Why the Victorians Want You to Feel Guilty About Having ‘Just’ One Kid

  1. The Victorians were judgy.

And Victorian mothers were especially so. Even without many legal rights or access to reliable birth control, many women still had really strong beliefs about the “right” way to be a mother. Often, this meant having the largest family possible. In the 1890s, a woman writer named Augusta Webster called these mamas out, defending her own choice to have one child. She wrote a whole sonnet sequence about it called Mother and Daughter, unfinished and published posthumously in 1895. In it, she responds to assumptions that she has it easy or is somehow less of a mother than those with multiple children. Here’s a common Victorian critique from one of Webster’s sonnets:

“You scarcely are a mother, at that rate.

Only one child!”

Webster — a badass mom, writer, translator, and activist — turns this criticism on its head, arguing that having one child meant less physical and emotional turmoil and, in turn, more time and energy to focus on her child, herself, and her career. Why should she have to apologize for that?

2. The mommy wars didn’t start in the 21st century.

The criticism Webster describes sounds a lot like assumptions many still make about mothers of onlies, who are often asked to explain their choices or field questions about when they will have #2. It seems that women with more than one child are not asked about their choice nearly as often as mothers of single children. And the choice to have one is still treated with suspicion, despite the fact that single-child families are the fastest growing family type in the U.S. Take this response from a 2013 UK mommy blog:

“I feel that I have constantly been viewed by mums with more than one child as an inexperienced, ill-qualified, mummy-lite (emphasis mine).”

What the hell is “mummy-lite?” And when did motherhood become a contest we think we might win by proving we have it harder than another mom?

3. Multiple kids were insurance.

In the Victorian period, when a woman had one child, she wasn’t just considered selfish. She was also deemed downright foolish. Barring the fact that many women could not have children for health reasons, the decline in infant mortality rates did surprisingly little to change these stereotypes. At the same time, this demographic shift in England from high to low infant mortality rates gave women an unprecedented amount of freedom over their bodies, with more women trying to have fewer children than ever before.

4. Victorian women with one child were seen as incomplete.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and dozens more novels, actively chose to have fewer children in order to prolong her career as a writer and avoid the fate of her mother, who had nine children and died at the age of 37. Beecher Stowe left her teaching career of nearly a decade to marry Calvin Stowe in 1836 at the age of 26. After having five children together, she initiated long periods of forced separation from Calvin, which allowed her to avoid having any children between 1843 and 1849. Not only did she live until age 85, but she also figured out how to secure “full possession of mind and body” to produce her most famous novel the same year her last child was born.

Writers like Webster and Beecher Stowe saw motherhood as a qualitative experience rather than a quantitative one, useful to society for the kind of child one raised rather than the number of children one produced. These writers showed Victorian women that it was possible to be physically strong and mentally present while still being an effective mother. What’s more, they argued for a community of mothers that embraced women who made choices that differed radically from their own.

5. The Victorian Angel in the House isn’t dead yet.

In fact, she’s alive and kickin’ it on the Internet. We see her most often in “I’m an imperfect mom” mommy blogs written by women who post crazy perfect “crafting” and food pictures, then confess sheepishly: “I don’t cook organic food for every meal” or “Some days, I wear yoga pants to school drop off.” Even worse are the passive-aggressive digs at moms who don’t breastfeed, who breastfeed in public, who go to work, who stay at home — who pretty much do anything different from the blog writer at any given moment. No woman — whether she has kids or no kids — seems immune to this judgment. When we stop buying into this illusion of perfect/not perfect Martha Stewart parenting, mommy blogs could stop fueling the so-called mommy wars and start building a safe community for women to feel supported in the diverse choices they make for themselves and their kids.

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