It is done! It took long enough. I apologize in advance for bad editing and grammatical errors. Some of the issues that this paper talks about continually occured in my life while writing it.
What comes to mind when you think of a mother? It is different for every person, but in our cultural we have some common beliefs we hold about mothers. Motherhood is a social perception of status which is highly individualized. A person’s experiences and upbringing influences their mental image of a mother. Our judgment of what defines a good mother is based off of our cultural conceptions of a mother. These judgments influence the level of support modern American family has in our culture. There is a strong dichotomy between America’s stand on family values and the policies of American business, government and law, especially in support for anti-poverty programs and childcare (Crittenden 5).
Americans have placed the mother in complete charge of child raising responsibilities. According to our current definition a good mother is “the state of being ‘almost always on-duty’” (Warner 116). She juggles work, children and marriage with the same intensity, frequently sacrificing her own equality and life goals. She is responsible for a child’s success and failure in life. This is an individualized activity and the family unit, as opposed to society, is entirely responsible for all child-rearing (Douglas 25). Fathers are frequently relieved from this responsibility.
It is acknowledged among economists and other social scientists that “parents who are conscientiously and effectively rearing children are literally the major wealth producers in our economy” (Crittenden 2). At the same time, there is a large financial penalty to anyone who chooses to spend large amounts of time in children centered activities (Crittenden 7). The biggest risk factor for being impoverished is the status of being a mother (Crittenden 6). Housework and child rearing activities are not currently recognized as being valuable. It is not seen as “real” work (Hochschild 257). You can not put raising children on a resume—they are a handicap in the business world.
The devaluation of childcare and housework effectively leaves fathers out of the process for many reasons. If women are to achieve economic equality with men, men need to be responsible for half of the work of raising children. Our society is not structured for men to be involved with their children. There is considerable bias in the corporate world against fatherhood, and economic sanctions if fathers try to participate in their families. There is also an ingrained conception that men are not competent parents (Mahony 5). This has been proven wrong by several studies that find that families in which the father is the main parent are as healthy and well functioning as traditional families (Mahony 183). When fathers do participate in childcare, they are often looked down on. One example is the father who takes his child to the park on a weekday afternoon. Since childcare in higher income families is often performed by immigrant workers, he was surrounded by nannies. He felt like he was “…a man doing work even middle- and upper-class women are getting out of” (Hochschild xxvii).
There is a sexual division of labor in many households even when women work. Women are often forced by economic and social factors to work outside of the home, and the numbers are increasing. In 1975, 47 % of mothers with children under 18 worked for pay. In 2000 this number rose significantly to 73%. Two-thirds of the 58% of mothers of children under one who work do so full time. There has been an significant increase in the number of hours worked for both men and women (Hochschild xxiv). Working women average 3 hours of home care activities per day while men average 17 minutes. This equation is also reflected in childcare activities, with women spending 50 minutes per day with their children exclusively compared to the male average of 12 minutes (Hochschild 3). In a year, working women put in an extra month of 24 hour days of combined housework and childcare.
As Judith Warner put it in Perfect Madness:
We tend to think that it is normal for families to soldier on, alone and unsupported and stressed, as they do now. That is because in our conscious lifetime it has never been any other way. Yet before we were born, back in what so many people think of as the “golden age” of the American family, things were very different. There were actually government programs to strengthen and buttress the middle class. This wasn’t done by “valorizing” motherhood (that cheap solution favored by so many in the burgeoning “pro-motherhood” movement) but by creating the economic conditions that allowed families to thrive (212).
By not creating those economic conditions, women have suffered the most. Families need support to help take care of children, but in our modern age, if you are not economically self sufficient, there is little help for you. America has a welfare system, but it is mostly designed to help ease the risks of the paid worker only. Unpaid workers are excluded from it (Crittenden 186). Half to one third of all divorced women received welfare before the program was changed in the 90’s (Crittenden 185). Women receiving welfare benefits often do only because they are trying to care for a family. If they abandoned their obligations, they would be self supporting (Crittenden 191). In addition, children are more likely to benefit from income given to mothers than any other income (Crittenden 200). This counteracts the media image often given of mothers on welfare. In the media, mothers on welfare are often being portrayed as getting away with something other mothers couldn’t. They were also often portrayed as women of color, even though a majority of welfare recipients are white. The target was no longer a broken system of care, but the mothers themselves. They became a scapegoat onto “…whom white culture projected its own fears about mothers ‘abandoning’ the home, losing their ‘maternal instinct’ and neglecting their kids” (Douglas 176).
In reality, half of all single mothers work while on welfare (Douglas 177). The issue of forcing mothers to work to receive welfare raises another issue. Who takes care of the children while mom is at work? Data from other countries shows that supported quality childcare encourages mothers to work far more than any other factor (Crittenden 200). In 1996, welfare started requiring all mothers of toddlers to work, overlooking the fact that someone would need to take care of the children (Crittenden 84). One of the issues this country has not addressed is why the government favors childcare by non-parents—which is shown by paying for it—over parents (Mahony 197). Americans are very torn over childcare outside of the home, believing that “…care by anyone other than a mother herself is not only not optimal but downright harmful to children” (Crittenden 213)
Another issue is that the low value we place on the care of children continues into paid childcare. We refer to highly trained early childhood educators as “baby-sitters”. The childcare workforce is increasingly low skilled due to the low wages (Crittenden 6). The low wages keep childcare workers (a majority of whom are women supporting families) from being self-sufficient (Crittenden 212). Finding childcare becomes another issue. A large number of jobs held by lower income women are during times childcare is not available (Douglas 200). Mothers often have to choose between their jobs and their children and battle stereotypes that they do not want to work. When childcare is unreliable, mothers often miss work and lose their employment (Douglas 201).
The issues, conceptions, and culture around motherhood in this country is a fractured maze of interrelated issues. It is often portrayed as a feminist issue, and feminists are often portrayed as anti-mother. Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels summarized why poverty and motherhood are a feminist issue best in The Mommy Myth:
I’m a woman. I’m a black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare. In this country, If you’re any of those things—poor, black, fat, female, middle-aged, on welfare—you count as less as a human being. Welfare’s like a traffic accident. It can happen to anybody, but especially it happens to women. And that’s why welfare is a woman’s issue… There are a lot of lies that male society tells about welfare mothers; that AFDC mothers are immoral, that AFDC mothers are lazy, misuse their welfare checks, spend it all on booze and are stupid and incompetent. If people are willing to believe these lies, it’s partly because they are just special versions of the lies that society tells about all women (176).
There is no easy solution to these issues. There needs to be a cultural shift in our attitudes about women and work, families and children, and the sexual division of labor. Profamily policies would include better childcare, parental leave to parents, and would pull up wages in traditionally female work, such as teaching, child care and social work. There would be a better availability of lower hour, flexible, well paying work for those taking care of younger children. Childcare would be supported no matter who it comes from: the parent, a relative or neighbor, or a developmentally appropriate program.
The biggest shift that needs to occur is a fundamental recognition of the value of caring for children. A quote from Robert Theobald states, “How did we ever come to believe that it was more important for somebody to have a meaningless job than to raise their children well? This doesn’t make sense even in simple accounting terms.” There are so many other factors involved in the issues that surround motherhood that are beyond the scope of this paper. It is an issue that needs to be analyzed and held up to the light, and not swept under the rug and dismissed as a women’s problem. Everyone would benefit.
Crittenden, Ann. The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.
Douglas, Susan J, and Meredith W. Michaels. The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women. New York: Free Press, 2004.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell, and Anne Machung. The Second Shift. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Mahony, Rhona. Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies, and Bargaining Power. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
Warner, Judith. Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.
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