Digital History>Topics>Private Life

Families: Conclusion

Digital History TOPIC ID 90

Even today, there is a tendency to regard motherhood and fatherhood as if they were Platonic ideals, and not as changing, culturally-bound, historically-shaped constructs. Thus, it is common to regard any deviation from idealized conceptions of motherhood and fatherhood as examples of moral declension. Yet if the history that we have examined is to make a useful contribution to public debate, then it is essential that we recognize that ideals of motherhood and fatherhood are contingent, varied, and changing, and rooted in specific demographic, economic, and ideological contexts.

A historical perspective is especially helpful in reminding us that contemporary expert discourses on motherhood and fatherhood do not necessarily reveal timeless truths, but rather reflect current social and cultural circumstances. Several distinct viewpoints tend to underlie current academic discussions on fatherhood and motherhood. One perspective, which emphasizes the relative insignificance of fathers' contributions to child development, argues that paternal influence on children is largely mediated through the mother. Although a father may reinforce a mother's behavior or undercut it, paternal influences on children tends to be overshadowed by the mother's agency. A second perspective stresses the complementarity of paternal and maternal influences. According to this viewpoint, men and women both exert an influence on children, but the nature of this influence is different, since men tend to interact more physically with children and their love tends to be more conditional than mothers'. The third viewpoint emphasizes the interchangeability of the maternal and paternal roles, arguing that fathers can be nurturers much like mothers.

Rather than seeing these perspectives as necessarily contradictory and rooted in biology or human psychology, a historical perspective reminds us that parental roles have been malleable and varied, and that our current definitions of motherhood and fatherhood are contested and historically and culturally situated--and therefore subject to change. Many of the assumptions that we make about motherhood and fatherhood today are in fact historical artifacts, rooted in earlier sets of cultural beliefs. The idea that mothering is natural for women; that women are the primary agents in children's psychological development, or that parenting is profoundly gendered and that mothers and father offer different qualities to their children--each of these ideas arose at a particular historical moment. A long term perspective should make us wary of assuming that maternal or paternal behavior is rooted in an unchanging human nature.

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