“Whatever the message, the advice was given in the form of an order and the authors highlighted extreme consequences if mothers did not follow the methods of childrearing that they advocated.”
That’s what researcher and author Angela Davis said about the potential for childcare and parenting “bibles” to shatter their followers’ faith in themselves as parents.
“More than 50 years on and experts still cannot agree on the best way to approach motherhood, and all this conflicting advice just leaves women feeling confused and disillusioned.”
Not all social change for mothers has been positive. Ms. Davis, a research professor at the Centre for the History of Medicine at Warwick University, points out the “cyclical nature of these childcare bibles”. One reality of that cycle is that the influence of the strict rules first laid down by Frederick Truby King in the 40’s was slowly replaced over time by the less authoritarian influences of authors such as Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby and Benjamin Spock. However, in the 90’s, Gina Ford rose to prominence, once more advocating a more strictly regimented approach to parenting.
Rather than writing another child-care guide, Angela Davis instead concerned herself with the institutional and societal structures that affect motherhood. These include social pressures as well as the power relationships within individual homes. In her book Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945-2000, published in 2012, Davis challenges the assumption of continual progress and social change for mothers towards greater social freedom.
The book is based on 160 oral history interviews of mothers and has been described as perhaps the first and most comprehensive study of motherhood during of the last half of the century. Ironically, according to many of the women she interviewed for the book, the best time to be a mother was during the 1970’s. Socially and economically, the 70’s afforded women equal opportunity to either stay home with their babies or go to work. Economic conditions have since become such that remaining at home to care for their children is now a luxury that relatively few mothers can afford.
Through her subjects’ oral histories, Davis is able to reconstruct the changing social framework of motherhood over the course of decades. Readers are able to see the social change for mothers as motherhood is redefined during each decade, as well as the primary duties associated with those definitions. Her subjects also speak in detail about the social methods used to train mothers to carry out their duties. The effects of factors such as shifting economic conditions and increased paid employment for women as well as the rise in single-parent households are discussed in depth by women who experienced them.
One of the conclusions of the study was that social change for mothers, as well as the definition of motherhood itself, is shaped not only by child-rearing experts, but by the “locality and type of community in which women lived”. Her findings were rendered more credible due to the fact that her study included a highly diverse sample of women, not only socio-economically, but in terms of different family structures. One of her most significant conclusions of the study were that throughout the time period of the study a time of increasing social change for mothers, women consistently expressed ambivalent feelings about motherhood. The other was that women consistently used the experience of motherhood to create social networks. It was these social networks that enabled women to reconcile the realities of their maternal roles compared to the idealized version created by the needs of society.
Recognizing the importance of these social networks, her findings have been applied to maternity policies that continue to affect a great number of mothers. A subsequent study also resulted in another book, Pre-school childcare in England, 1939-2010, which focuses on how official maternity policies affected English pre-school children during those decades of great social change for mothers. Angela Davis continues to work towards educating policy makers on the importance of adequate social networks for women to help insure that future social change for mothers is positive for both them and their children.
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