This post appeared on Mother’s day. Nevertheless still an interesting read.
For most of human history, the family was the unit of economic production, with the father overseeing production, not unlike a modern CEO. Wives/mothers, children, and extended family, all worked the land or in the cottage industry, and most people teetered on the edge of economic survival.
Since many mothers were either expected to be carrying children or contributing to earning income themselves, the care of children was often primarily overseen by grandparents or somewhat older children. In some cases, child care was “farmed out” to women who served as wet nurses. For the majority of the population, the idea of a woman being a full-time mother was simply not feasible at this time.
Capitalism accomplished two things that changed the nature of motherhood forever. First, by ushering in the onset of the Industrial Revolution, it took production out of the home and into the factory, or the market more broadly. The household began to shift from a site of production to one of consumption. At first, both women and children participated in this market work, as they had done in the pre-industrial era.
But then the second effect took over: Wealth began to increase, capital became more productive, and therefore labor got more productive. That enabled women and children to exit the market workforce, as men were able to earn enough income to support the whole family.
And it is here that modern motherhood finds its roots.
These changes gave mothers more time to spend on children:
Freed from the marketplace, women were able to devote a significant amount of time toward household production, especially the care of children. This was not much easier than working in the factories or the farm in the days before electrical appliances, but it helped mothers to make it possible for their children to get better care and to survive to adulthood.
Improved medical technology and scientific knowledge — along with greater material time and resources that were beginning to be devoted to children — meant a reduction in infant mortality rates. As a result, children began to acquire a degree of sentimental value that they rarely had before. After all, since they were more likely to live past infancy, parents began to invest themselves emotionally to a degree they hadn’t dared to before. This is not to say that pre-industrial parents did not treat their kids with any sentimentality, only that on the margin, changing economic conditions made it less risky and potentially less painful.
This new vision of childhood ushered in a time where young people were kept out of the world of work and instead educated in schools and cared for in the home. It helped to ensure that children were integrated into the world of domesticity and the private, female sphere. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was most easily achieved by the urban middle class, which had the greatest ability to survive on a single income.
Today, many families are able to decide whether both parents work, whether Mom stays at home, or whether Dad does, depending on what is best for them. The progress we have made is incredible, given that, several hundred years ago, both parents were tied to both work and home.