Too Much Mother


THE ineptitude of the modern mother is worrying me. When labor-saving devices first came into use, there were inevitably many conservative women who were slow to adopt them; but eventually the vacuum cleaner did replace the besom; the washing machine, the old scrubbing board; the electric bread mixer was substituted for the bowl and spoon. Women learned to use these things skillfully and properly. When psychology was evolved, or discovered, I really thought that child training was simplified, too. But it did n’t work that way. I became a mother and worked among mothers just at the time children and mothers were both becoming fashionable; and, personally, I don’t think any of us at the moment are particularly adept at using the tools placed in our hands to help us become something else than a handicap to our children.

I think we need a new type of mother, the present types, now that we are all so highly educated, being thoroughly tedious. It was when the mental aspects of child handling came to the fore that serious and basic changes occurred in family life. With the very first book about the soul-shaking importance of the first eight years of a child’s life, hitherto proud and happy mothers became harassed and worn. For women readily assimilate education; but mothers, even the intelligent ones, do not. In the average household at present the complete psychological upbringing is just about as possible and effective as performing a major operation with a bread knife upon the kitchen table. This is true not only because the average middle-class home has n’t the equipment, but because the average mother simply does not feel psychological.

Every instinct, every primitive impulse we have, has become controlled and subdued by the progress of civilization, and been sublimated into the ordinary social conventions. But mother love has n’t altered one bit with civilization. It has remained simple and direct. It has not become subtle to fit the involved needs of a modern world. It is still primitive, possessive, and fearful — qualities almost useless in training an efficient citizen in 1931.


Just as we need medical science to cope with the problems of a world where life has become progressively less natural, — and therefore in some respects less healthful, — so we must have the science of mental hygiene to meet needs in present-day human nature which pure emotion and ignorance cannot reach. Psychologists have not been observing babies and apes and psychoanalyzing adults for years without learning a great many valuable things, and it is just as stupid to ignore their findings as it would be to try to treat a case of appendicitis with herb tea when there was a good physician on the next corner.

Parents will have to accept this fact. When I say ‘parents’ I am, of course, simply being courteous. Early in the struggle which child training has become, the average man drops out. He feels that life is too complicated, and that it is, after all, necessary to preserve his energies for keeping his children at least in bodily comforts. Occasionally, of course, a strong soul rebels and attempts to revert to archaic, not to say brutal, methods of discipline — an effort generally foredoomed to failure. But most fathers thankfully agree that bringing up children is the mother’s job anyway, so that in any discussion of child training we can fairly safely ignore the fathers and concentrate upon the mother’s point of view.

The mothers may be roughly classified under two general types. First, there are those who murmur smugly of Mother Love and Common Sense. They look with fear and contempt upon the parent-study groups, the unnumbered books on theory, and the parentteacher associations that are creeping into every community. They resent any intrusion at all by theorists, however authoritative, into their relations with their children. These mothers maintain, some with great bitterness, that it is impossible to carry out the idealistic suggestions which are being thrust upon them from all sides and retain any personal life, or stay sane. They bring forth specious arguments that children grew up and became adjusted to life long before Dr. Watson and his contemporaries existed; they remind us, a little superfluously, that Dr. Watson is not himself a mother; and they assert, with great emphasis and much merriment at the expense of those of us who are deluded by fads, that they do not care to be told that their small son is going to need psychoanalyzing if he is to conform to ordinary rules of civilized existence. They LOVE THEIR CHILDREN, they reiterate in capitals, and that’s enough.

This is hard to bear; but in the second category we have the zealous addicts of psychology who strain their own nerves and those of their entire family in a laudable and selfless effort to give their children every single thing which life could possibly offer to any human being from birth until death. These mothers lie awake nights because Tommy won’t drink his tomato juice. They spend hours leafing large volumes to discover why Mary is averse to going to bed. And they look with horrified eyes at their husbands when these insensitive creatures suggest an evening out; for is it not between the hours of eight and ten that Annabelle so dreadfully sucks her thumb? Every move these mothers make in the ordinary routine of rearing their children is fraught with dreadful importance; and their thoughts of the future are dark indeed. They see the penitentiary looming large in the adult years of the child who will steal jam, and they have visions of abnormal and frustrated womanhood for the girl who happens to prefer reading or walking with a friend to romping vigorously with a large crowd of children.

It is difficult to decide which expression of maternal devotion is worse for the children. An epitome of the first type is represented in my memory by a wholesome, pleasant young woman I knew several years ago. She was an earnest disciple of the Common-Sense Cult. Nothing so convulsed her as to hear of her friends going to parentstudy groups.

‘Goodness!’ she would say brightly. ‘Give the children plenty of good food and fresh air, spank them when they need it, and love them a lot — and you have no trouble! When I think of Peggy Arnold wasting hours of time with those silly groups, having some old maid tell her how to bring up babies! Mental hygiene, indeed! Children don’t have minds until they’re seven or eight.’ All of which sounded very, very sensible and free from fads and nonsense. But it did n’t seem to work so well in practice.

For instance, the older girl, Dorothy, began to make scenes, be impertinent, and refuse to eat. Anyone who had read a minimum of elementary child psychology could have told Mrs. Grey that the child was suffering tortures of jealousy because of her younger sister Freda, who was everyone’s pet, and was desperately trying to draw attention to herself. If her mother had let Dorothy help take care of Freda, and given her some special privileges the baby did n’t have, Dorothy would probably have overcome her difficulties. Equally, when Freda began to develop an abnormal shyness, night terrors, and a really disturbing habit of lying, a psychiatrist would have told Mrs. Grey that the little girl was of a type which can’t stand corporal punishment, and that shame and fear were gradually making her definitely antisocial.

But Mrs. Grey chuckled indulgently at the idea of asking anyone’s advice on how to handle her children. Doctors, yes. But anything for mental disturbances and behavior problems — imbecility! So she spanked and implored and loved, forced foods and bought tonics. She insisted on the shychild’s meeting children without showing any signs of fear. The older child continues to be an incurable ‘smart Aleck,’ is inclined to be anæmic, and is very overbearing and unkind to her younger sister. Still Mrs. Grey maintains that mother love is all you need!

On the other hand, an equally sad picture comes to my mind when I think of Mrs. Brewster and her psychologically trained son, Ronald. Mrs. Brewster believed that it was only the Intelligent Mother who could possibly bring up a child in the right way, Her great trouble was that there were not enough hours in the day for her to read and assimilate all the differing opinions on genetic psychology. For example, she had only one child, for she believed that, not being strong, she could n’t do psychological justice to more. And then, when Ronald was about six, she learned that many eminent child experts considered it a doubtful experiment to have an only child, that two close together were a better arrangement. And since by that time she was, sadly enough, a widow, she always felt that she had defrauded Ronald of his natural rights. However, she did her best to make up for it. Her house was full of books on child training — most of which Ronald eventually read and himself quoted.

Mrs. Brewster did n’t coddle the child, because that might make him over-emotional. If he showed a spontaneous affection toward her, she snubbed him to avoid a possible Œdipus complex. She tried every new method of training and feeding as soon as she heard of it. At one time poor Ronald’s vitamins and calories were weighed and measured, and he was given no sweets; six months later he was being forced to eat sickish puddings and heavily sugared cereals to build up his energy. At one period she inclined to Montessori and allowed her son to express himself in games and in play; a few months afterward she read that it was of utmost importance to form good study habits and habits of concentration, so she made her child’s life a burden to him if he went out to chase rabbits leaving a block house unfinished.

She knew that coercion and arbitrary commands were wrong; so she reasoned with him about every casual misdeed and explained and expounded every slight request until the lad twitched with nervousness. She herself was worn out because she dared not leave Ronald with her very able and good-natured maid, for fear the girl in her stupid way might cause a frustration or a fixation or a complex in the boy. Being worn out, she was frequently snappy; and being sure that every casual act in the life of any child had the most profound and far-reaching effects, she could never relax and enjoy Ronald, or allow him to enjoy her. There was never any spontaneity or any ‘just growing’ in his life. As a result he is, at present, something that does the science of child psychology no credit.


There are a number of mothers between thase two extremes. There was Mrs. Jamison, who sneered at mental hygiene for children, but who beat her daughter with a strap three times a day because the child would n’t eat. She was brought to me finally by a friend at a time when I was leading a parentstudy group, and she said, ‘Can you tell me why my little girl is so nervous? She does n’t seem to be fond of me any more. It’s breaking my heart. I’m so maternal!’

Then there were the harassed pair who came in dragging a tough-looking little boy between them. The mother, almost in tears, said the boy had a right to express himself; did n’t I think so? And the father said, ‘Next time his grandmother tells him to do something and he calls her an old fool, he’s going to get licked!’

When I suggested that they teach the boy a rhyme to say to his grandmother by way of substitution, and ask her not to give the child any orders except through them, they sighed with relief and said simultaneously, ‘There, you see! Child psychology is sensible!’ — ‘There, you see! All you need is common sense!’

And at the house of a very earnest friend I met a child who threw pebbles at me. Then, eyeing me warily, he said, ‘You can’t use force on a little child!’

I had a breezy, wholesome mother come to me weeping because her son, after a most rigid old-fashioned home training, had been expelled from school for laziness, lying, and insubordination. ‘Getting out from under’ for the first time in his life to the comparative freedom of a big modern school was too much for him. His mother and father had been driving faults in for years, instead of teaching the boy to direct and sublimate them.

Still, all these mothers are alike in one thing — they honestly want to give their children the best there is. But when a busy and bewildered woman, just faced with new responsibilities and the new adjustments of maternity, learns that to develop normally a child must have fresh air, sunshine, long hours of sleep, a balanced diet, absolute cleanliness, and, in addition, peace and calm, no corporal punishment, no coercion, perfect patience, firmness, gentleness, consistency, frank and intelligent answers to all questions, constructive toys, not too much supervision, not too little supervision, a good example, perfect justice, not too much love, not too little love, and so on almost ad infinitum, as a conscientious mother she has the same kind of hopeless feeling that she would probably have in receiving a life sentence to Sing Sing. She tends at this point to do one of three things: she leaves home; or she throws the entire science of psychology into the nearest wastebasket; or she gives up her whole life — inward and external — to satisfying the frequently hypothetical demands of her children.


Most mothers do not realize that no parent can give the child everything. They hesitate to bring children into the world unless they are sure they can give them adequate clothing, shelter, food, and a fair education. But few weep because Junior will never have a steam yacht, or small Patsy will in all likelihood never be presented at a foreign court. Materially speaking, they pick out the essentials. It would be just as logical to pick out the psychological essentials. And what are they?

My personal opinion is that there is only one thing absolutely necessary to the complete mental well-being of a child — and that is a stable foundation for its universe. No mother need, however, welcome this opinion with the glad feeling that if she accepts it life will be entirely simplified for her. The mother herself, being the main part of the aforementioned universe, has still quite a job on her hands. For stability is a big word. It has, for its elements, such qualities as patience, tranquillity, consistency, nervous and mental balance, controlled emotions, and a sense of humor which can survive the longest and most domestic day.

The typical Victorian mother, as we read of her, certainly achieved serenity and a kind of stability by the simple expedient of nipping in the bud whatever outward manifestation of maladjustment in her children proved inconvenient to the adult population. But it was all on the adult side. Nowadays childhood is more obtrusive, and grown people’s lives are correspondingly more complicated. The demands upon adult existence are increasingly heavy. And unfortunately neither science nor the qualities essential to stability can pay bills, keep babies from teething, childish ailments from existing, husbands from being exasperating, or civilized life from being complex. It becomes increasingly difficult to fit our children to cope with the world. It is no wonder that mothers become confused and disgusted before they have more than begun their fulltime and lifetime job.

Children don’t realize the effect upon the adult nervous system of all these things, and they should n’t have to. The effort of adjusting themselves, not only to the world in general, but to our particular suburb, creed, tradition, and financial background, absorbs them. They arrive here with all the social consciousness and innate refinement of good healthy puppies. They start with two emotions — fear and anger — and the simplest and most direct of desires. The necessity of altering, suppressing, confining, and making complex all their natural impulses is in itself disturbing and difficult. To confuse them by adding adult difficulties to their lives is a parental crime of which we are all more or less guilty. It may be apparent to us why we can’t stand hearing William knock over his block house for the tenth time, but our anger merely redirects William’s energies — hitherto constructively employed in rebuilding — to placating us. This is nice for us, but is n’t teaching William anything except a little unreasoning insincerity.

A singularly unattractive and precocious child once said to my small daughter, ‘I dare n’t be late to-day. It’s the week the bills come in, and Dad always wants to lick somebody.’ This boy was very lucky in being able to understand what was wrong with his father and being able to ‘ lie low’ until the storm was over. Other children are simpler, and less fortunate.

I once spent a week with a family where the mother was an overemotional, nervously unstable type of woman. She was not very well, and was always tired. One day noise would make her savage; the next, when she was feeling better, she would run and shout with her children as if she were their age. On days when she had had a difference of opinion with her husband, she would punish severely small misdemeanors on other days, when she was in a good humor, she was amused at behavior which she would have done well to correct. The children spent their whole time watching their mother’s moods, which had absolutely no relation to their actual conduct. Automatically and without regard to sincerity or honesty, but with great skill, they averted storms.

One day, for example, the mother was thoroughly annoyed about something which had nothing to do with the children. She had to go to the nursery for some reason at the precise moment when she was feeling her angriest. Her five-year-old daughter took one look at her mother’s face as she came in, and, although most innocently occupied, said, ‘I’m sorry, Mother, I’ll be good.’

For a number of years, strangely enough, children consider their parents to be fairly omnipotent and omniscient. They think mother and father superior to the tears, tantrums, and uncertainties which make up so much of their own lives. To see these two beings who control the destinies of the household quarreling, or even at cross-purposes, gives a child much the same feeling as a really thorough earthquake would give us. And it does not require a comicstrip household with flying rolling-pins and mutual recriminations to make a child realize that something upon which he depends is no longer firm.


One of the reasons why the old-fashioned type of mother so often did not realize the true ideal of stability was that she made a religion of unselfishness. A healthy spirit of self-defense is necessary to all of us if we are going to take seriously this business of a firm and harmonious background for our children. After all, mothers have tastes, preferences, and desires of their own; and the continuous thwarting of them produces emotions which are the opposite of all that a stable universe needs. Children have a happy conviction that the world was made for them, that the adults in the world are there for the sole purpose of ministering to their needs. They are continually demanding, and they are born intruders. They do not recognize that parents have rights, have lives of their own, or have need of privacy; and they will never realize this unless they are taught.

Since adults and children have to live together, it seems a shame that a continuous dose of either should get tremendously on the other’s nerves. Nevertheless, at the present step in our development this condition exists. Mothers must learn to withhold themselves from the children. Doing without his mother should be just as much a part of the child’s daily routine as the orange juice, the rest, the outdoor play. There comes a time in almost every mother’s day when the touch of one more little hand upon her, the sound of one more little voice calling ‘Mother!’ and the necessity of ministering to one more little need are just too much to bear. There is something about twelve consecutive hours with even the sweetest and most winsome little ones that rouses all the baser side of a woman’s nature. That is the time when complete withdrawal on her part, even though it seems like complete selfishness, is beneficial to the child and to the mother, for a tired, nervous, overwrought mother cannot give her children the all-important consistency, justice, or security. When she robs herself, she robs them.


Mothers to-day refuse to realize what their children really are. For the average mother a child is one or more of several things: it is an extension of herself or her husband; it is the first thing she has ever had to control; an attractive plaything; the realization of a fundamental, natural, but quite selfish desire; an emotional outlet; or a future President. Mothers refuse to admit that children are inconvenient. Yet the inconvenience of children is undoubtedly at the root of a good two thirds of all discipline; and they must be inconvenient for many years if they are to develop naturally.

For example, they cannot get the shape of things at first without handling them, cannot learn the uses of articles and the way they work without investigating their ‘innards.’ They can be told that fires burn and knives cut, and that neighbors will think they are not little ladies and gentlemen if they continually stick out their tongues in that vulgar fashion at the cross gentleman next door; but until they have a blister on one hand, a gash on the other, and the dignified old gentleman has chased them with the hose, they don’t know these things. They will eat forbidden sweets just as reprehensibly as their dieting mothers do, and even in righteous and law-abiding families there are young people of five or six who will take everything they can lay hands on. They bully and tease — mostly, it is to be feared, on the unconscious principle that turn about is fair play. They hang out of windows, tell lies, and seem to be possessed of seven separate devils two thirds of the time. As they grow older, they question parental dogma, dissect family creeds, and know so much it is hardly possible to endure them.

It is true that there are many situations in the daily lives of mothers and children where the old-fashioned methods of discipline seem inevitable. We read that we should ignore a child who is fractious, or speak politely to him and avoid arbitrary commands; that one must never make an issue of any situation, and should merely look grave and troubled when a child persists in disobeying. Now it is difficult to ignore a child who is standing in the middle of a well-traveled road saying ‘No!’ when you ask him to come to safety. It is a little awkward having to say politely, ‘Please don’t stuff that cooky in baby’s mouth. Don’t you see how black her little face is getting?’ and to go on saying it politely as small Percival continues to say ‘No!’ and to ram the cooky down little sister’s throat.

When the taxi is at the door, Father is using language, time-table in hand, and little Annie has — thank Heaven! — just fallen asleep, it takes a great deal of forbearance to realize that one must not command Algernon to put down the jardinière he is determined to take with him to the country. After two sleepless nights, followed by a depressing mail consisting of commands from crude gas and telephone people who have obviously never heard of psychology, one tends to make an issue of Rosemary’s determination to run her steam engine up and down the bed where one is trying to get half an hour’s nap. And say what you will about the Œdipus complex, there are few sons of tender years who care anything at all about whether their mother is gravely troubled or not, so long as they get their own way and plenty of it.


The old type of mother cannot cope with the new type of child. For one thing, she has been too close to her children for her vision to be properly focused. She labored under the mistaken impression that if she knew her children, remembered her own childhood, had the proper set of instincts, and consecrated herself physically and emotionally to her children, she was being all that she should be. She grasped blindly at psychology, as she grasped at everything else that she felt might possibly enrich her children’s lives. But she did not know herself. She did not trouble to examine her qualifications psychologically as a mother with one tenth the interest or care with which she would examine the qualifications of a new housemaid.

It is obvious, therefore, that if our children are to develop properly, an entirely new type of mother is needed. The new type of mother will be as efficient at the maternal job as most modern women are at managing household and income. She will budget her mental, physical, and spiritual resources as carefully as she does her finances. She will take a good look at her household, accepting the fact that under her roof there are several individuals to whom she owes guidance, direction, and happiness. She will read the reliable authorities on genetic psychology and use their discoveries to help her, but she will not try to do with them the things of which she is incapable. Most important, she will devote time to thinking dispassionately about herself, in order to learn in just what way she is limited, and therefore just what she cannot give her children.

The new type of mother will know that, however important it may be to have one’s children self-reliant, obedient,self-confident, well-fed, well-sunned, well-aired, honest, fearless, and all the rest of it, this does not have to be accomplished all at once. The whole structure of Janet’s life is not going to be undermined if she eats green vegetables on Friday and Saturday instead of on Monday and Tuesday. Nor is Randolph necessarily going to end in the Juvenile Court because he does not obey our possibly reasonable commands of Wednesday, May 2. And if Anna comes home fretful after a trying day at school and a quarrel with her best friend, feeling that no one loves her, it will not make her into a clinging vine twenty years hence if, just for once, we put away her clothes for her — but it may save unpleasantness between us which might indeed have farreaching effect.

The new mother will admit that the best of us have physical and mental limitations. She will realize that, if she cannot stand the shouts and noise of six or seven healthy children engaged in wholesome games, she must withdraw herself until their games are over. If there is something about cleaning the silver that makes her unfit to live with for at least four hours after the job is done, she will suggest to her friends that they invite her out in the afternoon of the day when the silver has to be polished. She will know how to compromise in trying situations. She will realize that, like cows, parents give better results if contented; and that parents will not be contented until they can take part of the home and part of every twenty-four hours for themselves, away from the children.

I shall be asked at this point, ‘But is this not common sense?’ It is beyond common sense. Children are not miniature adults. What is common sense and logic in the context of adult experience and knowledge is almost invariably not related to anything that is going on within the child. It is important to know just the point where common sense leaves off and frustrating and thwarting begin. Our parents and grandparents used what they describe as the most magnificent common sense, and somehow the results were not always so good.

But the new mother, with her intelligent study of child psychology and herself, will be able to treat the behavior of her children as symptomatic, and, with her greater understanding, will be able to deal with them properly. She will rely on knowledge, and not on blind instinct or mother love. For she will know that mother love unmodified consists, in about equal parts, of sensuality, egotism, overwhelming emotionalism, and a terrifying possessiveness. And she will sublimate it into respect for the child’s individuality, a detachment of herself in terms of demands upon the child’s life, and an intelligent and clear-thinking determination to open the gates of life in its fullness to the child and then let him pass through alone.