Eleanor Roosevelt was born into a wealthy family. She was raised to be a lady of high society, which included two primary roles – mother and wife. Mrs. Roosevelt took on the role of mother for her younger brother, Hall Roosevelt, after the death of her father, Elliot Roosevelt. Shortly after her marriage to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt (whom I shall subsequently refer to as ER) gave birth to the first of her six children, one of whom died in infancy. ER was uncomfortable in the role of mother; she “never had any interest in dolls or little children [or] knew absolutely nothing about handling or feeding a baby.”1 She left the child-rearing to different nannies and, at times, to her dominating mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt. Her political activism later on kept her away from her children, which caused them to resent her public life.
Eleanor Roosevelt was brought up with the Victorian propriety that was common to the upper-class lifestyle of her time. In Victorian America, men and women had clearly defined roles. Men were expected to be aggressive, independent, rational, and successful in business. Women, on the other hand, were confined to the home. Women were expected to be passive, modest, dependent, sacrificing for the family, nurturing, religious and understanding. ER maintained most of these qualities throughout her life. ER was reluctant to live a public life, which was inevitable due to her husband’s involvement in politics. Yet she accepted Franklin Roosevelt's political ambitions and adjusted herself accordingly. ER believed that “it was a wife's duty to be interested in whatever interested her husband.”2 If a woman became involved in public life, then it was thought to make her more masculine. A reporter was impressed with ER's balance of motherhood and politics. She wrote that politics had not made ER a masculine woman. ER was also a frequent churchgoer while her husband went golfing. Her children were raised to be churchgoers as well. In Victorian times, the mother was responsible for bringing religion into the lives of the children.
Victorian propriety prevented ER from being able to openly talk about sex with her children. As a child, she scolded her schoolmates when they talked about sex. ER tried to teach Anna and James about sex by literally reading to them about the birds and the bees. When Anna married Curtis Dall, ER asked her if she had any questions regarding “the intimacies of marriage.” In a letter to Anna’s second husband, John Boettinger, ER referred to Anna’s pregnancy as “it.” ER's discomfort with the topic of sex did not ease as her children grew older.
Eleanor Roosevelt raised her children with the same Victorian decorum. Nannies were employed to take care of the children on a day-to-day basis and directed by Sara D. Roosevelt. ER also undertook the supervision of the children's education. She dutifully sent all the boys at age twelve to Groton, as was traditional. It was Sara D. Roosevelt's idea to hire English nannies to raise the children “right.” Sara Roosevelt referred to her grandchildren as her children and clearly established her authority over them. One day she told the children, “Your mother only bore you. I am more your mother than your mother is.”3 Sara tried to buy the children's affections to further establish her dominance over them. She lavished them with gifts and threatened to leave her money only to the child who did as she wanted. On one occasion, Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., wrecked a car that was a gift from his parents upon his graduation from Groton. ER and Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to buy him another car and told Franklin that he needed to learn a lesson about taking care of his possessions. Franklin then went to Grandmother Roosevelt who bought him a better car.
Sara D. Roosevelt's dominance of the children was partially ER's fault. Having little experience with child-rearing, ER let her mother-in-law take over. ER wrote her for advice when the children misbehaved. ER's doubts as a mother increased upon the death of the first Franklin, Jr, who had caught the flu at seven months and was unable to recover. ER blamed herself for the infant’s death. She felt that she had left the nurse too much responsibility, knew too little about the baby and did not care enough about him. ER hired a wet nurse to assure the health of baby Elliot, because it was suggested that Franklin, Jr., would have been stronger had he been breast-fed and not bottle-fed. When both parents were away, Sara Roosevelt was responsible for the children. She believed that the best things for her children were castor oil (for when they fell ill), fresh food and fresh air. She sent the children fresh vegetables from the farm at Hyde Park when they were away at school. One day ER put her eldest child, Anna, in a chicken-wire cage outside a window in New York for fresh air. Sara Roosevelt had talked ER into placing the child outside. ER stopped this when Anna cried loudly and one of the neighbors threatened to report ER to the Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty of Children.
Eleanor Roosevelt believed in supporting the nannies' disciplinary methods. Only after finding bottles of whiskey and gin did she fire the English nanny the children referred to as "Old Battle-ax.” The nanny was known to use cruel methods to discipline the children. James Roosevelt in his book My Parents recalls some of these incidents:
time she pushed Sis (Anna) to the floor, knelt on her chest and cuffed
her about as an admonition to act like a lady. When Elliot knocked Franklin over
in his highchair and then laughed, the old gal shoved Elliot in a closet and turned
the key in the lock so hard it broke off. She just left him there. It was several hours
before father came home and rescued him…Once she didn't believe me when I told
her I had brushed my teeth. She made me dress in my sister’s clothing, hung a sign
on my back which read, “I Am a Liar,” and made me parade up and down East Sixty-
fifth Street while other youngsters ridiculed me. 4
ER took on the role of disciplinarian in the household while her husband was the “fun parent.” ER told Franklin Roosevelt to discipline the children but he never did. The children saw their father as someone who was able to relax and have fun with them. Their mother, on the other hand, was more formal and found it difficult to show her love.
The children blamed Louis Howe, Franklin D. Roosevelt's political adviser, for taking their mother's attention away by encouraging her to pursue a public life, to keep the Roosevelt name in the press. However, it is likely that ER would not have dedicated her life to her children, as they perhaps wanted. The death of Grandmother Hall, ER's surrogate mother, allowed ER to reflect on motherhood and the kind of mother that she wanted to be:
love clouded her judgement…I wondered then and I wonder now, if her
Hall's) life had been a little less centered in her family group, if that family group might not
have been a great deal better off. If she had some kind of life of her own, what would have
been the result?…Her willingness to be subservient to her children isolated her…and it might
have been far better, for the boys at least, had she insisted on bringing more discipline into their
lives simply by having a life of her own…When I was young I determined that I would never be
dependent only children by allowing my interest to center in them.5
Despite the lack of attention given to her children, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote advice on child-rearing in articles and columns. In an unpublished article, ER summarized her advice for parents on the upbringing of children. The article contained seven main points: "furnish an example in living," "stop preaching ethics and morals," "have a knowledge of life's problems and an imagination," "stop shielding your children and clipping their wings," "allow your children to develop along their own lines," "don't prevent self-reliance and initiative," and "have vision yourself and have bigness of soul."6 ER believed that her greatest mistake as a parent was implementing too much discipline with the children and not enjoying them more. ER took greater control over her children's upbringing after her discovery of the Lucy Mercer affair. Eleanor Roosevelt had hired Lucy Mercer as a social secretary in 1914 when FDR was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Lucy assisted ER with dinner parties and other duties that were required of a Washington wife. ER discovered the affair in 1918 when unpacking FDR's baggage and came across a packet of letters. ER and FDR had spent little time together between 1913 and 1917. Their interests had diverged; ER spent her time helping with the war effort at home and FDR was fulfilling his duties as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The affair had devastated ER because she had considered Lucy a reliable friend. The affair had caused ER to lose the domestic security she felt in her marriage. ER sought to regain this security by taking greater control of her children. She also wanted to spend more time with her two younger boys, Franklin, Jr., and John, to make up for her absence as a mother to her older children, Anna, James and Elliot.
The relationship between ER and her daughter Anna evolved from a mother-daughter one to that of close friends. Like any normal relationship, this too had its difficulties. As a teenager Anna had accused her mother of not loving her because she had been given a small bedroom in the back of the house. Meanwhile Louis Howe was given a room with a private bath in the front of the house. At this point, ER realized that she needed to stop treating Anna as a child and view her as a friend and confidante. The romance with John Boettiger, following Anna's first divorce, carried more than the excitement of a new love but also “her mother's full attention, empathy, approval and emotional involvement.”7 Anna's romance with John began after her father's election to the presidency in 1932. Both Anna and John were in failing marriages; therefore, their affair was secretive. ER viewed her husband's election to the presidency as the end of her own private life and took an interest in Anna's affair. However, the letters between mother and daughter remained largely personal rather than political, with ER brushing aside Anna's attempt to bring a more political tone to them; Anna was still searching for her mother’s approval. The bond that had formed was further strained when ER discovered Anna's involvement in helping FDR see Lucy Mercer Rutherford in his last few years of his life. Despite this strain on the relationship, both continued to exchange letters until ER’s death. The letters discussed, at times, purely business matters, and other times the letters contained details of ER’s political activities and her travel itinerary.
Elliot Roosevelt, ER's fourth child, was said to be her favorite, according to James Roosevelt, because he needed her the most. Elliot was the rebel of the family. He was the only son not to have followed in his father's footsteps by attending Harvard. Elliot was involved in various business ventures but was unable to manage well. In order to help Elliot, ER appeared on radio and television shows he produced, even though she disliked appearing on such shows. She also allowed Elliot to manage her money in addition to giving him loans (as Elliot was usually in debt).
The suicide of Anna's second husband, John Boettiger, prompted ER to examine her responsibility for all the problems her children had endured. The Roosevelt children had all struggled with jealousy, numerous failed marriages and financial difficulties. According to Dr. Lawrence S. Kubie, a psychiatrist ER met at a musicale, Mrs. Roosevelt talked about her role as the disciplinarian in the family and the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt's political obligations as president and his role in World War II. She questioned how this had affected the all children. ER was especially concerned with Elliot, who had been destroyed by it.
Eleanor Roosevelt was essentially a Victorian mother. She raised her children by the standards of the high society she was born into, using English nannies to watch them. Victorian women were expected to be passionless, which explains ER's discomfort with the topic of sex. ER's early duties in revolved around her children and husband with little time for herself. However, ER had broadened her interests beyond the household. She had become involved with organizations during World War One and World War Two. She also became a humanitarian, chairing the United Nations' Human Rights Commission in 1946. The commission drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It seemed as ER was trying to remedy her absence to her children by ensuring all humans were treated properly.
Her mother-in-law, Sara D. Roosevelt, had a greater presence in the children's younger years than ER. However, ER took on a greater role in the development of her two youngest boys. She also entered the public sphere that was reserved for men. Her children resented the amount of time she spent in public affairs. ER became more of a mother to her children later in their lives. She tried to help her children whenever they needed her. Despite ER's public image and hectic schedule, she remained an attentive mother. At a dinner, sitting next to her son James (in his early fifties) she whispered to him to eat his peas.
1. Eleanor Roosevelt, The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (New York: De Capo Press, 1992 ed.), p. 57. Back to referenced text
2. J. William T. Youngs, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Personal and Public Life (New York: Longman, 2000), p. 95. Back to referenced text
3. James Roosevelt, My Parents (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1976), p. 25. Back to referenced text
4. James Roosevelt, p. 37. Back to referenced text
5. Eleanor and Anna Roosevelt, Mother and Daughter. (New York: Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1982), p. 28. Back to referenced text
6. Paul M. Dennis, “Between Watson and Spock: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Advice on Child-Rearing from 1928-1962.” Journal of American Culture. (1995): 41-50. Back to referenced text
7. Eleanor and Anna Roosevelt, Mother and Daughter. p. 65. Back to referenced text
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