The image of mother at home, tending to the needs of her family, so popularized by sitcoms in the 1950s and 1960s, is actually a cultural anomaly. As Shari L. Thurer points out in The Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother
(1994) the “fifties were an aberration” (250). Rather than being the norm, the nuclear family depicted by television families such as the Cleavers, the Nelsons, the Reeds et al
, reflect a family model that existed for a very short time (the 1950s and early 1960s) in Western culture. Thurer’s point is not to disparage or laud the nuclear family but merely to point out that the frozen image of mom at home caring for her family while dad goes out to make money does not accurately reflect our history. As Thurer explains, a mother’s role and what culture perceives as the ideal mother, has undergone many permutations over time. More importantly, what we view as some sort innate ideal model of motherhood is always a social construct, an invention rather than a given.
Despite the relative brevity of the “at-home mom” in American society, that image remains our enduring model of motherhood. While viewing the at-home mother as the “ideal,” the mother’s dominance on the homefront was simultaneously the focus of criticism. As Thurer points out, in both literary and critical texts, mothers were blamed for society’s ills. For mothers, it was a classic lose-lose situation. Mothers who did not stay at home were viewed as unnatural (and caused their family psychic harm) while mothers who did remain at home were also blamed for every neurotic/psychotic impulse their family later evinced.
Oddly, even many feminists participated in the collective mother-bashing and provided accounts of how they were “victimized” by their mothers (270). Thurer, citing the arguments of Nancy Chodorow and Susan Contratto, speculates that the reason many feminists exclude mothers from their celebration of women hinges on their tendency to see mothers as all-powerful and thus all-responsible: “the cause of feminists’ debunking of mom [is their:] belief—to everyone’s belief—in an all-powerful mother, who, because she is fully responsible for how her children turn out, is blamed for everything, from her child’s limitations to the crises of human existence” (270).
Persistently, motherhood remains a site of ambivalence. The power mothers are imagined to have—in the domestic arena—is often viewed as destructive. Outside of the home, in the cultural/intellectual sphere, mothers have/had no power at all. As Thurer astutely notes, by the late 1970s “it was still only Portnoy’s complaint that mattered, not his mother’s” (286). Further, if mothers were complaining it was not in print; the autobiographies and books that were being written emerged from their daughters.[from an earlier publication:]