“But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. … Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.” This quote, from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” is spoken by the mother in the play, about the father. These days, the quote should read “a terrible thing is happening to her,” as attention must finally be paid to the mother.
Mothers are paying a terrible price for the consequences of the pandemic. When schools shut down, it was mothers primarily who were making lists and schedules, searching for activities to keep children occupied, supervising online education, while at the same time keeping up at home with their own paid work and household responsibilities. Although many fathers were also working from home, mothers knew it would be up to them to figure out how to do three jobs at once – parent, teacher and paid employee.
Early in the modern women’s movement, I attended one of the women’s groups that had been set up primarily for consciousness raising. The women discussed the parenting and homemaking responsibilities that prevented them from having the opportunities afforded to men – chiefly among them were child-care responsibilities. The idea that child-care might be shared equally with fathers was treated as laughable based on their own experience.
Historically, the expectation that women have a caretaking role has been based on biology: women carry babies in their bodies and nurse them after they are born. With the advent of psychological thinking a new dimension was added. The psychological and feminine attributes of mothers were deemed to have great importance for the development of young children.
Psychoanalyst John Bowlby, drawing from his early interest in animal behavior, focused on what was seen as a biologically based need for attachment to a primary figure beyond the basic need to be fed. Since this was a period when care of children was primarily the mother’s role, much of the early theoretical thinking that emerged was based on the mother as the important attachment figure.
In the present era in which the roles of women have changed, along with the emphasis on attachment theory an effort has been made to expand the list of those to fill that need. An interest in fathers has been part of that effort. Research and experience have demonstrated that father care, even when different from mother care, fills the need for attachment while meeting other needs as well.
But the resistance to fathers’ responsibility for child care is due largely to the existing organization of the workplace as well as a history of mother blame, and mothers’ own feelings of responsibility. Women themselves are quick to examine their behavior and blame themselves if something goes wrong, or if a problem in a child emerges later on.
“Mothers’ guilt” is always at the ready. Partly this is because women carry babies in their bodies, which establishes a most personal connection. But in large measure this is a legacy of years of mother blame for children’s problems and criticism for children’s behavior. Mothers are blamed both from a biological and an environmental perspective.
Perhaps the positive side of this pandemic is that women’s cries for help are now reaching out through the media. Mothers are burned out and father help is needed more than ever. Beyond that, what is clear is the need for more pervasive support for families.
Fathers taking on equal child care can lead to a reorganization of the workplace allowing for the reality of family life – and in turn to government supported child-care.