When nearly every woman raised her own children in her own home, and only very wealthy were exempted, there was virtually no lip service paid to motherhood. As a new class of women emerged with time and money to spare, it inspired a backlash praising feminine domesticity. Mothers, they declared, were the moral, spiritual, and patriotic center of the home. They personally needed to instruct their children, and not go riding their bicycles to suffragette protests.
This backlash was called the Cult of True Womanhood and many of the ideals we have about good wives and mothers were crafted by men terrified of (white middle class) women’s gains. Suddenly motherhood was a noble profession of lifelong importance in shaping child souls. This distinguished the middle class from the rich, who sent their children to boarding schools, and the poor, who sent their children to work in mines and factories. Motherhood as a concept became uniquely middle class.
It wasn’t until the mid 1900s, as again more white middle class women wanted to shake off their assigned role to try on the freedoms and power of white men, that homemaking became briefly lauded, again as a way to keep women from exploring their options. Like the middle class Victorians, middle class mothers of the mid century era hired poor women, often non white, to do the women’s work that they longed to escape: cooking, cleaning, and childcare.
As more and more women of all races and classes joined or remained in the “traditional” (male, paid) workforce, and as government programs were created to support their ambitions, being a homemaker or stay-at-home mother became a scorned role again. Now that middle class moms worked in offices, mothers who didn’t were the moral failures. This was compounded by racism and sexism, culminating in the “welfare queen” myth of lazy black women immorally having bastard children, then expecting hardworking moral white Americans to foot the bill.
Welfare programs were cut again and again, fueled by disdain for this imagined harlot. New requirements dictated that poor mothers must work outside their homes to deserve their basic needs. As poor women left their homes, middle class women returned to theirs. Lack of maternity leave in the United States means that only women who are well off can afford time from work to recover from pregnancy and delivery and to bond with their babies. Yet skyhigh childcare fees mean many poor mothers cannot afford to do paid work.
Attachment parenting and other high demand childrearing styles have now become the moral standard. They call for 24/7 engagement, exceptional emotional labor, and constant awareness of baby’s wishes. Often expensive cloth diapers, breast pumps, carriers, slings, and books are part and parcel. It’s no accident this lifestyle is most attainable to a married middle class mother, even though it’s supposedly based on the practices of poor (ethnic) women in exoctic locales.