Maidenhood, Motherhood and Modernity

by Sy Schechtman

The last quarter of this benighted century has seen the slow erosion of a once mighty institution. The name still endures, but the role it now plays in the core substance of societal existence has now only a fraction of its former eminence. It is like the fashionable term "democracy" which cloaks a whole spectrum of nations with a mantle of acceptance that only a very few deserve. To a large extent motherhood has the dubious distinction of fitting this mold. Only 35 years ago the accepted and even much admired mother was essentially a stay at home person, and her less fortunate peers who had to work were accorded sympathy and support, of course, but were not then considered role models. The full time nurturing mother, assisted to whatever extent feasible by maids, housekeepers , baby sitters, grandmothers, and even, yes!!, fathers, did the intricate, precarious, and endlessly problematic job of child rearing. She, and her support, had the rewards and the "in the trenches" trials when the many glitches in the domestic game plan became evident. Basically, loving endurance was the name of the game and the balm of TLC--tender loving care-- applied with gentle persistence would hopefully overcome and turn the developmental struggle of parent and child into an ultimately rewarding, enriching and very positive experience.

In the sixties and early seventies single parent families were certainly not uncommon, but far from the norm. Divorce, premature death, and desertion did force many mothers to work out of necessity but certainly at that time most would have preferred the safe haven of the home and its known positives and perils, including possible or probable child upheavals . At about this time, however the strong lure of the siren song of incessantly and hypnotically promoted consumerism resulted in the increasing expansion of the life styles of the large majority of our citizens. Luxuries became necessities. A walk through a l960 super market, or the l970 super super market---where you could choose from among thirty or forty thousand items!---expanded not only one's horizons but also one's pocket book to try some of the many varieties of what had previously been just a humdrum single kind. { There were must have been, even then at least ten kinds of lettuce, not just plain old iceberg.) And just standing on the check out line allowed one all kinds of fantasy frivolous purchases.

Did mother go into the work force because of need or as a result of the ""greed" instilled by the lure of an expanded and upscale life style? Beyond the mere opulence of choice of the neighborhood supermarket was the a superabundance of capital goods available on easy credit--all the major household appliances, cars with yearly model changes--and then beyond that "necessary" material accumulation, major moves to the suburbs and new home building, and world wide travel via plane and cruise ship to begin the process of truly "realizing one's true potential". Whether impelled or seduced into the work force almost all American households, including mother, embarked on an orgy of consumer spending in the ensuing twenty years raising assets and consumer debt to all time highs and raising (inflating (?)) the average life style of the American middle class to levels that even contemporary third world potentates found it hard to emulate. They may have had more money but not the multiplicity of convenient consumer sites ready to treat them as royally as the ordinary American customer was handled by the solicitous capitalist entrepreneur, ever lavishing the pampered American consumer with more choices, so that he could use his plastic credit card yet again.

And do not forget. After this glut of the material and the immediate self fulfillment forays like world travel and living away "from the madding crowd" in expensive suburbia and exurbia, comes the "post industrial" phase of intense inward and expensive necessary self lavishment, self improvement and self actualization on any of its insidious levels. There was "an inner you" trapped underneath the struggle for life's necessities(many of which were former luxuries) that had to be realized for life to have any real meaning. From the relatively benign physical fitness stage to the malignant yo yo up and down diet obsession of many and including the expensive overdosing of many with dietary supplements of dubious worth so that, if nothing else,- Americans were said to have the richest urine in the world! Many forms of "finding oneself " in therapy or self help through creativity or golf or tennis lessons, or some physical fitness regimen, If not too expensive financially, still involving much time and serious concentration. Even better sexual consummation was also sought and many became disturbed about their inferior performance on this level and even obsessed over the importance to their enhanced vision of things of making sex more mutually successful, All sorts of manuals, techniques, and surgical procedures became commercially popular to aid the people who sought this road to experiencing enhanced life style fulfillment.

The net deficit in family time created by all this getting and acquiring by mother, {and father, too) now transformed into part or full time worker away from home, is balanced by the addition of the child care complex, either in the form of home care individual help "nannies" or some form of pre school setup where infants, toddlers, or somewhat older pre school children, are grouped together under supervision. As mother (and father) moved gradually into the more enticing world of work child care increasingly became an idea whose time seemed to have come. Like many ultimately encompassing changes its start was incremental, harmlessly logical in its initially confined supplemental mother's helper role. No thought of any long term effects of this addition since mother was still the on site primary nurturing principle. But inevitably, with the potential or actual void left by the growing involvement of mother with work outside the home, child care inevitably became the societally approved way that children should be reared.

With some misgivings, of course. There are still some of the left behind generation of musing and doting grandparents, who have already witnessed and survived a convulsive century of change and upheaval on political, economic, as well as social and life style fronts, who feel that this change is not right. They are still fondly attuned to the mother as still the primary care giver, on site in the home, with whatever support is financially feasible---from part time mother's helper to full time nanny or even part time day school for some part of the week. And the housekeeper or nanny, in charge of the kitchen and whatever is the modern equivalent of the hearth. But mother is still the prime person at home even though with many delegated duties while she is otherwise temporally occupied away from home.

And, there is a good deal of respectable research showing that this old fashioned ostrich like attitude has sound instinctual roots. Abundant evidence points to the fact that there is an important difference in adolescent behavior if the child's pre teen years were spent in a two parent home or a single, female home. With divorced parents this latter situation is the norm and there is ample evidence that the teen age child in this household has more emotional problems than children from two parent families. While we can not extrapolate with certainty from this that all child care in the working mother's stead would also lead to the emotional voids that produce the negative behavior of the child of divorced parents it certainly does not afford a ringing endorsement of both parents being away from home so much of the time. On everyone's minds today is the wrenching story of the death of the eight month child in the care of an l9 year old au pair. Most people are involved emotionally with the verdict of murder, and its apparent harshness. Very few are questioning the wisdom of the mother in allowing a very young person with questionable credentials so important a task as full time child rearing. This child care approach now seems so firmly entrenched that some degree of harm to the child is an accepted risk. We do not seem to be concerned with infant care relegated so easily to the domain of young women of no proven ability to care for so vulnerable and dependent a population.

We are all aware of the rise of problems among teen agers from all levels of society, regardless of the single or dual nature of parentage. But it is obvious from what has been inferred above that quality family bonding time is severely abridged with both parents absent much of the time in the pursuit of the necessary income to support their expanded life style. Much of the rise in teen age pregnancy, crime, drug use, and school drop outs has a base in two parent middle income families who do not have enough time or energy after work hours to adequately be involved in their children's welfare. A classic study by Bruno Bettelheim done years ago on kibbutz life in Israel showed children of working parents being reared with only week end visits to the parents homes. These children had personalities that were well within acceptable limits, but lacking in spontaneity and the mildly extroverted behavior of the rest of Israeli society. They were more less conforming and very group oriented. Today the kibbutzniks have modified their approach at least to the extent that all their children sleep home every night, even though during the day the collective imperative for child rearing still applies. The mode of child rearing and support does have a vital role in shaping one's ultimate personality.

A most powerful ally in the demise of motherhood was the feminist movement. That this movement began in the very early seventies, just as the attraction of the work force for the majority of women was starting to accelerate, is no coincidence. Feminism's rallying cry then was for decent wages for the recently "liberated" mother. (And, as sort of some foot note corollary, some form of compensation for the mother who was now the left behind household drudge.) The appeal of parity in wages appealed powerfully to women's inferior status in the vital paycheck area. With this as the realistic goal on the horizon women were first lip serving adherents to many more extreme feminist initiatives, even unto a failed constitutional amendment for equal rights. Gradually the thrust of feminist initiative wore down many an unbeliever ---among women as well as men-- and many inroads were successful; most notable in the area of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the "feminization"of the army --women training alongside men even in combat units. And also completely changed was one's attitude toward the hearth and home and who should occupy it.

Feminism firmly held up the humiliating image of motherhood in extremis, the household drudge doing dull, boring unproductive child care, in stead of being in the forefront of meaningful career achievement in the productive, away from home work force. The "rewards" of the stay at home mother were so denigrated that actual monetary compensation was suggested for this poor captive drudge and slave to the kitchen and perpetual family supervision. Thus the most difficult career of all was suborned to the needs of child rearing efficiency and the tangible esteem that the working woman could acquire outside the role of enduring home body mother. The true fruition of the mother child bonding, which was indeed problematic and always subject to on site revision as the evolving child parent relationship matured, and depended on the enduring and overarching interest and love for the child even when all the guideposts and accepted parameters were down, was put on a dollar basis, with the drudge mother being ransomed by the the child care complex which took over and in its impersonal and relatively objective manner bonded the child to some collective mass --his or her peers-- that was socially acceptable but somewhat void of love at its core, as the parents now could only give "quality time" to their offspring.

And how high a rank did this priority time hold in the face of all the self improvement that was now a must in our over consuming society---now that one and all were either compulsive consumers materially, physically or "culturally"? But if the emotional center of the child is not secure enough with close parental love then emotional stability and the inner confidence that makes for proper self esteem may be seriously lacking. The demise of maidenhood and the overthrow of our previously ingrained restrained sexual mores also began gradually. The Jackie Mason joke comparing the drug store of thirty years ago with today's scene in the dispensing of drug and related items illustrates this graphically. In that bygone, somewhat innocent time one prime display in the drug store was the large variety of cigarettes for sale. Then one had to make a furtive purchase of condoms, and God forbid a woman sales person was waiting on the embarrassed male client! Now one has an infinite variety of condoms to chose from, front and center, and the cigarette purchaser has to ask, usually somewhat shamefacedly, for his brand of cigarettes, which if not hidden, are generally kept discreetly out of sight.

This of course is good because we all know that tobacco kills, and you have to be at last eighteen to buy this disreputable product. You can be much younger to buy the sexually useful product--there are no age restrictions---but there is frightening increase in the HIV virus and AIDS due to the increase in sexual promiscuity made possible by condom encouragement for people of all ages, many of whom do not have the [proper discipline to use such "protection" properly. The urgent passion of the moment. especially in teen agers, over rides many times the controlled pause needed to apply the protection of the condom, which many times languishes ineffectively in the pants pocket, and not where it can help render the desired disease prevention. Thus the momentary pleasure of tobacco may kill teen agers much later on, but why do we encourage the momentary pleasure of sex on teen agers as well the rest of the population? Very unpleasant consequences can happen much more quickly, emotionally as well as physically.

But this turn around from respecting or upholding the virginal status of teen agers, if not older adults, happened with modest speed at first. Thirty or forty years ago the prime components of the blossoming of teen age promiscuity were just being put in place. Prominent among these was the increasing targeting of the adolescent market as an important source of retail revenue, and the growing use of suggestive advertising to pique the interest of the this already somewhat tumescent group. Television commercials, and MTV are prime examples here. Of note were the tight fitting jean clad derrieres of the teen age models, stationary in print media, but wiggling very provocatively on color TV. Also, much of the rock music then and now had lyrics that were very objectionable to the parental adult, if he could somehow have understood the surreptitious argot carefully designed to evade such potentially censuring scrutiny. And it became recognized that adolescence and early adulthood meant longer deferment of the assumption of full independence and the maturity associated with marriage and what was thought to be a financially viable age. Now that had to be postponed until college or even postgraduate degrees were to be conferred; only then could enough money be anticipated for the upscale life and proper mating one now wanted.

Because of these factors a generally more permissive life style was allowed to develop in fifteen or sixteen year olds. There status became less of a small way station en route to early full maturity and proper use of bodily intimacy in marriage and the traditional blessings of hearth, home and parenthood. The parameters were gradually loosened and a hitherto strict standard became more and more porous. Indeed many a bemused parent began a gradual withdrawal from the standards fray entirely. In the late sixties and early seventies, as the feminist movement was beginning to make haste a little bit more quickly, all of this became summarily the burden of the college deans, chaplains, and other available campus morals dignitaries, as the question of co-ed dormitories became a major dilemma on the home and academic front, and,, of course, the more militant wing of the woman's movement. On the front line, of course, were the experimental fodder in the schools, the incoming freshman and the recently embroiled second year sophomores. Also dubiously engaged were the faculty, who themselves were as bemused as the capitulating parents, with a burden of morals enforcement that was really not any more the exclusive preserve of Aristotle, Aquinas, or even Freud, what with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem the new hot and also chilling breath blowing through a very ruffled academe, and the eerie chant of "down with dead white males" rising from faint murmurs at first to a loud unsettling clamor as time passed.

The combination of prolonged deferment of the legal status usually associated with connubial bliss and all of its sensual enhancements--marriage-- and an associated permissive attitude toward teen age privilege insinuated and then insistently paraded by retail vendors feeding on the adolescent and young adult market, and the psychological support of the unisex aspect of feminism, that women could be coequal with their male peers in the free exercise of their bodies, began to make virginity an idea whose time had passed. Aiding and abetting this trend mightily was the absolute need for the partially liberated teen ager to have some sort of autonomous transportation freedom in the form of his or her own car, if not new at least adequately functional and with a back seat roomy enough for the privacy that young, virile, athletic maneuver deserves. Gradually mothers and their young adolescent daughters found their way, perhaps a bit furtively at first, to the their favorite obstetrician so that daughter could be fitted for a diaphragm and at least avoid the stigma of pregnancy. This was, of course, before the pill, and the legalization of abortion, and the gradual acceptance of single parent teen age parent hood. All this from almost a standing start in the very early seventies to the late eighties. Virginity now was a term not socially correct, nor was that term of utter opprobrium, bastard, ever mentioned again. In their place we have today every concieveable foul expletive proudly declaimed in more and more print media and certainly in the movies and public speech.

We have, as always, enacted the pied piper scenario to bring about social change and reorientation. That is, whatever promised important economic benefit was the important motivating cause bringing about change, subverting all other elements in the mix. The main lure this time, the magic melody that we followed was the new and better life that was possible with all the alluring new things and venues that our sparkling consumer oriented capitalism enchantingly depicted. We gladly fell in line and the siren song produced much good in many areas, boosting massively our total economic, political and military status. Socially, however, on an individual level we have exchanged (forfeited ?) our understanding of the primary role of young women in our society and their part in the crucial role of child rearing. A critically altered family life has resulted in this reaching for the up scale life. And all on the backs of the incoming new generation, fresh and innocent, who will be the vast laboratory to see what proves out.