Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Culture Wars, Parental Guilt, and Out-of-Control Children: The Dilemma


The following post comes mostly from chapter 2, Don’t Blame Us,  of my last book, How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders:

The women’s movement in the United States, combined with economic changes that made surviving on only one income increasingly difficult for families, led to one of the fastest and most massive cultural shifts in history. Almost overnight, women entered the workforce in huge numbers. Female ambition was fully unleashed for the first time ever, and flourished. However, women who wanted to get to the top in their field in business or the professions ran into a roadblock. 

They found that, in the business and professional worlds, they were expected to act just like the men in one respect. They could not use the needs of their children as a reason for refusing to put in the long hours necessary in today’s economy to climb the corporate ladder. The United States had during this same period of time grown to become the most workaholic country on earth, eventually surpassing even Japan.
Women who wanted to and who were told that they could “have it all” by the ambient culture found that doing so was not as easy as some famous women made it look. Since their husbands were only just beginning to share in child care, and were as much or more involved with their careers as they had ever been, who would be around to take care of the children? Horrific stories about bad things happening to children left to their own devices and locked in their homes without parental supervision after school (deemed latch-key children by the media), began to circulate widely.

Debates over working mothers became one of the most important theaters of operations in the culture wars that continue to rage on to this day. Reactionary forces that never believed in equality for women in the first place began to spout off about all the damage being done by working mothers to their offspring. The voices of people like Phyllis Schlafly, a career woman who made a career out of attacking career women, became louder and more shrill. Unfortunately, researchers in major academic centers began to give more ammunition to voices like hers.

Widely publicized studies showed that children in families in which at least one parent stayed home with them did, on the average, better in life on some dimensions than those children from families in which this was not the case. Of course, many children from two-career families do splendidly or even better than many of their more closely parented peers, while many children of stay-at-home mothers often fail spectacularly in life, but the press ignored the scatter and put most of its focus on the “average” end result.

Of course, many families were able to negotiate the cultural changes successfully and continued to calmly set limits with their children while encouraging them to have egalitarian attitudes towards gender roles. Many others, however, were just feeling overcome by too much guilt to do that.        

The most devastating source of guilt: Many career women found that they were faced with considerable criticism about their choices in life from within their own families. The baby boomers, who were the first large wave of career women, had themselves been raised by parents from the World War II “greatest” generation. This earlier generation of women had been, on the whole, raised to conform to the old female gender role stereotypes. 

They were taught that they supposed to be totally fulfilled by being nothing but wives and mothers, as their mothers had been before them. However, as I described in the post of 9/21/11, unlike their own mothers, some of these women had had a taste of career fulfillment during the war, but had to give it up at the end of the war. 

Since these women had been raised from birth to believe in the old roles, they accepted their fate, at least on the outside. Inside, many of them subconsciously resented having to give up the excitement of their careers. Some carried this covert resentment with them for the rest of their lives. As parents are wont to do, they tried to vicariously experience what they were missing through their children. 

When they had daughters, they often pushed the girls to go out and get what had been denied to them – a satisfying career. Perhaps it was no accident that the baby boom generation was at the forefront of the feminist movement of the1960’s. Feminism had been an undercurrent in society for decades before then, but “women’s lib” virtually exploded.

As the female boomers hobnobbed with one another and talked among themselves about how women could now do anything they wanted, many faced a rather disturbing negative reaction from both of their parents when they spoke about this at home. The parents would suddenly become hostile and/or withdrawn, sometimes for no apparent reason.

Many male boomers, on the other hand, were the objects of some strange reactions from their parents as well. They had started to realize that sharing the burdens of being the family breadwinner was not such a bad idea after all. However, their fathers seemed to think less of them if they were not dominant over their wives, especially if they earned less money than their wives. 

In the meantime, some of their mothers acted helpless and dependent around them at times, but because of the mothers’ covert resentment at males for keeping them from pursuing careers, emasculated the sons who tried to take care of them in any way. 

For example, one of my patients told of an incident in which his World War II generation grandmother fell in the bathroom and broke her hip. When my patient tried to come to her aid, she refused to unlock the bathroom door. She said that she "did not want to be a bother."

These parents were not being mean-spirited when they acted like this. The parents had grown up with certain gender role expectations and believed in them. They also worried, because of their own experiences, that successful women might have a difficult time finding a mate. They believed that men would find feminists too aggressive, and in any event would be threatened by any female who might be too able to manage her own life and finances without a husband. 

These fears were stoked to near hysteria among both the boomers and their parents by a story in Newsweek in 1986, since discredited, which purported to show that college-educated women who were still single at the age of 35 had only a 5 percent chance of ever getting married.

More important than the possible reactions of male chauvinist peers, the parents of the boomers, just like their children, worried about what might happen to their grandchildren if one of their parents were not in the home to raise them as much as in past generations. How would such children fare in life?

In addition to this concern, a covert but pernicious issue lurked in the back of the minds of a significant number of the former riveting Rosies. When their daughters became successful in business, the mothers were reminded of what they themselves had given up right after the war. They had pretended for many years that having given up their jobs was really no big deal to them. Some became quiet, some became depressed, and others became actively critical of their daughters’ ambitions, especially when grandchildren came into the picture.

Boomer females were extremely confused by their parents’ mixed message that seemed to say to them, “I’m so proud of you for your career success, but stop doing what you’re doing.” Many were left with a highly unsettling feeling caused by this strange lack of support. They wanted and planned to go on with their careers, but somehow they did not feel quite right about it. They became somewhat confused about exactly what their role in life should look like. 

Men found that they were criticized by their girl friends if they opened a car door for a woman - or if they did not. Accompanying the role confusion for both sexes was the nagging, unnamed sense of guilt about their children that was mentioned above, which was then further increased by the other cultural developments.

Paradoxically, the existence of parental guilt of this magnitude had effects on parenting behavior that may be the real reason why children of two career families do slightly worse on average than those with stay-at-home mothers. Changes in parenting styles driven by guilt are probably far more destructive to children than the fact that both parents are working per se.

All of this confusion and ambivalence created two different groups of women who, while superficially polar opposites from one another, shared the exact same conflict. One group had careers but covertly envied the stay-at-home mothers, while a second group stayed at home with their children but covertly envied the career women. The latter group also had quite secret - or so they thought – deep-seated urges to escape the drudgery of doing housework and shuttling children around all day long.

Many parents in two career families worried covertly but obsessively that they were short-changing their own children. Some stay-at-home mothers, on the other hand, subconsciously worried that their hidden resentment over their burdens and their choices in life might adversely affect their children. In response, both of these groups began to monitor their children carefully or any sign of distress that might indicate even the slightest parental failing. A good percentage of them became so obsessed with their children that they spent every spare moment with them, often at the expense of their marriages.

This popular Facebook meme advocates gross over-parenting, and following this advice often leads to disastrous results.

For the career women, the guiltier they felt, the more concerned they became with turning any time they did spend with their children into “quality time.” They tried to make up for their frequent absences to their children by catering to their every whim. The stay-at-home mothers began to do the exact same thing. They also became overcome with guilt as their resentment over the perceived drudgery of their life, as well as their hidden desires to escape from it, built up over time.

Everything that happened in the home began to center around the children. John Rosemond’s nightmare world of non-traditional parenting was born.


  1. Crikey, hands up who wants to press the rewind button on the last 100 years and delete Betty Friedan?

  2. O_O What is a single-mom to do?! DILEMA!