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Mothers and Fathers in America: Looking Backward, Looking Forward

Digital History TOPIC ID 81

Men's and women's domestic roles are not ordained by human nature, biology, or men's and women's psychology. Rather, they are the product of particular historical circumstances, social processes, and ideologies, and vary widely by race, religion, and time period. Far from being fixed and static categories, motherhood and fatherhood are social, cultural, and ideological constructs. Their social definition and meaning has been changing, varied, and contested (Hacking, 1999).

Over the past 300 years, the dominant cultural ideals of fatherhood and motherhood have changed dramatically. The pages that follow will trace the shift in American history from the colonial ideal of the domestic patriarch and good wife to the mid-twentieth century ideal of male breadwinner and genial daddy and the full-time homemaker and mommy. The essay will then examine the splintering and politicization of ideals of fatherhood and motherhood during the past half century.

Today, media images of fatherhood range from the nurturing 'new' father and male 'mother,' who participates equally in housework and child care, to the deadbeat dad, the wife beater, and the child abuser. Legal definitions of fatherhood encompass stepfathers and foster fathers with no biological connection to their children as well as many non-resident fathers or sperm donors with little or no emotional connection to their offspring (Griswold, 1993).

Similarly, there is no single dominant image of motherhood today. Popular culture presents us with an extraordinarily wide range of images of motherhood: nurturing, empathetic, and involved, but also overprotective, stifling, neglectful, intrusive, rejecting, cold, and narcissistic. The sociology of motherhood also varies widely. Alongside the 'traditional' full-time housewife and mother there are single mothers, divorced moms, lesbian mothers, and employed mothers. The emergence of new birth technologies has resulted in mothers with radically new relations to their children. A mother might be an egg donor or a surrogate mother who carried the child to term. At the same time, 'open adoption' encourages many birth mothers to maintain contact with their children alongside adoptive mothers (Thurer, 1994).

Fatherhood and motherhood are as deeply enmeshed in the historical process as any other social institutions. This introductory essay will examine the engines and implications of three centuries of change in men's and women's familial roles.

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