Comparing its structure and function as it was in 1960 with what it had become in 1990 can highlight the dramatic changes in the American family. Until 1960 most Americans shared a common set of beliefs about family life; family should consist of a husband and wife living together with their children. The father should be the head of the family, earn the family's income, and give his name to his wife and children. The mother's main tasks were to support and enable her husband's goals, guide her children's development, look after the home, and set a moral tone for the family. Marriage was an enduring obligation for better or worse and this was due much to a conscious effort to maintain strong ties with children. The husband and wife jointly coped with stresses. As parents, they had an overriding responsibility for the well being of their children during the early years-until their children entered school, they were almost solely responsible. Even later, it was the parents who had the primary duty of guiding their children's education and discipline. Of course, even in 1960, families recognized the difficulty of converting these ideals into reality. Still, they devoted immense effort to approximating them in practice. As it turned out, the mother, who worked only minimally--was the parent most frequently successful in spending the most time with her children. Consequently, youngsters were almost always around a parental figure -- they were well-disciplined and often very close with the maternal parent who cooked for them, played with them, and saw them off to and home from school each day.
Over the past three decades these ideals, although they are still recognizable, have been drastically modified across all social classes. Women have joined the paid labor force in great numbers stimulated both by economic need and a new belief in their capabilities and right to pursue opportunities. Americans in 1992 are far more likely than in earlier times to postpone marriage. Single parent families--typically consisting of a mother with no adult male and very often no other adult person present-have become common. Today at least half of all marriages end in divorce (Gembrowski 3). Most adults no longer believe that couples should stay married because divorce might harm their children. Of course, these contemporary realities have great consequential impact on mother-child relationships and child development; even from an early age.
Survey research shows a great decrease in the proportion of women favoring large families, an upsurge in their assertiveness about meeting personal needs, and an attempt by women to balance their needs with those of their children and the men in their lives (Burgess & Conger 1164). A clear and increasing majority of women believe that both husband and wife should be able to work, should have roughly similar opportunities, and should share household responsibilities and the tasks of child rearing. A majority of mothers of preschool children now work outside the home. A growing minority of young married women, often highly educated and career oriented, are choosing not to have any children and have little interest in children's issues-yet one more indication of the dramatic transformation of American families that has been taking place in recent decades (Bousha & Twentyman 106).
It is unavoidable that those mothers who work simply are not there as much for their children. In fact, in many cases the relationship between the contemporary mother and her children is similar to the age-old traditional role of the father and his children. Often, the mother is indeed a strong-minded disciplinarian in the evening after workóbut she is very frequently not much more than that. To very children, care is a nursery or some school of others with caregivers. To the pre-adolescent youth, care is either a baby-sitter, nanny, or just phone call to 'mom' after work--if even that much. In some of the more positive cases, this creates an early sense of responsibility and independence for the child. But more commonly, it is known to invite poor behavior, recklessness, and even accidents at home when the mother is not there. Some children become despondent; others grow adamantly rebellious. But regardless of patternistic character, they all reportedly exhibit a diminished sense of relationship with their mother. With regard to interpersonal signals, today's working mothers are unlikely to respond to child signals and more likely to initiate spontaneously nonreciprocal types of interaction, such as requests and demands (Aragona & Eyeberg 599). I infer that this comes in part from the pressures and stresses of their own busy work schedules (plus they are still usually left with a plethora of time-consuming "mothering" responsibilities) as well as from their own diminished relationship with the child(ren). My readings strongly indicate that mothers who work all day often become almost unavoidably neglectful in that they fail to perceive, and attend to, child signals and information about child needs. Evidently, the underlying process in such cases is often one of prematurely ending the processing of information about feelings. That is, in cases where mothers are consistently withdrawn, psychologically unavailable, and/or stressed over work, it is proposed that parental style of processing information is typified by preconscious exclusion from perception of information that elicits affect (Giovannoni 14). Such information is of crucial importance to human functioning as it provides the earliest (both developmentally and situationally) interpretation and prescription for response (Zajonc, 1998). Later developing cognitively generated information and processing interaction with affect to produce increasingly differentiated, sophisticated, and adaptive responses (Egeland & Erickson 114-15). When, however, affect is distorted, either by inhibition or exaggeration, it reportedly reduces the flexibility of individuals' response to their environment.
The rearing of children is, of course, an affectively arousing experience. Indeed, children, especially young children, communicate largely through affective signals, for example, cries, smiles, eye contact, touch. When mothers are not around much and fail to respond to these signals, children first become very upset and, if no parental response is forthcoming, ultimately cease to signal. In either case, they both fail to learn to modify signals in ways that lead to the development of mature communicative skills and also learn to behave in increasingly aversive ways. Indeed, the more upset they become, the longer it takes them to recover, that is, the longer they remain distressed. Consequently, if working mothers were initially ambivalent about responding to child signals, they could be expected to become more reluctant after their children became upset. At that point, interactions are likely to take on the negative quality noted by many researchers (Burgess & Conger, 1998). Thus early neglect of infant signals can have a progressive and deteriorating effect on the development of the parent-child relationship. And such neglect is indeed common among working mothers. In addition, children's signals are often tied to their need for help in managing their emotions. Thus children turn to their parents when they are hurt, angry, sad, frightened, and so on. If their mothers are too preoccupied to respond to these feelings, they may ignore precisely those signals that imply the greatest need for maternal involvement. Indeed, "simple" requests for food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention can be fulfilled by other adults such as nannies, caregivers etc; But this seriously alters the mother-child relationship and places many aspects of that traditional role on the career-child relationship instead. Because the desire for affection and comfort can only be satisfied by attachment figures (i.e., parents), it is more subject to defensive biases. This suggests both the importance of psychological neglect (Egeland & Erickson, 1997) and the basis for such neglect in parents' own developmental history.
Previous to the age of the working mother, it might have been said that children were often a bit spoiled by their mother's constant presence. All of the attention that they needed was there before school, after school, on the weekends and so forth. This created a strong dependency upon the maternal parent; relationships were overtly familiar and the bond between mother and child was more often a strong one than today. An old clichť of that time was the expression from mother to child "just wait 'till your father gets home." In many cases today, just waiting for mother to come home may carry with it the same intimidation. And without a parental balance between disciplinarian and caregiver--much of the relationship between mother and child so amiable in the 1950's and before--is gone.
Conclusively, it is difficult to blame mothers for their inability to develop and maintain relationships with their children as strongly as in previous decades. The pressures of a full-time career coupled with full-time mothering may be too much for anyone to handle wholly and effectively. It is for this reason that responsible parents seek the assistance of day care centers, professional baby-sitters, and so forth. But it is also for this reason that the relationship that exists between mother and child today has changed so drastically.
Aragona, J., & Eyeberg, S. "Neglected children: Mothers' reports of child behavior problems and observed verbal behavior." Child Development 52 (1995): 596-602.
Bousha, D., & Twentyman, C. "Mother-child interaction style in abuse, neglect, and control groups: Naturalistic observations in the home." Journal of Abnormal Psychology 93 (1997) : 106-114.
Burgess, R. L., & Conger, R. D. "Family interaction in abusive, neglectful, and normal families." Child Development 49 (1998) : 1163-1173.
Egeland, B., & Erickson, M. "Psychologically unavailable care giving." In M. R. Brassard, R. Germaine, & S. N. Hart (Eds.), Psychological maltreatment of children and youth. New York: Pergamon, 1997 (pp. 110-120).
Gembrowski, Susan. "A Portrait of Families Today." Los Angeles Times, 22 Oct. 1992 : 3.
Giovannoni, J. M., & Becerra, R. M. Defining child abuse. New York: Free Press, 1996.
Zajonc, R.B. "Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences." American Psychologist 35 (1998) : 151-175.
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