Significant shift in the concept of mother and father in the last 100 years

Luca Arfini explores the changes in the meaning of the words “mother” and “father” and discusses the blurring of roles in more recent years


Parenting refers to the practice of what parents actually do, how they educate their children. It is seen as “natural” in our society and is mostly linked to a positive feeling, instead of childless couples who are seen as unhappy. The concept of childhood was only born in the 17th century, and has changed from the past. Indeed, in our society, it seems we are facing a slow disappearance of the gender gap, and so there should be an equal division of parenting roles within a modern family.

In the past the concept of “family-consumer economy” was widespread, which means that families were better characterised as working units, looking after each other’s well-being. Before the industrial revolution, there wasn’t a sharp distinction between the private and the public sphere and the modern concept of childhood did not exist. This means that the relationship between parents and children had little involvement of feelings. Also, the role of parenting was not clearly differentiated between mothers and fathers since the whole family was involved in labour. With the industrial revolution and the democratic transition phenomenon, which lead to a change in the emotional texture of parenting thanks to the decrease in birth and death rates, the separation between home domain and work domain began. Child labour was gradually banned, and the ideal idea of the mother was represented by Queen Victoria and her values of domesticity and femininity.

Only in the 20th century did the traditional idea of motherhood arise, and the definition of being a “good mother” meant adopting a full-time, at-home role and was associated with white, middle-class society. This new ideal was entirely fulfilled through domestic aspirations. The concept of the family wage emerged, meaning that the role of fathers and mothers were completely separated. Mothers had an “expressive” role; in charge of child’s education, they were seen at home caring about household affairs. Fathers, meanwhile, were seen as the breadwinner and thus as providers; their role was more an “instrumental” one.

The predominant idea at the time, according to functionalists, was the natural predisposition of mothers to give emotional support to their children, to teach cultural values and norms, to keep the house clean and to arrange playdates and appointments. Meanwhile the primary task of a father was “investment”, to ensure, through his job, the children’s educational and medical expenses, to impose strict discipline and in leisure time, to occasionally play with kids, especially during holidays.

So while the mother’s parenting style was best expressed as authoritative or indulgent, the father’s parenting style could be classified on the spectrum as between authoritarian and neglectful. In the ironic poem “This Be the Verse”,  Philip Larkin describes the contradictory behaviour of parents, who try to transfer their faults to you. He affirms that the parents themselves were educated by an authority of lower quality, and so they pass their misery to the next generation, it can be seen as a cycle that can be only interrupted, as the author suggests, with the decision of not having children.

Changing times

The shift of these roles came in the 1950s when more and more mothers began to enter the workforce, accomplishing a double-role as a mother at home and as an earner at work. In combining these two aspects, the mother’s role shifted from an “expressive” one to an “intensive” one. On the other hand, fathers became more involved in the child’s life, there no longer being a high separation between the two roles of father and mother. In the 1970s feminists started to critique the homemaker role originally seen as natural for women, and they demonstrated that this was socially constructed by the general stereotypes and labels given in the divisions of the genders.

Oakley is a feminist that has studied the role of a woman in a family. She sees housework as alienating. In her research, she found that the majority of homemakers were dissatisfied with their work. They do not regard it as intrinsically satisfying or creative but report its monotony, fragmentation, and excessive speed instead. She believes that this high dissatisfaction is synonymous with the oppression of women, and she does not believe that men after marriage are now more involved in housework, making much fewer efforts than women.

A different point of view about the involvement of fathers in housework is given by Barbara J. Risman, who has done a study about the single father as a homemaker, and whether they can completely fulfil that role. The significant finding of this research was that most men can be considered as competent single parents, regardless of the reason for custody or their financial status. Indeed, even if both of these aspects influenced the father-child relationship and the father’s role satisfaction, this appears to be different in the modern era and fathers can be as competent custodial parents as mothers.

Mothering not just for women

Therefore, nowadays we have to be aware that “mothering” is not an exclusively female skill. Despite the individualist theories that suggest that only mothers have a physical predisposition to care for young children, this study has helped to understand that gender type of behavioural patterns is not inflexible. In fact, it has emerged that single fathers develop an intimate relationship with their children when they have the full responsibility of child care. Risman suggests we need a re-examination of the general belief that children belong with their mothers after divorce, and to stop thinking that is only a female skill. We must adapt to the fact that a father can also fulfil the traditional role of the mother.

As Hays affirms, the “dominant” mothering ideology is the privilege of middle-class married women who can afford to stay at home with their children; indeed, many have argued that the parental attention and involvement of stay-home mothering is a means of transferring middle-class status to children. Marginalised mothers, as DiLapi states, are not privileged by the dominant culture and therefore are set up for failure according to the social expectations of “good mothering”. For mothers it is a challenge to live up to the ideals of intensive mothering, which requires mothers to selflessly devote their time, money, and physical, emotional, and mental energy to the raising of their child. In fact, as Hays’ reports suggest, women usually fail to fulfil this standard.

An interesting classification to understand the different families and the division of parenting roles within them is given by Hochschild. In fact, she has identified three family types in her study: the traditional family in which we have the traditional role of the mother at home and the father working full time; the transitional family, which is the one that is increasing and describes the model having the  mother involved in both the market and domestic place; and the egalitarian family, in which women equally share caring burden with men.

Even if there is an increase in the number of egalitarian families and fathers are more involved in the child’s life, some surveys such as the GUI interview, show that the professed aspirations towards the father’s involvement in the children’s life are still lagging considerably behind women’s contributions to housework. Indeed, their “involvement” appears to be reduced to playing with kids, and not looking after them in other domains.

In conclusion, we can see how the role of mothering and fathering has changed through the ages, and how the gender stereotypes between the two roles have decreased. In fact, we have seen an increase in the time spent with children by the father and more interest in their children’s education, while mothers, even if they find it difficult to balance the time between the work sphere and domestic spheres, now have more help from their husbands, thanks to the development of the egalitarian families and an equal division of roles. Much work still must be done to reach a complete balanced model of parenting and eliminate the traditional idea that it is seen as natural for women stay at home to do the housework and care for the children.