Before I enter upon the main subject of these chapters I should like to devote a portion of them to a very large class of helpful-handed little people. I mean young nurses. This class includes both boys and girls. Had it not been for this fact, I might perhaps call these youngsters "Little Mothers." But I see, almost daily, such pleasant pictures of small boy-nurses in the exercise of their vocation, that the class must be understood to include them also, if fairly treated.
Perhaps there is no place in which the genus "little nurse" can be studied in all its varieties and to greater advantage than in our public parks. On every fine morning especially, it is to be met with at almost every turn, and of nearly all ages above that of the actual baby in charge.
In the houses of well-to-do people, where there are experienced nurses to assist mothers in the care of their children, or sometimes – alas that it should be so! – to take the entire charge of them during infancy, the elder little people of the family generally have to beg to be allowed to "take baby."
The little lassie of eight or nine who is, perhaps, a baby worshipper, and whose ambition it is to be called a good nurse, is sometimes quite indignant at the amount of supervision to which she is subjected all the while baby is on her knee. She chafes at the continual charges, "Mind you don't hurt him, Miss Annie!" "He'll be off your knee if you're not more careful!" "Put your arm behind his back!" and so on, *ad libitum.
At the same time the vigilant eyes of nurse are so perpetually turned in the direction of her amateur assistant, that any sense of responsibility in that quarter is utterly destroyed, and Miss Annie herself waxes indignant under this persistent and irritating espionage.
True, the elder child's young arms lack the strength and dexterity of nurse's practised ones; but baby, if well, does not object to Annie's rather awkward mode of handling him. He likes to see her young, fresh laughing face close to his, and sister Annie's hair is delightful to pull and to bury his small fists in. He seizes it and tugs with all his might, and so retaliates on his little nurse for having so poked and tickled him into a fit of laughter, in which she joins as heartily. His real nurse's head-gear is much less attractive, her prim cap being carefully and necessarily kept out of baby's clutches, and her hair, tidily tucked beneath it, offers no such temptation to baby's roving fingers as to Miss Annie's soft flowing curls.
But nurse has perhaps just tidied Miss Annie for dinner, and the ruffled hair is an additional grievance. "You should not let baby pull your hair so," she says, in a tone of reproof. "I shall have it all to curl up again before you go downstairs."
It seems a pity to disturb such a delightful game, when baby brother and little sister are so innocently happy. But Annie is tired of such constant looking after, tired of the continual nagging and cautioning, and she would not hurt the chubby darling for all the world. So she sighs in a weary fashion, gives baby a hearty kiss on his dear little distended mouth, evading another grab at her curls as she does so, and resigns herself anew into the hands of nurse, who grumbles a good deal at having to put her right a second time.
Annie's mind is considerably exercised on the subject of nursing and of her assumed helplessness in comparison with the scores of little nurses whom she sees in sole charge of babies. None of the tiny creatures appear to come to any harm in consequence of the trust reposed in mere children by poor mothers who have no choice but to do this, if their household work is to be completed in anything like a reasonable time. She wonders why poor people's children may be trusted to do all sorts of things for and with babies; whereas she is looked after, watched and cautioned at every turn, just as if her little brother was made of egg-shell china, and she had made up her mind to break him with a touch.
Miss Annie looks at her round strong arms, very different from those of some little nurses she sees out of doors; she knows that her limbs are stronger, because she has good health, and is better fed and looked after than they are; she has the will to be useful, and she loves, with all the warmth of her young heart, the helpless darling in the nursery at home.
She feels half-angry, half-humiliated, and says to herself, "I wish I lived in a cottage where there are no nurses to bother and fidget, then mamma would be glad to let me have baby and take him out whenever I liked."
There are plenty of children like our "miss Annie," who grow up comparatively helpless, but who are only so because they are neither taught how to make themselves useful, nor trusted. As a hint both to mothers and children, let me point out a few of the valuable qualities which I have seen developed in little nurses. These have come under my notice as I have watched them in the streets and parks, far beyond the overseeing eye of the mother who was often toiling for their bread at the wash-tub or in the mill.
Carefulness, patience, unselfishness, endurance, good temper, tender love for the little one, and trustworthiness. Perhaps I should notice the last mentioned quality before all the rest. The mother must believe in its existence when she trusts her infant to the care of a nine year old girl or boy. How seldom does the child fail her! How carefully is the baby held, just as a mother holds it! How watchful are those young eyes over the one, two, or three other children who play round the doorstep or near a eat in the park on which the little nurse sits with her sleeping charge.
As to patience, I do not know whether to yield the palm for this virtue to the boy or the girl nurse. Only a few mornings ago I noticed a boy patting, petting, kissing, and comforting a baby whose tearful eyes and pouting lips told of some little trouble. How he persevered in his efforts to pacify the child! He walked up and down, made droll faces and droller noises, until at last he won back a smile to the bonny round face, while his own looked the picture of happiness. The sound of a hearty kiss was the last thing I heard as I turned out of the park.
If you want to know whether these little nurses are interested in their charges, seat yourself near a couple of them and listen to their conversation. You can have a book in your hand, which will put them quite at their ease, though you need not read it.
One will perhaps tell, with anxious face, of some narrow escape that her baby had had through getting cold when he had measles. The other will speak with exultation of a new frock which mother is making for hers. They will compare ages, count and exhibit the wee ivories just peeping, and tenderly rub the little gums to help the next one through. And is not that small nurse a proud individual if her baby, being the same age as the other, or perhaps a little younger, has actually cut a tooth or two more, or has a less bald pate under its woollen hood.
Then what beauty they see in their baby's face! You and I might think it a poor skinny elfish-looking creature, but the little nurse does not. Love gives beauty, and the helpless thing is perfectly lovely in the eyes of its young guardian. You will hear all sorts of admiring epithets showered upon it if you listen.
You know the little nurse's arms ache, and you wonder how she goes on holding it, hour after hour, without a word of complaint. Many a mother would think she had done a great thing had she held her child for half the time.
I write especially in the hope of attracting the thoughtful attention of the girls who will be the mothers of the next generation.
If you, dear girls who read this paper will look around you, you will see many an exhibition of those fine qualities of patience and uncomplaining endurance amongst the little nurses in whom I feel a deep interest. Conscience will, perhaps, tell you that untaught, ignorant, as many of them are, you might yet learn many a lesson from them as you pass along the highways in town or country.
The little nurses are unselfish and brave. Often I Have seen one take off the little woollen shawl, which was doing duty as a bonnet on her own person as well as being her only out-door covering, and wind it round the baby lest the cold wind should reach him.
Fancy, too, the temptations that have to be resisted. Do you not think those two bright lads would like a game at marbles, as well as their neighbours who are unfettered by baby or perambulator? Of course they would, and, depend on it, the faithful nurses, whether girls or boys, fight and bravely win a hard battle when they turn from ball, skipping-rope, hoop, or marbles, and remain the spectators of games in which they long to join, because they will not neglect the helpless infants entrusted to their care.
They have their pleasures as well as trials. In the warm, summer weather, when the grass is dry and the sun shining, the little ones will kick about and sprawl on the ground, enjoying the bustle that is going on around them. But often, when the day we glorious for active play, and the sky is bright and clear, there is a cold wind and the grass is damp. Baby could not be laid down safely, and then the courage and self-denial of the little nurse are called into operation. Then great victories are won of which the world knows nothing.
Little nurses, as a rule, have their reward in the growth, progress, and increasing strength of their babies. What joy and exultation do the first tottering steps cause to their guardians! How proud are they when the wee thing can run alone!
And far beyond even these rewards are the approving smile and word, the whispered blessing, the loving kiss of a good mother, with whose cares and anxieties their children sympathise, and whose toil their young hands have lightened.
There are such animals as crabby, impatient little nurses. I have seen such that could scold and even strike the help.ess and unfortunate babies with which they had to do. But, thank god! There are few instances of this kind and so many of the opposite.
There are mothers, too, who are apt, probably because they do not think about it, to speak lightly or not at all of their children's services. They take their loving labours as a matter of course, and hardly care to cheer and encourage them on the path of duty. So the children gradually become indifferent, and look upon that as an irksome task which should be a pleasure. But it is not with such as these that I am specially dealing in this paper. I wish to picture, as I o often see them manifested, those high and noble qualities which are drawn out in the characters of children by the very fact of trusting them.
We cannot help contrasting the helpful children of the cottage and the streets with those who do nothing, simply because they have so many people to care for them that they are neither called on to think for themselves, nor for others. Watched, waited on, thought for in everything, they grow up helpless, because they have never been exercised in self-reliance; and selfish, because they have not been taught the blessedness of giving, or giving up anything for the sake of others.
There is one sad drawback in the case of little nurses who are trusted too much and too early. They seem almost weighed down with family cares whilst they are but children. Theirs is the growing "old too soon." But in the homes of well-to-do parents, there is little fear of the children being overburdened, whilst it would surely be worth their while to draw out such qualities in their young people as are daily exercised in the houses of their poorer neighbours.
Children who never have to do with babies are often, I was going to say amusingly, awkward in handling an infant. Better, however, say pitiably awkward; because it is a pity that the "future mothers" of our race should have no training in this most important part of woman's work. Boys of this class usually consider it *infra dig to notice babies in public. If they condescend to kiss them they manifest a strong objection to open-mouthed salutes, and touch the little velvet cheek with their lips much as they might approach a red-hot poker. It is a touch-and-go process, which makes mothers and grown-up nurses smile pityingly at the urchin who does not know how delightful is a genuine baby kiss.
Happily, there are lots of little mothers "to the manner born" in every station f life. I fancy I see one of these as I write. From her very infancy she loves her doll as a true mother loves her child, and should an accident befall her wooden or waxen darling, she grieves and moans over it, not as a broken toy, but a wounded baby. Its eruptions – of sawdust – cause her all the anxiety incident to measles. Her tears are real tears, and it is of no use to intimate that the broken arm, over which she is weeping causes Dolly no pain.
A matter-of-fact child laughs contemptuously at the idea of a doll being able to feel, and points to the wooden fragments as proof of her being in the right. She means well, doubtless, but her calm indifference only adds to the grief of the loving-hearted little mite, who presses her injured darling to her breast and loses hours of sleep in weeping.
There is neither rest nor comfort for her until somebody sets to work and restores the limb as far as possible, and then she sleeps; but even then she sobs at intervals as if the trouble could not be forgotten.
As the little mother grows older she wins everybody's admiration by the "handy" way in which she nurses a real baby, and when she has shot up into a slender slip of a lass, as tall as her own mother, she is a greater infant-worshipper than ever. She bestows a perfect wealth of love on the wee things, and the younger they are the better she likes them; because they want the most care and nursing.
If the little mother is missing from her own home circle, her mamma sends a message of inquiry to the nearest friend's house, where she is made free of the nursery, or perhaps to some cottage in the neighbourhood, where a nice clean baby is to be found. Perhaps her attentions are least acceptable to children beyond babyhood. She plagues them a little by wanting to wash and tidy them more frequently than they like, because she is so fond of the work and delights in making them look nice. But she generally coaxes them to submit by offering bribes in the shape of wonderfully got-up dolls, of which she always has a store ready, dressed by her nimble young fingers.
Bless the loving little woman! She is not without a reasonable liking for school work, and loves reading as well as most. But her great charm is her delightful motherliness, even as a child, a quality which is, I fear, insufficiently cultivated at home, and never thought of at all in schools, or supposed to have any place in the so-called "Higher Education of Women."
Yet when I see these sweet feminine qualities in the lassie, I often think to myself that if I were a youth - a good one, mind – I should watch the growing into womanhood of such a "little mother" as I have described. I should value the development of these heaven-bestowed womanly instincts as something more precious than any amount of certificates won for Latin or advanced mathematical knowledge. And though I might have a choice between such a little damsel as I have described and a feminine senior wrangler, I would do my best to win the little mother as the mistress of my future home.
Just another picture of little nurses and I will finish. Some years ago I was in the Peel Park Museum, Salford, and was much edified at the sight of a number of these small people standing before the cases of gaily-plumaged, stuffed birds. They were spelling out the names and repeating them to such of their companions as were above baby age, thus doing their best to improve their minds as well as care for their bodies. I felt rather put out when a policeman conducted them to the door and told them, not unkindly, to "Go play in the park," probably for fear the clatter of their clogs should offend the ears of some well-dressed grown-up folk in the museum The longing, lingering looks they cast behind them quite spoiled my enjoyment, and I felt sorry that in this "People's Museum" well-behaved poor children should have been sent out, because their feet were clogged instead of shod, and necessarily made a clatter on the floors.
I went out almost immediately, and as I drew near the entrance gates I met a picnic party coming into the park – a little girl nurse with a disproportionately large baby in her arms, and quite a train of attendant youngsters, who were evidently going to have "a day out." They were nearly all barefoot, and their clothing was poor and scanty, though the baby was well bundled up in all sorts of odds and ends of garments.
There was a provision basket, containing a bottle of blueish-tinted milk, thick lunches of bread and dripping, a few green apples, and some indescribable scraps of other food. The party did not live in the immediate neighbourhood, as was evident, for the young leader glanced around in some bewilderment and then said to me, "Please will you tell me the way to the swings?"
I directed her to the girls' playground adding, "There were plenty of swings at liberty a few minutes since."
This information gave new vigour to the youngsters. The little nurse thanked me, hitched the baby a little higher on her shoulder, gave her free hand to the toddler next in size, saying, "Come on, Georgie. The lady says there's plenty of swings ready for us."
Away went the bare feet pattering over the hard gravel path, and this humble picnic party was soon lost to my view. With all my heart I wished them a happy day, a safe return, and a good rest for the little nurse in charge when the evening shadows should begin to fall.
Many a time since then, when I have seen over-indulged, helpless girls satiated with too many pleasures, almost wishing they had a want, and not knowing how to spend their time and use their strong limbs, I have thought of that half-clad, barefooted group, and of the almost awful responsibility of the mere child who was charged with the safe conduct of the rest.
When I began this chapter I did not intend to let little nurses occupy so much space, but they came before my mind's eye in such crowds, and I have long felt such a deep motherly interest in them as a class, that I have permitted them to push the baby itself out of sight for a time.
Yet I am truly anxious to interest both mothers and girls in this most important subject – namely, whatever concerns the care of the comfort and well-being of the baby. I am going to write out some simple instructions for its management, which I hope may be of use to young nurses who are willing but unskilful, and who are therefore afraid to offer help in washing, dressing, or nursing the baby.