School of Family and Consumer Sciences at The University of Akron

Professor Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.

To accompany Chapter 1

Some quotes about the mother role and the father role:

  • "The traditional husband/father has always made choices concerning career, lifestyles, values and directions for the whole family, but he generally had another person on the team - called a wife.  And his duties were always clear:  Bring home the bacon and take out the garbage."  - Donna N. Douglass (editor and author, Choice and Compromise, 1983).
  • "The most important domestic challenge facing the U.S. at the close of the 20th century is the re-creation of fatherhood as a vital social role for men.  At stake is nothing less than the success of the American experiment.  For unless we reverse the trend of fatherlessness, no other set of accomplishments - not economic growth or prison construction or welfare reform or better schools - will succeed in arresting the decline of child well-being and the spread of male violence.  To tolerate the trend of fatherlessness is to accept the inevitability of continued social recession."  - David Blankenhorn (editor and author, Fatherless America, 1995).
  • "She deals with the world of child rearing, where hundreds of experts give contradictory advice; the outcome can't be measured for 15 to 20 years.  She has to process this advice through her intuition and a constant stream of her own childhood memories dredged up by her child's dilemmas.  And she must do all this with others - mother, mother-in-law, neighbors, and schoolteachers - looking over her shoulder, marking her report card, measuring her against their own standards."  - Roger Gould (psychotherapist and author, Transformations, 1978).
  • "Mothers are likely to have more bad days on the job than most other professionals, considering the hours: round-the-clock, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. . .You go to work when you're sick, maybe even clinically depressed, because motherhood is perhaps the only unpaid position where failure to show up can result in arrest."  - Mary Kay Blakely (journalist and author, American Mom, 1994).
  • "It's the biggest on-the-job training program in existence today."  -Erma Bombeck (humorist and author, Motherhood, the Second Oldest Profession, 1983). 
So, what exactly does it mean to be a mom - to be a dad?  Many of the ideas we hold on to about what it takes to be a "good" mom or a "good" dad have been around for quite a while.  Let's take a look at how our society has defined the roles of mother and father.


When you hear the word "mom" or "mother", what comes to mind?  Is it the Donna Reed, Harriet Nelson, Florence Henderson 1950s bake-cookies, stay-at-home type of mom that you think of?  Or does "mom" bring to mind someone totally different - perhaps a divorced woman, rushing in the morning to get everybody ready for their day as she scrambles to get herself ready for work (like the Michelle Pfeiffer character in One Fine Day – of course she ends up with George Clooney, which is not too shabby!).   Or perhaps a combination of the two - a woman trying to be Superwoman, sacrificing her life for her children and working full-time in order to have the finances necessary to raise her family?

Obviously the idea each of has about what a mother is is due in large part to what our own mothers are like, or what we are like as mothers.  In our society, however, even with the many changes we have seen in families over the past 30 years or so, we still tend to cling to the idea that the best kind of mother was that 50s ideal personified by Donna Reed and Harriet Nelson. 
Society has long felt that mothers are primarily responsible for how children turn out.  If the kids turn out to be responsible, caring, productive individuals, well, mom must have done a good job.  If they are irresponsible and have problems, well then, mom must not have done such a good job.  Moms are expected to be nurturant, kind, and selfless.    Moms are the ones who take the kids to the doctor, the dentist, make sure lunches are packed in the morning, attend parent-teacher conferences, carpool for nursery school, etc., etc.   As far as the nitty-gritty care of the children is concerned, mom traditionally is the one who takes on most of the responsibility for that.

The expectation society has had primarily of fathers is that they have a job that can support the family.  Dads have traditionally been seen as sort of superfluous - not really involved intimately with the kids, leaving most of the decisions about the kids to mom - since she is more involved with them.  Until fairly recently, it was a badge of honor for a man to be able to say, "I've never changed a diaper."  Dad was the guy who stayed in the hospital waiting room and got to pass out cigars when he got the news that he was the proud father of a brand new baby boy/girl. 
Obviously times have changed and parents are more likely today to share parenting duties. There is still quite a bit of carryover of those attitudes, however, and research finds that mothers are still more likely to be the primary parent figure for kids.

Parent - a person who fosters all facets of a child's growth - nourishing, protecting, guiding new life through the course of development.  According to Saul Brown (Helping Parents Help Their Children, 1978), there are four main tasks of a family.  These are:

1) establishing basic commitments to family members
2) providing warmth and nurturance for all members
3) providing opportunities and encouraging the development of individuality
4) facilitating ego mastery and competence. 
When these tasks are related to the process of rearing children, parents' main tasks can be described as establishing warm, nurturant emotional relationships with children and providing opportunities for development of competence and individuality. The word process is defined as a system of operations; a series of actions, changes or functions that bring about an end result.  The word "process" emphasizes that the end result depends on numerous actions or changes occurring in a systematic way over time.

Parenting in general can be described as a series of actions and interactions on the part of parents to promote the development of children.  Parenting is not a one-way street in which the parent influences the child day after day.  It is a process of interaction between the two, influenced by cultural and social institutions.  The interaction changes both the parent and the child. 
Belsky describes three major influences on the process of parenting: 1) the child's characteristics and individuality, 2) the parents' personal histories and psychological resources, and 3) the context of stresses and supports.  Children have temperaments, patterns of growth, gender, birth position, and a particular social, historical time in which they live - all these factors affect the process of parenting.  Parents, too, have a complex personal history and a richly patterned social life that affects their parenting.  Parents have their own temperamental qualities, a history of interactions with their own parents as they grew up, and behaviors related to satisfactions with spouse, job, friends, extended family. 

Parenting occurs in a social context that can provide either supports or stresses for parents.  Sources of stress and support are the parents' marriage, their social network, their work, their extended family.  Two families who look like they are in similar family situations
may be parenting their children quite differently because of the influences of stressors and supports.  Parents who are satisfied with the quality of their marriage have been found to be more competent as parents.  Parents who feel support from each other are sensitive, accepting, and responsive with children; conversely, parents who are unhappy with each other are often less effective with their children.

Support from friends who are compatible and accepting contributes to parental competence and well-being.  Social isolation is linked with parental difficulties - for example, with physical child abuse.  Work, too, influences parenting in terms of time available for parenting and in childrearing values.  Parental employment or unemployment influences family organization and parents' sense of well-being.


Families in the 1800s lived primarily on farms and in rural settings.  The lifespan during this time was shorter (mothers frequently died in childbirth) and family size was large.  In the early 1800s mothers had an average of 8 children.  Both men and women spent most of their adult lives raising children.  Families at this time lived more settled lives.  All family members worked together as economic producers, and there was less geographic mobility than there is today, which meant that many relatives lived close by and served as additional role models for children growing up.  Parents had a clear sense of the lives they were preparing their children to live as adults and a solid core of values that were supported by the community at large.

Following the Industrial Revolution, as families moved to urban settings, fathers left their families to go to work, and women's and children's economic labor decreased.  In the early 20th century a sign of the father's success was that the mother could stay at home and  
focus on childrearing.  Wives of blue-collar workers often continued to work for financial reasons.  During the depression of the 1930s and during World War II, women worked in large numbers, but their working was a temporary result of hard times and was not a socially approved ideal.

After World War II came the flowering of what we think of as the nuclear family - men were employed in a booming economy, women remained at home, rearing three or more children.  Families tended to be child-centered and the principal source of warmth and affection for their members.  Gender role attitudes were fixed - men were seen as the economic providers, competent and skilled in the world of work outside the home.  Women were the heart of the family, nurturing children, supporting their husbands in their careers. 

The 1960s were a turbulent decade, full of change.  Disagreement with government policy in many areas, the violence reflected in assassinations and war, led to wide-scale social protest.  Rebellion initiated by younger people drove a wedge between youth and older adults (the generation gap), and families were often split on issues of values and goals in life.

Individuals in the 1970s became bored with hard work as the driving force in life  (Me Decade).   Young people felt they had more options than their parents, and they wanted greater meaning in life, more opportunities for self expression.  Men no longer had to be the sole providers for their families.  Women were entering the workforce in greater numbers and there was more sharing of responsibilities between men and women. 

As the new generations of American adults searched for self-fulfillment, they had less interest in sacrificing for their children.  Nearly two-thirds of parents in the 1970s rejected the idea that parents should stay together for the children if the parents were unhappy with each
other.  Two-thirds felt that parents should be free to live their own lives if it meant spending less time with children, and about two-thirds of parents endorsed the view that they had the right to live well now even if it meant leaving less to children.  Also, however, parents didn't expect their children to sacrifice for them or take on burdens for them in the future.

Statistics since 1980 suggest that the rates of marriages, births, and divorces have stabilized.  The contemporary family is now dealing with all the changes that occurred before 1980.  When comparing the lives of American children in 1960 with children in 2000, we find that their environments have changed in several important areas:            
                                                                                                                                                         1960                2000

Children born to unmarried mothers                                5%       33%
Children under 3 living with one parent                           7%       27%
Children under 18 experiencing divorce of their parents          <1%       50%
Mothers returning to work w/in 1 year of child's birth           17%       53%
Infant mortality (deaths before 1st birthday)               28/1,000     9/1,000
Children under 18 living below the poverty line                  27%       20%

All of the changes listed above have serious implications for families and society.  Too often our leaders operate on the assumption that we should be able to handle problems and raise our families the same way we did twenty or thirty years ago.  The fact is that family life has changed dramatically in the past thirty years, and it is important to realize that, for example, a child being raised by a single mother who had the child in her teens and is working at a minimum wage job will probably live a very different life from the child with two married parents who both work at high paying jobs and can afford high quality child care, and that child will have a different life from the child whose parents were married for ten years and then got divorced, with dad then being an intermittent presence in the child's life.  In other words, we don't have a blanket definition for what a family is because there are so many variations on the traditional family of mom at home, dad at work, and 2.3 children.

Women's work participation increased as childbearing took up less time in the adult lifespan and as women became aware of satisfactions that could be achieved in the world outside the home.  Women joined the workforce in increasing numbers and also sought higher-status occupations in business and the professions.
Our economy has changed so much over the past 20-30 years that women are in the workforce not just for the satisfactions it affords, but simply to help support their families.  Today about sixty-six percent of married women with children under a year old work outside the home, and about 75-80% of women with children older than six work outside the home.  What this means is that the mother is no longer the full time caregiver of her children, but must rely on outside caregivers.  Unfortunately in our country today, the state of child care is pretty dismal.  While there are many high quality child care centers and many individuals who do an excellent job of child care, much of the child care that is available is inadequate or substandard for children.

 Another change we have seen during the past few decades is the increase in the divorce rate.  While our divorce rate has pretty much stabilized during the past few years, it is still at 50%, which is the highest divorce rate in the world.  When parents get divorced, there are all sorts of effects that happen to children, one of the most devastating of which is the fact that kids end up with much less financial stability than they had with married parents.  This lack of financial stability for children (and the mothers who generally have custody of them) leads to many other problems - poorer school performance, having to live in high crime neighborhoods, more likelihood of getting into trouble.  Most people who get divorced get remarried and blend families in a variety of ways.  Children become part of a larger network of stepparents, stepsiblings, half-siblings, and stepgrandparents.  As a result, the family unit, as well as the number of role models, has been greatly expanded for children.  Because second marriages have a greater chance of failing than first marriages, the possibility exists for children to experience yet another divorce of their parents and perhaps yet another remarriage.

Our society is at a time in its history where the gap between rich and poor is widening.  We have more millionaires today than we have ever had in the past.  However, we are creating more and more poor people, also, and these new poor are not the same group that we have seen in the past.  Today we have more and more families, some of which are working families, who are living at or below the poverty line (about $18,000 for a family of four).  These families are unable to get ahead or even to maintain their current standard of living and tend to fall more and more behind.   The estimate is that about 23% of all children in the U.S. are living in poverty. 

Middle income families may seem as if they are managing, but in fact are actually falling farther and farther behind.  When looking at the value of our dollars today, an individual making about $40,000 has less buying power than someone who made $7,000 in the 1960s.  The cost of living keeps going up, but income does not even begin to keep pace for the majority of folks in America.  Economic hardship has a definite effect on families and on how parents parent their children.  Financial pressures create day-to-day problems (how do we pay for food, rent is due, etc.) and cause parents to experience increased irritability, depression, and demoralization.  Parents under stress are less likely to be able to support each other, are more irritable with children and give them less affection.  As a result, children suffer more emotional problems. 

Another change we have seen in families and society is that violence is more prevalent (and we are more aware of it) than in the past.  We tend to think of the family as a refuge for children, a safe, secure place to be.  All too often, however, the family is the least safe place for children.  "Of every ten children in the inner city, by the time they are 18 half of them will know someone who has been murdered and half will know someone who has been the victim of armed robbery.  Two will have witnessed a murder and four a shooting.  One of them will have been assaulted with a weapon, one raped and two had their lives threatened." (San Francisco Chronicle, 1992).

We didn't used to hear about people bringing guns to school; today we have security checkpoints and metal detectors at many schools.  We are more afraid today of our children being kidnapped or assaulted.  A group of folks is enjoying time in Olympic Park and a bomb goes off.  A child is having friends over to spend the night and someone comes in her window, takes her off and kills her.  A teenager attends her prom, goes to the bathroom, gives birth to a child, and puts it in the trash where it dies.  The mood of Americans today regarding violence is one of "a deepening sense of frustration," (Yankelovich poll).

Social scientists make a strong case for more social supports for families.  According to David Hamburg, psychiatrist and president of Carnegie Corporation, the primary problems facing children today are poverty, adult drug and alcohol abuse, failing education, poor health care, increased violence, and less parental attention.  Any of these things puts children
at risk for serious negative outcomes.

Some critics blame the problems in families on the decline of the nuclear family, women's increasing participation in the labor force, day care, divorce and poverty.  However, many researchers who study the state of the family suggest that the primary source of children's difficulties is our economic situation.  Economic factors are controllable when society views the family as fragile and provides support, as they do in Europe, in the form of allowances for children and for housing, benefits for working parents such as parental leave, childcare, and flexible work schedules.  All of these things have been shown to work to help parents be better parents for their children, but are not widely embraced in the U.S.  Many cite the cost of subsidizing child care (which would help ensure higher quality) and giving generous leaves, but perhaps helping families on the front end would eliminate the need for so many back end solutions (building more prisons, needing health care for problems that could have been taken care of in childhood, remedial programs for kids who drop out of school). 

When we look at the changes families have undergone over the past three decades, we must also look beyond placing blame and develop solutions that are realistic and can work for families in contemporary society.   There has been much talk recently about "family values.'  A problem we have is determining just which values are "family" values.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (1993) has compiled a list of trends in family values in the last sixty years.  These are:
 Traditional Familism (mid -1940s to mid- 1960s):
 1. dominance of couples with children
 2. high birth rates
 3. low divorce rates
 4. high degree of marital stability
 5. economic factors affecting family include strong economy with high standard of living and expanding middle class
 6. cultural values emphasized conformity to social norms, different sex roles for men and women, and idealization of family life.

Period of Individualism (mid-1960s to mid-1980s)
1. greater diversity in population

2. creation of single lifestyle

3. postponement of marriage

4. declining birth rate

5. rising divorce rate

6. economic factors affecting family include women's increasing
  participation at work and idealization of work
 7. cultural values emphasized self-expression as the source of meaning in life and a decline in definite sex roles for men and women

New Familism (mid-1980s to present)
1. increase in birthrate

2. leveling off of divorce rate

3. economic factors affecting family include leveling off of women's
participation in workforce but a decrease in the number of adequate paying jobs
 4. cultural values include a shift from self-expression to greater attachment to family but with less conformity in the traditional period.

As we are now in and move through the 21st century we will continue to see changes in the way families live.  Innovations in parenting will in all likelihood be developed.  Some things, however, will continue to be important for parents - having an understanding of children's developmental stages and realistic expectations of children go a long way toward ensuring optimal and appropriate parenting of children.

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