A Post History of Mothers’ Day

More than a century has passed since Mother’s Day became a national holiday. In the years since then, Americans have become accustomed to the annual flood of tributes that range from the beautiful, to the homely, to something that only a mother could love.

The Saturday Evening Post has been publishing throughout these years and, as you might expect, “mother” has been the subject of many articles and editorials. The tributes have been constant, even as the circumstances of motherhood have changed. The modern woman came of age in the 1940s amid new challenges and opportunities brought by the world war. Most notably, the number of working women rose from 12 million to over 18 million, and for the first time, most of the women in the labor force were married. America was not fully comfortable with the idea of mothers working at a job outside the home, but the nation was willing to recognize the right, and the need, for some mothers to work.

The Post‘s articles reflect the nation’s ambivalence on this issue. One editorial from a 1956 issue (see: “The American Mother Can Make It Tough for the Jobholders” [PDF]) can’t seem to decide whether to patronize or praise socially active mothers. “Almost daily across the nation, the irate mother is up in arms about an empty lot or strewn streets, traffic lights or playgrounds, school conditions or the smells from a nearby factory. Sometimes the good ladies are right. But too often, in the immemorial tradition of irate mothers, they fly off the handle and rush to the attack before considering the problems involved or the routine way to record a gripe. But no matter how wrong they are at times, or how right, mothers on the warpath are entitled to admiration. They and their perambulators get things done while their husbands are being casually brushed off by indifferent bureaucrats.”

The Post also ventured to criticize trends in mothering. In a 1946 article (see: “What’s Wrong with America’s Mothers” [PDF]), a doctor at an Army induction center was prompted to write about American mothers after noting that “1,825,000 men were rejected for military service because of psychiatric disorders, that almost another 600,000 had been discharged from the Army alone for neuropsychiatric reasons or the equivalent.” The problem, he believed, was emotional immaturity, caused by the American “mom”—the term he uses for “the woman who has failed in the elementary mother function of weaning her offspring emotionally as well as physically.

“The mature mother uses emotion sparingly. Her major purpose is to produce a proper balance of give and take in her children, so that they may attain full-statured personal and social maturity, and lead reasonably constructive and happy lives. The immature and insatiable mom, on the other hand, binds her children with emotional coils. Being immature herself, she breeds immaturity in her children.”

The article opens with the words, “Now I Am On Dangerous Terrain” in bold type. For all his criticism, the author recognized that motherhood was not to be lightly criticized in America.

Women who wrote about motherhood felt less cautious. In her 1963 article, (see: “A Vote Against Motherhood,” [PDF]) Gael Greene challenged the idea that having children was a women’s greatest possible accomplishment. “I see so many of our friends, some of them with children they hadn’t necessarily planned on—bitter, frustrated, vacillating between devotion and despair, screaming at their youngsters, tearing into each other. The child is there. Never for a moment would they wish it away, but they seem to be fighting a furious battle as they watch themselves becoming people they never meant to be.

“Why then do people have children? They should not be so quick to condemn us for selfishness without first examining their own motives. … Too many men and women who don’t really want children, who are selfish, immature, ill-prepared, hostile and baffled, are spawning youngsters with less thought than they would give to the purchase of a new car.”

Her attitude is a stark contrast to a 1931 article, “I Refused a Career.” [PDF]. Its author, who does not offer her name, writes from a completely different worldview. “Love and reproduction. That is the formula; the natural, original prescription for human happiness and content. Experimentation, the injection of other stimulating or depressing ingredients, gives only a cheap adulteration. Somebody, divinely wise, has ordained that genuine happiness is aborted by artifice. For a woman who loves, and is loved, a career is artifice.

“For a man who loves, and is loved, a career is the natural. He must go forth and sweat—and glory in the sweat and with it earn bread. And the woman must be at home to receive the bread and to slice nicely and lay it out upon a clean table beside the strawberry jam which she has cooked to go with it.

“My home is reasonably clean at all times and I like to have lovely things about me. But it is, first of all, a place for comfort. It is, in fact, [my husband’s] kingdom. I am a beloved queen. My four subjects are adoring and adorable. My sacred interests are within its walls. I shall not be guilty of treason.”

By 1959 (see: “It’s Too Late To Send Working Woman Back To The Kitchen” [PDF]) the Post’s editorial staff had come to accept, and even encourage, the idea of mothers in the work place. “With one woman out of three in the United States working full or part time outside the home, you’d think the public would accept this as a necessary part of our modern, super productive life.” Yet a recent survey, they report, showed Americans still opposed to the idea of working mothers. “With the wives at home, children would get more attention and would be brought up better,” a Manhattan secretary said. “As a result there would be less delinquency.” Working mothers themselves, it seems, often suffer from a sort of national guilt complex on this score. The odd thing is that, if we are to trust authoritative surveys and studies on the subject, there appears to be no real basis for most of these fears and resentments.

Secretary of Labor James P. Mitchell is strong for the workingwoman and doesn’t believe she is driving men out of our expanding economy. “Our economy would suffer severely if women left the labor force,” he told a panel conducted by the Ladies’ Home Journal recently. And where the juvenile-delinquency bugaboo is concerned, it appears that nobody yet has been able to prove a case for or against the working mother.” A 1957 study by the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare “found no study that could link mothers’ employment and either juvenile delinquency or the maladjustment of children.”

Today, the Census Bureau reports there are more than 82 million mothers in America. Roughly 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 are employed outside the home, according to the AFL-CIO. However, a growing number of women would be happy working fewer hours a week. A Pew Research paper showed that only 21 percent of working mothers with dependent children thought full-time work was ideal for them.

Just 30 years ago, 40 percent of mothers with a child under age 6 held a paid job. Today, that percentage is close to 64 percent. And more than half of all mothers return to work before their child is 1 year old.

Of course, all mothers work—and work hard. But even if they work in a factory or office, they’re still expected to do most of their family’s housework. A 1997 study at the University of Queensland showed that 80 percent of mothers employed outside the home still perform the great majority of housework for their family. So this Sunday, May 9, grateful children and husbands, who are thinking of picking up a card or some flowers for Mom, might also consider picking up a vacuum or a laundry basket.