeminently intellectual. It is safe to say that if a woman finds that her life makes no use of her intellect, she is a bad housekeeper, a poor wife, a poorer mother, a useless citizen.

The best wives and mothers manage to preserve a certain mental aloofness from their husbands and children, the better to estimate with justice the task ahead. It is precisely that faculty which differentiates a woman from a tigress, whose mere emotion, considered by itself, in both relationships is no different in kind from the woman's own. One can count so absolutely upon the basic emotionality of women, that a deal of excision will still leave an abundance for the joy of man and his everlasting bewilderment. The whole present tendency in life is to the over-development of emotion among men, women, and especially children; and little or nothing is done to keep it in its proper proportion. As sentiment has been dying out in modern life, its place seems to be taken by nerve excitation; by a craving for agitation of any sort.

The present madness for speed over the seas, through the air, through the solid earth itself, unduly develops a sort of pleasurable trepidation among adults; as those so-called "amusements" at "resorts" both terrify and fascinate the unfortunate children who are allowed to flock to them. The hourly intrusion of news racks our nerves. It is the opium of this generation which we cannot long remain without. That hitherto restful week at sea, upon which overtaxed men and women could once count in simpler, slower times, is being taken from us forever.

Music is becoming more and more emotional as time passes. In the drama surely Sardou and Ibsen take more out of their auditors than even Shakespeare ever did. A novel must leave a man breathless, or he is bored; so, too, an afternoon drive. Winged Mercury is the god of the hour. A bit of a rascal, to be sure, but he "gets there"! There is no peace to be had, no restful slow-sipping of life that once satisfied our strong-nerved forefathers.

Woman has but drifted with the rushing current. Her wifehood is generally measured by the yardstick of her pleasurable emotions; her motherhood very often by a series of passionate instincts which are allowed full sway, as if representing directly the word of God in a household. What is really needed to precipitate both peace and progress is, not the elimination, but the firm control of emotion and instinct, by cool deliberate feminine wisdom all of that which should have been transmitted to her before marriage and motherhood, and all that she has herself since discovered.

Marriage and motherhood still come into a girl's life, even in this materialistic country of ours, in a succession of blinding emotional flashes, standing vividly out against the dark sky of utter ignorance. She is left bewildered, groping in the dark thereafter, feeling about her nothing stable, but only more, and more, and ever more emotions!

Ignorant of her subject, criminally unprepared, her children are often a mere series of unsuccessful experiments, which she tries, rather frantically, one after another, as each child presents new problems. For Nature has a trait which greatly complicates a mother's work: a mysterious passion for seemingly useless differentiation within a given species. This forces the mother both to pass new laws and to constantly revise old laws in her government code.

"Human experience, like the stern-lights of a ship at sea, illumines only the path which we have passed over." It is the searchlights for which we are pleading.

If a mother would but strive to put less heart into it all, and more mind! If she would but look with wide-open eyes and say to herself, "I will make the care of my children an intellectual task. I'll put into it what brains I have, as I used once to do into literary, philanthropic, or social matters. This is the most important of all, for it embraces everything else. It's not a mere question of alternating love and tears, fierce pride and frantic despair." Her duties in the garden are three: 1. Watering the seeds. 2. Pruning the young growing plants. 3. Killing the offending insects at the blossoming time. And ever and always weeding is to be done, from the early spring till the snow comes.


ON the whole, too much time is given by an American mother to a child in its infancy, between the first and the third year; too little time from the fourth to the tenth year; and after that she allows others' opinions, much too often, to dominate her own in both the mental and the moral development of her family. She has come to think that the task is no longer hers.

Thus it has come about that education has so largely become the cumbersome convention that it undoubtedly is. The fathers in the United States leave it to the mothers; the mothers leave it to the schools; the schools, public or private, are generally in the hands of narrow specialists, "commonschooled and uncultivated' in the sense that " culture looks beyond machinery," as Matthew Arnold said of us. So many parents feed their children blindly into the educational hopper, and then walk to the spout at the other end to receive unquestioned the "finished" product. Schools override the mother's own intelligent convictions; Sunday schools take the place, and most inadequately, of her own sense of morality.

Nothing of this is as it should be. If a mother ever sinks into the background of her child's life she has no one to blame for it but herself. She has not risen to the task, that 's all. Love has not proved itself everything in the solution of her problem. She can supplement the crudities of the child's mental schooling, and should leave Sunday schools for the motherless. No one can know, as she does, the weak spots in her offspring's character.

The love-madness of a young mother for her tiny infant, poetical and picturesque as it is, is harmful in many ways. It is to a great extent a sensuous obsession to which in this country the husband and father is, all too often, ruthlessly sacrificed. If this sacrifice were in the least justified by the needs of the infant, there would be little to criticise; but it is distinctly not so justified in the average middle-jdass household. A phlegmatic nurse whose ministrations are rooted in duty alone, is not only equally as good for the baby, but is very much better. It is but a seed, and all the better, as are other seeds, for being left undisturbed to sleep its way into life.

If the child does not need all this frenzy ofwatching and excited coddling of the more or less hysterical mother, then it is not only unwise but cruel to subject the bewildered young father to the half-tragic, half-comic tyranny of an American household ruled by a young baby.

The violent bushing that he receives at the front door, the complete ignoring of all of his rights, the needless neglect hour after hour while his wife pardon, his baby's mother! worships at her new shrine, emphasize the unbalanced emotionality of most of our young women. Those hours of heedless neglect on the part of the wife are very often the entering wedge which some day will separate the two. The child, instead of bringing them close together, is the innocent cause of their growing apart. At the root of it is not too much love, but too little mental balance. Moreover, the contention is made that it is not wholly love which blinds her, it is to a certain extent the emotional indulgence of a febrile uncontrolled young woman adrift on the sea of a newly discovered instinct.

"Knowledge is the parent of love; Wisdom, love itself."

If it is claimed that the national curse of poor servants is the cause of this undeniable obsession of young American mothers, the reply is ready: " Why then is it that between the years of four and ten American children do not see enough of their mothers? " The servant question is surely no nearer solution, and no apathetic nurse can then give the child what the mother can and should give.


More than one American mother has admitted to the writer a curious sudden reaction of indifference against her once worshiped baby after the fifth year. The ecstatic mother-passion of earlier days has mysteriously fled, just as the wife-ecstasy had fled in its turn. She admitted it, as if it were an interesting psychic phenomenon, and she helpless to right it just when the child really begins to need her tenderness, her time, all of her wisdom and gravest consideration!

Every one of these successive phases of motherhood could just as well have been taught her years before, taught her to watch for, guard against, and meet intelligently when the issues presented themselves, one by one, in her own life. Some new factor must be evolved in our national life to fill successfully this gap between four and ten in our children's lives.

Only when enforced by poverty do a large number of American mothers themselves care for their young children, beyond mere physical needs. They would not trust the little impercipient life at first to a nurse, however staid and competent; now, more often than is good to see, an ignorant nursemaid of sixteen years becomes the predominant element in the child's life. Manners, morals, mental needs are left largely in her hands and she is a mere child herself. The physical needs, at least so far as cleanliness is concerned, generally remain in the mother's hands, but the question of the child's diet runs riot in more American households than is at all realized. If the child is well dressed, its hair and teeth in perfect condition, it is turned over to the nurse from eight in the morning till eight at night.

Can it be that we had much better adopt from England the nursery-governess and the nursery-table? The former (with all her drawbacks) is infinitely more competent than our mere " nurse-girls "; while the latter institution ensures the simple diet of which our children are in such dire need.

At least we should be spared the sight of an elaborately dressed American baby of six, entirely unattended, walking into a huge hotel dining-room where her parents had lived for years, and ordering " deviled crabs and pink ice cream " for her dinner, which the poor little creature actually ate amid the smiling glances of the guests and waiters! It was no less than a painful sight, and by no means an isolated instance. What was inevitably ahead of that child? Her digestion ruined, her vanity, her independence forced before their time, her whole sensibility blunted. Even hotel-life need not spoil a child, if less money were spent on her clothes and her mother's and part of the saving paid in fair wages to a first-class governess, who would remove

the little one from flattering glances, and place her in a world where "deviled crabs' would remain an unknown temptation for many a long year to come.

If those American mothers who labor so many hours in torturing some flimsy material with drawn-work or embroidery would but give the same time, or even part of it, to the little child's spirit instead of its body! Very often we see a princelike body, carrying a starving little soul, starving for companionship, for healthy amusement, for that sense of comfort that strict but intelligent discipline alone brings alike to children and to servants.

Children's amusements in this country are undoubtedly becoming more and more artificial. Why? Because it makes the mother's and nurse's task easier. Examine the situation from whatever standpoint you choose, every facet shows this deplorable fact. To feed and clothe a child of five is a very simple and expeditious matter compared with amusing that restless little bundle of activities. And yet in a long life the writer has known only one mother who took upon her own shoulders the entire amusement of her family of five children, leaving the sewing to the nurses! There were no theatres, no vaudeville, no circuses, no hippodromes, to bewilder and exhaust those children's minds; no mechanical toys, no elaborate paper dolls " made in Germany." They had hammers, nails, and some boards; pieces of treasured Bristol-board, scissors, paste, and a little paint-box, and the "stay-in" days flew by, given over to the joy of creation under the sympathetic direction of that mother, who sat in a low chair, close to, their level, that she might be one of them. On the out-ofdoor days, they were tumbled into a little wagonette, which was their nursery. The old pony was driven by the mother herself; the best child of the day sat beside her in the seat of honor, and off they jogged to the woods or the beach, both of which were happily accessible. Their simple lunch was devoured afield. The mother invented, directed, and entered into all their games, the merriest of them all. But the charm of an ocean beach is supreme and needs no human aids; so, once she gave a push to the little eager minds, off they slid, enthusiastic and contented for hours. The mother whipped out a book from under the carriage-seat, and so got to herself a couple of hours of coveted reading. For she was a brilliant, cultivated woman, knowing several languages and yet was content to spend it all lavishly for thirteen years of her short life, upon her children.

This inspired mother claimed that it was far less of a strain to play with her children than to punish them; because a large percentage of the sins of childhood are based on lack of intelligent diversion. From this mother came no whine about her wasted talents, because she made use of them! During the severe winters, she made her incessant task of reading to her children tell significantly. Before the eldest was ten years old, they all knew almost every nook and cranny of Walter Scott, and other standard works followed in turn. She read certain idyllic tales written in French, which she translated aloud into simple English, thereby diverting herself as well as the children. It was years before they even knew what she had done. One of that family told me that he had never read a current book of fiction until he was sixteen! His taste had been formed without any long-winded lectures on literature. Froissart, Jesop, Josephus, and Bunyan were household words.

Later, the mother wrote little plays full of fire and sword, into which was smuggled many a spoonful of history, or mythology, or poetical legend. The children were the eager little stock company. She rehearsed them, suggested costumes and scenery; and yet, with all this prodigal expenditure of time and real talent, she always laughingly claimed to other mothers: "Try it! They are happier, and so am I. Idleness and absence of motive lead to crime in the nursery as well as the street. And as for me, I know exactly what they are doing, and how."

Hers was a rarely rich, successful life. That she was a much-loved woman to the end scarce need be recorded of her.

Within a year the dernier cri in child amusement at a charitable fete brought vividly back, through contrast, that picture of fine motherhood. Kinetoscopes depicted, for tents reeking full of feverish-eyed children, fictitious scenes of Russian cruelty ending in a most revolting form of murder! Little breathless voices asked in the dark: " What does it mean, mother?" "Why does he hate her so much, mother?" One strained in the half light to see such mothers of little beings who would have been so happy merely roaming through the adjoining meadows! Then later came another "amusement" for the children. A real hose-and-ladder company, a real fire engine rented for the purpose; a fire alarm, the burning of a small wooden house erected for the purpose, the realistic rescue of a straw mother and child, all for the amusement save the mark! of those watching babies! The whole thing was absolutely insane in its blindness to the real needs of child-life. No wonder we see them blase at eight, nervous wrecks at twelve, neurasthenia, insomnia, dipsomania, decadence ahead of them. And the committee who made out this programme (including many another "sensational feature") was composed of the leading women of the city in which the festival was held. Where were the mothers to wipe out with justifiable wrath such a breach of sane thinking? such an outrage to the most obvious of responsibilities?

Our American communities are quick to regulate child-labor in some wretched household where the pennies count so much; but one seldom hears of any laws to regulate children's amusements among the many comfortable homes where the mothers are either too weak, too silly, or too selfish, to make and enforce their own laws.

And so the weeds come thick and fast and choke the young growing plants, the weed of vaudeville, killing the sense for true dramatic art; the pest of rag-time, killing music; slang, choking language; indiscriminate current-novel-reading, fatal to any good reading in the future; the devastating weed of unhealthy excitement, to blight, for all time, any simple wholesomeness of either thought or feeling.

A law prohibiting children under the age of fifteen from entering any and all theatres might well be passed with profit, taking out of the incompetent hands of mothers any volition in this grave matter. It fills the air this craze of the merest children for cheap shows in this country; it packs their minds with vulgar trivialities, debases their ideals, perverts their taste. It is becoming daily more frequent. As well feed a child on mushrooms and champagne, and expect it ever afterwards to relish bread and milk.

It is but a repetition of that poor neglected baby and her "deviled crabs and pink ice cream "! One sees hundreds of examples of it, in one form or another, every year of living in this country. At the root of it, in every single instance, is an unwise mother. Her children remain ignorant where they should be familiar; become enlightened where they should be blind; and suffer always from enlargement of the emotions.

Within a year the writer saw at a hotel an eager group of beautifully clad little ones gathered every evening between seven and eight about a middle-aged cripple who told them stories. They were breathless, entranced. That it was a perfectly new element in their lives was apparent. To be deprived of it was the severest punishment in that colony of several hundred souls. A young woman was overheard idly to observe to her companion, " Is n't it a charming sight? "

The older woman with her replied angrily: "It is distinctly not a charming sight! It is shocking! What are they, with all their extravagant clothes, but the starving children of selfish, vain mothers? That unfortunate man simply fills up an awful gap in their lives every mother as she sees it should blush and hang her head. Out of that score of children, there is not one who has ever had an adult give it any real companionship before in its life. I have taken the trouble to verify this and so I say again, that picture over there is far from being charming! "


A wise mother will make long-stored wisdom bear fresh fruit. All of her reading can be utilized. Long ago she read that "a word unspoken is like a sword in thy scabbard thine; if vented, thy sword is in another's hand." She can draw a lesson from it for her son in the power of silence and reserve. She also read that "respect for others is the first condition of savoir vivre"; and she is helped in her task of teaching her girl tactfulness and good manners; and that they are not to be looked for in a labyrinth of negatives, but found walking along the highway in the good sunshine.

In the much-mooted question of manners the imitativeness of children should make the mothers' task easier than it is, the solution is example, not precept. Imitation is the whole story. A little boy is scolded for not remembering to raise his cap "to the ladies." I have met lads of six and eight to whom this courtesy had already become as instinctive as it was to their father. No more so, no less, but exactly as it was to their father. "Trot father, trot mother, how can foal amble? " Making all allowance for wide national differences of opinion, there is much in a French mother's sympathy with her son, as he approaches manhood, which seems more intelligent than the Anglo-Saxon way of withholding sympathy at that crisis. Most American mothers suddenly turn into stepmothers at this critical period. Every sentence begins with " Thou shalt not," and she plumes herself upon her righteousness. And her boy? He becomes a stranger to her. The French mother but adds a new comradeship to her old tenderness, full of far-sighted wisdom and fathomless sympathy for existing conditions; not for ideal conditions that do not exist. He and his mother become closer friends than ever, and he does not withdraw himself from her. She cares much more for her boy than for her righteousness this mother!

It is but a change in the intellectual outlook, and yet surprisingly few American women recognize the necessity for it. When an American mother has the intelligence to understand, she finds that her son will bring to her not only his triumphs but his failures; not only the story of his virtues but that of his sins, man to man, and then only the wisest motherhood can guide him safely out of the wilderness.

But the deepest stain on American motherhood is exactly at this period in the life of her grown son and grown daughter. For some reason, partly temperamental, a large number of mothers fall short of any comprehension of what is demanded of them. Even when they have been faithful in all their earlier trusts, they fail very often at this point.

Her boy, now a man, of course loves her as of old, but she has not been his intellectual comrade, his strongest inspiration, as she might have been had she put her brain into her motherhood, applied what knowledge she had, or studied along the best lines running parallel to the lines of his development.

There are scores of helpful hygienic and philosophical books that would aid mothers to approach their problem wellequipped. All this is of course also the task of the father, but we are speaking of American conditions, and we may as well exclude him first as last, as he has elected to shed family responsibilities, save that of lavish monetary support. In that particular he is a prince.

One illustration cut from the matrix of life is worth a chapter of generalities. One summer night a few years ago four people sat on a high roof near New York City. One could see far down the bay and over to the Jersey shore. There was a middle-aged woman and her son of twenty-three years, an elderly man and his wife all Americans.

The mother had been boasting of her three boys, their success, their virtues. Under it all was a very natural and pretty pride, as of a gardener telling of his roses, and their freedom from the worm i' the bud.

A chance word brought politics to the front. The older woman said aside to the young man: "So you've twice cast your yote! It marks an epoch in a man's life, only second to marriage, does n't it? To take one's part, though small, in the making of history that is fine! "

The mother laughed.

"My son has never voted, and says he never will he hates politics, and I don't wonder! "

All as lightly as if telling of a fastidious taste in cravats!

The son added tolerantly, "We men know what a dirty mess it is."

In the older woman's heart moaned a sad voice: " She is a failure, this mother! She is blind, and so he, the son, does not see the truth!"

The silence which followed was filled by the languor of the heat and the pressure of low-bending skies.

Then the older man chuckled and muttered: " There 's trouble ahead low bridge! " For he knew his wife and the hot fires flaming beneath her silence.

"Will you take me over there, where I can see the light on the Statue of Liberty?" she presently asked quietly, and she and the youth walked away.

It took her forty-five minutes to do the work, and years have passed, but that man has voted ever since!

Jerking her head in the direction of Bedloe's Island, she began: "Oh don't laugh, don't laugh, you have admitted a crime! Don't you know, haven't you been taught, don't you see for yourself, that every time an educated man in the United States fails to vote he has slyly slipped a stone out of place in the foundations of that great statue over there, the foundations of our government? Upon your vote rests the security of the whole complicated structure of republicanism, as we Americans are now testing it in the eyes of the world. Whatever you do, do not laugh! "

In the end she held out her hand and spoke gently: " You see I, being a woman, have no vote, so you must cast yours for yourself and for me too, as wisely as you can. Will you? "

The mother was still laughing when the older woman bade them good-night; but the latter was very sad, having no sons of her own with any need of her.

American women constantly cry out against the smallness of their lives, the limitations that encompass them. If they would but do wisely and thoroughly their apportioned tasks, they would have need of every power possible to humanity, such are the potentialities of true motherhood.

The schools of both son and daughter would be forced into rational, logical lines; the boy would be trained first, last, and always, for good citizenship; the daughter would not be allowed to drift on, as helpless as a leaf on a stream, with no knowledge whatever of the currents, the cataracts, the whirlpools ahead of her inevitably ahead of her on her way down to the broad sea of fine womanhood.

Women fret themselves and others for the right to vote, and they do not see that their son's vote, their brother's, their friend's, is verily their own. They cry out against certain social evils, and they forget that the ranks are ever recruited from among the daughters of Vanity, Uncontrol, and Idleness.

Even the childless women of the world have placed upon them the responsibility of motherhood; for every young man can be a task to them, every girl better for their counsel.

There is no excuse for idleness or repining there is work in plenty for all women; and it is the most honorable work in the world, for:

"On the blue mountains of our dim childhood towards which we ever turn and look, stand the mothers who marked out to us, from thence, our life."