Why Mothers Fail


“What’s wrong with the family?” was the challenge which DELLA D. CYRUS injected in the Atlantic for last November. Her qualifications for speaking on this provocative subject were these: she is a graduate of Tufts College who after further study at the University of Chicago was for five years a case worker in various Family Welfare agencies, where she knew at first hand the problems of several hundred families; she is today the wife of a Unitarian minister and the mother of two children. “I have in a sense,” she says, “been preparing these articles of mine for ten years, and I bring to the writing the experiences and opinions of many friends.” As in the case of the first article there will be readers who disagree with Mrs. Cyrus. For their rebuttal we shall reserve space in Atlantic Repartee — and also in the body of the magazine if their replies be sufficiently pertinent. — THE EDITOR


THE significant thing about women in America is that all of them are either rebelling against or trying to fit into a social pattern for women which was originally intended as a pattern for fulltime mothers — the homemaker-mother pattern. The much talked about freedom of American women is not freedom in any real sense at all. It is simply freedom for some women to break away from the homemaker pattern if they have the personal courage and energy which breaking away from an established pattern requires. And neither the woman who conforms to the pattern nor the woman who breaks away can express her whole self as a woman and a person.

The homemaker way of life once applied to mothers who kept on having babies for the greater part of their lives, and to a time when most of the work of the world was done within the home. In present-day urban life, with almost all of the world’s work being done outside the home, our mores and our mechanics of living still compel most women to be homemakers if they want to be mothers. Women may, and significantly do, renounce motherhood and refuse to be homemakers, but in spite of our toleration and even admiration for women who “do things” in the world, we have no ideal which permits us to expect any achievement from women beyond the achievement of homemaking. As long as women are forced to be homemakers in order to be mothers, we are compelled to hold fast to our one inadequate ideal for women — the homemaker-mother ideal.

It is difficult to understand why the plight of mothers has so long been ignored. Motherhood apparently is regarded as a condition so holy or so occult that it must never be subjected to rational criticism and analysis. We have finally — under protest — allowed medical science to intrude into the sacred sphere of motherhood. We have even produced, through psychology and psychoanalysis, more books than any mother will ever read on how she can be good for her child.

But what we haven’t done, and what for some reason we suppose we needn’t do, is to make our modern American institution of motherhood satisfying or even bearable to mothers themselves. We assume that motherhood is a condition so synonymous with life itself that its problems are inexorable, so that to ask the question how to make life bearable for mothers is as vague and sophomoric as to ask the question how to make life bearable. About all we can actually manage is to pay a confused and embarrassed tribute to mothers once a year.

When we consider that the old Christian problem of overcoming hate and fear with love, now recognized as the basic problem in psychiatry (if not yet in international relations!), has always been first of all a mother-child problem, the question of a satisfactory life for mothers appears in a more urgent perspective. It is now a psychiatric truism that the first act of the human drama of love and hate is played between the mother and her child, and that all other acts in that drama are in a profound sense dependent upon and conditioned by this relationship. The sweeping tribute, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world,” is a shallow statement of the truth. The mother has always had in her keeping such power to create love and hate in her child, and therefore in the world, that there really isn’t any question to take precedence over the question, Why do mothers fail?

That mothers are failing in ever increasing numbers is hardly a matter of argument. Their obvious failures are recorded every day in newspapers throughout the country in stories of neglect, desertion, delinquency, abortion, and divorce. But these glarin failures are merely the eruptions, the symptoms of a way of life which is difficult for all mothers. Most mothers don’t neglect or desert their children. On the other hand, many mothers who are scrupulously conscientious about motherhood are failing their children in ways just as destructive though less dramatic. The evidence of this kind of failure is not so generally recognized, but it exists in its most obvious forms in steadily increasing quantities, and in the offices of psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, child guidance clinics, and social workers.

The case records of professional people who work with “problem” children are full of conclusive evidence that children often lie, steal, destroy property, commit sex crimes, fail in school and at work, or are crippled with emotional and mental illnesses in direct response to mothers who have somehow failed in the kind of feeling they bring to their children. These same professional people are constantly thwarted in their efforts to save promising and intelligent children because they can do nothing at all to change the destructive, though often well-intentioned, attitudes of mothers. One distinguished psychoanalyst has said that all American cities are desperately in need of institutions for girls — not for girls whose mothers are neglecting them, but for girls who will be emotionally and morally ruined if some way cannot be found to separate them from their mothers.

Every woman brings her own unique problems of love and hate to her relationship to her child, and there have always been women in all ages who, because of distortions and failures in their own development, have been “bad” mothers. Such women are properly the concern of psychoanalysts. But when literally thousands of mothers in our time are unsuccessful at providing for their children the kind of emotional atmosphere necessary for the average healthy growth of personality, then perhaps we must look for something other than exclusively personal failure. When so definite a trend of failure exists it is logical to suppose that destructive forces are at work on all mothers which account not only for the dramatic breakdowns printed in the newspapers and for the child clients of psychiatrists and social workers, but which account also for the dissatisfaction, frustration, and semi-failure of almost all mothers.


EVERY modern mother feels — in some degree — a conflict between the kind of life she is trained in America to want and expect, and the kind of life she must in fact lead as a mother. More than that, it is a conflict between the kind of woman she hoped to become and the kind of woman our homemakermother ideal usually compels her to be.

This difference between what women are educated to be and what they must in fact become can be described almost entirely in terms of their relationship to men and to the world outside the family. Up to the point of marriage most women participate fully in the work, the recreation, and the aspirations of the males of their own age. From kindergarten to graduate school they read the same books, compete in many of the same contests, talk the same talk, follow the same daily routine, eat in the same drugstores and cafeterias, make the same plans for exploring or dazzling or remaking the world. For them there is no such thing as “woman’s work” or a “man’s world.” There are only men and women and the world’s work and the world’s pleasure.

No one can estimate the shock which getting married and having a child gives to this American educated woman. From the exhilarating threshold of the world with all its problems and possibilities, from the daily companionship of men and other women, she is catapulted into a house — a house, furthermore, from which she has no escape. Her husband disappears into the outside world on business of his own, while for hours and days at a time she has no companion except her child, and the hands with which she had planned to remake the world are, incredibly enough, in the laundry tubs, the dishpan, and the scrub bucket. And so her first experience of what it means to be a mother, however much she may love her baby, is an experience full to overflowing with confusion, disappointment, humiliation, and above all, loneliness.

Usually the shock of becoming a homemakermother is more devastating to the college-educated woman than to the woman with less education, as our birth statistics significantly indicate. But almost no woman is free from some dissatisfaction with the isolation and bondage of motherhood. As long as we educate women, even partially, to be interested in and responsible for the needs and problems of their world, and then isolate them in houses as soon as they become mothers and load them with work which they spent their youth learning to regard as menial and unintelligent, we should stop being surprised if they emerge finally with no faith in themselves and no real interest in anybody or anything but their own narrowed and distorted desires.

Women who at best are lonely and disappointed, and who are separated from their husbands in so many important ways, are almost doomed to failure as mothers. It isn’t only that they see too much of their children and too little of anybody else, or even that they particularly resent doing a certain amount of sordid and trivial work. Most of them carry, whether they know it or not, a burden of unused ability and frustrated purpose which falls resentfully on the child. To make the day-long occupations of washing, ironing, cooking, and scrubbing an inevitable condition of motherhood is obviously as wasteful of the miracle and variety of human talent as it would be to make gardening, street cleaning, and bookkeeping a necessary condition of fatherhood. It means that all mothers who have trained themselves to be violinists, teachers, actresses, business women, or just plain citizens of their world, are struggling under permanent vocational maladjustment.

The question is often asked, What would mothers do if freed from housework? Many women aren’t capable of anything else, wouldn t they be worse off in factories and stores? These questions condemn our whole society and all its values, or lack of them. They reflect our belief that people work only because they have to and only to earn money. No one would think to ask what women would do if we took it for granted that the right work for a woman is as important as the right husband — if we took it for granted that women from earliest childhood were training their minds and developing their abilities, not to fill in the time until marriage and motherhood, but in order to contribute their serious share to the enrichment of all life for as long as they live.

Many mothers do adjust to modern conditions of motherhood. They may have sought in marriage an escape from parents or from the boredom of an uncongenial job. They may have hoped to find in marriage an escape from inner emptiness and lack of personal direction. Bringing to marriage a great residue of childish needs, they may sink gratefully into the protection of a comfortable home. Accepting as inevitable the separation of their husbands’ interests from their own, they may resign themselves and finally adapt themselves to life in a child’s world. While their children are young they give up, and then forget they ever had, a need for privacy in which to read or think. They make do with the limited and meager opportunities for adult relationships open to them and they sometimes manage, by stunting their own growth, to love their children without undue conflict or resentment.

One sometimes hears the “well-adjusted” mother express her self-abnegation in heroic terms. “After all,” she says, “the children come first. They’re all that really matters.”

To such an attitude there is only one possible response. If the purpose of an adult human being is to rear a child or two so that those children can in turn rear children, ad infinitum, then life is unquestionably the absurd treadmill it sometimes seems and there is nothing to do but relax. How can the mother who believes she herself doesn’t matter rear her children for anything? The only bearable theory is that we bring our children up to adulthood because we believe in adulthood — in its satisfactions and in the possibilities it offers for infinite growth and development.

The mother who adjusts to a life which forces her to be less than an adult is not only betraying herself and the purposes for which she was intended. She is not only, by example, belittling for her children the importance of full maturity. She is, worst of all, depriving them of a mother who has real wisdom about the world. And in this time, no other kind of mother will do. No other kind of mother can begin to prepare her children for the conflict of interests, the confusion of values, the groping for new forms of living, which make up the world in which those same children must some day try to be adults.

So we come to the ironic truth that the mothers who make the best adjustment to the conditions now implicit in our homemaker-mother ideal are by that very adjustment incapable of fulfilling their full obligations as mothers. In their immaturity and isolation they tend to teach their children that it is more important to keep their feet dry than it is to know and understand their world. They are the mothers one hears lamenting the basic principle of life by wishing that their little babies would not grow up. In their loneliness and lack of any real job apart from motherhood, they hover over, lean on, and dominate their children, paralyzing their wills, blocking their way to independence.

In a recent news story a psychiatrist, Edward A. Strecker, flatly states that most of the 2,400,000 psychoneurotics uncovered by the Army are the victims of clinging and domineering mothers. Is it inevitable that the “good” mother in our society will smother her child with love, security, and peace at home, and then, painfully and belatedly, turn him out into a world which, to the complete surprise of both mother and child, commands him to kill and be killed? Surely we require more of motherhood than this.


How can modern mothers serve at the same time their children, their men, themselves, and their world? Obviously only by becoming the vital and complete citizens of the world which they wanted and expected to be in the beginning. The answer is so simple that we can only conclude that some overwhelming obstacle stands in the way.

That obstacle, of course, is the homemakermother pattern and, more significantly, the prevailing notion, embodied in the modern distortion of that pattern, that mothers must be the constant, hour by hour, day by day, nursemaids and supervisors of their own children.

Child psychologists, who know what havoc a mother can work with her children, have been greatly responsible for perpetuating this notion. Because they see what destruction the wrong maternal feelings can bring to a child, they assume that an equal dose of the right maternal feelings will have the opposite effect. But they are as conspicuously unsuccessful as anybody else in producing the right feelings, and it is unlikely that anyone will be able to produce them by shutting mature women up with small children in crowded city houses for twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.

The dilemma grows out of a complete confusion over the difference between quantity and quality in a mother-child relationship. So much emphasis has been placed on the emotional meanings involved in feeding a child or taking it to the toilet or introducing it to a new experience, that conscientious mothers are frequently tense and self-conscious all the time they are with their children and worried all the time their children are with someone else. Because a new sense of their importance and responsibility has been loaded onto mothers at a time when they are least able to accept the traditional pattern of motherhood, the more well-intentioned they are, the more guilty they feel over their longing to spend part of their lives somewhere else. Dissatisfaction, then, leads to guilt, and guilt to despair as they find themselves, consciously or unconsciously, incapable of giving their little children the one thing little children need most — simple, relaxed, wholehearted love.

Intelligent people in all ages have understood that educated women must do something besides tend the very young. Our great-grandmothers took this for granted, and from the perspective of their importantly busy lives would probably be horrified at the concentrated relationship between the modern mother and her child. Though their life was far from ideal, it might even be true that little children brought up by Negro mammies in the South, for instance, were happier, better cared for, and more sensibly loved than the average child now under its educated mother’s constant supervision in a modern apartment.

The intelligent, urban-civilized woman has serious shortcomings as a mother. The more “civilized” her way of life, the more eager she is to civilize her child quickly. But this is in direct conflict with the child’s own need to progress calmly at its own pace. Perhaps one of the very worst things educated mothers do to their little children is to hurry them. Not because they want to do something really important after the child has hurried, but because they feel they have something else important to do.

Could it be that the much maligned “dumb” nursemaid had her points after all, when she was easygoing, relaxed, unambitious, foolishly contented, and childlike with her young charges? Perhaps the superstitions and vulgarities she taught them were far less dangerous than the overanxious, impatient expectations of the intelligent and discontented mother. Not that anyone wants to turn children over to uncivilized or moronic women. But does the sharp conflict between a newborn child and society suggest that babies need totally different qualities in a mother from the qualities required by older, intellectually developing children?

Perhaps the solution to the dilemma is not the seemingly hopeless one of making a good hour after hour after hour relationship between mother and little child, but rather lies in the direction of spreading out the mother role to include significant relationships for the child with father, friends, teachers, and other children. This is exactly what did happen in an earlier rural society, when life was more leisurely, families were large and included many relatives, and fathers had time really to be fathers. Perhaps the very intensity of the modem continuous, exclusive relationship between mother and child is at the root of two opposite problems— the problem of why mothers neglect and desert their children, and the problem of why they ruin them with too much concentration and too many of the wrong feelings.

Surely if one woman is to be in complete charge of a child twenty-four hours a day for the first five or six years of its life, then it should be a woman who in the depths of her mind and soul honestly has nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. Either we should deprive women of all their education and civilization and send them back to some primitive state of instinctual and timeless life so that they can be happy full-time mothers of small children (a well-known and valuable fascist technique), or we should find a satisfactory way to care for children away from their mothers part of the time so that mothers can be a fully developed, responsible part of the world their children will inherit.

The problem is inherent in the education of women, as many people knew and feared that it would be. It is intrinsic in the fact that the urban way of life has deprived mothers of significant work, separated them from their husbands, and created a physical environment incompatible with the raising of children. It is not a problem which mothers can solve by themselves, nor can psychoanalysts or social workers solve it, though all can bring their knowledge and experience to its solution. It is a social problem which must be solved by whole communities. It means some kind of community plan for the care of homes and of children — and not for a few odd hours now and then, but for several absolutely dependable hours every day.

It is not merely a need for first-class nursery schools in every neighborhood, and community services to reduce the mechanics of homemaking far below the present minimum. It is a need for a new philosophy and pattern of community life, not to destroy the privacy of the family, but to end the isolation of individual mothers and children. It is a need for a community plan which at the same time stimulates more significant relationships and offers more meaningful privacy than most mothers now have.

Only with practical, specific plans for making time available to mothers can we justify our claim that American women are emancipated, and create a new ideal for all women which demands the fullest use of their talent and power. When we have freed all women from the modern curse of the full-time homemaker-mother ideal, more intelligent women will have babies, more women will love and cherish the babies they have, and more women without babies will use their lives to some good end. Without a new ideal and a new plan, women can never be really free or really mature or really appealing, or for that matter, really mothers.