In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, mothering practice provided women an alternate route to citizenship. Although they could not own property or vote, women could and did care for children in their homes. Mothering practice/theory/rhetoric was bound up in the ideology of republican motherhood. Women (white, wealthy women, anyway) became citizens by proxy when they raised their sons and daughters, future citizens and future nurturers of citizens. During the time of the American Revolution and the years following it, mothering gradually became a more respectable practice, one that was eventually seen as needing education and training. Mothers, thought to be morally superior by nature, were responsible for teaching their children right from wrong and for creating democrats who would vote, own land, and hold public office. Republican motherhood argued that while women could never be citizens, they could enact citizenship through the distinctly female practice of mothering.
By the twentieth century, notions of republican motherhood, moral motherhood, and the Victorian motherhood ideal were supplanted by an ideology of scientific mothering. This makes sense in an era of Progressive activism, including Progressive maternal activism that was responsible for increased maternal and child health measures, the formation of the welfare state, and the birth control movement. Scientific mothering also came about during the aftermath of the professionalism of the medical industry and in a time when germ theory was gaining popularity, and obstetricians were making headway at replacing midwives and helpful neighbors as women's healthcare providers. As it progressed through the middle of the twentieth century, scientific mothering agreed with many of the principles of republican motherhood, namely that women were the chief nurturers of children, naturally suited for this kind of morally superior role. To this ideology, scientific mothering added the notion that women needed to consult experts-- specifically medical men-- for additional guidance. In this era, infant feeding practices changed dramatically, as women were advised to feed babies on a strict schedule and to use formula, which was thought to be superior to breast milk because it was developed scientifically in a lab. Like republican motherhood before it, scientific motherhood offered women a path to citizenship through mothering. Immigrant women, for example, and poor women had an opportunity to achieve whiteness and upward mobility; if they could parent like the white, middle-class ideal, they could create children who could "pass" as white and rich. Legions of public health nurses were deployed into rural and urban communities to teach poor, nonwhite mothers correct mothering practices, and mothering remained a very labor intensive process. Interestingly, many mothers of small children entered the paid workforce during World War II, and day nurseries sprang up in cities across the country to help care for the children of war workers. When soldiers returned home, mothers traded factory gloves for apron strings and assumed the work of raising children in their homes once again.
By the end of the Baby Boom, notions of scientific mothering were overtaken by the ideology of intensive mothering, which is the worldview sociologists claim still governs mothering theory/practice/rhetoric in America. This ideology says that correct parenting practices are time intensive and expensive, that the work of child rearing should be performed in the home, by one parent-- preferably the mother, and that the work of parenting is hands on; childcare providers are expected to be "on the floor" playing with children in a way that earlier generations of mothers were never expected to be. This ideology is a good one to illustrate how theory and policy are closely linked. If a society subscribes to this ideology, it make sense why that same society would NOT value daycare programs, right? Because daycare centers are NOT "supposed" to be taking care of children; mothers are. It is also easy to see how infant feeding practices changed under this ideology. Because women were no longer completely subservient to the wonder of science, the notion of "breast is best" (which fits nicely under all of the tenets of intensive mothering) replaced notions that scientifically created formula was the best food for a baby.
I think social critics lack the required critical distance to declare this ideology passe and label the one that has supplanted it, but I do think a Thomas Kuhnian paradigm shift is underway and that parenting practices/theories/rhetorics are starting to look different than they ever have before. I also think there is some serious mediated backlash against the "right" women forsaking stay at home motherhood to enter the workforce, as evidenced by the "opting out" discussion in the Washington Post article I linked to in my last post. It is no coincidence that the SAHM we discuss the most is the stay-at-home mom who has chosen-- all options being equal-- to leave the workforce and care for her children in her home. This ideal woman (who is real, too, of course-- most of the SAHMS I know personally are this woman, actually) is NOT the most typical SAHM, however, according to statistical census data. The woman most likely to be home with her kids is young, nonwhite, poorer than average, and less educated than average. This woman bears more resemblance to the Reagan-created Welfare Queen than she does to the Diane Keaton in Baby Boom kind of SAHM who graces the covers of ladies magazines.
Moms don't stay home as often as they used to (and they haven't, according to statistical data, since 1964), and Dads do waaaaaaay more kid and housework than they ever have before. Ideologies of mothering are becoming, at the very least, ideologies of parenting. There are lots of sociologists who study the work of parenting and always call it mothering. They reason that because this work has been women's work for centuries and continues to fall unequally on the shoulders of women, even those employed outside the home, the work of parenting should be called the work of mothering to recognize this contribution. I disagree, and so do many historians who are working to locate dads in histories of childbirth and work out where prospective fathers stand in birth control's troubled past, two areas of scholarship that have focused almost exclusively on women's lives. Say what you will about the ivory tower, I think the scholars are ahead of mainstream culture on this one. Just as women have joined the workforce in record numbers in the last 40-ish years, so, too, have men taken delight in discovering a nurturing family role. "Dad works and mom stays home" isn't the norm for most families, but it is still the arrangement held aloft in popular culture as the norm, as the ideal. Even though millions of families deviate from this norm-- even families that have one parent at home and one parent at work, as the Washington Post article points out, don't look like the ideal SAHM/WOHD-- moms who work or dads who stay home always already feel like they've failed.
You think I don't feel like an asshole because I like to work? I am someone who has an extremely flexible job and can be home with my kids whenever I want to be and a husband who does at least half the work and also has job flexibility so that we can cover for each other when the kids are sick or work is tough, and I question my choice to work all the time because I feel so judged by every magazine article or preschool drop off time or Little Gym class schedule that assumes I stay home. But I do drop my child off and pick him up from school (except on the days my husband does pick up); I do take my toddler to daytime Little Gym, and I do sit on my ass on the couch while my children nap reading a ladies magazine and joining with it in judging daycare moms who use their centers or sitters 10 hours a day (but not daycare dads. why not daycare dads?) I can't even justify my decision to work using an economic argument. We don't need me to work. I want to. Because I'm an asshole. Don't I love my children enough to be the one who changes their diapers 85% of the time? Don't I want to kiss every scraped knee and play every round of CandyLand? And what the hell is wrong with me, exactly, if I maybe don't? I choose to work in the most optimum sense of the verb. Don't I love my kids as much as a SAHM loves her kids? As much as a working mom who HAS to work to pay the mortgage loves hers?
I use my own example to illustrate this point: Too often we reduce talk about SAHMS and WOHMS to the following platitude: everyone makes the choice that is best for his/her own family.
To that I say bullshit.
Sure, I am making the choice that I believe works for my family, but I won't call it the best because I hope my above summary of mothering ideology through history convinced you that "best" is a meaningless term. "Best" is historically contingent and usually racist, classist, and sexist if you get right down to it. I am happy with my choice (pretty much), but I also know that I am making this choice from the best possible position with the most possible options (and I have many SAHM friends who selected from a full buffet of choices, as well). Most women (in this economy especially) don't choose from a place of privilege. Some women stay home (often with government assistance) because they simply don't make enough money to pay a babysitter. Some women go to work because they need a second income-- not for niceties or vacations, but to pay the bills. Lots of families make childcare decisions based on money and only money, and more children than we care to think about spend their days in unsafe, unfriendly environments, and we can turn our collective cheeks or look down our collective noses because clearly their mothers didn't get the memo about what's best for baby, right?
Why does this happen? Because of the Mommy Wars? Because families don't always choose what's best? Because some women are selfish? Because all women don't support each other's choices?
Because our society doesn't support families, real fathers and real mothers who work inside the house and outside of it, who juggle private concerns in public spaces, and who work together to bring up the next generation of citizens. We tell our kids they can be anything they want to be, and we parent them like we mean it, but deep down, we know the practical limits of potential, the ways class and race and gender craft both our choices and our access to choosing in the first place.
Parenting in the twenty-first century. What will the historians say about us?