The Dramatic Evolution of the Mom's Role
Moms today are very different than moms of the past, and that’s largely due to evolving cultural perceptions of the matriarch. Society once looked down upon the mother as a menace whose subservience prevented boys from becoming great men. It’s laughable, but it’s also true.
The prevailing attitude these days is, thankfully, that mothers make the world go round. Without them, we would all be living in a barbaric zoo. But that’s not to say things are perfect for mothers and women in general. Far from it — we have a long way to go in terms of equality, but we’ve also come a long, long way. Along this journey, the role of the mother has dramatically shifted.
Today, she is more independent, more career-oriented and more willing to have children on her own timeline and not that of a partner or husband. She commands more respect and takes part in more facets of maintaining the household than just cooking and cleaning. And she’s allowed — even encouraged — to show affection to her children.
Ditching Hands-Off Parenting
With the knowledge we have today, old mothering techniques and advice are downright laughable. Take the book “The Mother and Her Child,” which shockingly was written by two doctors and published in 1916. It advises such things as handling babies as little as possible, and that crying is crucial to developing strong lungs. Essentially, if your child interfered with your life, something was wrong, and you should figure out how to ignore them better.
Thankfully, this kind of advice is mostly ignored today because modern science has shown mothers how vitally important it is to be present for your children and show them unconditional love. And thankfully for kids, the vast majority of mothers do that today.
Mother’s Mother More Today
Some of us have a decidedly romantic image of the past — the good old days when life was simpler and soda contained real sugar. For mothers, it was far from ideal.
Mothers in the early 20th century, for example, had to juggle so many unofficial jobs — for families then needed more than one earner — that they had no time for their kids. And if they weren’t getting paid, they were simply laboring at home. Mothers and fathers in the 21st century don’t pay much attention to the time-saving magic of, say, a washing machine or vacuum. But in the 1910s, a mother might spend 40 hours a week simply maintaining the home.
Today, mothers struggle with a work-life balance, but thanks to more shared responsibilities in the home, they are mostly able to make it work.
Mom, the Authoritarian
Another vastly outdated mothering practice from a century ago is mom as the authoritarian decider of right and wrong. This was born out of early parenting advice books, which promised that holding a crying baby only reinforced the baby’s desire to cry. Or if kids didn’t have strict rules and expectations, they would grow into monsters.
Other sage advice was to never hug or kiss a child, or allow your kid to sit in your lap. You could peck them on the forehead to say good night, but nothing more. Oh, and shaking hands with kids in the morning was preferable to any other interaction. This was actually viewed as a “kind” approach. But mothers, and the advice given to them, have come a long way since the 1920s and ’30s.
Mothers Used to Be the Enemy
It’s hard to believe society would cast the bearers of life in a poor light, but there was a time when mothers were seen more as problems than angels. And this was only 80 or so years ago.
“Stay-at-home mothers were often portrayed as an even bigger menace to society than career women. In 1942, in his best-selling ‘Generation of Vipers,’ Philip Wylie coined the term ‘momism’ to describe what he claimed was an epidemic of mothers who kept their sons tied to their apron strings, boasted incessantly of their worth and demanded that politicians heed their moralizing,” according to The New York Times.
Those attitudes have certainly changed, and women are rightfully viewed as the warriors of the family who keep everything together and moving forward. And affectionate mothering is widely seen as healthy and important for children’s development and happiness.
More Resources for Moms
And how do they keep the family moving forward? By tapping into the never-ending resources available online, in books and parenting groups. Mothers now have so many different sources to choose from, in fact, that it’s easy — and encouraged — to trust your instincts and educate yourself on myriad ways of mothering.
In the past, women struggled in this area because of the lack of helpful information from aforementioned books and because parenting advice wasn’t really passed on through the generations. Women felt helpless and often scared, and they were excited to have a seemingly unbiased source of techniques like a book written by doctors or psychologists. Today, however, moms just have to pick up their phones and type a few search words, and they will have 300 different opinions on cradle cap treatments or what to do about the hiccups.
Healthy Habits While Pregnant
Any fans of “Mad Men” undoubtedly remember the character Betty Draper drinking heavily and smoking even more during her pregnancy. That TV show was set in the 1960s, when society didn’t pay much attention to the effects of alcohol and nicotine on a developing fetus. In fact, awareness over drug and alcohol use by pregnant women didn’t become a thing until the 1980s.
These days it’s a clear no-no. Some doctors will tell women a glass of wine here and there is fine, but most women do more with regard to their health when pregnant than they did beforehand. This includes changing their diets and adding vitamins, getting outside more, exercising more and even paying heed to their mental health. This is all well and good, and babies are better off for it.
Becoming Moms Later in Life
Women are waiting longer to have children, and more women in their 40s are having kids than ever before. The average age of first-time mothers is over 26 years old, which is almost four years older than the average in 1980. For women with a college degree, it’s even older at 30.3 years. The average age for married women is 28.8, and it’s 23.1 for unmarried mothers.
This is due to several factors, one of which is that modern medicine has made it safer to be pregnant later in life. But beyond that, women are less inclined to do what society tells them to, and career aspirations also might come into play.
Evolution of Aspirations
Speaking of aspirations, women used to be made to feel like their greatest achievement in life would be motherhood. Luckily, women are no longer viewed solely as homemakers whose main duty in life is to raise children.
The modern woman is better able to balance her goals and ambitions with a desire to start a family. More women are ensuring they’re comfortable in a career and relationship before bringing that bundle of joy into their lives. And that’s important when it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise one child and send them to college.
An Increase in Mothers
Even if women are waiting longer to have kids, in 2016 more women aged 40-44 — considered the end of childbearing years — had given birth at least once in their lives than in 2006, according to the Pew Research Center. That figure increased from 80 percent to 86 percent in just a decade, reversing a 30-year decline. And 55 percent of women aged 40-44 who never married have had at least one child.
In recent years and for the first time ever, more women in their 30s are having children than women in their 20s. There’s also been an ongoing drop in the teen pregnancy rate. These trends indicate that women have more say in starting families now than generations past, deciding the circumstances under which they will or will not become mothers either on their own or mutually with their partners.
Education and Work
Today’s mom is more likely to be a college graduate who’s built a full-time career before motherhood that she doesn’t want to abandon. In the 1970s, about one-third of mothers with young children held down jobs. Today, it’s 50 percent. And according to the Pew Research Center, as recently as the mid-1990s it was impossible to find a mother who had never married but had a postgraduate degree. Now, however, 25 percent of moms fit this profile.
Societal shifts in how we view women and moms are partly responsible for these changes. But partners are contributing more and more to childcare and household chores, making it possible for moms to be more independent and continue to work.
More Acceptance of Single Moms
The emotional burden of single motherhood has waned, as the idea of the nuclear family no longer dominates the cultural landscape. Single mothers accounted for almost 90 percent of single parents in the 1960s, but that number has almost evened out to 53 percent now. Single mothers still struggle more than married moms, but cohabitation (in which a parent lives with a partner but is unmarried) accounts for 35 percent of all unmarried households.
Single motherhood is, not surprisingly, more popular with millennials than other generations, with 57 percent of their babies born out of wedlock.
Mom Brings Home the Bacon
The traditional family dynamic has completely changed in the U.S., and that goes for sources of income as much as anything else. Full-time, stay-at-home moms are the minority, and moms and dads share the financial burden now more than ever before. The Center for American Progress reported that nearly 65 percent of mothers are bringing in half of a family’s income, with 42 percent of those women being the sole or primary earner.
Many issues still exist, however — such as the wage gap and no concrete federal laws around paid family and medical leave and sick days — that don’t reflect the realities of 21st century jobs and workplaces.
Breastfeeding Is Encouraged
There was a time when women were not supposed to breastfeed, or it was viewed as a practice for the uneducated lower classes. The medical community even discouraged breastfeeding and supported formula. These attitudes only started to change in the 1970s, but in some communities were still prevalent until the 1990s. Aggressive advertising didn’t help matters, with formula makers going as far as to claim children wouldn’t survive without their product. This fueled a precipitous decline in breastfeeding so that by the 1950s only 25 percent of babies were reared on mother’s milk.
The breastfeeding rate had rebounded significantly to 90 percent by the end of the last millennium, but has fallen to 42 percent in recent years. Still, information on the benefits of breast milk is readily available, and it’s encouraged by health professionals. Of course, some women cannot breastfeed for various reasons, and before the creation of formula and bottles, there were wet nurses who provided breast milk when moms could not.
Sharing Disciplinary Duties
Numerous research has shown that co-discipline among parents is healthier for them and their kids, so the days of “wait until your dad comes home” are largely in the past. When both parents enforce rules and listen to each other and compromise on their different parenting styles, kids see a united front and understand the rules better. It leaves less room for children to try to curry favor from one parent or the other.
There is also better awareness around discipline and how it can negatively affect a developing mind. This gives parents, especially moms, more incentive to create constructive rules and build trust and understanding between parent and child.
The Informed Mother
Women today have a much better understanding of motherhood than generations past, and this is not only due to modern medicine but also modern psychology and the sharing culture we live in. That sharing culture includes endless mommy blogs and articles about motherhood, from reasons why it doesn’t have to define you to reasons why it should define you to reasons why it’s OK to want a slice (or all) of your non-motherhood life back.
What this really means is that the weight of motherhood is heavier than ever before. If a woman so chooses, she can know every single aspect of pregnancy, birth and child-rearing long before conception. This is both a blessing and a curse, but it’s also empowering. With so much information, women can more easily decide if they’re going to parent like their moms or figure out their own path. Or maybe it will be a combination of both or something entirely unique. Knowledge is power, and today that’s truer than ever for mothers.