Mother's Job, Circa 1951

Mother's Job, Circa 1951

"Motherhood is a job. Some women are successful at it, and some are failures."  —Mother's Encyclopedia, 1951

This is the opening line of the entry under "Mother's Job" in the set of Mother's Encyclopedias I inherited from my grandmother. It's a beautiful, six-volume set, published by The Parent's Institute, chock full of entries like "Mumps," "Awkward Stage" (one of my favorites) and "Parties for Children."

I turned to this encyclopedia thinking it would be fun to include some historical advice while compiling ideas for this website. Most entries are interesting, if a bit bland, as a reference point for what has changed since 1951. But then I found this article and it was just too unbelievable not to share. 

My first thought after reading the opening line of "Mother's Job" was, I sure hope my grandmother didn't read this entry when she was raising her kids, and especially that she didn't read this entry. And then I wondered how many moms actually did. Of those, how many moms could read that and think, "Phew, I'm glad I'm one of the successful ones."  

But wait, it gets worse. The author of the article, psychologist Lurine Pruette, continues: "The modern world has done quite rightly in revolting against the old-fashioned cant about the 'sacredness of motherhood.' Some mothers are perfectly loathsome creatures, and some are valiant and fine....There is no sacredness of motherhood. There are only mothers...most of them trying hard but but making only a halfway success for the reasons that halfway successes are made in other fields, because of ignorance, stupidity, self-indulgence, weakness of purpose, folly, and so forth."

How, you may ask, can you ensure that you qualify as the valiant and fine variety and not the loathsome? According to the article, it boils down to this: "Mothers have to be Good Persons, all-around good persons, if they are to succeed at their jobs." No big deal. Just be a Good Person, with capital letters, all the time.

Pruette goes on to list some of the "obvious requirements of being a good mother," which really threw me. I was expecting a job description that included things like educating children, taking care of their material needs, and teaching them values. Her list is definitely not that:

1. You have to want your baby. You have to "choose [your] children, choose the time when they are to be born and choose the number [you] can bring up properly." Easy peasy. Then there's a sad section about the fate of the unwanted child, with a mother that either neglects him or overcompensates.

2. You have to love your husband, so the child will grow up in a loving, peaceful home. Sound advice there. Then it gets a bit more interesting. She says that if a mother turns away from her husband she focuses all her attention on the child, and "no child should have to bear the full burden of an adult's love."

3.  The third requirement is that them mother should take care of her own health. This part is actually fabulous. Basically, a mom has to take care of herself if she's going to take care of her baby. This includes eating and sleeping well, but also time off from the family. Bravo, Lurine! Finally! She continues with a fabulous section on mental health that still holds up, including how to teach your child not to be fearful. 

4. The fourth is—wait for it—don't feel guilty. What? This from the same person who was just calling moms out for being loathsome? This final section of the article is a complete turnaround. She even acknowledges that no parents are perfect: "[A mother] must remember that the child is acquiring good traits from her as well as bad. Out of imperfect parents should perfect children suddenly appear? Of course not." Sensible, even compassionate, ending with the thesis: "As [parents] are sounder, saner, healthier persons their children's chances improve."

So, in spite of some weird tangents, including one about mother cats and magnesium, the article was not all bad. She had some interesting and candid things to say that would never make it through an editor in today's politically correct world, but that contained some truth, and were certainly very interesting. 

But wait. Before you start giving Lurine a pass, I've withheld the most appalling quote of all: 

"Some medical men are even beginning to say that morning sickness does not appear when the woman loves her husband and desires her baby."

What!?! Again, I thought, "Please, oh please, tell me that nobody actually read this entry!" Or at least that no one actually believed it. Can you imagine adding guilt and shame to the unending nausea of morning sickness? And she spends the last page of the article telling women not to feel guilty?  

Then I did a little research that shed some light on this Lurine character: 

Lurine didn't get morning sickness, because Lurine had no children!

Someone decided that the best person to write this very far-reaching entry—"Mother's Job"—should be written by a woman with no children. 

As appalling as this is, it gives me comfort. At least this betrayal was not an inside job. For, as any mother knows, every mother is both a success and a failure. Sometimes even at the same time. None of us are Good People all the time. We yell when we shouldn't. We serve Cheerios for dinner. We let our kids climb a little too high in that tree. We make lots of bad decisions along with the good. 

We can only hope that our grandmothers, those lovely mothers of the 50's, didn't read this article at all, and if they did, that they recognized that most of it is ridiculous. We can hope that they had wonderful networks of other mothers who struggled with the same things they did, who helped each other overcome those struggles, and then celebrated the successes. 

That is what I hope we can achieve with this website—encourage each other to forge through those inevitable failures, share solutions to turn them into successes, and then celebrate together. 

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