You’re Not Imagining It — Being a Mom Has Gotten More Complex Over the Years
Mothers today do far more work with far fewer resources than mothers of the past — and if things are going to change, then we need to start really valuing the work women do as mothers
It’s a truth as old as time — every generation of parents will have unique struggles due to social, economic and political contexts. But, as a researcher specializing in motherhood and as a mother myself, I feel confident in arguing that the challenges parents face today are more complex than previous parenting cohorts.
Our world is more interconnected than it ever has been. Virtual platforms mediate day-to-day interactions. Social media feeds flood every facet of our personal and professional lives. Electronic devices play a prominent role in almost every sphere. Our social, political and economic landscape is framed by globalization and individualization. Values are linked to consumerism.
Yet we are not just passive consumers of culture: As parents, we are also active resisters and shapers.
As parents have always strived to do, we are trying to model for our children how to be contributing, responsible, happy, healthy and productive individuals. But we are also trying to equip our little future citizens with the skills they will need to face unforeseen challenges when they are adults, such as how the threat of climate change may literally reshape their environment. Simply put, the weight of this knowledge can feel overwhelming for parents.
Has it always been like this?
A brief examination of the history of motherhood reveals the increase in pressure that parents, and mothers in particular, have faced in recent centuries. In the late Victorian period, motherhood was revered as a crucial role and legitimate full-time position raising the next generation as “moral citizens.” In other words, mothers were performing a service for the community.
This notion of the moral mother began to fade in the 1920s with the rise of scientific notions of motherhood, where experts began to assert their authority over child-rearing practices. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s motherhood was seen in two ways: one of the strongest pillars of a nation’s social and political order, and that being a mother did not have to be completely consuming and women could also pursue activities and interests beyond children and the home.
By the 1940s, a type of anti-maternalism became mainstream, where mothers were blamed for social ills. There was also critique around the way women had constructed their identities wholly around their role as mothers. The variation demonstrated within this brief recounting reflects the ambivalence that feminist movements have had around motherhood. Sometimes motherhood has been celebrated, other times it has been denounced.
Rising expectations for parents
Today, we are in an era marked by the rise of “intensive mothering,” an ideology that sets out ideals, norms and practices for being a “good mother.” The “good mother” is expected to be self-sacrificing, wholly centered on her child, endlessly patient, financially secure and emotionally consumed with the task of motherhood. It is a standard that is all but unattainable.
This rise in intensive mothering has coincided with the movement of women into the paid labor force, as well as changes in our society, politics and economy. Interestingly though, research has shown that when mothers enter the paid workforce, there is no impact on the amount of time and activities that they do with their children that positively influence their development. In fact, when you look at time spent interacting with children (such as singing, reading, feeding and physically caring for them), working mothers today spend more time interacting with their children than stay-at-home moms did in 1975.
This increase in one-to-one time with children and the physical work associated with mothering is also compounded by the mental labor that mothers are undertaking today: the organizing, list-making, planning and management of the family and each of its members.
Although critical to the functioning of a family, this labor remains largely invisible, gendered and devalued. We only recognize the value of this work when there is no one performing it and things fall apart. The same can be said of caregiving in general: Someone has to perform the critical work of caring for vulnerable human beings, but we do not adequately value or even recognize this as work.
Much of this has always been considered “women’s work,” but the difference now is that women are also taking on more work outside the home and in their lives.
Finding support in new places and forms
Navigating today’s rapidly changing world as parents means thinking on our feet. But, in doing so, we no longer experience community in the ways that we used to. The prolific nature of social media changes how we connect with our communities and experience our personal relationships, although this is not necessarily as dire a prognosis as we might first think.
The ways that families are constructed is changing, and we are assumed to have greater control over the way we conduct our lives. This way of thinking has importantly supported the rise of new family forms such as same-sex parented families, heterosexual couples who actively choose to remain child-free, single parents and even friends who decide to raise children together.
Even in more “traditional” nuclear families, things have changed. Encouragingly, today’s fathers are more involved with their children than ever before, with American fathers almost tripling the time they spend on caring for children from 2.5 hours a week in 1965 to 7 hours a week in 2011.
Some argue that feminist movements have forgotten about motherhood altogether. As Ann Crittenden argues, many women who are not mothers believe that “all the feminist battles have been won,” yet “once a woman has a baby, the egalitarian office party is over”.
Just as we have needed feminism to do more work to recognize, understand and address issues of LGBTQI communities, women of color, Indigenous women and women who are disabled, we also need feminism to better understand and address the needs of mothers. This is especially true as mothers today do far more work with far less resources than mothers of the past — and if things are going to change, then we need to start really valuing the work women do as mothers. And we also need to start providing them with a lot more support.
But the presence of challenges is not mutually exclusive with the presence of reasons to celebrate the current state of motherhood: With the benefit of being able to stand on the shoulders of the giants before us, mothers and fathers of today can feel confident in knowing that, while parenting philosophies may change, the ever-consistent goal of raising good humans is the most important guiding light of all. And just like parents before us, we’re all doing our best, aren’t we?