This paper is an exercise performed for my American Studies course. In a meandering analysis of the word “motherhood” throughout American history, I hope to unpack the 21st century anxiety of mothering in an information age:
What does it mean to be a mother in a country where 16-year old girls with swollen bellies weep on MTV about their pregnancies for the sake of entertainment? What defines a “Mom” in the age of “mommy bloggers,” “supermoms,” “soccer moms,” “real housewives,” and “stay-at-home-mothers?” Who is a matriarch in this era of enlightened feminism, lifestyle magazines, “progressive” parenting, and a million cuts of blue jean—one for every female duty and personality? From supermarket shelves to the corporate click of high heels, conflicting definitions of motherhood surround and confound the 21st century woman. To understand the weight and implications of motherhood in America, we must begin by looking back. From colonial Puritan patriarchy to 18th century character-molding republican motherhood, 19th century housewives, 20th century parenting expertise, and 21st century maternal anxiety, definitions of motherhood are dynamic and in flux (Harper).
In her 2012 publication Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate, Christine Overall reveals a strange paradox in the expectations of modern motherhood; “In contemporary Western culture, it ironically appears that one needs to have reasons not to have children, but no reasons are required to have them.” (Overall, 2). In the 21st century, motherhood translates as purpose, power, pride, and worry. As this generation of mothers grows anxious over incessant scrolling headlines about environmental toxins, failures in education, and silent killers on the loose, the guide to motherhood seems to read “raise children who will save the world.” As Overall emphasizes, motherhood remains the socially accepted “default” setting for women across this country—despite its overwhelming personal and civic responsibilities. In Steven Mintz’s online history of “Mothers and Fathers in America,” we trace the roots of this instinctual motherhood to the 17th century Puritan woman, the Cult of Domesticity, and the eventual 1970s etymological introduction of the “superwoman.”
From the beginning, American motherhood was multi-faceted and complex. In Colonial America, being a “mother” was not a simple matter of genetics. Raised by wet nurses, midwives and elder female siblings, children were loved by whole teams of mothers. Together, these women worked together to cocoon young people from infant mortality and terrifying strains of disease. As the Colonies expanded and the pride of American citizenship took center stage, fathers were surprisingly present—charged with the duty of teaching their children to write, craft, and pray. When mortality rates decreased with the ongoing settlement of the United States, patriarchal lineage was paramount. Fathers controlled their daughters’ dowries and their sons’ debts—taking care to pass down the family name and hard-earned reputation. Relationships between husband and wife and parents and children varied with location and religious practice, but “for all the regional differences in familial roles, it seems clear that ideologically and economically, colonial Americans generally attached greater significance to the father-son relationship than to spousal or mother-child relations” (Mintz).
The 18th century brought a transition in the roles of Father and Mother, with mothers influenced by a growing body of literature about child development and the importance of prescribed motherly nurturing. In this era, the “good mother” was the woman who molded her children for “free society.” The “republican mother” was formed—rewarded with education and an expansion of women’s rights for her increasingly recognized social work (Mintz). Buried in books written by child “experts” like John Bowlby and William Buchan, women felt the stress of character and citizenship development as they raised their children. Beyond feeding and clothing their descendants, women were now at the head of moral and social development for a generation of future leaders. Exiled from the realms of politics and business, mothers became innocent and pure beacons safeguarding and pruning an army of American citizens.
Industrial revolution in the 19th century paved another fork in the road of American motherhood. As middle class men streamed into brick-walled office buildings and lunched on city blocks, the increasing distance between the home and the workplace left women in the lurch of a new kind of motherhood. Before the 19th century, it was common for men to work out of their homes—employed as lawyers or doctors or craftsmen from within the domestic sphere. Husband, wife, and children shared a midday meal, and the duties of both parents were carried out from dawn to dusk. Following the shift to Industrial urbanity, separated and gendered spheres emerged. Stephen Mintz argues that in this era of great economic success and risk, the absence of fathers and husbands increased—heightened by the common practice of alcohol consumption as a way to “cope with increasing economic and social stresses.” Contrary to the pre-Civil War era, the masculine identity and hierarchy of the 19th century was linked strongly to career. As cities expanded from East to West, men formed their own cults and clubs outside of the home. Women and mothers were tethered to domesticity—excluded physically and socially from the metal and mortar of the modern male urban marketplace.
However, for the working class, the 19th century “American Dream” of male breadwinners and subdued domesticity did not fly. Older children worked to fill the urban family pocketbook, and marriage was deferred (sometimes into the 30s) until the household was somewhat secure. In this sense, being a “good” daughter trumped the duty of motherhood in the female working class life timeline. As city death rates skyrocketed due to hazards of the factory work environment, lacking public welfare, and poverty-line wages, motherhood in the working class meant orchestrating a family network of survival and comforting haggard men trampled by dog-eat-dog careers.
Post World War I, the New Deal took a bit of the pressure off of working class families and 20th century mothers. As Mintz claims in his Digital History; “The New Deal further solidified… father-centered family economy by prohibiting child labor, expanding workmen’s compensation, and targeting jobs programs at male workers.” With the New Deal, precedent was set for government involvement in the family sphere. Alongside this protective intervention in family life, expert advice on parenting reached a new high. Ideal children and families were defined more clearly than they had ever been before. The “good” American mother was not divorced. She believed abortion unthinkable, and her daily actions proved her the antithesis of “lazy.” The early 19th century found government and society constructing male-headed households along parallel lines. Immigrant wives were given the tools to assimilate to a new Americanized and regulated model of matrimony and maternity.
In the Progressive era, motherhood was a science. Famed psychologist John Watson jumpstarted a trend of detached parenting that discouraged mothers from showing physical signs of love toward their children. The schedule of mothering according to Watson was one of carefully timed feeding and sleeping. Routine was paramount, and emotion a distraction. Watson’s thesis came in a time frame when the marital relationship was threatened. The ideal Progressive mother was first a wife.
Written in the heart of the Progressive Era, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 radical Utopian novel Herland questioned the boundaries and responsibilities of motherhood. In a fictional country composed entirely of women, Herland described a society of female hierarchy determined in circles of motherhood spanning the duties of giving birth to education. These were women who did not concentrate their motherly attention on nuclear families or domestic spheres, but instead on the good of their “race.” They were raised to be mothers with a communal voice (Gilman, 81). Educated as citizens, the children of Herland understood their shared history. They did not cry. Unlike the Progressive Era’s mantra of scientific parenting, the mothers of Herland assure that “[their] children grow up in a world where everybody loves them. They find life made rich and happy for them by the diffused love and wisdom of all mothers” (Gilman, 97). Gilman’s characters worshipped motherhood, love , and order—twisting the rhetoric of Progressive parenting into a socialist vision of women married not to husbands but to a nation of children. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s controversial narration, we hear the voices of stifled Progressive feminists. Gilman’s work represents the nuanced paradigm of motherhood in all eras.
Following the Second World War, Gilman’s portrayal of the “loving mother” was no longer a radical outlier. Concerned with the impact of absent fathers on childhood psychology and development (i.e. contributions to homosexuality, “sissyness,” and over-feminization of sons,) the bond between mother and child returned to the limelight. Experts from Spock to Bowlby outlined the importance of motherly attachment and fathers as role models. This widespread speculation about familial roles continued into the latter half of the 20th century—expanding to include discussions of poverty, rampant divorce, and custody battles. As Mintz argues; “to an unprecedented degree, women’s roles as mothers and men’s roles as fathers and husbands became politicized.” Throughout American history, motherhood has been political. Making these politics overt in the form of father’s rights movements and custody controversy in the 1960s and 70s set the stage for 21st century anxieties.
In Millenial motherhood, the striking absence of homogeneity is key. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center study, “The demography of motherhood in the United States has shifted strikingly in the past two decades. Compared with mothers of newborns in 1990, today’s mothers of newborns are older and better educated. They are less likely to be white and less likely to be married” (Livingston). For the first time, motherhood and marriage are not necessarily a unified entity. This study, conducted by Gretchen Livingston and D’Vera Cohn goes on to reveal declining birth rates for all ethnicities, a growing percentage of immigrant mothers (with “82% of the nation’s population growth through 2050 [to] be accounted for by immigrants who arrived in the U.S. after 2005,”) and a new American norm of women who marry later in life—leading to far more births outside of marriage as biological clocks continue to tick (Livingston). The face of American motherhood has changed—moving away from the cookie-cutter moral wife of the 1950s to the acceptance of the Single Mother with skin a darker shade. When it comes to motivation for having children, the Pew Research Center found that “for the overwhelming majority, the answer is, ‘the joy of having children.’ However, a half century after the Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of birth control pills, nearly half of parents say “there wasn’t a reason; it just happened.” (Livingston). As in the centuries before ours, the presence of national rhetoric and rule-making influences attitudes and practices of modern motherhood. And yet, the “joy of having children” remains the only necessary explanation for bringing a next generation of Americans into the world.
Of course, the act of having children in the America of 2012 is more than pure “joy.” Perfectionism and “good” motherhood dominate. To be a “good” mother is to be an ideal woman, consumer, and task manager. In this sense, discussion of 21st century motherhood would be incomplete without mention of the “supermom” stereotype. In Ann C. Hall & Mardia J. Bishop’s 2009 text Mommy Angst: Motherhood in American Popular Culture, motherhood is represented as a constant oscillation and negotiation of the conflicting expectations of pop culture, society, and historical context:
“In order to fulfill the desire for a definition or simple representation of motherhood, mothers in pop culture are frequently represented in particular ways. Most recently, the ‘supermom’—the mother who could do it all, with a smile, with a perfect figure, and on a budget—was the cultural ideal…In other instances, perhaps in an attempt to perpetuate the competition among women so common in patriarchal structures, stay-at-home moms are pitted against working moms, with both sides feeling inadequate as a result of comparisons” (Hall, ix).
Despite the feminist dialogue of the 21st century and the unprecedented access to information possible through the introduction of the Internet and countless other streams of media, mothers today are still compartmentalized and labeled. Accepted in both spheres of work and home, their responsibilities and expected expertise are two-fold. As definitions of motherhood rapidly take on new meaning, we are trapped in a conversation of confounding context. Are we the daughters of our mothers’ generation, or the mothers of our children’s revolution? In understanding the motherhoods of the American women who came before us, we better understand the nature of motherhood in the present—charting maternal roadmaps of the future and getting lost in the process.