Early Childhood Education



Motherhood is a role experienced by many women throughout the world. In the United States alone there are an estimated 80.5 million mothers; as such, mothers comprise well over a quarter of the entire U.S. population. While there are many commonalities among mothers, differences also exist, for example, in the age of motherhood, rates and timing of employment, and with whom parenting responsibilities are shared. Differences also exist across historical and cultural contexts, and in the individual and society’s interpretations of motherhood. However, every group has some basic tenets that help to define the role of mothers.

The age at which women become mothers varies broadly. Some women bear children as adolescents, while a growing number of women in their forties and fifties are now able to bear children because of advances in reproductive technologies. From 1970 to 2002 the average age of U.S. women at the birth of their first child rose from 21.4 years to 25.1 years. In the last twelve years the birth rate among teenage mothers (ages 15-19) decreased by 30 percent, accompanied by a 31 percent increase in birth rates among women aged 35-39 and a 51 percent increase for women aged 40-44. These changes in birth rates among teenage mothers and women aged 35-44 could explain the increase in the average age of a U.S. woman when she gives birth for the first time.

In the United States, the numbers of teenage women having children started declining well over ten years ago; many have attributed the decline in birth rates among this population to welfare reform that was enacted in 1996. Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) contains provisions that serve to reduce teenage pregnancy and dependency on welfare. In order to receive cash benefits under TANF, for example, a teenage parent must live with an adult over the age of 21 and attend school or job training. These provisions were included because of research findings indicating that teen mothers who live with their own mothers appear to benefit economically and cognitively from this arrangement. These findings are consistent with patterns of multigenerational living that have characterized family lives for centuries in diverse cultures around the world. In the United States, teen mothers who live in a multigenerational setting generally obtain more schooling than teen mothers who live in other arrangements. However, researchers have also found that this multigenerational arrangement may at times be a source of stress and conflict.

As has been the case throughout history, motherhood is associated with and influenced by features particular to the social and cultural context. In many industrialized societies, mothers find themselves trying to negotiate their careers or employment status in combination with motherhood. This particular negotiation is different from what is experienced by mothers in agrarian or traditional societies. Many women decide to stay home with their infants, if it is economically possible, and other women divide their time between work and home, working either part-time or full-time. Over the last 30 years, rates of maternal employment in the United States have increased dramatically. In 1976, 31 percent of mothers with children under the age of 1 were participating in the labor force. However, in 1998, 59 percent of mothers with children under the age of 1 were participating in the labor force. In 2004, 55 percent of U.S. women who had given birth in the last twelve months were either employed or looking for a job. Upon deciding to return to work, mothers must contend with arranging care for their young children, adapting to their role of motherhood, and attempting to balance their work and family life.

Research on the impact of work demands on a mother and the impact of these demands on the child has led to numerous changes in parental leave taking policies after the birth of a child as well as changes in policies limiting the amount of work hours. Parental leave policies in different cultures convey distinct interpretations of the maternal role, the mother-child relationship, and female participation in the workforce. For example, in Norway, a mother can take up to a year’s leave and receive 80 percent of her salary, and in Mexico mothers can take up to twelve weeks and receive 100 percent of their salary. In the United States women can take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave. As for policy changes in work hours, in 2000, France adopted a 35-hour workweek to help facilitate a parent’s negotiation of work and family life. Since mothers often are considered a major influence on their children’s development, some people (researchers, policymakers, religious organizations, family members) express concern that maternal employment puts children’s development at risk, since these young children would be cared for by nonmaternal caregivers.

According to the National Survey of America’s Families (NSAF), as of 2002, about three quarters of infants and toddlers of working mothers in the United States are in some form of child care. Child-care settings range from informal care by a relative to formal center-based care. About 39 percent of infants and toddlers are in care for an average of twenty-five hours per week. Although a debate exists around the effects of child-care participation on the development of young children, research has found that the quality of child care is correlated with cognitive, language, social and emotional developmental outcomes in young children (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 1998, 2000). However, the family exerts a much greater impact on children’s development than does child care. Mother’s perceptions of their experience at work, as well as the amount of earnings, also appear to impact their children’s development. A mother’s negative perception of her work experience and low earnings can lead to increased stress and difficulty managing the household. A positive perception and higher earnings can foster maternal mental health and enable participation in high-quality child care.

The sharing of parenting responsibilities also creates a demarcation for many women entering motherhood. Some women share the responsibilities with a spouse or partner while other women share the responsibilities with other family members (e.g., grandmother, aunts, siblings), and some women bear the sole responsibility of caring for their child. The number of single mothers has increased from 3 million in 1970 to 10 million in 2003. Rates of single fatherhood have also increased over this time. Of family groups in the United States that include children, about 26 percent have a single mother as the head of the household. About three quarters of all single parents are employed; therefore these parents are highly dependent on informal and formal child care. Young children of single mothers spend an average of thirty-four hours in child care, eleven hours more than the young children of two-parent families. About 46 percent of families headed by a single mother with a child under the age of 5 live below the poverty level. Researchers have found that children living in poverty are more likely to develop emotional, cognitive, and behavioral problems than children living above the poverty line.

Despite the age at which women become mothers, their employment status, or with whom child care responsibilities are shared, a major component of motherhood is adaptation to a role that is in constant flux as the child develops, as well as a conceptual adaptation to society’s expectations. As children develop, caretakers must constantly adapt to the child’s developmental needs. What a child needs from his mother as an infant varies from what that child needs as a toddler or adolescent. Because of this fluctuation in the child’s needs, the maternal role is a developmental process, with both stability and a need for flexibility and change.

Motherhood, in a societal context, is also in a state of flux. Conceptually, society’s expectations of motherhood in the United States are constantly debated. Although en masse, working mothers and single mothers have existed in the United States for generations, the general expectation for women traditionally has been marriage and, once pregnant, remaining at home to raise children. In the past, women who wanted to pursue a career had to abandon the prospect of becoming a parent. In some respects, this separation of career and parenthood for women has changed dramatically in the last 40 years. Policies have been enacted in order to support women’s pursuits of both careers and motherhood (e.g., Pregnancy Discrimination Act—outlawing discriminatory hiring practices because of pregnancy, Family and Medical Leave Act—providing a 12-week unpaid leave for eligible caretakers). Conversely, women have also been criticized for choices related to careers and motherhood. Many women, still, find balancing family and employment roles challenging yet rewarding.

Motherhood takes place alongside other roles that women play, both at home (e.g., spouse/partner, daughter, sibling), in the workplace (employer/employee), and in other social contexts (e.g., friend, volunteer). While most women thrive in all of these roles, balancing motherhood with other activities, roles, and expectations is complicated and at times stressful. Societies differ in the supports (both formal and informal) that are provided for mothering. Formal supports (e.g., U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act) have enabled women to become mothers while also continuing their participation in society. These formal supports, along with many informal supports provided by family and friends, also serve to provide women with information, material goods, and services (e.g., Women, Infants and Children [WIC], Child Care and Development Fund), and emotional support in her mothering role. Child-care services, parenting education programs, parenting support groups, and help from friends and family are important in supporting mothers and their children. When women have sources of social support (emotional, informational, tangible/material) they are able to be more effective and fulfilled as parents.

Many theories of child development emphasize the role that mothers have in their children’s development. Sigmund Freud, for example, highlighted the mother-infant relationship as the “prototype of all other love relationships.” Human infants are dependent on caregivers for a very long time. Typically, mothers play a primary role in meeting an infant’s biological and emotional needs. John Bowlby and others focused on the attachments that infants form to their mothers as an important component of personality development and adaptive functioning. While there are many influences on children’s development (including family environment, genetic/constitutional and social context), research has shown that positive development of children is facilitated by maternal sensitivity, empathy, emotional availability, and reciprocal interaction. Several factors influence a mother’s manner of interacting with her child, including the way in which she was parented, and her current circumstances and support for her as a mother. While the circumstances of motherhood vary across societies and contexts, mothers hold an important role in all societies, serving to nurture, educate, and increase the life chances of the next generation.

Further Readings: Barnard, K. E. and L. K. Martell (2002). Mothering. In M. H. Bornstein, ed., Handbook of parenting. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 3-26; Caudill, W. (1974). A comparison of maternal care and infant behavior in Japanese-American, American and Japanese Families. In William Lebra, ed., Mental health research in Asia and the Pacific. Vol. 3. Honolulu: East-West Center Press, pp. 4-15; Dye, J. L. (2005). Fertility of American women: June 2004 current population reports. U.S. (P20-555). Census Bureau, Washington, DC; Harkness, Sara and Charles Super, eds. (1996). Parents, cultural belief systems. New York: Guilford Press; Kamerman, S. B., M. Neuman, J. Waldfogel, and J. Brooks-Gunn (2003). Social policies, family types, and child outcomes in selected OECD countries. OECD Social, Employment, and Migration Working Papers (No. 6). Archived at http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/26/46/2955844.pdf.; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (1998). Early child care and self-control, compliance and problem behavior at twenty-four and thirty-six months. Child Development 69, 1145-1170; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2000).The relation of child care to cognitive and language development. Child Development 71, 960-980.

Claudia Miranda and M. Ann Easterbrooks