A Brief History of How We Think About Motherhood

Article/Op-Ed in The Washington Post
May 6, 2016

Brigid Schulte wrote for the Washington Post about the history and transformations of Motherhood in the past few decades:

In the past few decades, motherhood has been transformed. A majority of moms now work outside the home; they also spend twice as much time on housework and child care as fathers do. That means mothers are more taxed than ever, and still deeply ambivalent about what their proper role should be. Here are some works that explore this fundamental question:

“Mothers and Others,” Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

To really understand motherhood, you have to start at the beginning. That’s what Hrdy, an anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, does in her groundbreaking book. Hrdy challenges the notion of a “maternal instinct.” Using evidence from closely related primate species and modern hunter-gatherer tribes, she shows that men and women are equally wired to nurture and that loving “alloparents” — mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, friends — have always cared for and raised our young.

“Proverbs 31: 10-31,” the Bible

The notion that a “good mom” should always be busy, selfless and cheerfully obedient is peppered throughout history and culture. But it’s especially well-captured in this exhausting passage about mothers, which reads, in part: “She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family. . . . She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. . . . Her lamp does not go out at night. In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. . . . She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.”

“The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood,” Sharon Hays

This 1996 book was an instant classic. Hays, a sociologist, shows that the definition of “proper parenting” has always been slightly out of reach, keeping mothers constantly striving and off balance. She chronicles how, for centuries in Europe, child-rearing was a socially devalued task and often outsourced to wet nurses, nannies and boarding schools. That changed with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued for breast-feeding and affectionate mothering, fostering the “cult of true womanhood.”