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Historically, did women ever devote themselves entirely to their children?

(56 Posts)
wanderingalbatross Mon 08-Oct-12 11:01:35

I was just reading this article on the Guardian about work-life balance of female Silicon Valley execs. I found it interesting as I have quite a flexible tech job. The flexible working pattern really suits me and I really hope it'll work around my kids in the future.

Then there are the usual comments, including the standard "why did you have kids if you don't want to look after them?" Which got me wondering, has there ever really been a time when women sacrificed work for their kids? I'd like to say people, but I suppose that men didn't do all that much of the child raising.

I admit that my historical knowledge is poor and mostly gained from fiction(!) but I get the impression that this 'golden age' when kids were looked after by a dedicated parent is a figment of our collective imagination. Sure, in the 50s plenty of women were SAHMs, but I imagine they spent a lot more time on housework than we do, and were't dedicating their days to broadening the minds of their little ones. And before then, I have heard said that most women just had to get on with work alongside raising their kids as they couldn't afford not to.

So where does this idea come from?

AMumInScotland Mon 08-Oct-12 11:25:31

No, I don't think there was ever a time when children were the only focus of a woman's life. Historically, children were expected to fit in with everything else that was happening around them, rather than getting that much attention. So they would be strapped to mum's back while she got on with things, or passed between relatives and/or other families to let mum go out to work - I've certainly heard tales of working class families where neighbours did different shifts and handed over both sets of children at the bus-stop or factory door between shifts. They were also expected to help around the house from much earlier, and to quietly amuse themselves (in the house, the garden, out in the yard, on the street, at the neighbour's, down the cinema, etc) to let the grown-ups get on with their lives (and all the housework).

I don't know where the idea came from - possibly a post-war push to get women out of jobs that the returning troops needed back, and to "big up" their role as wives and mothers to shut them up.

seeker Mon 08-Oct-12 11:27:15

Nope. Poor women have always worked. Rich women have always paid other people to look after their children.

seeker Mon 08-Oct-12 11:28:56

"I don't know where the idea came from - possibly a post-war push to get women out of jobs that the returning troops needed back, and to "big up" their role as wives and mothers to shut them up."

In times of unemployment, the importance of women staying home with children is always emphasised.

BurlingtonBertieFromBow Mon 08-Oct-12 11:35:02

No, you either tended to be so poor you had to do menial work or everyone starved, or you were rich enough to have a nanny/governess. It's a very modern thing. And also women who did spend most of their time at home had quite a few kids, were also looking after the children of friends/family and spent all day doing housework cos of no appliances, not playing with the kids. If you think about it historically, one woman looking after her (e.g.) 2 children all day is an aberration.

hanahsaunt Mon 08-Oct-12 11:43:37

Kate Figes has written about this - the rosy haze of SAHMs is a very modern concept and happened partly as a post war thing to get the returning men back into the workplace and partly with the social shift to not having domestic help. Children also had much shorter childhoods inasmuch as people routinely left school at 14 having been expected to behave in a much more responsible/mature fashion then our current generation of 12-14yo. It may be lovely to be at home (I am atm not least because I can't get my head around the logisitics of managing our 4 dc across a large age range with a job as well) but it's not normal in the great (world) scheme of things.

duchesse Mon 08-Oct-12 11:50:09

No. The stay at home full-time mother (because mostly it is mothers we are talking about) is a very recent construct (I'm thinking post-war, to get mothers out of the menz job and and back to the kitchen sink). Before that, mothers either worked or paid other people to come and work for them in their houses. Children either went to baby minders or were looked after by grannies or nannies or other staff or family members.

summerflower Mon 08-Oct-12 12:16:24

Agree about the post-war emphasis on domesticity - though a similar thing happened after World War One, despite women getting the vote.

post World War Two, there was also Bowlby and the development of attachment theory, which I think had an impact too. Although his work was, as I understand it, looking at the impact of evacuation and long term separation on children, it was seen as highlighting the role of a stable primary carer (seen usually as the mother in society).

I also think that in WW2, women had been working and raising children in very difficult circumstances, they were times of shortages and austerity, so maybe there was a point where people wanted to concentrate on family for good reason. I mean, if your kids have been evacuated, you've been working and keeping house and home together in difficult circumstances, your husband has just returned, it is probably not the ideal time to start challenging gender roles. I don't really think it is surprising that you have such an emphasis on the traditional family in the 1950s. Also, the new welfare state - was that not pretty much built around the breadwinner model?

TheDoctrineOfSnatch Mon 08-Oct-12 14:22:11

Is that "Because of Her Sex" Hanah?

fusam Mon 08-Oct-12 15:08:12

Am in tech too and seem to have got a work life balance that is great for our family.

The second half of the article talks about women being judged harsher than men if they show selfish or aggressive tendencies. Surely it is better for wider society if the standards that men are judged by was raised rather than lowering the bar for women? In the example the article, if a male co-worker goes to a party leaving some emergency work to his team mates everyone should think he is a bit a knob too like his female counterpart?

The stereotypically female characteristics are necessary for society to function. Don't know how asking men to be more feminine would go down for the majority. Just musing really....

wanderingalbatross Mon 08-Oct-12 15:08:49

Thanks for the replies, interesting to hear more smile You all back up what I imagined was probably the truth, but there is this really persistent notion at the moment that women working is a new thing. I certainly remember my mum working and I know both my grandmas did.

Did all the women after ww2 just go quietly back to domestic life? I can see the point you make summer, but I can't imagine that none of the women challenged the changes when the men returned? Or maybe they did because of the time and place?

doctrine was very confused by your comment until I went to look up Kate Figes! Her website looks interesting, hanah do you have any links to specific articles you're thinking of?

Anyone know anything about further back, before the industrial revolution?

wanderingalbatross Mon 08-Oct-12 15:12:32

fusam I agree, and I think these things vary wildly between different professions. In mine, I can't imagine men getting off lightly in that emergency work-party situation. At the same time, I think many women are too apologetic. I know I am, and I'm really trying to be more assertive at work now. I think the middle ground should be an ideal for everyone, not just the women!

hanahsaunt Mon 08-Oct-12 18:08:51

Kate Figes was Life After Birth. I read it in 2001 just after ds1 was born and found it deeply reassuring re going back to work (after a fairly major assualt by MIL).

TheDoctrineOfSnatch Mon 08-Oct-12 19:07:24


Sabriel Mon 08-Oct-12 19:40:54

I was born in the early 1960s and my mum didn't work until I was 19. I don't believe that my classmates' mums worked either while I was at primary. OTOH my MIL always worked - fruit picking/ potato picking/ cleaning etc and DH remembers having to go with her as a very small child.

I left work in 1985 to have DC1 and nobody expected me to go back. In fact the only woman in the office with a young child was a lone parent. The other women either had no children or they were teens and up.

summerflower Mon 08-Oct-12 22:59:35

Hi again,

I've been mulling over the question of whether women just went quietly back home when the men returned from the war - I really don't know. I'm wondering whether the golden age of the traditional family was a reality or a construct - I mean, if you think about it, there must have been a lot of female headed households, given the death toll in World War Two. On the other hand, the marriage bar still operated, so there was the expectation that married women would leave the workplace anyway. The evidence is mixed, as far as I can make out, some women were invested in making nice, new homes and rebuilding their families, others continued to work. But in the absence of childcare and practical support for working mothers, it really must have been more difficult (lots of corporation childcare facilities closed after the war).

Pre-industrial revolution: Alice Clark (a historian) wrote in 1919 that this was a golden age for women, because both men and women contributed equally to work and this kind of argument seems to have been picked up by feminists in the 1970s. But the evidence really doesn't seem to support the idea that women worked as men's equals, they weren't members of craft societies, for example, and tended to pick up the 'women's work' which men didn't do. In other words, the labour market was segmented along gender lines. That said, there doesn't seem to have been the moral objection to women (mothers) working which later arose, and they were expected to earn a living. But again, there is the question of who looked after the children, did they just patter about underfoot among the bits and pieces of sewing or weaving or whatever? They probably also helped out as soon as they were old enough!

It's an interesting question.

AMumInScotland Tue 09-Oct-12 10:10:44

In Silas Marner (written in 1861 but I don't know if it was set earlier), the 2yo girl he finds and adopts gets tied to his loom by a long piece of cloth to stop her from running off, so I think just being underfoot was probably the norm while the adult looking after them needed to get on with their work.

Lilymaid Tue 09-Oct-12 10:34:12

I am a child of the 50s. I always remember my mother doing housework (boiling the white linen etc) in the kitchen. My mother said that my memories weren't accurate but I don't remember her spending hours reading to me/playing with me.
Historically - back before the development of large factories - many women working at home were spinning/weaving/using some potentially dangerous machinery so babies/toddlers were tied up or swaddled so that they wouldn't have an accident/be a menace. Older children were farmed out until they were economically useful.

WitchesTitWhistles Tue 09-Oct-12 10:53:46

Does it have something to do with child care becoming a paid profession? What happened before nurseries?

I ask because I certainly can't afford to work and pay a childminder or nursery to take day to day charge of my child (Even if I wanted to).

Work in the home would be ideal. I could easily have a house full of toddlers running around my feet but have no certification (and wouldn't want the paperwork!) and who on earth needs laundry/mending/weaving doing these days?

i think that we dedicate much more time and energy to our offspring now because we know so much more about the development of the young brain.
I have heard also that children were seen as merely immature humans, just biding time growing until they became useful adults, do you think this is true?

PostBellumBugsy Tue 09-Oct-12 10:58:29

Er no. A book well worth reading is Mother Nature by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. REally excellent book about how women have managed children & life since the dawn of time. I think most of us have more time to spend with our kids now than we did 100 years ago. Life used to be either hideous drudgery, with sourcing food, preparing food, cooking food and trying to keep clothed & housed taking up an enormous amount of time or it was managing a household, which again took up an enormous amount of time.
There was a brief hiatus after the 2nd world war until the late 70s where a fairly large propoportion of first world women didn't have to work - but that is the historical exception.

MarshaBrady Tue 09-Oct-12 11:03:07

Also post war technology, ie household appliances. Which meant advertising, all those images of the ideal wife at home.

wanderingalbatross Tue 09-Oct-12 11:18:11

summer so corporations had decent (enough) childcare facilities during the war, to enable women to work when it was needed? And then many of them closed down after? Childcare is a big part of it - but I'm not sure that it's a new thing that childcare is a paid profession. Like someone above said, the rich have always paid for someone else to look after their kids - a nanny, governess etc.

And an interesting point about knowing more about the development of very young children. I think there is a lot more evidence now for the early years being very important in terms of brain development.

It is interesting how the moral objection has arisen in recent years. Presumably there was no moral objection when work was more of a drudge and women had to work to keep things running smoothly.

weegiemum Tue 09-Oct-12 11:35:43

Totally agree that sahm-hood is a modern phenomenon. I hope that evolving work patterns mean that more flexible working will make working round childcare and home responsibilities becomes more common.

Just an idea for titwhistles.

I'm a disabled mum. I work out of the home about 2 days a week, but also at home 2 days freelance. My dc are all at school now.

You said "who needs sewing/laundry done these days". I do! I can work I'm working right now but I can't turn socks the right way out or sew badges on cub uniforms or make the cleopatra outfit dd2 wants for halloween. So I have a Personal Assistant. She comes twice a week to do allnthe things I can't (which varies week to week). My PA is single with no kids, but I have another disabled friend who has a PA with a child she brings along. I'd think that was great.

In the past I would have been helped by nearby family etc but I live far from family. My friends and neighbours all work. A PA helps me by being an extension of the hands and feet that don't work. Often we work together. And my current PA is dyslexic and I'm a literacy teacher/writer so I can help her too, it's a partnership.

Sounds like the sort of thing you'd like and be good at!

summerflower Tue 09-Oct-12 11:55:00

Yes, there were grants for childcare facilities in the war. But it seems that there were tensions between nurseries as educational and as childcare which allowed mothers to work. In the war, because of the emergency, childcare became primarily about allowing mothers to work, and it would seem that inspectors were concerned about the levels of overcrowding, lack of play and interaction and educational value of war time nurseries. The inspectors recommended that children under 2 should not be in day childcare facilities, but looked after at home, even if the home was poor.

After the war (in 1946), grants for nurseries ceased and they became the responsibility of Local Education Authorities, who maintained limited facilities for children between 2 and 5 which were seen to be part of the education system and not childcare for working mothers. I guess that is the origin of what we have today.

Interestingly, it seems that working mothers did complain about this, but didn’t get very far.

To acknowledge my source, this is a from an article in Paedagogica Historica 2011 issue 1 - 2 by Amy Palmer, I have skimmed it very quickly, so hopefully got the argument correct.

I tend to think it is not really that women sacrificed work for their children, but there were so many constraints and societal pressures that it was easier not to work, if that makes sense. I also think that many of these constaints and expectations still exist, we just call it ‘choice’. Anyway, I need to get back to my own bread and butter now.

Takver Tue 09-Oct-12 17:13:38

WitchesTitWhistles "Work in the home would be ideal. I could easily have a house full of toddlers running around my feet""

the general answer in your situation is outwork - could be ironing / putting together jewellery / envelope stuffing etc etc or otherwise going out cleaning (taking your dc along with you). Unfortunately, as for most women throughout history probably, of course its all rubbish pay and conditions.

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