Monday, May 9, 2016

Motherhood and Capitalism

"It's a giant of a human thing."
--Mary Rafferty (The Valley of Decision)

As we wrap up a wonderful Mother's Day weekend, Prof Horwitz observes that much of what we currently celebrate about the institution of motherhood was facilitated by the advent of capitalism and the wealth that it created.

Pre-industrial revolution families were essentially units of economic production. Fathers generally acted as chief operating officers who directed production, while all family members--fathers, mothers, children, and extended family worked the land or small business. Most families scratched by on the brink of survival.

Because mothers were expected to generate income themselves, childcare was often delegated to grandparents and older children whose lower marginal productivities in the family line of work made them more useful in child governance.

This is not to say that mothers of this period did not care for their children. Rather, moms were unable to allocate more attention to their children out of economic necessity.

As capitalism took root during the Industrial Revolution, two factors helped change the motherhood dynamic. Capitalism took production out of the home and placed it in other facilities, such as factories and office buildings. Households began to shift from sites of production to sites of consumption.

The second factor, the increase in wealth from the improvement in labor productivity, then took over. As productivity grew, one adult (usually the father) became capable of supporting an entire family on a single income stream. This enabled women and children to exit the workforce, thereby planting the seeds for the institution of modern motherhood.

Other factors certainly played roles, but it seems unlikely that motherhood as we now celebrate it could have evolved without the influence of capitalism.

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