Myth of the Perfect Family

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Myth of the Perfect Family

Book excerpt

By: Edward L. Schor

Date: 2000

Source: Schor, Edward L., ed. Caring for Your School-Age Child Ages 5 to 12. New York: Bantam Books, 2000.

About the Author: A pediatrician by training, Edward L. Schor is assistant vice-president at the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that supports independent research on health and social issues and makes grants to improve health care practice and policy. He has also served on the editorial boards of several pediatric journals.


Among the most significant societal changes during the 1800s was the emergence of the urban middle-class. Prior to American industrialization, men and women typically labored on farms, sharing jobs as appropriate and making or growing most of what they needed to survive. As Americans migrated to cities and men took professional jobs in factories and offices, the work roles of men and women became increasingly distinct.

The role of homemaker soon became imbued with almost spiritual qualities. One perspective, known to its detractors as the cult of domesticity or the cult of true womanhood, portrayed the role of wife and mother as the highest calling a woman could heed; proponents of this philosophy also offered detailed guidance on how a woman might excel in this calling. This philosophy included four virtues that any true woman should embody: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. According to this perspective, a man might choose from thousands of occupations, but a woman was divinely intended for only one.

The specifics of domesticity were extensively discussed in women's books and magazines of the mid-1800s. The repetitive tasks of housekeeping, such as dusting furniture and making beds, were claimed to provide excellent exercise, as well as develop self-discipline. While others might refer to women's rights as something to be fought for and won, true women were encouraged to see their roles as mother, wife, cook, and housekeeper as divine rights, more than adequate for a fulfilling, though potentially overwhelming life. Writing in 1864, author and home-maker Lydia Child summarized her year's labor: In addition to daily cooking and cleaning, she had also canned fruit, cared for numerous sick children, mended clothing, and sewn linens for the home.

While the cult of domesticity bestowed a high value on a woman's daily work, it also placed upon her an inordinate amount of responsibility. Women were viewed as the sexual moderators of society and were frequently blamed for men's infidelity; an unfaithful husband was frequently assumed to have wandered due to his wife's inattention. Despite limited resources and little spending discretion, women were frequently blamed if a family's clothing and general appearance were shoddy or if the house was not up to current standards. And in cases where children broke the law or otherwise strayed, their mothers, perceived to control their destinies, were frequently blamed.

Once they had been convinced of domesticity's profound value, women were given numerous suggestions as to how this ideal might be achieved. In legalistic fashion women often struggled to meet self-imposed quotas on household tasks, convinced that their family's success and their husband's happiness rested squarely on their frail shoulders.

Just as the push for domesticity was reaching full steam, reformers such as Susan B. Anthony began campaigning for women's equality—both legal and social. Thanks to their efforts, women received the right to vote in 1920. While women's rights continued to increase during the twentieth century, the 1950s saw a resurgence of the domesticity ideal. As marketers sought to sell new domestic tools and services, they quickly reverted to the ideals of a century before, with advertisements showing attractively dressed women in high heels vacuuming or washing dishes. Some commercials explained how much happier women would be if their houses were kept spotless, while others suggested that a husband's lack of physical interest might be his wife's fault and conveniently recommended a solution for purchase.

By the dawn of the twenty-first century, American families were more diverse than ever before; fewer than one family in five consisted of two parents and their biological children. Despite this change and over a century of advances in women's rights, some mothers still worried that they might be making a mess of their families. Some of the same myths perpetrated by nineteenth century domesticity still haunt mothers today.


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As American families become increasingly diverse, some traditional parenting advice has become less useful. Many Americans' perceptions of the ideal family developed from watching 1950s television shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet, shows that even in their era portrayed a simplified, sanitized version of American family life. Given the societal changes in the half-century since these shows originally aired, their relevance to today's families appears quite limited.

Although the roles of parents continue to change and the challenges facing families are becoming more complex, today's parents have access to far more abundant resources than did their predecessors. Modern parents are typically better educated than their parents were, with access to literally hundreds of books, videos, and seminars on improving parenting skills. The modern family can never achieve perfection, but successful parents acknowledge and accept that limitation. Parenting in the twenty-first century, just as in the nineteenth, requires patience, persistence, and a willingness to make mistakes in pursuit of a healthy family life.



DuBois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement In America, 1849–1869. Cornell University Press, 1978.

Safer, Jeanne. Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life without Children. New York: Pocket Books, 1996.

Warner, Judith. Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.


Dolev, R., et al. "How to Be a Good Parent in Bad Times: Constructing Parenting Advice about Terrorism." Child Care, Health and Development. 32 (July 2006): 467-476.

MacInnes, John. "Work-Life Balance in Europe: A Response to the Baby Bust or Reward for the Baby Boomers." European Societies. 8 (2006): 223-249.

Welter, Barbara. "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860." American Quarterly. 18, no. 2, part 1 (Summer 1966):151-174.

Web sites

Musee McCord Museum. "The Cult of Domesticity." June 8, 2006 〈〉 (accessed June 17, 2006).

Public Broadcasting Service. "Cult of True Womanhood." 〈〉 (accessed June 17, 2006).