More Work for Mother describes the social and economic effects of the last 2-3 centuries of household technology.
People in pre-industrial times did a lot more heavy physical work, but they had fewer possessions and textiles, and more adults per household–men weren’t yet heading off to the office, mine, or factory every day, and it was common to hire servants or house young relatives for help. Cooking was mostly one pot meals over a hearth, clothing was mostly made of wool and other materials which were brushed rather than washed. There’s no question that they worked hard, but they weren’t hand scrubbing an American family sized pile of laundry every day either! (They didn’t even use diapers all the time… children were bowel trained early and pee messes weren’t a big deal with all the hard surfaces. When Tudor families changed babies’ wet swaddling clothes, they generally just hung them over the fire and used them again later without washing the urine away.)
Growing up, the Little House on the Prairie books gave me this idea of a solitary mother cooking, cleaning, and rearing children to modern standards, all alone, day in and day out. And that was partly true for women on the frontier, but even there it was common to send for young relatives to help. Women on the frontier also spent more time on food preparation and less on childcare than modern mothers. And, frankly, lots of them succumbed to depression out on the prairie. (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1893/09/the-isolation-of-life-on-prairie-farms/523959/ This was written in 1893!)
Up until the 1930’s almost every family who could afford it hired someone else to take care of the laundry, the most onerous task. Families who couldn’t afford help with the laundry just did less of it. The “great unwashed” was no joke. Our great grandmothers didn’t do it all–they got help or they resigned themselves to a lower standard of living.
The Depression drastically decreased hired help for the vast majority of Americans, but household technologies like refrigerators, vacuums and washing machines became increasingly available soon after. Soon short-staffed housewives were able to employ machines to help reach a standard of cleanliness that was almost impossible to achieve alone and unaided. But it saved housewives time on tasks that would have been entirely taken on by hired help a generation ago.
Parenting also became more intensive in the 1930’s. Germ theory had taken hold in the earlier part of the century and cleanliness, routine, and record keeping became staples of American child rearing. As nannies became less affordable, magazines and books emphasized the importance of mothers’ involvement with their babies. You couldn’t trust a mere servant to feed, bathe, and observe your baby in the new scientific ways. Only a mother could do something of such emotional import, even though child rearing responsibilities had traditionally been distributed among servants and relatives as well as parents. Mothers’ prestige increased, but so did their household pressures.
Once rates of childhood mortality declined, parenting manuals began to focus more on children’s emotional and psychological development. Mothers were advised not to smother their children, but also to devote themselves to safeguarding every aspect of their children’s wellbeing. (Turns out women’s magazines have been ridiculous shame bombs for like forever).
More Work For Mother was published in 1982, but Emily Matchar took up the household technology torch in 2013 with Homeward Bound: Women and the New Domesticity. She delves deep into the new DIY and homesteading movements of the 2000’s and describes the pressure it creates for women.
There’s even been a lot of change in the last 75 years or so…. Our grandmothers mostly raised kids in neighborhoods with a number of other stay at home moms whom they would have known from church, rotary clubs, or everyday commerce in town. They could let kids run around with their neighbors because they could reasonably expect other adults in the community to keep an eye on things. Moms could go to the doctor alone without much trouble–just let the neighbors know you’ll be out for an hour or two. Faith in public institutions was greater at the time, so children walked to the public or parochial school together and walked home. Mothers didn’t have to make their own curriculum or plan out every social interaction their children engaged in.
Parents were expected to nurture their children emotionally and provide physically, but they weren’t expected to engage in a hundred extracurriculars requiring two hundred long car trips. They could reasonably expect their children to get decent jobs with a high school diploma, so the imperative to turn out a wunderkind was less. For the most part, they gave birth at the local hospital and sent their children to the local family doctor and more or less trusted the directions they were given. This sometimes had downsides–1950’s birth practices come to mind–but women’s mental load was nevertheless lighter.
Our contemporary lack of community and faith in public institutions shifts the burdens of family life from the community to individual parents, who suddenly have to not only maintain their households, but hold down jobs, and sift through mountains of information to become experts on everything from bronchitis to calculus.
Historically, THIS ISN’T NORMAL. Most mothers throughout history were not solely responsible for curating every single aspect of their children’s physical, social, emotional and intellectual lives. Not even close. Most mothers throughout history relied on an extensive network of relatives, hired help, schools, doctors, government agencies, friends, clubs, and neighborhoods. Traditionally, women weren’t even solely responsible for cooking and cleaning. Hiring help was very common, as were lower standards of food and cleanliness. (Also note that the size of the average American home has doubled since 1950!! That’s so much more to take care of!!)
I always used to wonder how women did it all back in the olden days, and I felt totally inadequate in comparison. But the reality is that they didn’t do it all–not single handedly anyway. And, frankly, the ones who sort of did it all by having dozens of children in dire poverty frequently died young and broken. Now when I cook a frozen pizza or struggle to get all the laundry done, I think of the tears of joy my foremothers would have shed to have had a frozen pizza or the freedom to avoid laundry for a whole week. When I feel crushingly lonely I think about my foremothers who might have wondered why we’ve all chosen to be so alone.
If you’d like to know more about social and technological history I’d recommend
More Work for Mother by Ruth Schwartz Cowan
Homeward Bound by Emily Matchar
How Babies Made us Modern by Janet Golden
And The Design of Childhood by Alexandra Lange
Raising America, by Ann Hulbert, gives a good basic history of 20th century child rearing advice as well.
Happy reading! (And buy some microwave corn dogs in honor of your ancestors who would have absolutely loved them!)