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Do Working Mothers Work in the Family Dynamic?

In the early 1950’s, it was established that the devoted mother must demonstrate a nearly full adaptation to the needs of the child; she was to meet the needs of her child to the exclusion of any and all other interests. This was due to the belief that the early environment of the child was crucial to emotional development. A mother was to be warm and loving, and never separate from the child. Working mothers were out of the question, as it was preached by psychiatrists at the time that even minor separations from the mother might have dire lifelong consequences on the mental health of a child. Fathers could fill this motherly role, however the burden almost exclusively fell on mothers. In 1952, The Ladies’ Home Journal often suggested creating a household routine dominated by the baby’s demands. This, however, led to mothers feeling empty, rarely having time to call their own.

The 1960’s saw a continuation of the previous decade’s values, despite the rise of second-wave feminism. Many women continued to identify solely with the role of the mother, which created a lag between motherhood and the potential for a greater range of options. The idea of women in the workforce was beginning to grow, yet there was still conflict with mothers who wished to remain in the home. Betty Friedan’s 1963 publications on the “problem that has no name” sent shockwaves through the American population, yet some women remained disillusioned with the idea that marriage and motherhood was the greatest achievement possible.  However, the feminist movement grew, and the 1950’s views of motherhood continued to clash with the liberating appeal of the workforce.

By the mid-1970’s, there existed a surplus of feminist writings which dealt with women in the workforce. Women felt as though working kept them in touch with the world as opposed to remaining in the home, which caused a surge in the employment of mothers.  However, in the early 1980’s, the feminist movement slowed and higher overall unemployment rates discouraged women from participating in the workforce. The 80’s served as a step backward to the 50’s. However, at this point in history, motherhood had discarded the idea of 1950’s motherhood and replaced it with a more realistic and practical version that women were less opposed to.

By looking at Dr. Spock’s childcare manuals, one will notice a parallel of these trends. When his first book was published in 1947, Dr. Spock made multiple references to the mother as the primary care taker. This caused a stir among feminists, and his later revisions address these issues. In his third revision (1968), he states that he believes women should have the right to work, as well as earn equal pay to males, as long as the child’s emotional needs are met. He supports this statement by mentioning that women have many years for work since they marry young, the last child entering elementary school by the time the mother is thirty five. Earlier generations of mothers were still having children well into their forties. Spock also points out that women should work at any job they wish, however, they should not compete with men in these fields and make feminine contributions instead.

Although Spock supported the growing shift to working mothers in the 1970’s, he still emphasized the needs of the child. Additionally, he often stated the opinion that women should use their motherly touch in fields that would better suit them, such as nursing, teaching, or social work. Spock firmly believed that a man should be able to complain to a sympathetic wife, rather than a wife competing in, and possibly succeeding at, the same  job.

Do Working Mothers Work in the Family Dynamic?