Julia Steiny: Nat’l Congress Of Mothers Talked Honestly About Motherhood

Julia Steiny writes about the origins of the PTA — formerly known as the National Congress of Mothers — and how their role has changed over time.

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”

– Fred Rogers, aka, Mr. Rogers

 “Use your words, Mom.”

– My grown sons

In 1895, Mrs. Theodore Birney was so distressed about the state of mothering in America, she gathered friends to see if they would help her promote the conversation.  The topic excited such a sense of urgency, they decided to start the organization that would become The National Congress of Mothers.

Julia Steiny

Birney reflects their concerns in the introduction of her 1905 book, Childhood:

“That parenthood is a vocation, no thoughtful person will deny; but the saddest part of it all is that men and women are called to fill this vocation without any real training for it, and often with a very vague sense of the responsibility it involves.  Public opinion is gradually awakening to the fact that while parental instinct is valuable to a certain degree, it must be supplemented with knowledge of the moral, mental and physical nature of childhood or the best results can not be attained.”

Now here we are, in 2012, struggling mightily to figure out how on earth to attain the best results with our children.  But mothering, as a critical contributor to these results, is hardly discussed.  We talk about poverty – you know, those people – but not about mothers, who could well be us.

The first Congress of Mothers gathered in New York City in 1897.  The ladies’ invitations received thousands of responses.  Socialite Mrs. Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph (Citizen Kane), brought a slew of her fancy friends, whose names were a collection of Mrs. Who’s Who of the time.

Mind you, the Congress attracted not only mothers, but also fathers, politicians, and experts, who in those days were men.  The over-arching topic was the “culture of children.”  Participants read papers and convened in what we would now call break-out groups.

Topics included:

* “the value of kindergarten work”

* “a love of humanity and of country”

* “the physical and mental evils resulting from some of the present methods of our schools”

* “the means of developing in children characteristics which would elevate and ennoble them, and thus assist in overcoming the conditions which now prompt crime, and make necessary the maintenance of jails, workhouses, and reformatories.”

Women’s suffrage was then a hot topic.  In her opening remarks, Mrs. Birney said, “so much has been written in these latter days about higher education, the extended opportunities of women that we have failed to hear the still, small voice of childhood; and yet, how, I ask, can we divorce the woman question from the child question?  Is not one the natural, logical corollary of the other?”

Exposing our painful lack of progress, she continues, “For every single kindergarten there are a hundred, nay a thousand prisons, jails, reformatories, asylums and hospitals; and yet society cries that there is need for more of these.  Are we blind that we fail as a Nation, and State, and individuals to recognize the incontrovertible fact that such demand will never cease until we cut off the supply?”

Mrs. Birney knew how to use her words.  Her late 19th-century sentiments can be jarring to our modern, hyper-secular, feminist sentiments, but her ideas about childhood still ring true.  To her, mothers were divinely ordained as the ones who would “lead in awakening all mankind to the responsibilities resting upon the race.”  Whether or not a woman marries, she is still of the sex that should know children’s needs and be ready “with head and heart and hand” to serve the young and vulnerable.

From the get-go, the Congress worked to bring together mothers and the exploited teachers who formally instructed their children.  Early in the 20th century, the Congress of Mothers changed its name to the Parent Teacher Association (PTA).

And by the 1960′s, women were going into what had been men’s careers in droves.

And teaching was becoming professionalized, even unionized, separating it from the direct concerns of nurture and mothering.  Teachers unions were formed to represent the interests of the adults.

The PTA then gradually became a mix of professional educators with a huge range of parents, from big-time-career women to stay-at-home moms.  They no longer shared the same perspective on mothering, specifically, placing the needs of children before their own.

Mrs. Birney would be appalled.

Consider:  while 84 percent of all men and 86 percent of all women become parents, fully 100 percent were born of a mother.  Everyone on earth starts life in utero with Mom.  What could be more important?

But it’s soooo hard to talk about – even though America’s kids are struggling with drugs, teen pregnancy, poor performance at school, defiance, distraction by electronics, and more.

While historically inevitable, it’s too bad the Congress of Mothers gave up their name.  We could use such a Congress today to insist that we talk openly and honestly about the incredible dearth of nurture in our consumerist, individualist culture.  With every effort to avoid mere blame, motherhood badly needs a heartfelt, thoughtful and public conversation driven by everyday moms, from the full range.  Joined, of course, by the fathers, experts, politicians and the rest of us.

That which can be mentioned can be managed.  We can improve the foundations for kids.  We just have to be willing to use our words, starting with “mother.”

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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