The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Alter Ego!

by 'Gnome.'
Volume 2, 1891/92, pg. 536-541

Another self! This is the crying need of mothers today. A daily increasing need; a need that is ever developing some fresh phase; and when one hears from all parts of the world what a deep-rooted and wide-spreading need it is, one asks in despair, "Where is that other self to be found?"

Deep thinkers, like Locke and Horace Bushnell, have drawn terrible pictures of the moral and physical contamination exercised by servants upon children. Locke, in his excellent work "On Education," wrote, "the great difficulty is from the folly and perverseness of servants who are hardly to be hindered from crossing the designs of the father and mother . . . But how this inconvenience from servants is to be remedied I must leave to parents' care and consideration. Only I think it of great importance, and that they are very happy who can get discreet people about their children . . . One great mischief comes by servants to children when by their flatteries they take off the edge and force of the parents' rebukes, and so lessen their authority; and here is another great inconvenience which children receive from the ill examples which they meet with amongst the meaner servants. They are wholly, if possible, to be kept from such conversation; for, the contagion of these ill precedents, both in civility and virtue, horribly infects children as often as they come within reach of it. They frequently learn from un-bred or debauched servants such language, untowardly tricks and vices as otherwise they would possibly be ignorant of all their lives. 'Tis a hard matter wholly to prevent this mischief. You will have very good luck if you never have a clownish or vicious servant, and if from them your children never get any infection, but yet as much must be done towards it as can be, and the children kept as much as may be in the company of their parents. . . . To this purpose, their being in their presence should be made easy to them; they should be allowed liberties and freedoms suitable to their ages, and not be held under by unnecessary restraints when in their parents' or governors' sight. How much the Romans thought the education of their children a business that properly belonged to the parents themselves, see Suetonius, Plutarch, and Diodorus Siculus."

Coming down to our own day we find that true "Mother in Israel," the late Mrs. Booth, writing, "Make any sacrifice to keep a really good Christian girl with your children. I have made it a rule never to have any other as nurse, and have sometimes put up with great inexperience and incompetency, because it was associated with goodness. Better take a girl whom you have to teach how to wash a child's face or to stitch a button on, if she is true and sincere, than have one ever so clever who will teach your children to lie and deceive."

And it is certainly not a little remarkable (and may we not regard it as a hopeful sign that the mothers of England are being at length aroused to the hidden dangers in their nurseries?) that in January last, side by side with the Parents' Review, which contained those four tocsin-notes of alarm about "Children's Nurses," there appeared an equally serious warning in the first number of Miss Charlotte Yonge's quarterly, "Mothers in Council," entitled, "Who can prevent it?"

A very real danger was, however, barely touched by any of those writers. I allude to a point deserving of most careful watching--the visits of men-servants to the nursery, invited by the nurses, where they are not called by their duties; and encouraged in large establishments where a "nursery footman" is considered an essential member of the nursery ménage.

A word to the wise will suffice.

A second danger was left unnoticed, viz., the increasing drinking habits, not to say the actual drunkenness, prevalent amoung nurses; it almost equals that of cooks.

Experienced nurses, in receipt of handsome salaries, say that they cannot carry Baby without their "glass of beer;" and, on inquiry, one finds that three, four, and even up to seven glasses are thought requisite; and these are supplemented by "night-caps" of spirits and water.

I would solemnly charge young mothers not to permit one drop of beer in their nursery, or to give any "Beer-money," but to provide instead an ample allowance of milk, tea, coffee, or cocoa (whichever the nurse chooses), and, above all, to see that a nurse who is in charge of a teething infant has a cup of tea regularly brought to her by the nursery-maid at 6 a.m., after her disturbed and wakeful night.

After long and deep consideration of these evils--evils which, in the present trying stage of the "servant-question," are dally assuming a more serious aspect, and viewing with grief and alarm the increasing difficulty and (almost) impossibility of finding moral, high-principled nurses--I am persuaded that the only cure is for mothers to try and attract a superior class into the field.

But here, again, there are great, although not insuperable, difficulties.

I. At first the idea of "TRAINED"--i.e., Hospital nurses--seemed to offer a happy solution, because of their higher education, their varied experience, their training in discipline and routine, and their practical knowledge of hygiene. But conversation with several matrons of hospitals elicited the fact that to look for help in this quarter is practically hopeless. Those who, in hospital practice, have to scrub floors, clean lamps and lavatories, and do many other very disagreeable duties, shrink from the "menial" work of attending to little children.

"Trained nurses" are, to a large extent, infected with the spirit of the age--restlessness and love of change and novelty; and for this reason a rule obtains in institutions which supply nurses that they are not to remain longer than six or eight weeks in attendance on one case. It becomes "monotonous," and the nurse "loses interest" in her patient, "the case ceases to be interesting," &c. So that they every-day, all-the-year-round, routine of a nursery would be "irksome and intolerable" to them.

This is undoubtedly a "sign of the times," and a very alarming and unhappy one for the future of our country.

Again; the supply of really good, capable, trustworthy nurses who possess the essential qualifications for tending little children is not sufficient to meet the demands in the children's hospitals alone; the desirable ones are all absorbed, and those who seek work outside (except in such rare instances as need not be taken into account) do so because they are not worth retaining on the staff of these hospitals.

I know that a search among ten hospitals failed to find one nurse, and that an advertisement asking matrons to recommend a suitable person procured one application.

The quiet, regular life of a private nursery is not congenial to those who are accustomed to the continual change and variety of public institutions.

II. "Lady-nurses." The title has become most objectionable owing to the extraordinary people who assume it. "Lady-helps," who are neither ladies nor helps. "Distressed gentlewomen," "ladies in reduced circumstances," who come to engage, rather than to be engaged. Full of difficulties, and objections, and quibbles, and grand ideas--eminently unpractical.

One arrives in a "hansom" in answer to the advertisement, and claims an eighteen-penny cab-fare for a distance which she might have traversed on foot, or in a "penny bus"!

Another applicant writes: "I should be pleased to undertake any duties you may appoint, except the wheeling of a perambulator."

Another "cannot carry the baby!" A fourth: "I should not mind taking the superintendence of your nursery, but I could not take my meals with the nursery-maid." A fifth: "The post in your house being a responsible and arduous one (!) I think that sixty pounds a year would be fair remuneration."

A sixth thinks it great condescension to have a child sleeping in her room, adding, "donc beaucoup, MAIS pas les bains !"

There are scores of such useless, incompetent people who answer any advertisement for "a lady-nurse"; and broadly one may state with fairness that every person who offers her services as a lady-nurse belongs to the foregoing category.

Alter Ego! the case looks desperate. Shall we ever find one? Yes! for light begins to dawn in another quarter. Shall we try another plan? It has been tried in a few instances, and with marked success. An advertisement in a good paper like the "Morning Post," the "Church Times," or "The Christian," stating that "a nursery-governess is required as superior nurse, who is willing to undertake all the duties of a head nurse," and giving one's full name and address, will bring a large number of applications, among them several from a very superior set of women, often those belonging to the farming class, from which, as Baring Gould shows in his interesting "Old Country Life," the "good old-fashioned servants" of former days used to be drawn for gentlemen's service, before the wave of prosperity caused the farmers' daughters to grow too grand for any other work beyond performing on the pianoforte, and art-embroidery.

Now, in these "hard times" of agricultural depression, many are only too glad to obtain an honourable livelihood, which will enable them to live without burdening their families. Education they have, though not sufficient to meet the demands of the Higher Code.

"You know I'm not a lady, I'm only a farmer's daughter," said one bright, winning, thoroughly refined creature. "Not a lady," but a true cultured woman, full of womanly, motherly instincts--a noble character.

Such women are not assuming or presuming, not grasping in their demands. From them you hear no word of "my position;" theirs is no stilted phraseology which reeks of unreality. Even if they have not had the "experience," their teachable spirit, open to advice, willing and anxious to be helpful, will soon enable them to pick up the essentials of nursery management, and a mother may feel that she has an aide who will help her and not deceive.

(Of course, if these young people would go in for training in the new House of Education it would be better all round.)

"Rules," alas! are made but to be broken, unless the spirit of order and obedience and sympathy is there.

"Refinement" for your children you can only obtain by having a person with them who loves refinement for its own sake, and has herself been brought up amidst refining influences.

I know that this class of people ask a lower remuneration for their services than the experienced hirelings do. I know that they voluntarily and conscientiously perform twice the amount of work, and that they are intelligent co-workers in the mother's aims.

But when all this is so, the least that mothers can do for them is to treat them reciprocally. I do not for a moment suggest that they should be "taken out of their nursery sphere," or invited into the drawing-room; but a thoughtful consideration will provide many little refinements for such a nurse which add immeasurably to her comfort, and which would not be noticed or appreciated by the coarse-grained nature of an ordinary servant. A screen, a daily bath, a few flowers, meals served daintily on pretty china (the children will reap the benefit, for the china will not be smashed as under the old regime), the loan of an interesting book or magazine, an occasional drive, a visit to a picture-gallery or an exhibition with the older children and their mother will be gratefully received; and such kindness will not be presumed upon.

One girl told me that her great dread in accepting a nurse's situation was that she would have to eat the coarsely-cut and liberally-served portions which appear on the servants' tables--"chunks of cold meat and lumps of bread and cheese"; and how agreeably surprised and grateful she felt when she found the reverse. Query: When "cold meat" is sent up, cannot it be garnished with a sprig of parsley and made to look appetizing?

And to the girls themselves who are willing to undertake this woman's mission may I add these words? "I know you may be venturing into a hornet's nest, but if the nursery you are entering had been well-managed there would not have been the great need of you as far as the children are concerned. I am sure at first your difficulties will be great. You must not be discouraged at the difficulties; you have a big work to do, and, of course, the cross is proportionately large. You would not wish to go where all was easy, but do take up the missionary work of being Alter Ego to some weary mother, and an intelligent companion and watchful guardian of those young lives before whom lies a future full of such wondrous possibilities for good or evil."


Typed by Barbara McNiff, April 2013