Wednesday, October 07, 2009


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?


  1. very interesting. I know that I personally often justify my decision to stay home by saying it would be ridiculously expensive to put 3 kids in daycare. But honestly? I just don't want to work. I want to stay home with my kids - that is all I've ever wanted. So why the guilt about it? I don't judge others for working or not working, so why do I feel judged by them? I think part of the issue is the guilt any mother feels about not doing her best at all times. Making the decision to work or stay home or do whatever makes you happiest and keeps your children happy and healthy is the only important thing and it is different for everyone. Wonderful insight and writing in this post.

  2. My mom worked out of necessity at a job she mainly hated. She worked my whole life. I spent my earliest years in daycare, and my dad wrote in my baby book that I cried when I had to leave daycare becasue I love it so much. I don't feel like I would have benefited more had my mom been a SAHM. I remember that she taught me almost all of the important things in my youth: how to count, my ABCs, how to read, how to tie my shoes. I have distinct memories of my mom from when I was young...and this even with her being a full-time working mom.

    As a step-mom to 4 children who live with us, I have taken the position that my husband should be the primary parent. Because of that, I INSIST that he not take a 2nd job to help pay bills. I want him to be the one who takes them to their games and appointments. No one is a better dad than my husband, and his kiddos know how much he loves them and sacrifices for them.

    So, I work. I love my job. I can't ever imagine myself not working. I'm also a parent to my step-kids...and it is exhausting on so many levels. I honestly think the best thing I can do for my kids is to show them by example how empowered women can be. I have a good job...because of that we are blessed temporally. I am educated and continue to pursue my education. I want my girls to know that they CAN be anything they want to be. If they choose to be a stay at home mom, I'm happy that they had the choice and that their circumstances allow them to do so.

    ...and there are times when I can't WAIT to get on the road to escape for a while. Trust me, the kids feel the same way :-)

  3. nice post sarah. One thing I've noticed that makes it difficult to me in forming friendships with SAHMs is the completely different time schedule. I think the scheduling differences is inevitable given the pulse of each family. I think what makes me feel judged is hearing about mommy groups or preschool spanish classes or parent/child yoga classes I could/should be doing that all take place during the day (and are NOT offered on weekends). I feel that there are opportunities for socializing with our children, but are hard to meld with the different schedules because after 5 is supposed to be family time...dinner, bedtime, and all. I don't know why I gravitate to the WOHMs..probably because I feel like they might share some of the same balance issues I struggle with. Maybe that comes off badly to SAHMs? I don't know.

  4. Tripod6:44 PM

    Nice post. I was extremely lucky to be able to be home while the kids were little. I knew even then that I was lucky. K8 is kidding that she doesn't work, right?
    Being home with kids is harder work than anyone does outside the home.
    I think that the 2 parent family is becoming more rare, but maybe my perspective is skewed because of my work. I know that when one parent is at home full time, it's too easy to be the other adult's mom (or dad) too. Pack his/her lunch while you're at it. Do all the housework, all the boring errands.. and be happy you are able to do it! Bah!!
    Do it however works for you and the kids. If you are happy, they will be happy.

  5. Anonymous11:03 PM

    Thank you for writing this post -- your tour through how society has viewed and classified motherhood and family dynamics really helped me organize my thoughts on the issue of working or staying at home with children.

    I have my children in part-time care right now and I work in academia.

    Every now and then though I doubt myself and wonder if my job is really worth not being home with my kids (usually this corresponds to when my data analysis is going crappy or I'm tired) and just last night, I was crushed by my mother-in-law criticizing me for working out of the home. I've always kind of known that she did not approve of me working, but last night she let it ALL out, telling me that she considered 16-18 hours a week of preschool/daycare to be "prolonged care" and that we had put my son (who turns 3 in a week) into social situations too early and were damaging him. But, after reading your post and Life at 45 Degrees' post, I realized that she could be jealous of me (she had to work when her boys were young) and that her version of the ideal family is the one where mom is educated but opts out to stay at home.

    Your post could not have come at a better time!! I didn't sleep last night because I was fretting about whether the preschool we have our son in is inappropriate and about how big an a-hole I am for putting my daughter in a co-op daycare a couple of hours a day (where I have still been able to nurse her on demand and put her down for naps on my lunch break).

  6. I remember well how the rhetoric of "you can be anything you want" went crashing up against the realities of family life and professional obligations.

    Truthfully NO full-time job is family friendly with the current configuration. Ryan is at work for ten hours a day and still has to go back in some nights or has to work at home after everyone is in bed. They are inflexible about the time employees come in and leave. And most of my friends are SAHMs because someone has to be there to get everyone fed and put to bed, someone has to be free to take sick kids to the doctor, and someone has to do all the little odds and ends that it takes to run a household that there is simply no time for when you are working full-time. Among my peer group I am considered incredibly lucky that my husband gets home before seven and doesn't work weekends. And that he rarely travels--I have one friend whose husband is gone three weeks out of every month for work! And let's not forget the constant spectre of getting laid off to make us all think we are "lucky" to have a good job, even if it makes unhuman demands of our time and stress management capabilities.

    In addition to more affordable, better quality childcare, it's going to take some serious quality-of-life concessions from employers to make two full-time jobs possible for families. Becoming a one-earner household is not the answer in this case, as increased stress and work-time requirements for the WOH partner inevitably adds to the workload of the SAH partner.

  7. We are very lucky with the situation we have. My husband doesn't have to work overtime if he doesn't want to. And if he does, he gets paid. Now, a lot of this is because his job is related to the government (although he is not a government employee) and they have strict rules as a result. But, he doesn't make as much as others with the same job in the private sector. But, it is a trade-off we are willing to take. I get to work some from home. That gives as a little extra money and I get to stay home with the kids. But, I know we are not the norm. We are blessed to have landed in jobs that give us almost every evening together from at least 5pm on and almost no weekends of work.

  8. I've been reading your blog for a while (shout out to Jon for recommending it!), but this post really hit home to me.

    I SUPER DUPER struggled with being a SAHM when we moved out here to Colorado. We had my eldest when we were both still in undergrad, and I've always worked. When in Pekin, my mom watched her while I taught. When we moved to DeKalb, we put her in a daycare that I also taught at. Thankfully, Elisabeth LOVED day care (she's quite the social butterfly) and I was in the class next to hers. When I got pregnant with Julia while Evan was in his last year of law school, we figured that I'd take the summer off while he took the BAR and then when school started, he was a SAHD. He passed, and got an offer from the Air Force. This seemed perfect to us because with the Air Force we had insurance, he would have set hours and no weekends, vacation time and paternity leave. We knew that if he were to go into a private firm the girls and I would never see him and it was important to both of us that we had equal parenting time.

    I can not even tell you how much I hated being home all the time. I love my girls, but the loneliness and complete overwhelming task of being the one home was too much for me. I love working. I love being a teacher. I felt like all my years at college and starting my career were all a waste. There were people in my life who did not understand why I still wanted to work and seemed to be resentful that I was taking being home for granted. That made it even harder. I joined a mommy group just to have people to talk to during the day.

    Now, after being at this for a few months, I'm learning. I don't think Julia would take to daycares the way Ebeth did and I really do enjoy being home with her and being able to take Elisabeth to and from school. We don't have to worry about who has to take off for when the girls are sick or there's a snow day or days off of school.

    So, basically, I feel super guilty for wanting to find a job and possibly put the girls in day care. And, I feel guilty for not loving being home all day everyday with the girls. Yep. There is no right answer. Oh, and Evan? He feels guilty for leaving me home all day (cause I let him know frequently when the day has gone sour and his girls are on their way to the curb). He liked being a SAHD but felt like he wasn't pulling his load, because he wasn't working. Guilt guilt guilt.