I’m finally reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), and there are lots of fascinating details about white middle-class U.S. culture of the 1950s and early 1960s, but one thing in the first chapter particularly stood out to me. While describing the “new neuroses” women were suffering from during this period, Friedan comments on the effect the feminine mystique (and women’s behaviors as a result of it) had on children:
And strange new problems are being reported in the growing generations of children whose mothers were always there, driving them around, helping them with their homework–an inability to endure pain or discipline or pursue any self-sustained goal of any sort, a devastating boredom with life. Educators are increasingly uneasy about the dependence, the lack of self-reliance, of the boys and girls who are entering college today. “We fight a continual battle to make our students assume manhood,” said a Columbia dean.
This is strikingly similar to the ideas in an article by Julie Lythcott-Haims about the children of helicopter parents that’s been making the rounds on social media this week:
When parents have tended to do the stuff of life for kids—the waking up, the transporting, the reminding about deadlines and obligations, the bill-paying, the question-asking, the decision-making, the responsibility-taking, the talking to strangers, and the confronting of authorities, kids may be in for quite a shock when parents turn them loose in the world of college or work. They will experience setbacks, which will feel to them like failure.
This, then, Lythcott-Haims continues, leads to young people not knowing how to cope on their own and, it seems, to higher rates of depression and anxiety.
What does it say about our current attitudes toward parenting that we are still seeing the same problem Friedan describes in 1963? Is this a resurgence of the feminine mystique?
Well, sort of.
Women are not still expected to stay home and be just a wife and mother in the same way that Friedan describes. However, women do still deal with the pressure to be perfect mothers. Perhaps there is less pressure, given the shifts in our culture regarding marriage and divorce and women’s rights since the 1960s, to be the perfect wife – that might seem too retrograde – but women are still expected to be (or at least to want to be) mothers and, once they have children, they are still expected to sacrifice everything for their children and to commit to motherhood in ways that might not be totally sane or healthy. Perfect motherhood requires breastfeeding, having the best and most educational toys, providing a wide range of activities to fill the child’s days, as well as protecting the child from everything at all times. Failure to do any of these or the many other things that perfect motherhood demands means failure as a mother and a woman. Success, however, will prove that it’s possible to have it all. Erica Jong writes,
Some parenting gurus suggest that helicopter parenting became the rage as more mothers went to work outside the home. In other words, it was a kind of reaction formation, a way for mothers to compensate for their absence and guilt and also for the many dangerous and uncontrollable things in the modern family’s environment. This seems logical to me. As we give up on ideals of community, we focus more and more on our individual children, perhaps not realizing that the community and the child cannot be separated.
Women’s magazines and mom blogs package this approach to parenting as a positive thing, competition to get kids into good schools and colleges (so they can get good jobs and repeat this pattern for themselves) reinforces it, parents internalize it. Thus, helicopter parents are born. This process and its result recapitulates a part of the feminine mystique as described by Friedan.
It is worth noting that helicopter parents – as the term indicates – are not just mothers. This term isn’t gendered in the same way that the feminine mystique obviously is. It is gendered in practice even if not in terminology, though, because there is much more discussion in our culture of being a good mom, and ideas of parenting are still more thoroughly applied to women than to men. This element of the feminine mystique hasn’t entirely broken free of its gendered roots; nonetheless, it has expanded its range and is no longer limited to women. This isn’t a good thing – not because it should remain tied to women (it definitely should not), but because it is dangerous for all of us.
Obviously, having a child means sacrificing some things and working to be a good parent, but as this pattern of damage reveals, how we think about being the best parent possible (or even a good parent) clearly needs some revision. Maybe “best” means something a little freer and less restrictive for both parents and children. Betty Friedan includes a passage in The Feminine Mystique from English feminist Ida Alexa Ross Wylie that further supports this idea:
Most of my fellow-fighters were wives and mothers. And strange things happened to their domestic life. Husbands came home at night with a new eagerness. . . . As for children, their attitude changed rapidly from one of affectionate toleration for poor, darling mother to one of wide-eyed wonder. Released from the smother of mother love, for she was too busy to be more than casually concerned with them, they discovered that they liked her. She was a great sport. She had guts.
Friedan shows us that putting children alone at the center of adult lives is unfulfilling for (most) adults; the problems associated with helicopter parenting show us that doing this is harmful to children as well; and Wylie even further indicates that changing this practice is good for both parents and children.
Ultimately, then, recent studies linking helicopter parenting to depression and anxiety in children and young adults indirectly support a feminist argument. The results of these studies back feminism’s argument that it’s not evil and selfish to think of yourself and not just of your children or husband. In addition, they show that the backlash against feminism, which argued that the feminist movement and the working women it empowered were destructive and harmful to children, was wrong.
These results and the ongoing discussions of helicopter parenting – as well as the backlash against free-range parenting – also reveal that although many things in our culture may have changed over the last 50-plus years, elements of the feminine mystique are still with us. And as long as that’s true, Betty Friedan’s work is still necessary.