Parenting: Stephanie Coontz on motherhood

His and hers: The tug of war that is parenting in the modern age. Photo: Thinkstock
His and hers: The tug of war that is parenting in the modern age. Photo: Thinkstock

On stage, Stephanie Coontz – confident, diminutive and with an ironic penchant for clerical purple – is a dazzling speaker. Arguably the world’s foremost family historian, she’s at her best with those with whom she disagrees, rolling her big kohled eyes at their faux pas, crossing those slim black-stockinged legs and levelling opponents with a slew of statistics. Her contribution to the international debate about women’s rights and the maternal paradigm has been invaluable.

Coontz's bestselling books include A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s; Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage;  and The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, and her byline is familiar to readers of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Vogue. Currently a faculty member at Washington’s Evergreen State College, Coontz, who turns  70 this year, is director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. Privately, she is both saltier and more vulnerable than her public swagger would suggest.

AGB: So how exactly is a Stephanie Coontz created?

SC: My mother was, off and on, a housewife, and then a ship-fitter at the Seattle docks during the Second World War, and then a  housewife again, and then an English teacher. My father went back to school on the GI bill after being a merchant marine and then he was a union organiser, and then he became a professor of economics.

AGB: What did you learn through observing your mother? Was she a frustrated housewife?

SC: When I was about six or seven, she used to take those Gallo wine jugs and paint pretty pictures on them, and I remember thinking, “Oh, how artistic my mother is!” Years later, she told me that story as a sign of just how desperately bored and unhappy she was.

AGB: Do you think  ... we live in a culture in which mothering has been devalued? Of course a stay-at-home mother is going to feel depressed and frustrated in a culture in which mothering is understood as a menial task.

SC: Some people think that mothers are unhappy today because society doesn’t value their contributions the way it used to, but wherever motherhood has been romanticised it has also been used to deny the individual personhood of women. Throughout most of the 20th century, the sentimentalisation of the mother co-existed with a vicious hostility toward mothers who actually tried to exercise their supposed influence in the home. Even in the 19th century ... many women were made desperately unhappy by their imprisonment in a one-sided identity that forced them to deny any other desires or inclinations.

AGB: But was the nature of motherhood responsible for their desperate unhappiness, or did motherhood take the fall for other factors, such as the way women were treated by men and the culture in general?

SC: I think that you’re probably right; those factors would skew the results.

AGB: What expectations did you have of marriage and motherhood?

SC: I just expected it! That’s what you grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s. Here is my fantasy when I was in college: “Gosh, I’d like to marry a man who would be willing to build me a separate part of the house for my study.” It never occurred to me that I could build it myself! I wanted to marry a man who would build me “a room of one’s own”, you know? And before college, I wanted to fight the Nazis. I was a romantic; I wanted to go to Spain and gallop across the plains fighting Franco with Yul Brynner at my side! [Laughs.] So I loved school, I had romantic fantasies, and men and marriage were involved.

AGB: Do you think that’s a bad thing?

SC: [Pauses] My generation of women grew up expecting too much from marriage. I remember that when I dated a boy in high school, I would write down my first name against his last name to see how it would look, you know? Frankly, I think it’s a lot healthier when women are brought up to think of marriage as something great if it happens, but if it doesn’t happen, that’s fine too.

AGB: What are the most important lessons you’ve learned regarding marriage?

SC: My own? The less you need it, either economically or emotionally, the more you can give to it. I am married to my college sweetheart but in between, we broke up, and I made an error and ended up a single mother for many years. I don’t talk about how that error came about because it’s not something that I want to burden my son with, or make him feel bad [about]. So.

AGB: In the West, the devaluing of love has resulted in a trivialisation of motherhood. Women are bamboozled into believing that motherhood is only one priority among many and easily managed, rather than having it realistically presented as a revolution. Mothering a child involves an unparalleled emotional, energetic and spiritual expenditure. It’s very hard, if not for the reasons the childless assume  – the leaky bottoms are irrelevant; the constant confrontation of one’s inadequacies is the thing. This is a blessing, but one that, done properly, involves real sacrifice. One thing I loved about former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard was the fact that she was brave enough to tell the truth: that women cannot have it all. “I suppose I had to recognise that this is not a life of infinite possibilities,” she said.

SC: There aren’t enough hours in the day for any woman or man to be a great career person, a great partner and a great parent!

AGB: Interestingly, male politicians are never criticised for being absent from their families and/or inept fathers; such issues are never raised.

SC: For me, it’s not the devaluation of motherhood that is bothersome, but the devaluation of caregiving. If you don’t value caregiving at all levels to all people, then no matter how much you romanticise it, it becomes trivialised and it becomes much more difficult to carry off.

AGB: In Britain,  a significant proportion of working mothers have said that they would prefer to stay home with their young children but that they’re being screwed by the economy.

SC: I’m very leery of those polls, because most of them come down to mood. If you really word them carefully, most women and men would like fewer working hours – a 30-hour work week, which would give them time to do other things.

AGB: Thirty hours is a delicious fantasy. You’ve written that as of 2000, the average working couple works a combined 82-hour work week, while almost 15 per cent of married couples had a joint work week of 100 hours or more. Is this just me, or does this seem completely insane to you?

SC: It’s insane! It’s absolutely insane, particularly in countries – and it’s not just America – where worker productivity has expanded immensely and workers have got nothing from it! Their real wages have stagnated, and they don’t even get time off. It is totally ridiculous!

AGB: The solution?

SC: It seems perfectly obvious to me that we have not only the technological skills and capacity to produce the things we need with far fewer working hours per week, but that we have a real social benefit of doing so – freeing up the overworked to spend time enjoying life and taking care of family, and freeing up the underworked, so that they’re not miserably poor.

AGB: What are the repercussions of these insane hours on relationships?

SC: I think that they’re worse on marriages than they are on kids. What we’ve found is that women cut back on activities like shopping and housecleaning and try to make extra time with their kids, but one of the ways they do that is by multi-tasking. Women do a lot of subdividing: “Here, you take this kid and go to soccer; I’ll take that kid and go shopping.” This is how the couple loses one of the most important things for couples, which is time without the kids. One of the most persistent, effective predictors of happiness for couples is spending social time with other adults. And that is what couples who work these insane hours and try to be fair to their kids give up.

This is an edited extract from Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love by Antonella Gambotto-Burke, published by Arbon. $34.99

This story Parenting: Stephanie Coontz on motherhood first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.