There are two diametrically opposed concepts of motherhood that dominate conversation in America today. There’s the Instagram influencer’s vision of the ideal mother with perfectly groomed, smiling children set against a backdrop of high-end appliances. And there’s the gritty real talk of comedians and writers like Ali Wong, who described her early days of motherhood as “a never-ending festival of feces.”
But here’s what new moms need to know: The tension between the ideal and the real has existed for more than 200 years. Some version of the pristine influencer mother has been pushed on American women since the 1800s — and it’s always been a lie. If you look back through the diaries and journals of middle- and upper-class American women, you’ll see that they have been talking about the difficult reality of motherhood ever since the idea took hold that women were supposed to feel fulfilled by their maternal role.
In the Middle Ages, adults believed small children were hell-beasts. “Many educators,” Sharon Hays, a sociologist, wrote in her book “The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood,” “reminded parents of the child’s natural propensity for evil.” In Puritan New England in the 17th and 18th centuries, children were no longer considered demonic, but they were thought to be innately fallen and sinful. They needed the strong moral guidance of their fathers to live a proper life — while mothers were praised for their fertility, they were considered too emotional to raise children, Ms. Hays points out.
Women in colonial-era America helped run family farms and small businesses, and they were deeply involved in the neighborly relationships that were required for survival, said Stephanie Coontz, the author of “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.” By the time children were 6 or 7, they too were put to work. The actual day-to-day labor of raising the smallest children was left to older siblings or servants, if they had them, and there wasn’t widespread pressure to find pure joy in baby care.
As economic production moved outside the home, the immediate family became a separate unit, independent of its neighbors. By the early 19th century, what historians call “the cult of true womanhood” emerged. That was the notion that men faced the gritty, morally suspect outside world of moneymaking and politics, while morally superior women kept home and family pure.
Because respectable, white, Christian, middle-class women no longer had a role outside the home, they were expected to find fulfillment and power in their positions as wives and mothers. Working-class white women and women of color were excluded from the cult of true womanhood — they always worked, and they never got any kind of societal respect or support for raising their own children. In fact, they were often forced to leave their own babies to help raise wealthier children.
When the cult of true womanhood began to take shape, child-rearing manuals proliferated. They informed good Christian women that “every irritable feeling should … be restrained,” because everything a mother did or did not do would stay with their child “eternally,” marring their souls, according to “Modern Motherhood: An American History,” by the historian Jodi Vandenberg-Daves.
The pressure to stuff down every bad feeling while also raising unblemished children was starting to get to women by the mid-1800s; their diaries and letters express emotions that could have been written last week, save for the antiquated language. “I fear I am not very charitable towards babies,” wrote Loula Kendall Rogers after the birth of her first child in 1864, “as I find myself at such times wishing for a ‘lodge in some vast wilderness, where the cry of babies might never reach me more.’”
In her book “Scarlett’s Sisters,” the historian Anya Jabour describes the private ambivalence Rogers felt toward her son, the “hard” feelings because he was so colicky. She also describes Rogers’s disappointment in her absent husband, whom she expected to be more helpful. Ms. Jabour quotes another woman, Laura Wirt Randall, who is overwhelmed by the demands of her nursing baby. “I declare if I tho’t I was to be thus occupied for the rest of my life,” Randall wrote in 1828, “I would — I was going to say — lie down & die.”
Over time, the Victorian child-rearing manuals, describing the ideal mother whose “voice is always gentle” and “face is always kind,” morphed into the highly efficient mother of the 1920s and ’30s, who was not only responsible for the moral development of her children but also on the hook for their psychological and physical health. Parenting recommendations became aggressively scientific — babies were to be fed at strict intervals and weighed by pediatricians, which caused many mothers anxiety. Ms. Vandenberg-Daves quotes a woman who was so anxious about the quality of her breast milk that she was “tormented” by visions of her child getting rickets and “reduced to a state of melancholia.”
At the same time, Freudian theory warned that it was dangerous for children to get too close to their mothers and that it was wrong for mothers to expect veneration. So women lost the reverence they had previously received from both their children and society, Ms. Coontz said. By the 1950s, we got the smiling and never-tired Donna Reeds and June Cleavers of black-and-white television: “a fly on the wall, but with the hands to stir coffee,” as Ms. Coontz described them.
While Donna and June were beaming, toothy and unwrinkled, from television screens, maternal ambivalence was jumping from diaries and letters to published memoirs and magazine articles. By 1960, Ms. Coontz wrote in “The Way We Never Were,” “almost every major news journal was using the word ‘trapped’ to describe the feelings of the American housewife.” Redbook’s editors put out a call for responses from young mothers about why they felt trapped. They received 24,000 replies.
Today’s Donna Reed is the momfluencer on Instagram with the beachy waves, Mont Blanc marble counter tops and diaphanous earth-toned wardrobe. Her cultural power still threatens to overwhelm all of the realistic, funny writing and performance of Ms. Wong, Angela Garbes, Nefertiti Austin and Amy Schumer, who are expanding our narrow and confining definition of the “ideal mother.”
Which is not to say that nothing has changed since the 19th century — there is much more of a dialogue about fathers doing their fair share of child care, different and unconventional family structures are a part of the cultural conversation, and concepts like emotional labor are going mainstream.
But it’s possible the idealized version of motherhood will always exist in some form, because you can’t fully accept what it’s like to care for an infant until you have one squalling in your arms in the middle of the night. Since becoming a parent is now more of an active choice for many women than it had been previously, the pressure to find it delightful remains a norm. And the nuclear family is still supposed to be able to raise kids without any outside help.
Each new generation of mothers will need searing honesty from their peers — because we can talk about how hard it is all day long, but until the moment new moms are experiencing it, they’re not really listening.