Upgrading Parenthood

by Elizabeth S. Bernstein

Feminists are often accused of downgrading motherhood. The accusation is ridiculous: motherhood hit rock bottom long before the new feminist wave broke. —Germaine Greer (1984) 1

What sort of picture does the phrase “stay-at-home mother” call to mind? Searching images and stock photos online, you may find a reasonably diverse looking group of contemporary women with young children. There are, after all, millions of mothers at home in the United States today – over a third of those with children under the age of six – and they are a demographically diverse lot.

But there is also a particular variant of the photos on offer which tends to be favored by editors looking for illustrations of at-home mothering. It is the image of that iconic housewife of the 1950s, in her apron and heels. The woman who, these many decades later, is still our foil. The woman whose fate we were saved from by second-wave feminism.

This woman, the story goes, had been influenced by men to devote herself to her children to an excessive degree. The very essence of the “feminine mystique” Betty Friedan decried was that it urged postwar wives to find their fulfillment in “sexual passivity, acceptance of male domination, and nurturing motherhood.” 2

Anthropologists did a study in the 1950s, comparing observations of “the New Englanders of Orchard Town, U.S.A.” with communities in Kenya, India, Okinawa, Mexico, and the Philippines. In Six Cultures: Studies of Child Rearing, the authors described the childcare practices they witnessed in the United States:

“Such contacts as the baby has with other human beings are not marked by close bodily contacts as in many societies.” “Children learn early in Orchard Town that interaction with others is spaced, separated by periods of withdrawal.” “Most of them spend a good part of each day alone in a crib or playpen or in a fenced-in yard.” “Indulgence of crying for companionship is felt to be bad, for it leads to a spoiled child. Moreover, letting the baby ‘cry it out’ is good not only for its character but also may help exercise its lungs.” 3

While Friedan had the “male domination” part right, the truth is that what men had influenced women to by the 1950s was an approach remarkably low on the nurturance scale. The physical aspect of the mother-child relationship had been thinned out. Maternal attention was hedged around with cautions about “smother-love,” “unnatural dependency,” “overprotection.” A schedule determined how many hours were to pass between feedings. Steeling oneself against the baby’s cries was a large part of the job description. The true priorities urged on a mother at home were care of her husband and of the house.

That this postwar approach was called “permissive” is understandable only in light of what had come before. Between the First and Second World Wars, parents had been urged to exercise extremely rigid control of all of a child’s habits – eating, sleeping, and eliminating. By contrast, parents in the 1950s were advised that they could safely follow the child’s lead with respect to such matters as how much sleep was needed, what and how much the child should eat, and when it was time for toilet training. The preeminent childcare adviser of the era, Benjamin Spock, while conveying to mothers the need to foster independence in the child from an early age and to avoid too much holding and carrying, had no objection to pacifiers and comfort objects. What was “permitted” to the infant therefore was a degree of bodily autonomy, as well as habits of self-comfort which earlier generations had frowned on. Access to parental attention and parental touch continued to be rationed.

Still, the characterization of the ‘50s as a time of extreme nurturance not only took hold but persisted for decades afterwards. In her 1994 book The Myths of Motherhood, Shari Thurer described the postwar era as one of “cuddly, twenty-four-hour ‘permissiveness.’ ” 4 Even Spock’s 1980s edition – advising mothers to “unspoil” a baby by ignoring her or his cries while attending to a schedule that required her “to be busy with housework or anything else for most of the time the baby is awake” 5 – should have been enough to suggest otherwise. But the portrayal of the 1950s as the ultimate experiment in mother-child togetherness – an experiment which had failed – was useful in that it suggested that the only appropriate direction in which to move was towards less nurturance.

Yet that is not at all the direction chosen by mothers and fathers once second wave feminism took hold. Many abandoned Spock for advisers more encouraging of attachment to the child. The amount of time spent in childcare increased, and remains higher this century than it was in the middle of the last. Liberated from “the feminine mystique,” women both increased their participation in the workforce, and opted for a more nurturant approach to childcare than what had characterized the postwar era.

To some, this latter development was both unexpected and perplexing. In her 1998 book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, Sharon Hays confronted the “curious coincidence of paid work and the ideology of intensive mothering.” Why, she wondered, had women not simply “alter[ed] our perceptions of children’s needs and minimize[d] the efforts we put into raising them – by simply setting them out like seedlings and watching them grow”? Why, instead, had “the ideology of intensive mothering . . . only grown more extensive and elaborate in the present day”? 6

The explanations proposed by Hays for the way that the culture had pressured women “to dedicate so much of themselves to childrearing” included that “women’s commitment to this socially devalued task helps to maintain their subordinate position in society as a whole.” But her book also contains within its covers a remarkable counterpoint. It is found in the words of the dozens of women of various backgrounds she interviewed, both mothers working outside the home and stay-at-home mothers. “[N]ot one of the mothers I talked to understood her child-rearing efforts as an unjust burden or as a task imposed on her by others more powerful than herself.” In fact, mothers reported having to buck outside influence in order to maintain closeness with their children. Often it was the advice of their own mothers – “Let him cry, put him down, he’s got to learn not to be attached” – that they rejected. Parenting classes, one mother said, had once consisted of lessons in diaper changing: “What happened to a child’s emotional state of well-being? What happened to their mental well-being?” Another spoke of the days when she decided the errands and the dinner preparation could wait, that holding her daughter was the most important thing she had to do that day. 7

The aspect of these women’s accounts that was most striking to me – their express rejection of the childcare approach of earlier generations – was treated by Hays as if the mothers were focusing on the wrong time period. She found remarkable their need to deal with the issue of strict scheduling, “as if it were a central debate in contemporary child rearing,” and to express their opposition to letting the child “cry it out,” “which is not suggested by any of the most popular current advisers.” She labeled as “disproportionate” the “emphasis given to the ideology of strict scheduling and behavior modification in the (generationally transmitted) historical memories of many mothers.” She called it a “misinterpretation” of Spock to claim that he had advocated leaving a child who had vomited in the mess. In fact he had done just that, as part of the strict program required to get a “spoiled” infant to sleep alone.8

What these late twentieth-century mothers were reacting against was not the high-nurturance version of mid-century childcare imagined by some, but the real, low-nurturance version they remembered. They were moving in the same direction in which most American parents – whether or not they work outside the home – have moved since being freed from the childcare regime insisted on by men in the 1950s. This is not to suggest that things have worked out readily, or that any approach to combining a family’s responsibilities for caregiving and income-earning is without challenges. But while parents at home may confront real difficulties like isolation, it is unjustified to imply that to be a stay-at-home mother is to regress to the 1950s or to risk succumbing to the same ills that afflicted women who cleaned house while their babies screamed.

Germaine Greer’s claim that second wave feminism hadn’t downgraded motherhood, that it couldn’t have done so because motherhood had long since hit rock bottom, was accurate enough. What the feminine mystique era left us with was a desperate need for parenting to be upgraded. One by one, American parents have done a great deal to accomplish just that. It is an effort which deserves to be recognized and supported as its own form of progress.


1 Germaine Greer, Sex and Destiny, 1984, p. 16

2 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 1963, p. 73

3 Beatrice B. Whiting, ed., Six Cultures: Studies of Child Rearing, 1963, pp. 941, 947

4 Shari Thurer, Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother, 1994, p. 247

5 Benjamin Spock and Michael Rothenberg, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, 1985 edition, p. 249

6 Sharon Hays, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, 1996, pp. 145, 176, 50

7 Ibid., pp. x, 163, 164-5, 110, 115, 111

8 Ibid., p. 211 n.9; Benjamin Spock, Baby and Child Care, 1957 edition, p. 188

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