The past century has produced drastic changes in the concepts, practices, and “rules” governing the proper methods of raising children and the roles of mothers in Canada. In Canada, particularly in the urban areas that grew extensively between the years 1900-1960, these issues were often at the forefront for mothers and male politicians alike, creating one dichotomy after another in this search for some ultimate and correct way to bring up one’s children. One full century later, after years of legislation, conferences, and general bantering, no clear answer has emerged, but it is safe to say that the issues surrounding motherhood in Canada since 1900 have, at the very least, become more progressive. The discourse is far more wide-ranging in the sense that it is an issue of multidisciplinary study, thus leading to more voices than 1900, but with that, more enlightened and modern reasoning.

“Mothering has been regarded as anything but natural.  In the twentieth century, reformers have been especially keen to “improve” nearly everything that passes between mothers and their infants.  Apparently, mother did not know best, and if something was wrong with the child, it was probably the mother’s fault.” This shift towards a governmental and social desire to coach parents gained momentum throughout the first part of the century, but to what final effect, one couldn’t possibly know. Modern speculation, such as offered by Arnup, who suggests there was a rather sinister underpinning to all of this guidance from outside sources since these institutions offering advice. [Government advice-givers] “retained ultimate authority over how children should be reared, while mother retained responsibility for the day-to-day care of their children.” It is difficult to argue with Arnup’s suggestion that the control was being shifted from its traditional place—with the mother—and being governed by outside influences that interrupted the formerly (pre-1900 roughly) private family affair of raising children.

According to Arnup, these so-called experts on the proper way to raise a child (often men) “both elevated the status of motherhood and castigated individual mothers for their failure to adequately perform their duties.” This critical evaluation of motherhood suggested that women should be heralded for their noble efforts of raising their children—but only if their methods of child rearing were conducted according to outside advice. This certainly backs up what Arnup mentioned about the authority being in the advice-givers hands as opposed to the mother’s. These books and theories on raising children that were given out to mothers thus seemed to come with an implicit warning that it would be best to comply with their contents. These warnings were not limited to merely raising infants since much of the literature also focused on dealing with older children. “During this [1920-1970] half-century, doctors and other ‘experts’ shaped and shared approaches to the all-encompassing ‘health’ of the young, in collectively theorizing a modern adolescence.” Given this information, it would seem that these planners of women’s domestic lives had all ages covered, from the prenatal years to adolescence. This points to the idea that these self-proclaimed officials on the subject of parenting had the impression that these women were, for whatever reason, either incapable of formulating an effective strategy for raising productive members of society or that they felt that society was turning away from the values they espoused, thus causing them to teach the mothers so that they pass these guidelines for living the “right” way to their children.

While it would seem that previous generations with more rooted ideas about a woman’s place as the sole caregiver would have been less likely to take advice from the predominantly male authority on these matters, this is not the case. It would be impossible to speculate how many of these urban women took heed to this advice, the fact remains that it was disseminated. “Canadian mothers have received solicited and unsolicited advice from clergymen, doctors, teachers, and social workers for many years. ‘Little Blue Books’ full of helpful hints on everything from childbirth to weaning and nutrition began in the 1920s, the first in a long line of advice literature from federal and provincial governments.” While these may have been promoting selfish goals set forth by the writers and publishers of such information, the effects of these manuals for child rearing may in fact, have been a welcome dose of honesty in the tight-lipped (as far as sexual/body talk goes) Victorian world of turn-of-the-century urban Canada. Arnup, curiously leaving behind her distaste for this literature for a brief moment speculates that, “the books and pamphlets represented a friendly, welcome voice in an otherwise lonely world.”

It is important to look at this advice in terms of the time period it was initially disseminated. For instance, as mentioned above, the social and cultural norms of even the most urban (and urbane) parts of Canada were not as open as we are today about talking issues related to breastfeeding and care of the body after childbirth. Therefore, Arnup’s comment about this advice being a welcome break from the “lonely world” of motherhood in this era is especially convincing and makes one begin to look past her first claims about the suspect motivations behinds these texts. Also of note, the first two decades of the twentieth century were a time of great change for urban Canada, thus motherhood and the principles traditionally associated with it seemed to be at stake. “Unparalleled numbers of women and girls were flocking to Toronto seeking work. As they left behind traditions of rural family life, their presence heightened fears about the breakdown of morality and the family.” This fear of a great change in the urban women of Canada may have sparked some of these instructional manuals on child rearing in the hopes that instilling these traditional values would prevent the sort of debauchery that is associated with such migrations and changes. “Urbanization and industrialization set the conditions for a growing concern with unwed mothers” and this was the exact problem these intuitions offering the expert advice wanted to mend.

The problem with these instructional materials and other forms of guidance for young mothers in urban Canada was simply that the world was changing so fast. It was difficult to keep up with the demands of motherhood and an increasingly capitalist-driven society. The problem of unwed mothers was not even so much how to help them, but more so, how to “deal” with them. They were often placed in homes for “wayward” women and of course, the stigma would remain. While the supposedly helpful institutions and experts concentrated their efforts of providing help to married and stable women of the urban areas, “some unwed mothers turned to private maternity facilities, sometimes referred to as ‘baby farms’. Sometimes these organizations functioned as a form of group child care in urban centers, although several high-profile scandals became associated with the practice.” The underlying hypocrisy is apparent; while these groups were assisting those mothers whom they deemed worthy of their advice, the urban poor and dejected unwed mothers were left to their own devices. It would seem then that there was a certain socioeconomic concern underlying these “expert” literary guides to motherhood. It is possible that these mothers who were already “playing by the rules” as set forth by these so-called experts were the target audience since they would more likely be the ones raising children that would grow into the institutionalized system of what a child should be like—if raised properly, of course (as deemed by their guidelines).

Perhaps the idea that there were a number of ulterior motivations at work is wrong and the case is that these organizations providing the assistance were just misguided. In other words, to use a cliché, they “had their heart in the right place”. “The WCTU and NCWC were, like most women’s organizations, eager to rescue children and adults from sexual predators. Unfortunately, the maternity homes and shelters they created often further stigmatized victims and entailed social control as well as assistance.” It is true that there have been altruistic associations with such undertakings, but again, the fact remains that these women were then subject to the moral authority of those are providers. It would seem that in terms of turn-of-the-century guidance on motherhood, there was always some issue that was underlying the seeming generosity. While it is difficult to make the complaint that these women weren’t better off physically in the care of these intuitions that “knew what was best” the culture deemed that these women in federal care were not fit to join the society of the “good mothers” who followed the rules set forth by these very pillars of parenting knowledge. To modern sensibilities, this seems as though it may be a cruel and shrewd way of viewing Victorian-era (and slightly post-Victorian) charity. Of course, there is always a little patronizing to be expected, but given the widespread prevalence of literature and advice aimed at creating better mothers, one must see that the patronizing element is an inherent part of it. Without setting up for the good mothers an example of what a bad mother is, the point is, in theory, lost—dooming an entire generation of children to grow up to be unemployed heathens—or so the thinking might have gone, if not in those terms.

Regulation of motherhood extended far beyond the “good” and wayward mothers. Women were certainly not permitted the right to have an abortion and of course, this was a highly publicized issue after the botched abortion of Constance Browne (which caused her death and stirred great debates in Canada’s urban centers. “The legal proceedings that enveloped the aftermath of Constance Browne’s abortion served as a sobering reminder of the long reach of criminal law. Those who sought and practiced abortion under the cloud of criminal illegality did so at tremendous risk.” While the rights of parenting according to personal whims were being slowly and unwittingly away from women, the rights to their bodies were as well. The legislation resulting as a result of the Constance Browne case led to further infringements upon the rights of women to decide for themselves how to be a parent, and more importantly, whether they wanted to be a parent at all. “Not only were children becoming more of an expense and less of an economic asset as the country became more urbanized, but death, not to mention disability in childbirth remained common until the appearance of sulfa drugs in the late 30s.” Strong-Baog makes an important point in suggesting that the reasons for unwanted pregnancies were directly tied to economic as well as health concerns and that by outlawing it entirely, this left women with little choice but to raise a child. The dichotomy is this; with so many institutions pushing for greater influence in the lives of mothers for one of the purposes of later socioeconomic benefit, wouldn’t allowing some abortions to be preformed achieve the goal much sooner? This opens a highly volatile can of worms, so to speak, but the point here isn’t whether abortion is simply right or wrong, but whether or not the benefits of a “better” society of mothers (without the unwanted children growing up destitute) could be more easily reached by allowing it. Also at issue here is the idea that women’s choices in terms of raising a family were more severely limited, thus forcing them to raise children if they became pregnant and furthermore, raising them according to the standards set forth in the “Blue Books” and other such literature.

With all the advice directed towards mothers in urban areas of Canada one must wonder what some of the deeper cultural changes were that caused such a rise in this wide-scale advice giving and interest in how others raise their children. This paper has proposed a few ideas, the most of key of which states that this literature was distributed to encourage mothers to conform to an ideal of motherhood for the reasons of socioeconomic progress. The next question then becomes, what happened in the mindset of urban Canadians and the “experts” who passed these ideas out? The great cultural shift towards this renewed (and a little nosy) interest in motherhood might have to do changing views caused by rapid urbanization. “The assignment of women to roles as wives and mothers was further legitimated by the functionalist school of sociology that dominated the discipline as it established itself throughout Canada.” Strong-Boag’s assertion is ideas about each sex’s role in society caused a greater interest in seeing that these roles were fulfilled accordingly and along certain codified lines. While there is nothing essentially wrong this argument, it does not address the fact that this is urban sociology and functionalism in such a setting is changed since there are more economic concerns to contend with (as opposed to rural life where such a view of functionalism seems better suited). The times had changed for urban areas in Canada and after having existing so long as a country with a rural majority, this rural to urban migration naturally caused some tension—enough perhaps to bringing about this change in perceptions and sanctioned codification of women’s roles in rearing their children (and even to the extent of deciding if they wanted these children).

While this paper has been overtly hostile towards the literature geared towards “fixing” and helping mothers in urban Canada, there is something positive to be said for the fact that at least it raised awareness about some self-care issues. Still, from a modern perspective, these efforts on the part of potentially well-meaning institutions tended to patronize and under-evaluate a woman’s role in deciding how to raise her young as well as undermine personal freedoms as they related to this and femininity as a whole.

“At the close of the twentieth century, Canadians are questioning identities of every sort, revisiting long-standing loyalties, recognizing more complicated allegiances, and challenging the status quo in general” Therefore, it is a useful exercise to look to the past when determining new directions for supporting for mothers, while at the same time learning from the mistakes of the predecessors of such guidance.