The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Years and years ago, when a child myself, the sweet poem from which the above verse is quoted was a special favourite of mine. The first verse about the "old house 'neath the lindens" was very clear to me, because a certain house, with a wonderful avenue of yew trees and feathery limes, and a long history haunting its quaint rooms, formed the illustration in my thoughts. But I held my breath and sighed when I came to the "nursery windows." What could have occurred in that empty nursery. Scarlet fever, whooping cough? Could the whole family have perished in a railway accident, or been drowned? But as years went by, teaching their lesson of change and uncertainty in all things human, Longfellow's meaning became clear to me. The children were not dead, only grown up. The boys had travelled to the ends of the earth, the girls had become wives, or perhaps still lived in the old home, but not as children!
It is because I have something to say about unmarried daughters, and their position in the family, that I am induced to call this little essay "Abdication."
There is a terrible uncertainty and vagueness in many households about occupation for grown-up girls. Long after "first youth" is passed and daughters are no longer young, but middle-aged women, the poor father and mother try to keep up the idea of perpetual childhood. The "girls" are expected to mention exactly where they are going, and when they may be looked for at home again, even if it be simple shopping. They are asked what they are reading, to whom they are writing. They have to ask permission to invite friends, if only to a cup of tea, or for an hour's chat in the evening. All kinds of small duties are laid on them, cutting up their time and making it impossible for them to attempt study, or serious work of any description. They must read aloud, play whist, leave cards, write notes, mend stockings, talk to visitors whenever required, at the shortest notice. The mother keeps the household keys, thus depriving her girls of any chance of real practical responsibility, and yet their time is less at their own disposal than of any servant in the family. I have known sisters who have tried to relieve the perpetual strain caused by these petty interruptions by taking turns with father and mother, but this does not satisfy the kind of parents I am endeavouring to describe. One is absent without leave, let us say in the evening, from the drawing-room. There are two, or perhaps three, others in the room, "standing at attention," but no, anxious inquiries begin at once, there is no peace or satisfaction till the absent one is fetched, and welcomed with the assurance that they are all so fond of her they cannot do without her! It gets rather stale and over-blown at last, that kind of sentiment, and one does not know whom to pity most, the ageing parents who still like to think of sons and daughters as "the children," or the middle-aged men and women who chafe and fret, and yet do not like to hurt the old people's feelings. Fathers and sons more often come to a reasonable understanding than mothers and daughters. It is for the unmarried women in the last half of their "twenties " or rapidly getting through their " thirties " that my feelings are often stirred. They are in the full summer of life, perhaps they have an eager desire to do some real work, accomplish something definite in literature, art, philanthropy, but "poor mother" stops the way. She is only happy when everybody is in the room with her, chatting to her, waiting on her, going little errands, paying little attentions. By and by, in due course, "poor mother" has to leave her "girls" grey-haired, middle-aged women, soured and cramped by a narrow life of would-be perpetual childhood, which has at last become so much a habit of mind that no more effort is possible; all aspiration, earnestness, attempt at occupation, has been continually nipped and thwarted, and so the unmarried daughters become families of useless old maids, timid, hesitating, nervous, tiresome women, not knowing what to do with their liberty when at last it comes to them. I wish mothers would try to look forward with their children, instead of constantly requiring them to look back and endeavour to perpetuate a state of things which has long passed away. The "nursery windows" are there, but no childish faces look out of them, nor ever will again!
Typed by happi, April 2016
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