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Perfect Motherhood

Perfect Motherhood: Science and Childrearing in America

Rima D. Apple
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Perfect Motherhood
    Book Description:

    Parenting today is virtually synonymous with worry. We want to ensure that our children are healthy, that they get a good education, and that they grow up to be able to cope with the challenges of modern life. In our anxiety, we are keenly aware of our inability to know what is best for our children. When should we toilet train? What is the best way to encourage a fussy child to eat? How should we protect our children from disease and injury? Before the nineteenth century, maternal instinct-a mother's "natural know-how"-was considered the only tool necessary for effective childrearing. Over the past two hundred years, however, science has entered the realm of motherhood in increasingly significant ways. InPerfect Motherhood,Rima D. Apple shows how the growing belief that mothers need to be savvy about the latest scientific directives has shifted the role of expert away from the mother and toward the professional establishment. Apple, however, argues that most women today are finding ways to negotiate among the abundance of scientific recommendations, their own knowledge, and the reality of their daily lives.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-3998-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: Redefining Motherhood
    (pp. 1-10)

    Parenting today is virtually synonymous with worry. We want to ensure that our children are healthy—physically, mentally, and emotionally. In our worry, we keenly feel our shortcomings, our inability to know what is best for our children. When is it right to toilet train? Will early toilet training scar the child psychologically? How can we encourage a fussy child to eat? Should the child be allowed to decide which foods to eat? How significant is thumb sucking? How can we protect our child from disease and injury? Should we let our child cry herself to sleep? We are not...

  6. Chapter 1 “Follow the lead of physicians”: Motherhood in the Late Nineteenth Century
    (pp. 11-33)

    Narcissa Prentiss Whitman lived in the Oregon territory with her missionary husband. In October 1844, she became the adoptive mother of seven children orphaned when their parents died on the Oregon Trail. The children ranged in age from thirteen years to five months. The infant, Henrietta Naomi Sager, was particularly ill: “arriv[ing] here in the hands of an old filthy woman, sick, emaciated and but just alive … had suffered for the want of proper nourishment until she was nearly starved … a poor distressed little object, not larger than a babe three weeks old.” Whitman’s husband was reluctant to...

  7. Chapter 2 “Mamma’s scientific—she knows all the laws”: Motherhood in the Early Twentieth Century
    (pp. 34-55)

    This song, published anonymously in 1915 in a women’s magazine that consciously sought to educate modern mothers, illustrates how completely and deeply the idea of scientific motherhood had permeated into U.S. culture. This was not a professional journal, yet it clearly expected its readers, laywomen, to know enough to make sense of the humorous lyrics. “Certified cow” referred to fears for the health of infants fed cow’s milk that had spurred the creation of late-nineteenth-century medical organizations to carefully scrutinize special dairies. The milk from these farms was then certified as safe for infants and children. Parents who decided to...

  8. Chapter 3 “Follow my instructions exactly”: Experts to Mothers in the Interwar Period and during World War II
    (pp. 56-82)

    In December 1932, a seventeen-month-old infant was brought to the San Francisco Child Health Center. The examining doctor reported with disapproval that the baby was still being bottle-fed and the mother was “told to stop.” Two months later, the examining physician wrote that the mother “took ½ hr of Drs’ time which was a repeat of the last Drs’. [She was] Told not to return unless she does as she was told.” The mother and her infant did return in April and there was no more mention in the file of bottle feeding.¹ This and numerous other examples make it...

  9. Chapter 4 “The modern way”: Mothers circa 1920–1945
    (pp. 83-106)

    Ruth Williams Thompson was extremely self-assured about her mothering practices—so self-confident that in 1929 she justified writingTraining My Babieswith the explanation that “as my friends see my girls [aged four and three] and learn of their early accomplishments I am continually asked, ‘How did you do it?’ I decided that if my ideas and suggestions were worth anything to a few intimate friends and relatives, many other young mothers might care to read my interesting experiments and experiences.”¹ The epitome of scientific motherhood in this period, Thompson used contemporary science to inform her childrearing practices and insisted...

  10. Chapter 5 “Now I know that an authority has the same opinion as mine”: Motherhood in the Postwar Period
    (pp. 107-134)

    The “Spock Generation”: a familiar motto in postwar United States and into the Cold War. From some it was a tribute: the work of Dr. Benjamin Spock released mothers from the tyranny of Watsonian behaviorism and acknowledged women’s everyday life experiences. For some it was a profanity: the children raised according to Spock’s books were blamed for undermining the social structure of the nation through the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the women’s movement, and, most especially, the anti–Vietnam War movement. There is truth in both versions of Spock’s influence and more. Spock was not the first to...

  11. Chapter 6 “Use it to guide, not to dictate”: Motherhood in the Late Twentieth Century
    (pp. 135-153)

    What did a late-twentieth-century mother do when faced with a coughing child at two in the morning? One worried woman called her physician and explained to him, “I was reading Spock, and Spock says if a child with croup does this, this, and that, I ought to call my doctor. So I’m calling.” Her physician, Dr. Lawrence Elfman, in Madison, Wisconsin, considered this an appropriate and practicable use of child-care books. Not that books should replace the physician, but that “parents can look up their questions and then decide whether or not they need to talk to the doctor.”¹ Evidently...

  12. Conclusion: “I wanted to do it right”
    (pp. 154-170)

    By the time her daughter was fifteen months old, J.W., an early-twenty-first-century mother, had a number of child-care books on her shelf. She read them but at times found them “confusing” because they contradicted each other. She also got advice from neighbors, the mail carrier, and even total strangers, who would tell her what to do and what not to do. They insisted, without being asked, that it was too cold outside for the baby, or that the baby was too young to be taken out. J.W.’s natal family was a thousand miles away and so she did not have...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 171-194)
  14. Index
    (pp. 195-209)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 210-210)