Mothering

Bernice Weissbourd, MA
President, Family Focus, Inc.
Chicago, IL


There is a Mayan proverb I paraphrase:

Mother cradles the baby in her arms. Father takes the baby up to the mountain top to view the world.

We won't comment on this from a feminist viewpoint, but it is a beautiful way to say both mother and father are important to children.

To speak of motherhood and fatherhood, we must first talk of what children need from their parents in order to grow up to be healthy, productive citizens. The good news is that though there are differing theories of child development and child rearing, there is general agreement concerning the basic requirements for all children which underlie healthy growth.

Let me state these:

All children should live in environments that provide some order, and meet their basic physical and material needs for food, shelter and clothing. All children should have a continuous relationship with a consistently attentive and caring adult, someone madly in love with them, not just any adult, but someone who treats them as special, who stimulates and nurtures them. Children need adults who provide appropriate responsibilities and challenges, and who pass on important social and moral expectations. All children should have freedom from exploitation and discrimination in their community, opportunity in school and community for constructive achievement, and for developing friendships with community adults. And all children should have a sense of justice in their world.

When children have these things they are likely, as adults, to have trust in themselves and in the environment in which they live. In a country searching for answers to childhood violence, both that perpetrated by children themselves as well as by adults on children, it would do us well to pay heed to our knowledge of what children need.

Ideally, children thrive when they have both a mother and father who care deeply about them, and each other, are attentive to their signals, and guide them appropriately. Those are the lucky children. But many, many children grow up in different family structures where their needs are also being met: single, divorced or never married mothers or fathers, blended families, step-families, extended families, multi-generational families, and adoptive families. Though there are vast changes in the structure of the family, the function of the family to provide what children need remains the same.

Roles within the family have also dramatically changed. Gone are the stereotypes of mother as nurturer and father as provider. Neither men nor women perceive their role as parents in the traditional framework. Both mother and father can be and are nurturers. Both mother and father can be and are providers.

Evidence of this change in attitudes toward motherhood can be seen in national surveys: in answer to the question," Do you agree or disagree that it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family?" 66% of adults agreed in 1977. By 1996, only 38% did so.

The vision of motherhood has changed from a saintly, adored woman tirelessly and always lovingly caring for her brood of children, as in the poem of Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Mother is the name for God in the lives and hearts of little children," or Victor Hugo's, "Mother's arms are made of tenderness -- and sweet sleep blesses the child who lies therein." The vision of motherhood today is that of a woman devoted to her children -- usually no more than two, but also identifying herself by her work, and her personal interests. In some instances, the roles of women as nurturing mother and also as breadwinner has created a situation where fathers feel they are not needed, or that they cannot find a place in the family constellation. (Though Kirk will expand on this theme, an awareness on the part of mothers that they may cause the father's alienation might be a first step in alleviating it.) Today 77% of all married women are employed, 63% of those with school-age children -- five times what it was in 1950. And the proportion who will never marry has risen to 10% among Whites, 30% among African-Americans. Today the disgrace that once accompanied unmarried motherhood has been replaced with a matter-of-fact acceptance.

So motherhood today has a different face. Other differences are also compelling. Since women have fewer children and live longer than in previous generations the period of children-at-home is a much smaller percentage of a women's total life-time. It is also obvious that casting blame on mothers who go to work is no longer the issue -- not even for conservatives who recognize that phenomena is here to stay. While we must be cautious not to undervalue the mother who stays at home, the present role of mothers is a sea-change for children, and raises formidable questions about a society's responsibility to its children and families.

Before talking of the effect on children of mother's new roles, let's look at the ways being employed effects the mother's daily life. There is a new phrase in the vocabulary that aptly describes it -- "second shift." The old expression "a woman's work is never done," which referred to the endless chores of shopping, cooking, laundry, and house-keeping, has given way to "second shift." After working at a job all day, the woman assumes her second-job -- that of caring for house and children. That tends to make the earlier phrase sound limp!

The reality is that, though fathers are increasingly committed to sharing responsibility and to having "equality" in their home, research indicates that over the period of a year women spend a month of 24 hour days more than their husbands on child care and house-work. In fact, the very way survey questions are asked reflects attitudes, "Does your husband help with the house and with the children?" The assumption persists that the responsibility is the mothers'.

So the role of mothers today is exceedingly stressful. Mothers start early morning with getting one child ready for child care, another for school, leaving a note for the cleaner and figuring out what to have for dinner, ending the day with the precious few minutes of reading a bedtime story to a child who wants more, more, more. It's tough for the middle-class mom, especially the single mom. For the poor mom who may also be single, it can be overwhelming. In addition to routine daily tasks, poor moms are expected to efficiently work through the complicated systems of welfare, health, jobs and social services.

Stress results not only from the efforts of balancing work and family, but from problems within one or the other. The demands on the job may be unreasonable or the employer inflexible, often not allowing the phone call home, or time off to attend a child's school performance. Being primarily responsible for what goes on at home while having little or no control of the job situation is a breeding ground for tension.

In addition, lack of resources in the community is a major factor in making life more difficult. If mothers don't feel that it is safe for their children to walk to the bus, and must arrange for transportation and, worse yet, if there is no adequate public transportation, the day becomes increasingly complicated. Lack of after-school care or early morning care creates problems so difficult that sometimes mothers are forced to resort to "latch-keys" for the care of their children.

One of the other serious consequences of the many pressures on mothers is the lack of time they have to spend with their growing children. It takes time to provide what children need -- time to listen to the concerns they bring home, time to talk, time to have fun together. I don't like the phrase quality time, because it implies that it's what you do with the time that's important, not the amount of time. If, for example you have 20 minutes to spend, and want to have a serious talk with your child about her day, but she happens to be deeply immersed in a book she's reading, should you expect her to stop and talk to you? Whose quality time is it anyway? Being there when the child has questions or wants to tell you something is what's important -- and being there takes time. A recent teen-age survey surprised many when in answer to the question "What do you think would make your life better?" a majority of teens responded "more time with my parents -- doing things together" -- not cars, fine homes, or televisions. Parents are experiencing a time drain.

The stresses and pressures have taken their toll on mothers. A concern for our nation is the increasing rate of depression in mothers. Between 20-25% of mothers between 25-40 years experience a major depression. And minor depressions characterized by chronic feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, lack of any hope are experienced by 30-50% of mothers of young school-age children and up to 70% in families living in poor neighborhoods. If we are concerned, as we are here, with motherhood in the context of children's needs, look how this translates into children's lives. Children of depressed mothers are 4 times as likely as other children to themselves be depressed, and 5 times as likely to abuse drugs.

Yet, the answer is not for mothers to stay at home, which for some working mothers would be financially impossible. Besides, for many mothers, a fulfilling career enhances their ability to be good mothers and to build positive relationships with their children.

We are in the midst of what is called "Mommy Wars," a name I believe is as unfortunate as the issue is. It defines stay-at-home moms versus mothers in the workforce, an issue especially of importance for the first years of life. In the context of what children need, what does that mean? We have said that children must have at least one person irrationally in love and totally involved with them. If that person is the child's mother and she is told her place is at home with the children, but she resents very much being at home, how can she build a good relationship? On the other hand, if she has to work and hates her job and wants to be home with her children, but can't -- how does that affect her feelings about being a mother and her relationship with her children? In both cases, the mothers' feelings inevitably spill over into her interactions.

Stay-at-home mothers and mothers at work are not enemies. In the best interest of children, they each need support in the choice they have made. Such support can take the form of part-time work, flexible working hours, or working at home for mothers who are employed. Furthermore, the availability of high-quality child care would greatly alleviate the tensions of working mothers. Varied forms of tax deductions would assist mothers in both life-styles , as would community support such as family resource centers for parents to gather, share and get information, and develop friendships necessary to reduce isolation.

The changed role of mothers necessitates changing the way our system works for children and families. Though we delineated in the beginning a general consensus on what children need, less has been written on what families need. Just as we can't teach math to hungry children, we can't give parent education classes to hungry adults. Families need economic security, they need to know where the next meal is coming from, that there is money to pay the rent, that there are jobs where they can make a decent living. Social networks are essential to families-friends, neighbors, kin who provide emotional and concrete support. Isolation is a primary cause of depression, and of destructiveness in families. Families require communities that are safe and rich in resources-parks, libraries, family resource centers, child care programs, good schools, and adequate health care. Families thrive when they are part of a community in which they participate and contribute. And families need time to spend together. I believe parents want to be good parents, and families need these things to do what they would like to do for their children. Underlying such a commitment to families is the recognition that no family can raise children alone. We are all, regardless of economic status, dependent on the quality of necessary resources from basic health care and schools to recreational parks. The valid, though perhaps over-used expression, "It takes a village to raise a child" embraces the notion that families need each other to provide a healthy environment for the community's children. It is time we declare a Declaration of Interdependence.

What can we do as a society to re-orient our systems to work for families?

Projecting a society in which the above mentioned systems are working for families is not an idealists' dream. In this rich nation it is not even out of reach. In fact, it's more fiscally responsible than waiting for a crises to occur.

We have some good things happening. More and more states are changing their systems to work for families and more communities are coming together to plan for their kids. Child care has moved to the top of our domestic agenda. We know the programs necessary to alleviate the stresses on mothers, starting with good pre-natal care, and we also know that 80% of the mothers suffering from depression can move to recovery with a combination of anti-depressants, therapy, and on-going family support.

There is a strange contradiction in our society -- we demand that mothers on welfare go into the workforce at the same time that we want tax relief for middle class mothers to stay at home. Should mothers of all classes who prefer to be at home with their children in the early years be able to do so, and should mother of all classes who prefer to work be assured of good quality day care? The fact is most parents need help with the increasing financial demands of raising children today. This is reflected in the striking expansion in the number of child care proposals now pending -- subsidies for the working poor, tax credits for the middle class, expansion of Head Start and Early Head Start, funds for after-school programs. These proposals are generally receiving bi-partisan support.

Yesterday Urie Brofenbrenner talked of that one indispensable loving person in a child's life. He spoke of proximal process -- active participation in progressively complex reciprocal interactions with persons, objects, symbols -- on a regular basis over extended periods of time. We do know what policies could create an environment in which children were able to have these necessary experiences. We are so far behind every other Western democracy in instituting them. Starting from pregnancy, mothers deserve -- not only need -- to have supportive policies and programs in order to meet the needs of their children -- needs they know so well and often find difficult to fulfill.

Copyright © 1998 Bernice Weissbourd.

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