Rousseau vs. the Puritans

My beautiful children are making a lot of noise, so this will have to be blunt and unlinked.

American motherhood has been defined since the dawn of America as a nation by what we would now call a PUA (pick-up artist).  That’s right, if you’re an American woman promoting mother-only care as historical, the most natural and the best possible care for children, you’re promoting the views of a man who abandoned his own illegitimate children to be reared in orphanages without the least thought.

Rousseau’s view on motherhood was that women needed to be constrained in the domestic sphere by sole (not primary, but SOLO) care of their children so that they wouldn’t go out into the marketplace and rule over men.  Yes, that was what the man feared.  He claimed women were sooooo powerful that if they weren’t trapped at home constantly pregnant raising kids by themselves (only to be handed off to men at apprentice-age of 12-13 if boys and married off at 15-16 if girls) that they would TAKE OVER THE WORLD.  And yes, he comes close in his writings about motherhood to using phrases like trapped or constrained.

The entire point of Rousseau-style motherhood is to limit female power and influence and constrain women’s roles, even in the domestic sphere.  One must remember that in the 18th century, household production by wives and mothers was still economically important and a Rousseau-style program of childrearing would make it much harder to maintain that economic role.  This was intentional.

Rousseau’s framework of solitary childrearing by mothers has, astonishingly, continued down nearly unaltered in 200+ years in American society.  American society really is just that weird and started out with wacky theories about mothering propagated by a man who didn’t do any proper family formation of his own.

In contrast, the colonial Puritans had a view of motherhood as a primary role for women and marriage as the highest state for men and women (presaging the Mormons, who replicated some aspects of their views on family and community), but they didn’t believe women were supposed to rear children alone.  Women were expected to be part of a large, bustling household composed of husband, wife, servants and relatives, with the husband sometimes gone for months earning the giant wheelbarrows full of money needed to keep what was essentially the original home-based business going.  So Puritan women were expected to stand in their husband’s stead and have authority in both the home and the marketplace.  In this respect they diverged wildly from Rousseau while still holding to the idea that women were best suited to marriage and motherhood.

And while there were many young-married Puritans, there were plenty of older-married ones who started families later in life when they could get the cash together to set up the proper household structure.  So all the current fretting about people delaying marriage “too long” is just a lot of Rousseau-inflected hokum.

Rousseau is the source of the obsessive pressure for teen marriage no matter what in various eras in America, especially of barely-pubescent girls.  Rousseau is the real source of what many think is just from attachment parenting, the idea that mom is the only possible proper caregiver for children (and yeah, it’s always plural).  Because of Rousseau’s influence, women braved the frontier life and tried to rear children that way and enough continued encouraging it that, well, here we are today.

So if you are a mother struggling with small children in isolation, and you see people saying that this is what women really want and really feel fulfilled by, they are telling you a PUA fish story.

I remain a neo-Puritan on this subject and ever will.

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7 thoughts on “Rousseau vs. the Puritans

  1. Interesting; it would be interesting to see what manuals were beginning to encourage in the colonial era. Interesting to see the parallels to Rousseau.

    Also, what about Martin Luther? He also advocated early marriage quite heavily, although it never came to fruition given the economic limitations in Germany.

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    • St. John Chrysostom also encouraged early marriage, for the purpose of chastity, not “your fleeting looks and withering womb”. The men of the manosphere are altogether too pagan in their outlook. As for Puritans, who I am embarrassingly descended from, they sent their own children out to be raised by other families in order to avoid “spoiling” them. Puritans were religious loonies who were messed up in the head, but they were still right about the role of the extended family in child-rearing.

      The modern, American view of motherhood is similar to the ultra-capitalist idea that the father alone must provide for his family, when in reality there has always been (and should be) an interconnectedness to the economic sphere that should be just as present in the domestic sphere. And one might say they should not be so separate as they have been in the past few centuries!

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  2. Interesting!

    It’s funny, I’m in Australia, but I have also felt the pressure to do it all alone that you describe, so I wonder whether our history would be similar to yours, or whether that is just the American influence reaching over here.
    Under my husband’s direction, a year or so ago we hired a cleaner who comes once a fortnight and does the basics and I have a young woman from church as a mother’s helper, who comes twice a week for a couple of hours. It’s amazing how much shame I felt initially that I needed those things – I thought I had failed massively. In large part, I think that’s due to my pride, but there certainly seems to be this background track playing in my mind that says “You should be able to cope without all this help”.

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    • Seriouslyserving said,

      “It’s amazing how much shame I felt initially that I needed those things – I thought I had failed massively. In large part, I think that’s due to my pride, but there certainly seems to be this background track playing in my mind that says “You should be able to cope without all this help”.”

      I think part of this is that (according to the SAHM propaganda), SAHM-ing is supposed to be as cheap as possible in order to come out financially ahead (!) of a double income household.

      The thing is, “as cheap as possible” for spending on children isn’t actually a Biblical value. (I’ll wait while you all go check–it’s not there.) Also, “as cheap as possible” is a means, not an end .

      I think we need to start with our ends in mind and seek our means accordingly, rather than the reverse.

      It’s obviously possible for an SAHM household to compare quite well to a double-income household in terms of providing better quality of life (less stress, better supervised children, fewer corners cut, more time spent developing children’s relationships)–but pretty much all of those advantages can be neutralized by loading the SAHM up too much and by limiting her resources.

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