Cultural Messengers

What is America's greatest source of strength and inspiration? According to the U.S. Congress, it's American mothers. Stay-at-home moms, Congress declared, are "doing so much for the home... and [for] religion," which leads to "good government and humanity." Okay, as you may have guessed, the present 106th Congress said no such thing. Good heavens, radical feminists would never allow it! But the Congress did use these words 86 years ago when it created Mother's Day. The words reflect the widespread belief that full-time mothers were performing a vitally important task. How times have changed. Within just a few decades, it appears, few mothers believe this truth any more, which is another indication of the power of cultural messages. In 1914, when the first Mother's Day was celebrated, virtually every cultural messenger, from women's magazines to Congress, praised mothers who devoted themselves to their children. But by the 1950s, cultural messengers had another story to tell. Instead of honoring full-time mothers, the messengers began scorning them as "parasites" who wasted their brains. For editorial writers, Mother's Day became an occasion to celebrate, not the hardworking mother at home, but the mom who brought home a paycheck. And the message sank in: By 1996, more than two-thirds of married mothers of young children worked outside the home at least part-time. In his book, There's No Place Like Work, Brian Robertson writes that decisions about child care and work are formed "in response to subtle and not-so- subtle messages of cultural acceptability." If we hold up as cultural heroes, for example, young mothers who put their careers ahead of family, he says, "We should not be surprised that fewer women are devoting themselves to [their] children... even if such devotion is necessary." The good news is that more and more mothers are telling cultural messengers to get lost. In 1997, the number of married mothers of young children who worked for wages declined for the first time since the 1950s. And a USA Today poll reveals that a solid majority of mothers working full-time would prefer to work part-time -- or not at all. Robertson speculates that these changes may represent a growing hostility by mothers to the idea that the workplace is where they ought to be seeking fulfillment. One of these mothers is economist Jennifer Roback Morse. Once upon a time, Morse says, she was one of those women who argued that a career is too important to sacrifice in order to stay home with kids. She admits her negative feelings about the domestic life were the result of cultural conditioning. But then Morse had children of her own -- and she realized she had been brainwashed. "There is no good substitute for my care," she declares. "Hired help cannot create a home or raise a child." It's not easy for mothers to ignore cultural messengers who say they're wasting their time at home. But you and I ought to give full-time mothers all the support they deserve. Maybe it would be a good idea if Congress would pass a new Mother's Day Resolution, like the one they passed in the beginning, to honor moms who willingly sacrifice a career for the sake of their kids. Feminist leaders might pitch a fit -- but millions of moms would be eternally grateful.


Chuck Colson


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