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The Golden Age Of Motherhood That Never Existed

One of the most enduring myths about feminism is that 50 years ago women who stayed home full time with their children enjoyed higher social status and more satisfying lives than they do today. All this changed, the story goes, when Betty Friedan published her 1963 best seller, “The Feminine Mystique,” which denigrated stay-at-home mothers. Ever since, their standing in society has steadily diminished.

That myth — repeated in Suzanne Venker and Phyllis Schlafly’s new book, “The Flipside of Feminism” — reflects a misreading of American history. There was indeed a time when full-time mothers were held in great esteem. But it was not the 1950s or early 1960s. It was 150 years ago. In the 19th century, women had even fewer rights than in the 1950s, but society at least put them on a pedestal, and popular culture was filled with paeans to their self-sacrifice and virtue.

When you compare the diaries and letters of 19th-century women with those of women in the 1950s and early 1960s, you can see the greater confidence of the earlier mothers about their value to society. Many felt they occupied a “nobler sphere” than men’s “bank-note” world.

The wife of the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sophia, told her mother that she did not share her concerns about improving the rights of women, because wives already exerted “a power which no king or conqueror can cope with.” Americans of the era believed in “the empire of the mother,” and grown sons were not embarrassed about rhapsodizing over their “darling mama,” carrying her picture with them to work or war.

In the early 20th century, under the influence of Freudianism, Americans began to view public avowals of “Mother Love” as unmanly and redefine what used to be called “uplifting encouragement” as nagging. By the 1940s, educators, psychiatrists and popular opinion-makers were assailing the idealization of mothers; in their view, women should stop seeing themselves as guardians of societal and familial morality and content themselves with being, in the self-deprecating words of so many 1960s homemakers, “just a housewife.”

Stay-at-home mothers were often portrayed as an even bigger menace to society than career women. In 1942, in his best-selling “Generation of Vipers,” Philip Wylie coined the term “momism” to describe what he claimed was an epidemic of mothers who kept their sons tied to their apron strings, boasted incessantly of their worth and demanded that politicians heed their moralizing.

Momism became seen as a threat to the moral fiber of America on a par with communism. In 1945, the psychiatrist Edward Strecher argued that the 2.5 million men rejected or discharged from the Army as unfit during World War II were the product of overly protective mothers.

In the same year, an information education officer in the Army Air Forces conjectured that the insidious dependency of the American man on “ ‘Mom’ and her pies” had “killed as many men as a thousand German machine guns.” According to the 1947 best seller “Modern Woman: The Lost Sex,” two-thirds of Americans were neurotic, most of them made so by their mothers.

Typical of the invective against homemakers in the 1950s and 1960s was a 1957 best seller, “The Crack in the Picture Window,” which described suburban America as a “matriarchal society,” with the average husband “a woman-bossed, inadequate, money-terrified neuter” and the average wife a “nagging slob.” Anti-mom rhetoric was so pervasive that even Friedan recycled some of this ideology in “The Feminine Mystique” — including the repellent and now-discredited notion that overly devoted mothers turned their sons into homosexuals.

For their part, stay-at-home mothers complained of constant exhaustion. According to the most reliable study of all data available in the 1960s, full-time homemakers spent 55 hours a week on domestic chores, much more than they do today. Women with young children averaged even longer workweeks than that, and almost every woman I’ve interviewed who raised children in that era recalled that she rarely got any help from her husband, even on weekends.

In the 1946 edition of his perennial best seller, “Baby and Child Care,” Dr. Benjamin Spock suggested that Dad might “occasionally” change a diaper, give the baby a bottle or even “make the formula on Sunday.” But a leading sociologist of the day warned that a helpful father might be suspected of “having a little too much fat on the inner thigh.”

Not surprisingly, these social norms led to widespread feelings of inadequacy and depression among stay-at-home mothers. “The female doesn’t really expect a lot from life,” a mother told pollsters from Gallup in a survey in 1962. “She’s here as someone’s keeper — her husband’s or her children’s.”

Study after study found that homemakers had lower self-esteem than women who took paid employment, even when it came to assessing their skills as parents. They experienced higher levels of stress and greater vulnerability to depression than women with paying jobs. And they had few legal rights: wives had little protection against abusive husbands, and only eight states in 1963 gave a homemaker any claim on her husband’s earnings.

Contrary to myth, “The Feminine Mystique” and feminism did not represent the beginning of the decline of the stay-at-home mother, but a turning point that led to much stronger legal rights and “working conditions” for her.

Domestic violence rates have fallen sharply for all wives, employed or not. As late as 1980, approximately 30 percent of wives said their husbands did no housework at all. By 2000, only 16 percent of wives made that statement and almost one-third said their husbands did half of all housework, child care or both.

Most researchers agree that these changes were spurred by the entry of wives and mothers into the work force. But full-time homemakers have especially benefited from them.

From 1975 to 1998 men married to full-time homemakers increased their contributions to housework as much, proportionally, as men whose wives were employed. And from 1965 to 1995, homemakers decreased their own housework hours more than did wives in dual-earner families. As a result, most stay-at-home mothers now have shorter total workweeks than their husbands.

There also seems to have been a significant shift in the relationship between depression and homemaking. Stay-at-home mothers still recount more feelings of loneliness than working mothers. But in a new Council on Contemporary Families briefing paper, the sociologists Margaret Usdansky and Rachel A. Gordon report that among mothers of young children, those who were not working and preferred not to have a job had a relatively low risk of depression — about as low as mothers who chose to work and were able to attain high-quality jobs.

Mothers who want to work outside the home but instead are full-time homemakers, however, have a higher risk of depression.  This is a significant group: in 2000, 40 percent of full-time homemakers said they would prefer to be working at a paid job. So telling women who want to work that they or their children will be better off if they stay home is a mistake. Maternal depression is well known as being harmful to children’s development.

These findings suggest that it is time to stop arguing over who has things worse or who does things better, stay-at-home mothers or employed mothers. Instead, we should pay attention to women’s preferences and options.

Feminism has also fostered increased respect for men’s ability and desire to be involved parents. So we should also pay attention to expanding men’s ability to choose greater involvement in family life, just as we have expanded women’s ability to choose greater involvement in meaningful work.

While stay-at-home mothers may not have the aura of saintliness with which they were endowed in the 19th century, it’s indisputable that their status and lives have improved since their supposed heyday in the 1950s. On this Mother’s Day, it’s too bad that nostalgia for a golden age of motherhood that never existed still clouds our thinking about what’s best for mothers, fathers and their children.

By: Stephanie Coontz, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, May 7, 2011

May 8, 2011 Posted by | Equal Rights, Politics, Women, Womens Rights | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mothers We Could Save: Family Planning Is Just As Essential For Humans As For Horses

Here’s a Mother’s Day thought: There’s a way to save many of the world’s 350,000 women who die in childbirth each year. But it’s very controversial, for it’s called family planning.

Republicans in Congress have gone on the warpath this budget season against family planning programs at home and abroad. To illustrate the stakes, let me share a Mother’s Day story about a pregnant 30-year-old Somali woman named Hinda Hassan.

Ms. Hassan lived in a village near this remote town of Baligubadle in Somaliland (a self-ruling enclave carved from Somalia). She never used family planning, for none is available within several days’ walk. When her eighth child was still an infant, she became pregnant again.

“I was happy when she became pregnant,” said her husband, Muhammad Isse, who tends a herd of 13 camels with his family. “I was very happy, because I had faith in God.”

When Ms. Hassan went into labor, she was looked after by two traditional birth attendants, both of them unschooled, untrained and unequipped. “We try to wash our hands with soap and water,” one of them, Amina Ahmed, told me. “But sometimes we don’t have soap. And if there is no water, we rub our hands in the sand to clean them.”

Ms. Hassan’s labor did not go well. After 11 hours, her husband paid a man with a pickup truck $50 to drive her three hours to the clinic here in Baligubadle. The clinic couldn’t help Ms. Hassan and sent her on another two-and-a-half-hour bone-rattling drive in the back of the pickup to the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa. Shortly after Ms. Hassan arrived at the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital (mentioned in my last column), she died.

Her death was infuriatingly unnecessary — and I felt doubly saddened when I met some of her eight orphans.

There are any number of ways that Ms. Hassan’s life could have been saved. She had an off-the-charts hemoglobin level of just 4, reflecting a stunning level of anemia. A trained midwife could have given her a deworming pill and iron supplements early in the pregnancy, addressing that anemia and strengthening her. Later, Ms. Hassan developed a complication called eclampsia that would have been detected if she had had pre-natal care.

Yet maybe the simplest way to save her life would have been contraception. If Somali women had half as many pregnancies (they now average six births), there would be only half as many maternal deaths. But modern contraception doesn’t exist in this part of Somaliland.

“The only method of family planning we have is breast-feeding,” said Nimo Abdi, the midwife at the clinic here, noting that breast-feeding reduces the likelihood of a new pregnancy. Ms. Abdi thinks that some local people would accept modern contraceptives if they were available.

“If I had injectables and condoms, people would accept them,” she said. “They would want them.”

I wonder if that isn’t a bit optimistic; in a place like this, family planning requires much more than just handing out contraceptives. Ms. Hassan’s husband told me that he had never heard of contraception, and he sounded wary of the idea.

Many people in poor countries want large families, partly to ensure that some will survive despite high death rates. Or a woman may distrust contraceptives or fear her husband’s reaction if she is caught using them.

By United Nations estimates, 215 million women worldwide have an “unmet need” for family planning, meaning they don’t want to become pregnant but are not using effective contraception. The Guttmacher Institute, a widely respected research organization, estimates that if all the unmet need for contraception were met, the result would be 94,000 fewer women dying of pregnancy complications each year, and almost 25 million fewer abortions each year.

Greater access to birth control would also help check the world population, which the United Nations warned a few days ago is rising more quickly than expected. The U.N. now projects the total population in 2100 will be 10.1 billion.

Yet this year, Republicans in Congress have been trying to slash investments in family planning. A budget compromise last month cut international family planning spending by 5 percent, but some Republicans are expected to seek much bigger cuts in future years.

If they succeed, the consequences will be felt in places like this remote Somali town. Women won’t get access to contraceptives, and the parade of unwanted pregnancies, abortions, fistulas, and mothers dying in childbirth will continue.

Ah, but there was one Republican-sponsored initiative for family planning in Congress this year. It provided contraception without conditions — for wild horses in the American West. It passed on a voice vote.

Maybe on Mother’s Day, we could acknowledge that family planning is just as essential for humans as for horses.

By: Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 7, 2011

May 8, 2011 Posted by | Abortion, Anti-Choice, Congress, Conservatives, GOP, Health Care, Human Rights, Ideology, Planned Parenthood, Politics, Public Health, Republicans, Women, Women's Health, Womens Rights | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Health Reform’s Gifts For Mom: Celebrating Mother’s Day With Healthier Mothers, Mothers-To-Be, And Grandmothers

Mothers care for their children, spouses, and aging parents around the clock. Many moms work full-time jobs on top of caregiving. But who cares for Mom?

This Mother’s Day, moms can celebrate health care reform’s new provisions that help moms, moms-to-be, grandmothers, and their families to get healthy and stay healthy. Here are some of health care reform’s “gifts” that moms can already enjoy, as well as a sneak peek of gifts to come.

Moms

One of the biggest worries for moms is their kids. Kids get sick, get hurt, and were denied health insurance prior to health care reform. But thanks to reform, moms have support whether they have a young child with a preexisting condition or a college graduate whose employer doesn’t cover them. Insurance companies can no longer deny insurance to children with preexisting conditions, and children up to age 26 can stay on their parent’s plan if their employer doesn’t offer coverage.

But reform looks out for Mom, too. The Affordable Care Act provides free screenings of many of women’s biggest health concerns: breast cancer, cervical cancer, blood pressure, cholesterol, and obesity.

Paired with improvements in primary care, we know this preventive approach will drastically improve the health of moms and their families. We know, for instance, that regular pap smears increase the likelihood of detecting cervical cancer early and subsequently increasing survival rates.

The bottom line? Free screenings allow doctors and their patients to address health problems earlier and help prevent Mom from getting sick.

And if Mom still gets sick, health care reform provides support there, too. Provisions now prohibit annual and lifetime caps, meaning that a person who is severely or continually ill will not “run out” of insurance.

Moms-to-be

Moms-to-be can look forward to the guarantee that all health plans will cover maternity care for the first time. This is especially exciting since prior to health care reform, 22 states offered no coverage of pregnancy-related costs under any health care. Further, in a study conducted by the National Women’s Law Center, only 13 percent of studied health plans in the individual market provided maternity care.

Maternity coverage will also include preventive and prenatal services. For instance, women considering pregnancy can receive free folic acid supplements while pregnant women can receive free, routine screening for anemia. Taking folic acid previous to getting pregnant and during the first trimester of pregnancy helps prevent birth defects and is essential to the development of the fetal nervous system. Further, pregnant women with iron-deficient anemia are at increased risk of preterm deliveries, delivering babies with a low birth weight, and even fetal death.

Finally, new moms will see additional postnatal benefits. Mothers will receive breastfeeding support such as prenatal and postnatal breastfeeding education and evaluation from trained caregivers. This has proven health benefits for both mothers and their children. Additionally, moms who go back to work will benefit from a private space to breastfeed because employers are now required to provide one.

Grandmothers

Grandmothers can stay stronger for longer with free annual checkups covered by Medicare. The physicals are available to every Medicare beneficiary and they don’t cost a thing.

In addition, other health plans will allow grandmothers to receive preventive care without copays or deductibles. All new plans must include free osteoporosis screeninga disease affecting mainly older women that causes the bones to weaken and severely increases the likelihood of fractures and breaks—for women over 65 and for women at higher risk over age 60.

Finally, provisions in health care reform are working to close the “doughnut hole” in which people enrolled in Medicare’s prescription drug program, often women, are forced to pay a greater share out of pocket for prescription drugs due to a gap in coverage. In the last year Medicare beneficiaries received a $250 rebate. In coming years there will be discounts on brand-name and generic prescription drugs, and provisions will work to make it so by 2020 the doughnut hole will be closed.

Future gifts

While many of these “gifts” to mothers are already in place, more gifts will arrive in the next two-and-a-half years.

For starters, because of new and expanded programs, more moms will have health insurance. These new programs will make it so insurance plans include even more mom and family-friendly services that build on the aforementioned maternity, preventive, and Medicare benefits.

Finally, for the first time, women—mothers included—will pay the same rate for health insurance as men. Forty-two states currently allow gender rating (charging women more than men for the same health plan), with some charging up to 84 percent more. This is a huge, long-awaited gift to women and moms everywhere.

Health care reform acknowledges moms’ 24/7 care. That’s why the law works to serve moms every day and not just Mother’s Day.

By: Sandra Bogar, Center for American Progress, May 5, 2011

May 5, 2011 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Health Care, Health Reform, Insurance Companies, Medicare, Uninsured, Women, Women's Health, Womens Rights | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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