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Motherhood and Fatherhood Since the Great Depression

Digital History TOPIC ID 89

During World War II and the early post-war period, motherhood and fatherhood were increasingly 'problematized.' There was a growing belief that improper mothering or fathering could have truly disastrous consequences for children's emotional and psychological well-being. A particular source of concern during the Second World War was father absence, which, purportedly produced abnormal sex role and psychological development, including a lack of independence, passivity, eating and sleeping problems, and decreased sociability. Children growing up without a father present were deemed to be particularly liable to sexual promiscuity among girls and homosexuality and delinquency among boys. A particular source of concern was that father absence had result in maternal over solicitousness toward children, producing boys who were spoiled sissies (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988; Griswold, 1993).

Following World War II, heightened emphasis was placed on the maternal-child bond. The attachment theories of John Bowlby led psychologists to emphasize the psychological importance of maternal bonding, empathy, and attunement. The advice of such childrearing gurus as Benjamin Spock, Selma Fraiberg, T. Berry Brazelton, and Penelope Leach reinforced a belief that mothers were almost wholly responsible for their children's emotional, psychological, and social development (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).

The stress on the mother-child bond, however, prompted concern that boys, raised almost exclusively by women, were becoming overly feminized. Many post-war social analysts argued that fathers had a critically important role to play in children's personality development, not as nurturers or caretakers but as sex role models and disciplinarians. Family professionals expressed concern that rigid, distant, overbearing fathers, produced authoritarian personalities in their children, while weak, ineffectual fathers produced schizophrenia or homosexuality, and absent or uninvolved fathers resulted in delinquency in boys or in an overcompensated hypermasculinity (Griswold, 1993).

Childrearing experts called on fathers to become buddies with their sons, share sports and hobbies with them, provide them with sex education, and serve as models of masculine maturity. Yet while family professionals called on fathers to guide and befriend their children and play sports with them, they did not expect fathers to change diapers or take an active role in childcare or housework, arguing that this would make it difficult for boys and girls to develop a clearly-defined sex role identity. Experts addressed their advice almost exclusively to mothers, and organizations, like the Parent-Teachers Association, which might have involved men in child development, drew their membership almost exclusively from women. Sports and outdoor activities became defined as the primary link between men and their children (Griswold, 1993; Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).

Since 1960, there has been a heightened cultural and political focus on women's and men's familial roles. The so-called Moynihan Report, 'The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,' raised the issue of absentee African American fathers--a specter that has haunted discussions of poverty until today. The rapid rise in the divorce rate during the late 1960s and 1970s touched off a mounting anxiety about the impact of the loss of men's economic, psychological, and emotional contributions to the family, and also ignited a father's rights movement calling for increased legal rights to custody and visitation. Meanwhile, rising delinquency rates, declining academic achievement, and persistent poverty were blamed on single and especially teenage mothers. To an unprecedented degree, women's roles as mothers and men's roles as fathers and husbands became politicized (Department of Labor, 1964; W.J. Wilson, 1987).

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