chapter  3
20 Pages

Oedipus Forgiven: Infancy and Early Childhood

In the antebellum era, the stage of childhood that provided the fewest opportunities for a father’s involvement was infancy. Women performed the necessary chores of feeding, diapering, bathing, cloth­ ing, and tending, and later guided a toddler’s efforts to eat solid foods, walk, and speak. Nursing obviously fostered a close bond between mothers and children. Convenience and conventional wisdom encour­ aged middle-class mothers to breast-feed their children-wet nurses and bottles were largely used when a mother could not lactate.1 The flourishing prescriptive literature of the day, such as advice manuals by Lydia N. Sigourney, William Alcott, and Almira Phelps, strength­ ened notions of the preeminence of the mother-infant bond, arguing that nature had given women the ideal mind and disposition to teach and nurture, along with the body to bear and feed children. Accord­ ing to these writers, allowing others to care for children, particularly nurses or servants, but also fathers, would result in children getting less than the best care.2 It is tempting to accept this antebellum rhetoric as proof enough to deny men any role in their infant chil­ dren’s lives. Indeed, for over half a century historians have asserted that nineteenth-century fathers had little, if any, interaction with their infant children.3