Great Essays

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Great Essays

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Great Essays Sample

The most important of parental allies was the nurse. It was the almost unanimous opinion of churchmen, doctors, and moralists from Erasmus on that mothers ought to breastfeed their own infants. Some theologians even tried to suggest that a failure to do so should be regarded as a mortal sin. At the same time, these writers would reluctantly add some words of advice on how to choose a nurse, a last-minute concession indicating that the practice was far too strongly entrenched in the mores of the period to be dislodged by the exhortations of a few intellectuals. In this respect, Rousseau, who has always been regarded as the revolutionary champion of maternal breastfeeding, was no less sensitive to custom than his predecessors, and his passionate appeal to mothers was followed by some sober recommendations for selecting a nurse, and even a touch of lyricism on the joys of nursing in the fresh air of the countryside. In this section, I describe the deeply rooted practice of employing nurses, and explore some of the possible reasons for their participation in family life.

The first point to note about the nurse is her poverty. "All the women who hire themselves out as nurses are peasants or women of mean estate." By contrast, the family which employed her necessarily belonged to a relatively affluent class. François Mauriceau noted that poor people did not even have the means to hire a nurse for the first week of the baby's life, during which time he believed the mother's own milk was not good for the infant. These women would have to breastfeed their children themselves right from the beginning. There was no possibility of help even for a brief period. He went on to single out among the people who engaged nurses "all the women of quality and a majority of the bourgeoisie."

The relationship of the nurse to her employers varied with circumstances. The woman might be a long-term domestic of the parents, perhaps the nurse of earlier children from the same family. In many cases, however, she was a stranger. In Paris, placement bureaus arranged connections between nurses and families interested in doing business. Many writers deplored the frequent failure of mothers to investigate the character of the women they were choosing to feed their offspring. In spite of the doctors' urgings, this choice was often not made in advance of the birth. Where details are given, the parents, even those who seem especially thoughtful and attentive to the welfare of their children, contracted with the nurse after the baby had been delivered. Sometimes the father of the infant gave the money directly to the nurse's husband.

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