Mothers matter whether they are stay-at-home mothers or working outside the home mothers. Yet an ongoing controversy flares up periodically about who is truly a Mother – capital M. This speaks to the traditional idea that mothers are meant to be home caring for their children and that children can only thrive with a mother’s care.
This embedded cultural ideal ignores the historical reality that mother care in its modern form only came into being during the industrial revolution with its new division of labor – men working out of the home to support the family, women as homemakers caring for the children. During the second World War, with men in uniform fighting for the country, countless women were employed while maintaining their roles caring for home and children.
Numerous factors have contributed to the discussion/argument about what children need and what makes a good mother. The issue has gained in intensity as women increasingly have become employed outside the home and rages periodically in response to the decision of some women either to be, or return to being, stay-at-home mothers.
An article by writer Caroline Hamilton Langerman, describing herself as miserable after becoming a stay-at-home mom, provoked considerable response, much of it critical. Her description of the neediness of young children for actual physical care is off-putting, creating in her a feeling of desperation at constantly being needed.
Ms Langerman reports that she became a stay-at-home mother for herself, not for her children and describes a feeling of martyrdom. Her fantasy of the life she gave up and her negative rendering of her current life nevertheless leads her to imagine there would be a positive outcome to her decision.
Criticism has been offered of her somewhat dramatized portrayal of what it is like caring for young children. Although overwhelming to the writer, others have a different perspective on the behavior cited. Yet most would agree that caring for young children is a demanding job requiring continuous response to the needs of another too young to be responsive to one’s own needs. Most mothers would also agree that two is more than twice as many as one.
Another feeling described by the writer is that of having lost herself. This is a sense well recognized by mothers of young children, especially new mothers. Psychiatrist Daniel Stern describes what he calls, “The Motherhood Constellation”, a period which for new mothers determines a new set of actions, sensibilities, fantasies, fears and wishes: can she maintain the life and growth of the baby, can she relate to the baby to assure the baby’s development, can she maintain the necessary support system, can she transform her self-identity to permit these functions.
Dr. Stern points out that preoccupation with these questions varies individually in length of time but most mothers will recognize the self-identity question. Although new mothers are biologically and emotionally invested in caring for their babies, the period of primary preoccupation diminishes. Old interests and new interests assert themselves, in many instances leading to a wish or need to re-enter a professional or work life.
At the same time, mothers do not lose their concern for the relationship with their child and assuring his growth and development. It is the need and wish to maintain several identities that create the conflict about being a stay-at-home or working outside the home mother. The sense of loss of whatever is given up and the need to justify a decision made for oneself, has led to criticism of those who decide on an opposite course.
The fact is, mothers matter to their children whichever course they follow.