Mothering, the NEP propaganda emphasized, was not a matter of intuition or something a woman would pick up as she went along. It was a craft that had to be learned, and learned from those who knew best. The NEP propaganda aimed to inculcate the ideas of modern medicine into pregnancy, childbirth and infant care across the nation. Mother craft was coordinated in the post-revolutionary period by a sub-department for the protection of motherhood and Infancy (OMM) under the Commissariat of Health. By 1925, it was operating over 200 clinics in the Russian Republic for pregnant women and around 400 for mothers with young babies (Waters 124). The campaign for modern mothering was coordinated by the medical profession, which instructed mothers to turn to doctors rather than wise women for advice and aid. Women were advised to make regular visits from the time they discovered their pregnancy until the child was two years old, when it became the responsibility of the regular health clinics.
The responsibilities of the mother to the child included providing the right environment. In their attempts to gain and hold attention, the posters used a variety of techniques. “Sun is the baby’s best friend,” advised one poster. “Cleanliness is the guarantee of health,” noted the other. Breast-feeding was another of the mother’s main responsibilities. One poster, entitled “Mothers, Breast Feed Your Babies,” showed the consequences of not following the iron laws of nature. It featured a bottle-feeding mother, inset against a cemetery, and a breast-feeding mother beneath a scene of healthy little children playing games. Just as infants could be endangered by their mothers’ ignorance of the rules of feeding, they could be put at risk if sleeping arrangements were incorrect. “The cradle is very harmful, do not rock the baby either in a cradle or in your arms. Buy a linen basket and you baby will have a cheap and healthy bed!” advised one poster (Waters 125). Another poster showed a baby sitting alone in a sailing boat, buffered between rocks that were labeled with incorrect mothering practices: “stuffy,” “stale air,” “dark room,” “poor care,” “dirty environment,” and “cow’s milk.” In one case, the toddlers were presented in military uniforms, attending a meeting and holding banners for correct care, proclaiming “midwives, not wise women,” “mother’s breast,” “protection from flies,” and “dry, clean nappies” (Waters 126). Texts were authoritarian and very instructive in style, a characteristic of all the NEP propaganda production in this period of time.
The death rate for children remained extremely high even as activists and medical personnel battled successfully to reduce it. By 1925, 70% of women had lost a child, mainly to hunger and poor living conditions (Goldman 277). Crowding was cited as the principal cause in applications for abortions. The proportion for abortions was 50% higher in families without their own dwelling. The loss of a child was a common experience shared by urban and rural women alike. One peasant woman told a doctor, “ The conditions of life are so difficult. There is no chance to bring up the children we already have.” In one study, doctors reported that poverty and material vulnerability motivated over half (62%) of the women who sought abortions. In their visits to doctors, women spoke of the famine of 1921-1922, the poor harvest of 1924, unemployment, the difficulties in feeding a child and even not having enough cloth to wrap the baby. One young woman boldly proposed that when the country had laundries, daycare, ready-made children’s clothes, and decent shoes, then it “will be possible to think about larger families” (Goldman 335). Abortion could only be curtailed by increasing the standard of living and the availability of childcare