Event, Women's History

Women’s History Month: What about the nanny? Thoughts on Mothering Sunday

Today, as the shops have been telling us for at least a month now, is Mother’s Day, the day when mothers are supposed to have a holiday, put their feet up and receive cards, flowers and presents from their children. I haven’t been able to discover much about the history of Mother’s Day, formally known and still celebrated in Christian Churches as Mothering Sunday, beyond the following entry in Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Cassell 1981, p 759): “A bunch of violets is emblematic of this of this day and it is customary for children to give small presents to their mothers. It is said it is derived from the pre-reformation custom of visiting the Mother Church on that day. Children away from home, especially daughters in service, normally returned to their families.” This and other sources also mention children feasting on cakes including simnel cakes which we now associate mostly with the Easter festival. (eg Reminiscences of Lancashire and Cheshire When George IV. Was King, by Charlotte S. Burne © 1909 Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.) 

However it is unclear how widespread Mothering Sunday customs actually were in post-reformation England or for how long they persisted. Charlotte Burne, the president of the folklore society in the early 1900s, claimed that while Mothering Sunday was celebrated in south Staffordshire, in the north of the county the festival passed unnoticed.  My mother, the daughter of a Church of England Vicar growing up in the 1930s on the south coast of England said she thought there was a class divide. Though it was mentioned in church, she and her siblings were discouraged from celebrating mothering Sunday day, a view she passed on to her own children. It would be interesting to know how often this was the case among middle and upper–class families in the last century and also if there were regional variations.

My own interest in Mother’s Day however has other dimensions. In my research on the history of nannies in the early twentieth century, I have been struck how the work of being a mother was often divided. In middle and upper-class families there was a very marked split between the nanny or nurse-maid, who did most and sometimes all of the hands-on care, and the mother, who played a part more typical of many fathers today: playing games, going on outings and helping with school work. Many children brought up by nannies have stressed their mutual love and how devastated they were when a nanny left.  But while different rules and standards between mothers and nannies could create tensions and conflicts at times, it was generally in a nanny’s economic interests as an employee to encourage children to idealise their mother and subordinate her own maternal role. It was hard for nannies, who did not have the certainty of a long-term relationship with the children, to see their relationship with the children as being as important as that of a mother. They had no day set aside to honour their maternal work.

Letters I have read from nannies to absent mothers made much of the children’s longing to be with their parents and stressed how ‘their little faces lit up’ when writing to them. Sometimes they had to instruct the parents to acknowledge their children’s letters and drawings for fear they might be ignored. If the nanny lived in an area where Mothering Sunday customs persisted, it seems likely that unless they were told not to, they would have encouraged their charges to celebrate their bond with their mothers with cards and gifts, while ignoring the significance of their own relationship with the children.

Yet Mothering Sunday may have delivered a mixed message to some mothers. Whether or not this was treated as a special day, Sunday was usually the day when nurse-maids, usually young untrained girls employed to help look after children either alone or under a nanny, had some time off. And if their families lived locally, they often went home. Letters and diaries written by mothers who were not used to routinely looking after their children indicate how stressful they could find it when the nurse-maid or nanny had a day off. Thus, while working-class mothers may have enjoyed making cakes  for and receiving extra attention and gifts from their returning daughters on Mothering Sunday, it may not always have been so joyful a day for those normally leisured women left to cope with being mothers on their own.

Kath Holden is a historian at the University of the West of England. For more information on single women’s relationships with children see her book The Shadow of Marriage: Singleness in England 1914-1960 which includes a section on nannies. While I am not myself a mother or a nanny, the 10 year old daughter of a close friend who had adopted me as her fairy godmother noted that I had no special day and gave me a present which she had made herself on Fairy Godmother’s Day (March 16th).

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