How Parenting Became a Full-Time Job and Why That's Bad for Women

The other day, a stranger asked me if I worked, and I answered “part-time.” Another woman who knows me corrected me. “You work all the time,” she said and winked. “A mother’s work never ends.” I conceded the point; with two kids, one of whom has significant disabilities, I do in fact feel like I’m busting my tail 24/7. But I also cringed.

“Stay-at-home mom” is a box on an employment questionnaire, and this is supposed to feel like a validating, even feminist development. We are honoring the work of women when we call motherhood “the hardest job on the planet.” But if a woman’s role as a mother is a round-the-clock job, then how can she ever justify leaving it to do another one? “Stay-at-home” begins to feel less like a descriptor and more like an order.

Is that precisely the point? Is the professionalization of parenting designed to push a woman back into the domestic spheres where gender normative roles insist she belongs?  

In answering this question, it’s helpful to think about toilet scrubbing in the ‘60s. In the Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan relays one way chemical companies marketed to the average 1960s American housewife: They encouraged her to buy a separate product for each of her household cleaning tasks. “When [a housewife] uses one product for washing clothes,” a Madison Avenue consultant wrote, “a second for dishes, a third for walls, a fourth for floors, a fifth for venetian blinds, etc., rather than all-purpose cleaner, she feels less like an unskilled laborer, more like an engineer, an expert.” In other words, in order to sell more products, corporate America elevated and “scientized” the role of housewife. They established it as a high-level profession.

Today a giant jug of all-purpose cleaner sits beneath my sink, but the new job for which there is plenty of scientifically researched accoutrement is parenthood. Contemporary middle-class parents are juggling baby-food grinders and frozen breast milk bags, organic crib mattresses and mesh bumpers, car seat recalls and “toxic formula” headlines, infant massage manuals and Mommy-and-Me Yoga classes, Baby Einstein and Diaper Genie. They’re hearing dire predictions about the future of their children’s emotional attachments or sensory processing developments or tech-savvy, rewired brains. They’re encouraged to keep constant tabs on their kids 24/7 with video monitors and cell phones, and they’re blamed relentlessly when freak accidents occur, like alligator attacks and gorilla exhibit misfortune. As Frank Furedi wrote in Paranoid Parenting, “Now almost every parenting act, even the most routine, is analysed in minute detail, correlated with a negative or positive outcome, and endowed with far-reaching implications for child development.”

Dr. Judith Suissa, Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education at University College London, calls this “the scientization of the parent-child relationship.” The message is so embedded in our culture that it’s hard to see: Being a mother is a job for which you must learn the science. You must have, at the ready, your metaphorical specialty cleaners. You must be armed with your organic baby food cookbook and your literacy boosting “discovery cards,” with your Brest Friend pillow and your Moby wrap and your Arm’s Reach Co-Sleeper. (Among the latter, I had all three.)

Suissa mentioned the Arm’s Reach Co-Sleeper specifically when I asked her to illustrate the ways that parenting has become “scientized.” She notes how the product declares that it “provides night-time security that benefits a growing baby’s emotional development.” This kind of language raises profit margins, of course. (According to Pamela Paul’s Parenting, Inc, the “mom market” is worth $1.7 trillion.) But it also turns the parent-child relationship into a science, one a good parent learns in order to raise the right kind of kid.

“You can find many references,” Suissa told me, “to how certain things one does as a parent will or will not help one’s child ‘develop secure attachment,’ ‘enhance emotional well-being,’ ‘prevent separation anxiety.’” She also cites the Amazing Baby Developmental Duck. “Even the name is telling,” Suissa says. “It is not just a toy duck, but a ‘developmental duck.’… Clearly, one of the effects of the pervasive use of this language is that parents get the message that they need to be fully informed of the latest scientific research in order to be good parents.” And if parenting requires this level of comprehensive technical knowledge, then it becomes an all-consuming profession—one that pulls against any other interests or demands.  

The verb “to parent” didn’t enter the American lexicon until 1958. It’s telling that this is the only familial role to be verb-ified: although a woman would never say, “I need to daughter better,” she might say, “I’m working on my parenting.” A daughter is only something you are, but parenting is something you do. (“Mother” and “father” are also verbs, though it’s noteworthy that only one of them is a job. “Mothering a child” is a form of parenting, an all-consuming personal vocation, while “fathering a child” is a one-off event.)

“‘To parent,’” Alison Gopnik writes in “A Manifesto Against Parenting,” “is a goal-directed verb; it describes a job, a kind of work. The goal is to somehow turn your child into a better or happier or more successful adult—better than they would be otherwise…. The right kind of ‘parenting’ will produce the right kind of child, who in turn will become the right kind of adult.”

To some, this sounds like common sense. But the paradigm of believing that you can do X and Y to produce a child like Z is a suspicious twentieth century development. It has its roots in the 1920s, when childrearing advice exploded. With the rise of psychology, parenting experts (read: male) weighed in with vigor on the behaviors and decisions of mothers and how they were affecting (often adversely) their children. (Most famously, John B. Watson told women they should stop kissing and hugging their children because such affections would interfere with habit-training. The world would not kiss and hug them, so why should mothers?) As Paula S. Fass, author of The End of American Childhood, argues, “Male experts attacked women’s knowledge and made [mothers] suspects in the mismanagement of their children.” Right or (often) wrong, male experts became the informed bosses to whom mother-workers should submit.

The male expert reigned so supreme, in fact, that Mrs. Max West, mother of five and author of the Children’s Bureau’s popular pamphlet, Infant Care, saw her name removed from all editions published after 1919. An amateur mother could not possibly be a trusted voice of wisdom, copyright ethics be damned. “The new experts—psychologists, pediatricians, psychiatrists, and others—would become each mother’s personal trainer,” wrote Fass. It seems far from coincidental that the influx of parenting advice occurs precisely when women were bobbing their hair and casting their first votes. By making parenting a daunting job for which women’s intuition couldn’t be relied on, and for which male experts had to be consulted, the culture tugged women back toward prescribed gender roles.

John B. Watson begat, among many, Dr. Spock, who begat, among many, attachment-parenting guru Dr. Sears, who brought into my own home the belief that I should never put my baby down, even in one of those bouncy seats, lest I damage our mother-child bond. Although the content of the parenting advice has changed through the decades, the volumes have only increased. Gopnik cites the roughly 60,000 parenting books on Amazon today, many of which, she says, “have ‘how to’ somewhere in the title.” These aren’t just books of advice—they are training guides. They emphasize that every minor choice a parent makes can lead to drastic consequences in the lives of their children. They underscore the high stakes of the job.

Because women still do the bulk of the childrearing, the scientization of parenting weighs most heavily on mothers. It has fueled what sociologist Sharon Hays calls “intensive mothering,” in which, as Hays writes, “the methods of appropriate child rearing are construed as child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally-absorbing, labor intensive, and financially expensive.” Intensive mothering has become the standard ideal, the paradigm of “good mothering,” against which all mothers are measured. The intensive mother is the mother who knows developmental stages and toy recalls and car seat requirements. She answers every midnight cry. Her kid never falls into a gorilla exhibit. She mothers so fully, so completely, that her child is sculpted into a perfectly developed human to whom only wonderful things happen, because the good mother enables only wonderful things.

Hays found it odd that the role of motherhood has become much more labor-intensive at the very time that American women now make up over 50% of the workforce. That is, at precisely the point when women are contributing more than their male counterparts to American labor, the domestic job they are traditionally expected to do has vastly increased its demands.

And maybe that’s the ticket, as they say. In All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, Jennifer Senior suggests that today’s professionalization of parenting is actually a response to women’s liberation. Senior argues that there is an “enduring link,” as she puts it, between women’s increased independence and the cultural pressure for women to be “more attentive” in their mothering. She quotes Sharon Hays: “Whenever the free market threatens to invade the sanctity of the home, women feel greater pressure to engage in ‘intensive mothering.’”

For evidence of Hay’s claim, take not only the 1920s era of suffragist-meets-parenting-expert, but the 1950s as well. The word “parent” as a verb, born in 1958, emerged just one year before The White House Conference on Children and Youth expressed concern over the growing rise of women in the workforce. (As Fass writes, “during the supposedly domestic 1950s, more than 30 percent of all married women were in the labor force.”) In other words, as more women were working outside the home, the language of parenting implicitly suggested that motherhood was already plenty of work for a woman. More work would be unnecessary, and indeed, would take away from their functioning at their primary job.

And the more work the job of mothering takes, the less energy women have for other careers. Consider today’s widely-hailed “attachment parenting” approach. With its on-demand, all-night nursing and co-sleeping, it’s far from easy for a woman who has to get to the office come morning. A committed attachment mother I know had to forego the rules and let her son “cry it out” (an attachment parenting taboo) when she found herself so sleep-deprived that she nearly crashed her car into a truck on her way to work. “What good am I if I’m dead?” she said. It’s a compelling point, but some “professional”-level attachment mothers would have looked askance at how she chose to resolve the problem. If you can’t do both your rigorous parenting regimen and your paying job, it might be obvious to them which one should go.

It’s ironic: In an age where we pay plenty of lip-service to “women’s choices,” we’ve created an ideal of motherhood that inscribes personal choice as impossibly selfish. (Non-parents aren’t exempt here; the woman who chooses not to have children may be the most selfish of all.) What our culture of parenting seems most afraid of is not the breached gorilla cage, not the freak alligator attack, not the compromised car seat or the DHA-deficient baby brain or the delayed fine motor development of a toddler. It seems most afraid of the woman who claims her authority, defines for herself how she wants to live her life, and lives it, “experts” be damned. What if we called this a “good mom”?

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