This is my second entry in a series I have bravely titled ‘guilt-free parenting’. I’m writing in response to the enormous amount of guilt I hear expressed every day by other parents, and which I have experienced myself.
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History is a wonderful subject. It reminds us that things have not always been done the way we do them. The basic assumptions of our society have not always been accepted; in fact, our culture even a generation ago had very different beliefs about family life and society.
One of the reasons I believe we are struggling so much as parents today is because we are on the beginnings of a wave of change in our society. We are trying to work out how to live in this new ‘age of information’. We don’t know yet know how the family unit fits into it. We haven’t worked out how best to fit small children into this new structure. And so we are full of guilt because our society has not yet established ‘the rules’.
Let me explain.
For centuries we had an ‘agricultural’ society. This means that society depended on farming for survival, and our values and choices were shaped by this. So the average family owned or rented a large field, and used it to grow their food. They would produce almost all of their food and clothing themselves; if they had any extra produce they sold it to boost the family’s resources.
The family unit was vital to this society. The man was needed to work the field – the sheer physical strength required to farm all day and manage livestock meant a man was ideally suited to this job. The wife was needed to process the produce and bear children to help with the work, and her ability to multi-task and breastfeed meant she was ideally suited to this job. This all sounds very pragmatic, but I am putting it simplistically. Gravestones and historical documents demonstrate that there was a lot of love involved!
The woman’s role was not considered secondary or menial. It was vital and highly honoured. To become a ‘housewife’ and to bear children improved your status in society. If the wife did not do her job well then the man could not do his job (and vice versa), and the whole family and community suffered. When I studied history I used to be shocked at how quickly many people remarried after their husband or wife died – love clearly wasn’t as important then as it is now, I thought. What I have realised since is that actually, the roles of men and women were interdependent. A household without a wife and mother simply could not function well (and the same could be said of the husband/father).
The role of housewife in this type of society involved a great many valuable skills. She had to manage staff – even poorer households would have at least one servant; most households had several. She had charge over the family budget. She had the keys (and therefore responsibility) for the most valuable commodities of the time – spices, salt, and (after the 15th Century) sugar. She was also in charge of manufacturing, either the spinning and weaving of the cloth itself, or at least sewing clothes for her household; not to mention the daily task of feeding everybody, which involved a far greater degree of home-processing than now (e.g. sugar entered the home as a hard block and had to be processed before it could be added to cooking).
What I am trying to get at is that the role of ‘stay at home mother’ was once a highly responsible and valuable position. It was not demeaning, or restrictive to women (though other attitudes of the time may have been). In fact, it honoured her unique abilities as a woman and gave her value in society. (If you are still doubting me, read Little House on the Prairie, and ask if Ma was in a demeaning or valueless role).
In this society, children ranked very low on the scale of importance, since they had no economic value. They were dependents, but as soon as they were old enough they were gradually introduced to employment – starting around the age of five or six they would be expected to help in the home, the field, or the workshop (if their father was a tradesman). Parents would be responsible for their education. The mother would pass to her daughter skills such as how to mix medicines for common ailments, recipes, and how to manage a budget. The father would teach his son how to work the land, or pass on his trade. The family spent a great deal of time together, and there was a lot of overlap – medieval pictures, for example, show women working at the harvest. Babies were transportable – they could be carried on the back, or laid in a basket under a tree, or (apparently) tightly swaddled and hung on a peg out of the reach of rats (!), while the mother got on with her work.
Mothers were never isolated; in fact time alone was rare in this kind of society. You had at least one servant you could call on to hold the baby if you needed to get on with your work; in all likelihood your mother or mother-in-law either lived with you or very close by, as well as your extended family. And if you couldn’t afford a servant you had an entire neighbourhood community of other women and older children who would gladly help you on a difficult day.
The only people who paid for child-care were the nobility, who employed wet-nurses to breastfeed their babies so that the mother’s fertility would not be compromised, and she could bear the next heir sooner.
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Fast forward a few centuries to the industrial revolution. We call it a revolution. In reality, between the 17th and 18th centuries agriculture gradually took a back seat, and industry became the main place of employment, and the basis of our economy. The majority of the workforce moved from the land to the factory. This led to a change in the family dynamic.
The family stopped spending so much time together. The father left the home and his family and went out to work. Women worked in the factories too, but could not continue in this form of employment once they had a baby, so they were forced to stay home and become dependents themselves. Their task-load at home was reduced – managing a household became less valuable as clothes and food were increasingly processed and produced outside the home. Bearing children prevented the woman from working, and created more mouths to feed, while her workload had become more menial, and less valuable to society.
When the state took charge of education, children over six began to spend longer hours away from home and family as well. The family unit was being forced apart.
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It was no wonder that women began to feel their secondary status in this society. Unfortunately, the early feminists made a mistake. Instead of seeking to restore honour and value to a woman’s role, they reasoned that women could regain value by becoming like men. They should be allowed to work outside the home, like men, and be ‘set free’ from the demeaning and menial task of being a baby-maker and a housewife.
This is rapidly turning into an article on women’s lib instead of parenting, but this background is important. We need to recognise that it was not really society’s values that turned a woman’s role into something secondary, but rather the way society was structured after the industrial revolution. Instead of women and men both being vital cogs in the machine of society, mothers were forced into becoming dependents, while their men went out and got on with the business of making money and providing for their families.
Society’s values came to reflect this over time – by the Victorian era women were meant to be dependent. They were considered weak and incapable of responsibility.
By the 1950s an ideal had arisen of a cardboard woman who loved nothing better than to keep house and raise babies, existing effectively as a servant to her husband’s wishes.
(Except, I do not think this stereotype reflects reality, apart from in a few middle class suburbs. Both my grandmothers worked once their children were of school age and neither had a particularly servile attitude towards their husbands!)
We can see that shifts in societal structure brought about a shift in cultural values. In an agricultural age the emphasis has to be on collaboration, on the collective. We needed each other to survive and for society to function, and men and women’s respective roles were equally valuable. The industrial revolution meant that we were no longer interdependent; instead the man was responsible for supporting his family, the wife joined the children as a financial dependent, leading to a society which devalued the woman’s role.
Towards the end of the last century there was another shift. We now live in an ‘information age’. It is possible for a person to live entirely independently of others. The roles of men and women are not so clearly defined. Apart from a few jobs which require our gender-based strengths (like building and labouring, or breastfeeding) most roles can be fulfilled equally by men and women. Brute strength is not required to grow the family’s food, household management is no longer so time-consuming. We have replaced servants with machines (think washing machine, dishwasher; there are even robots which will vacuum and mop your floors – yes really! Put it on your Christmas list!) The traditional role for a woman, as housewife, is not as valuable or fulfilling as it was five hundred years ago.
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I hope you have found this roundup of our past interesting and thought-provoking. What I have been trying to work towards is that the current trend of guilty parenting exists partly because we still have not worked out how small children fit into this new society, where male and female roles are less obvious, where work takes place outside the home, and where the family is spending more and more time apart. We still have not worked out ‘the rules’.
Instead, we are developing values in a reactionary way. We have recognised that a woman’s role at home is limited and less productive (in an economic sense) than it has been in the past. But instead of thinking about it carefully we have reacted by simply saying, “Well then, mothers must be allowed to work like men”.
We need to consider the needs of everyone involved. What does a baby or pre-school child need? What does a mother need? What does society as a whole need? What can we do to make sure that everyone’s needs are met, and the family unit is served and not lost as our society changes?
I’m sorry if you read this hoping for an answer to your guilt as a parent. I will try to answer that in the next part of this series; but at least now you understand why you feel guilty … it is because you are struggling to meet the needs and desires of your child, yourself and your family in a ‘brave new world’. We may not have crossed oceans but we are living in a new kind of society. As far as I know, no society has lived like this before, with both parents working away from home, and children educated outside the home, and so we don’t really know how best to fit child-care into this new world. We receive conflicting advice from traditionalists, who want to maintain the old family model inherited from an agricultural era; from feminists who argue that the woman’s rights are preeminent; from politicians who want to boost the economy; from blogs and forums, our parents; and ultimately from our own instincts and desires.
I am working towards suggesting a single principle which will help you make these difficult decisions as a parent, without guilt. Stay posted!