This piece is dedicated to my mom, as I celebrate my first Mother’s Day without her.
With Mother’s Day upon us, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the vision of motherhood that we normally celebrate on this day.
The holiday’s origins, interestingly enough, come from celebrations of the role of mothers in the public arena, in particular, as anti-war activists. But in the 20th century, the holiday changed to celebrate, first, individual mothers and, now, motherhood as an institution. Even as the last 100 years have brought enormous changes to gender roles and parenting, we still use the day to honor the domestic contributions of mothers in the form of their love and care for their children.
The ability of mothers to engage in such activity, particularly to do so as a full-time endeavor, is, however, a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, it’s fair to say that it became a possibility thanks to the advent of capitalism and the wealth it created.
The Pre-Industrial Revolution Family Unit
For most of human history, the family was the unit of economic production, with the father overseeing production, not unlike a modern CEO. Wives/mothers, children, and extended family, all worked the land or in the cottage industry, and most people teetered on the edge of economic survival.
Since many mothers were either expected to be carrying children or contributing to earning income themselves, the care of children was often primarily overseen by grandparents or somewhat older children. In some cases, child care was “farmed out” to women who served as wet nurses. For the majority of the population, the idea of a woman being a full-time mother was simply not feasible at this time.
Capitalism accomplished two things that changed the nature of motherhood forever. First, by ushering in the onset of the Industrial Revolution, it took production out of the home and into the factory, or the market more broadly. The household began to shift from a site of production to one of consumption. At first, both women and children participated in this market work, as they had done in the pre-industrial era.
But then the second effect took over: Wealth began to increase, capital became more productive, and therefore labor got more productive. That enabled women and children to exit the market workforce, as men were able to earn enough income to support the whole family.
And it is here that modern motherhood finds its roots.
Freed from the marketplace, women were able to devote a significant amount of time toward household production, especially the care of children. This was not much easier than working in the factories or the farm in the days before electrical appliances, but it helped mothers to make it possible for their children to get better care and to survive to adulthood.
Improved medical technology and scientific knowledge — along with greater material time and resources that were beginning to be devoted to children — meant a reduction in infant mortality rates. As a result, children began to acquire a degree of sentimental value that they rarely had before. After all, since they were more likely to live past infancy, parents began to invest themselves emotionally to a degree they hadn’t dared to before. This is not to say that pre-industrial parents did not treat their kids with any sentimentality, only that on the margin, changing economic conditions made it less risky and potentially less painful.
This new vision of childhood ushered in a time where young people were kept out of the world of work and instead educated in schools and cared for in the home. It helped to ensure that children were integrated into the world of domesticity and the private, female sphere. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was most easily achieved by the urban middle class, which had the greatest ability to survive on a single income.
The emergence of the sheltered childhood had a number of benefits. It became a rationale for investing in children’s education and trying to better understand the conditions under which children might flourish. It also made childhood a far more enjoyable stage in human development than it had ever been. Spared not just from the world of work, but increasingly from mistreatment, disease, and competition over limited household resources, children were able to explore, learn, and grow.
A Changing Definition of Motherhood
It’s worth noting that the same economic growth that had made this sort of childhood possible also shifted the nature of marriage; as the need for economic collaboration faded, more couples began to marry for love.
Another obvious form this increased sentimentality took was the reconceiving of motherhood in the domestic form we associate today with Mother’s Day. Childhood was being reconceived as a time of innocence, play, and education, all taking place out of sight of the adult worlds of work and politics.
This shift further changed the nature of motherhood. With children home and outside the public sphere of the market, the responsibility for raising them and nurturing the values of domesticity fell to mothers.
The Home as a Refuge
The middle and upper classes during the nineteenth century who began this process provided the blueprint for the nostalgic version of home that continues to serve as a cultural idea even into our own time and that we celebrate on Mother’s Day.
The home became the physical representation of the refuge from the competitive and amoral, if not immoral, world of the public sphere. And, as it was managed by women, the domestic sphere became the symbol of purity that women were supposed to represent. Moreover, the ongoing evolution of the nuclear family threw off many of the ties to extended kin that in prior generations opened the home to concerns beyond the marital dyad and their children. Although the house was seen as the woman’s space where domestic virtues set the rules of the game, men began to value the space of the home as a desirable change from their lives in the public sphere.
Marriage, children, and home were increasingly supposed to be the sources of emotional satisfaction, and both genders largely accepted the idea that each needed to contribute their own sphere to encourage the creation of a rich domestic life.
It is, at least in part, this vision of motherhood that we celebrate on Mother’s Day.* Even as we rightly recognize the increasing contributions of fathers to the domestic scene, Mother’s Day tugs at us to a degree that Father’s Day does not. We still, even as gender roles change, think of our moms in connection with our homes and with “domestic virtues.” We miss Mom the cook, Mom the nurse, Mom the teacher, and Mom, the one who always loved us no matter what. That mom was yet another gift made possible by capitalism and the wealth it produced.
As we honor motherhood on this day, we should take a moment to recognize and appreciate the ways in which capitalism and the freedoms that created it, made modern motherhood possible.
But this isn’t the only way capitalism helped women achieve new goals. Check out what Prof. Jayme Lemke, Prof. Heather King, and Dr. Sarah Skwire have to say about capitalism and feminism.
* Of course, it is worth noting that while this shift in childhood, motherhood, and the home brought about many positives outcomes, it did not satisfy the needs of every individual — particularly those women who wanted to have a role outside the home. Here again, capitalism played a significant role. The growing demand for labor associated with economic growth and greater prosperity within the family fueled changing social norms, freeing women to attend college and pursue careers beyond that of the homemaker if they so chose.
Today, many families are able to decide whether both parents work, whether Mom stays at home, or whether Dad does, depending on what is best for them. The progress we have made is incredible, given that, several hundred years ago, both parents were tied to both work and home. To learn more about how capitalism may have helped women, check out Learn Liberty’s on-demand program, Feminism: A New Perspective.