A familiar story in this pandemic world relates to the conflicts mothers are facing between the requirements of the work world and their responsibilities for their children. Pressures have increased along with erratic school openings and commensurate reliance on remote learning. Many mothers feel they are being forced to choose between keeping their jobs and making sure their children can keep up educationally. A mother financially dependent on her job is quoted as asking “to make it easier for me to take care of my kid.”
That is an unanswered plea of long duration, going back to the industrial revolution and the gender division of labor when men went out to work to support the family and women were to take care of the children and home. That became the traditional norm in this society, one resistant to change. Although fathers today play a bigger role in child care and domestic responsibilities, and women in ever increasing numbers have joined the work force, unchanged is the social assumption that children are primarily a mother’s responsibility.
The role assigned to women as mothers has over time come to include something significantly more than simple child care, meaning the physical care and supervision of dependent children. Instead, the achievement of various social goals through child rearing was assigned to mothers as part of their role.
Throughout recent history the solution to issues of social concern were sought in children’s development and therefore made part of a mother’s child-rearing responsibility. During a period of the influence of psychoanalytic theory, disturbances in development were attributed to maternal handling and researchers appraised mother/child interactions on hypothetical expectations for maternal behavior. An idealized response was the standard used and if something went wrong it was the mother’s fault.
Child development research offers seemingly scientific determined modes of raising children. Theories of development have been translated into normal child-rearing patterns and have been used – especially now through social media – to support advice about child-rearing. Despite the radical change in the role of women and family life, women as mothers are accorded primary psychological responsibility for issues in children’s development.
The task of motherhood has been defined and redefined at various periods in accordance with social need. Following the concern about mental health, competition with foreign powers and a concern that children were not keeping up with reading and math led to the intellectual development of the child. The child was seen as a brain, and the cultivation of cognitive skills and abilities were added to the task of mothers.
In the war on poverty that followed, mothers were responsible for the intellectual development and competence of their children and were to become principal agents of educational change. Along these lines, various programs have been created to develop mothers’ skills enabling them to address educational deficits in their children. Programs exist to teach mothers to read to their children and even how to talk to their children.
Implicit in this is not only a finding of women’s deficit as mothers but also, that children’s deficits are a result of maternal incompetence and that corrective education lies with the mothers rather than in society’s educational system. It is unsurprising that now, today, women find themselves carrying the responsibility for corrective education during this failure of the educational system to develop workable solutions that take into account not only the needs of children but also those of parents.
The pervasive consequences of this pandemic have created challenges in many areas of life. But in this instance, as in the past, the solution has been left to mothers.