Intensive motherhood

Charlotte Faircloth argues that there is growing pressure on women not only at work but at home. What are the social implications?

It doesn’t take an academic to notice that things have changed in how we raise our children these days. We live in a time where the presence of ‘parenting manuals’, ‘parenting guides’, ‘parenting classes’, and ‘parenting education’ have become so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable. The same is true for pretty much all aspects of raising a child: Feeding them, talking to them, sleeping with (or separate from) them, and even playing with them are all activities which now come with reams and reams of advice attached.

But what has been the implication of all this for parents themselves? And how, in particular, has this trend affected mothers who work?

Intensive motherhood and work

Many researchers have noticed that underlying this new obsession with parenting is a model of ‘intensive’ motherhood (since, despite the gender neutral discourse, it is usually mothers to whom these messages about the importance of parenting are targeted). The sociologist Sharon Hays notes that modern American mothers, for example, ‘do much more than simply feed, change and shelter their child until age six’. This ‘more’ (whether that’s educational toys, extracurricular classes, specialised dietary routines or any other activity now routine to contemporary middle-class parenting) involves devoting large amounts of time, energy, and material resources to the child. There is a fundamental belief that a child’s needs must be put first and that parenting should be child-centred.

This emergence of ‘intensive motherhood’ is particularly puzzling at a time when women (in the US at least) make up over 50 per cent of the workforce, according to The Economist. One might expect that, as women work longer hours, motherhood becomes less time-consuming – yet this does not appear to be the case. In fact, according to time-use studies, in the case of two-parent families, today’s children are in fact spending substantially more time with their parents than in 1981. This is despite an increase in female participation in work, an increase in attendance at day care and preschool by children, and an increase in time spent with children by fathers.

One of the themes my co-authors and me explore in our new book Parenting Culture Studies is how this ‘intensification’ of parenting has been exercising a decisive impact on men and women’s lives. If parenting has expanded to fill more and more time (emotional and physical) in the lives of individual parents, clearly the time for other activities gets compressed. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the mothers with whom we have worked talk about being tired, overstretched, and ‘torn’, when the worlds of work and home have both become so demanding. Not only are parents spending more time with their children but also the quality of that time has become far more intense.

Of course, not all mothers are working mothers, but this ‘cultural contradiction’ between the worlds of work and home is one that affects all parents. To draw on Hays again, she notes that there is an irony, in that we live in a society where childrearing is generally devalued, and the emphasis is on the world of work, while at the same time holding up motherhood as an almost sacred endeavour. This means that people have to undertake what she calls ‘ideological work’ to make their own decisions (to work or stay at home, for example) liveable. (In fact, Hays says, people are forced to make their decisions around childcare and work in circumstances that are often beyond their control – although this rather pragmatic recognition does not sell newspapers which like to tout the ‘mommy wars’ so vociferously.) What is clear is that whether women work or not the day-to-day practices of motherhood have become the subject of public, even of political debate, and which combine with other gender inequalities to have a very real affect on women’s participation in the workforce.

Why?

Parenting Culture Studies explores some of the reasons behind this shift towards a more ‘intensive’ mode of raising our children, presenting a sociological, historical and anthropological lens on contemporary parenting. In brief, we unpack the concept of ‘parental determinism’ (a psychologically informed idea whereby parents are held to be deterministic in how their children develop) as part of a wider conversation around risk consciousness and the demise of social confidence about how to approach the future. That is, we suggest that our paranoia around parenting is symptomatic of a society that feels less and less certain about what matters in life and why. The mother-child relationship has long represented a ‘haven’ in what is seen as an otherwise heartless world.

So this is not to say that mothers are wrong to be ‘intensively’ investing in their children; rather to call attention to the wider changes which have made that a normative expectation, and the social implications of it – for women, men, children, and society more broadly.

If you’re interested in being part of the conversation, please do get in touch!

*Charlotte Faircloth works in the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent. Parenting Culture Studies is published by Palgrave Macmillan. Further information including films, reviews and an order form can be found here. To learn more about the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, read this magazine feature. Picture credit: David Castillo Dominici and www.freedigitalphotos.net.




Comments [2]

  • Anonymous says:

    Absolutely and completely agree with the very astute commenter above.

  • Anonymous says:

    I have yet to see any examples from families I know where intensive parenting as described has had the results the "intensely parenting" parents hoped for. At best the children were normal in their achievement. At worse there have been mental health issues due probably to too much pressure to achieve. Fortunately most of the children have turned out to be reasonably pleasant young adults but as children they were hard to be around as their needs and wishes took precedence over everyone else present. I'm afraid that if I am invited to someone's house I don't expect to be ordered to read stories to their children in case the child felt let down as its mother was busy.
    I was employed to work with parents where there were serious issues with the behaviour of their children for many years and in most cases putting the children's desires first was a big part of the problem. Children also need to learn how to sort out problems and to be able to entertain themselves without constant adult interference. I have observed that helicopter parented children quickly learn to switch off mobile phones or just to simply disappear when they are old enough to strike out on their own. This leads to huge conflicts and anxiety. Alternatively they lack the confidence to do anything on their own.
    Children have grown up perfectly well for thousands of years without parenting manuals. It is sad that people like me are needed to try and give parents back the confidence to stand up to their children and to look after their own needs as well.


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