the nostalgia trap: our mother’s didn’t have it as easy as we thought, so give her a break, and yourself too

Posted on Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Recent research shows that women of the “golden years” (mid-twentieth century) didn’t have the easy life after all.  Now, as middle-class women look more closely at their mother’s generation, some are learning to be less hard on themselves and are stopping the crushing comparisons with their so-called perfect mothers.  Read on to learn why you should give your mother a break, and yourself too!


Comparing Millennials and Baby Boomers

I’m too stressed, I can’t keep up with the cleaning, I wish I could spend more time with the kids, I am too exhausted to be intimate with my husband, there’s never enough time for me.  I just wish I could just live when times were easier, simpler, and slower! 

If you can relate to these common complaints by current working and stay at home mothers, you are not alone.  Most millennial females, also known as generation Y babies born between the 1970s and 1990s, have a preconceived idea that they must be the best employee, the best mother – well, the best everything.  While demographics and culture identity vary, most women of this generation are comparably struggling with the sense of not being “good enough” especially when comparing the way things are today with the way things used to be; the times of the baby boomers or post World War II babies roughly born between the 1940s and 1960s.

When most people think of the infamous Leave to Beaver or Ozzie and Harriet shows that portrayed the happy, put-together working middle-class American family of the mid twentieth century, they whimsically reminisce of the good-ol’-days.  Many studies show that this feeling of nostalgia for the golden years is a common misconception and this inaccuracy is creating a negative influence on perceptions of the present, particularly for middle class American women.  Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, suggests that families have always been in flux and often in crisis; they have never lived up to nostalgic notions about “the way things used to be”.  She says that people need shared stories and rituals to bring them together and reinforce social solidarity, but myths that create unrealistic expectations about what families can or should do and can create a sense of failure.  I myself was a victim of believing these myths, which is why I set out to find the real answers of the past.


A Millenial’s Personal Interest

My initial interest was to research the impact of increased stress and overwork of modern day middle-class Americans, looking at both male and female roles and its detrimental effects on relationships, specifically addressing marriages.  As I researched the enormous amount of information about the history of marriage and divorce, I discovered that divorce is not currently as rampant in the twenty first century as I was naively expecting to find compared to the past century.  Instead, it became clearer that divorce has not gone up or down drastically, but that many current couples are marrying later in life and not as often.  If I was making a nostalgic assumption that the recent past (early and mid twentieth century) was easier than the twenty first century and claimed that American families had more time together, worked less and that the divorce rate was lower, what other assumptions might others be making?  Was I the only woman that thought women in my parent’s generation had it all?  As I continued researching and discussing this topic with academic experts, I came to realize that this common misconception is not only very popular, specifically among women, but that it also impacts their perception of their current lives.


Myth #1: Did Housewives Have It Easier in the Past?

The first common misconception I wanted to research was that contemporary women are struggling for balance with work, being mothers and “doing it all” and believe times were easier in the previous generation when women were stay at home mothers.  One thing is for sure; modern day women are as busy as ever.  But in order to understand this claim, it is important to learn more about how women became so busy.  Darrah, Freeman, English-Lueck, San Jose State Professors and authors of Busier Than Ever show that dual-earner couples have been on the rise and that this upsurge of participation in labor force was largely due to the demand of female employment.  The shocking statistics throughout their book prove that more women today are in the labor force than in the previous generation and dual-income earning families are now busier and struggling to maintain balance between work, the household and leisure.  So, one could say that women today have it tough, and baby boomers had the easy life, right?  Well, it’s not so cut and dry.

Romanticizing about the past is an easy scapegoat.  When one looks at the reality, the discovery of unhappiness and lack of leisure becomes apparent.  Dianna Shandy and Karine Moe, authors of the article The Opt-Out Phenomenon: Women, Work and Identity of America, discuss women’s frustration and exhaustion of the “juggle and struggle” lifestyle they encounter.  They describe the “aha!” moment of a woman in their study who admits that her mother was not successful in multitasking work and motherhood and realizes that perhaps she wasn’t the only one.  Looking even further into the past also helps us understand the changes women faced in the mid twentieth century.  Nineteenth century middle-class women had let servants do their housework, but the women of the 1950s, on the other hand, felt guilty (sound familiar?).  The juggling of housework without the assistance of servants was not an easy feat and women were not sitting in their homes with smiles on their faces as often portrayed.  Stephanie Coontz explains that women were in fact not watching their children and maintaining sexual excitement with their husbands as expected, but rather desperately reaching out to therapists, or even worse, pills and alcohol to handle their lives, a life quite opposite of the Leave it to Beaver housewife.  Numerous women masked and kept secret the unhappiness of their expectations to be a good mother and provide for the husbands intimate needs; this ultimately led to self-destruction and lack of self-worth.  So you see, your mothers did not have it so easy after all.  They too felt a sense of guilt that they could not keep up even when they were less involved in the work force than today’s mothers.

When Millennials come to this truth, they can then stop asking themselves, Why can’t I do this if my mother could?, or saying, I wish I could go back to the days when being a woman and a housewife was easier, because life was not easier.  Disproving the nostalgia of women of the baby boomer generation reveals a difficult life that was not simpler than today, but rather, women of today are able to share their views and create unique situations that work within their family unit and personal happiness.


Myth #2: Were Men Better Fathers in the Baby Boomer Generation?

The second common myth I investigated was that women today believe men do not spend as much time with their families and there was more time together in previous generations.  The sitcom visuals of Ozzie and Harriet or Leave it to Beaver create a sense of life where women had the house clean with cookies in the oven when the husband came home at 5pm.  In actuality, findings based on the U.S. Department of Labor, Quality of Employment Survey and the Families and Work Institute reveal that fathers today spend a significant more amount of their with their children than they did three decades ago. This misconception creates unhappy marriages based on idealistic comparisons rather than truth.  Instead of nagging husbands for working too much and not spending enough time with their children, women should compliment their husbands for this improvement from the previous generation.

In addition to the time husbands are dedicating to their children, Richard Lewine explains in Changing Families, that the so-called loving and caring generation X fathers that returned from work were in fact brash, forceful and often the cause of emotional unhappiness for many children. While it is clear to see that all children are affected from childhood experiences and parenting style, fathers should not be condoned when compared to the way fathers were.  Most women dream of a Fred MacMurray Father from My Three Sons, but unfortunately they are dreaming of a sitcom life that was not authentic and should instead focus on the positive attributes of the men of today’s middle-class society.


Stop Comparing and Find Time for Life

In order to enjoy the pleasures of today, it is crucial to have an accurate understanding of that past.  If we conclude that women were unhappy in the past and that there was a collapse of the American family, then women today should look at this as an opportunity to rebuild the modern American family.  Instead of repeating the past and running to pills, alcohol and therapists, the middle-class Millenials today can see the benefits of today’s society. Debunking the common misunderstandings will allow women to not only appreciate what they have today, but stop living in the past and starting living in the present and enjoying it.  Many Americans are doing better than they realize and that misconception is powerful.  American women need better ideals that can help them see that they are living the good life now rather than comparing themselves to the impractical mothers that the misleading sitcoms and inaccurate, nostalgic stories of the past implied.  So ladies, it is now time to honor yourself as a woman, as a mother, as a wife…and go thank your mother for doing the best she could too.


feature image, Rita’s bedroom, provided by Claire Kirkup


  1. I LOVED this article! Great comparisons to women today with our mothers and grandmothers. I agree, we need to get out there and stop making excuses of why we don’t have enough time in our day. I have so much respect for my mother. I strive to be like her everyday and raise my kids with the same values and morals. She always made sure we had good times and those childhood memories stay with me today. I need to get off the couch and start making those memories with my children before it’s too late!!

    Great article!

    • Hi Miss,

      I am so glad you liked the post. I had such a great time exploring this topic, as I too think about the type of mother I want to be. You are a wonderful mother that is making so many memories with your children, and it’s great to hear you keep challenging yourself to be the best mom you can be!

      I look up to mothers and families because I know there is so much to balance. I know I’ll be asking you for advice when little ones fill my home.

  2. Nicely done with compiling the research and fighting the misconceptions of our times vs. our mothers. This article reminded me of the devotional book “Becoming a Women of Simplicity” by Cynthia Heald. I highly recommend it to women who struggle with all the demands of our busy life. Heald quotes a poem by William Wordsworth written in the early 1800’s,

    “The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

    And I think this supports your point that even in the 1800’s that generation struggled with over consumption and giving their hearts away to living beyond simplicity – living beyond what we can handle as a balanced life. Heald goes on to say that her grandmother born in 1892 did have a simple life because she didn’t have as many possessions. She says, “Her world was not perfect, but at least it did not constantly intrude into her life and continually challenge her to find peace and rest.” Here, I’d rather take your point raised in this article that Heald should realize that even in the 1800’s, there was plenty to distract her grandmother from this goal of a balanced life. It’s each persons responsibility to take this goal daily and have the mind set to fight this important battle.

    Thanks again for being my reminder of this important concept this week!

    • Hi Kim,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You are always reading something great, and I look forward to looking into this book, along with my long list of others on my wishlist.

      The great William Wordsworth, as most always, does sum it up beautifully. I love the point about things not bringing more happiness, but rather more stress and complications. I can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts on some of the other posts.

  3. Kim,

    One more note. Each morning, I read an excerpt from Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach. I snagged it at the local library for one dollar from the friends of the library sales. The reading for today was around this topic. Ironically the author quotes a book that she too got for a dollar deal at the library. She quotes Abbie Graham, author of Ceremonials of Common Days written in 1923.

    “But as I watch the stars of evening, and in the morning open my window toward the east, I shall observe the Ceremonial of quietness of heart, of simplicity, and poise of spirit, that I may keep my soul and the souls of others free from entanglements in the machinery of the day.”

  4. Great Article. It seems that every generation paints a perfect picture of the past, thinking things were always easier for others. I’ve noticed so many people reference “Leave it to Beaver” as the ideal family. Not long ago I watched an interview with the actress who played Mrs. Cleaver (the mother) and she explain the behind-the-scenes of her character.

    This perfect image of a housewife cleaning the home wearing heals and pearls has a funny back story. When asked why the character wore pearls, she said the camera cast a shadow over her throat in an unattractive way, so the pearls helped hid it. When asked why the character always wore heals, she said “because the boys were growing, so I had to look taller. I’m lucky they didn’t make me stand on an apple box!”. Isn’t that funny!

    And when we look at her perfect home with her spotless kitchen and streak-free windows, it’s helpful to remember that the mother didn’t clean all that, the prop department did. It’s funny how we often compare ourselves with the ideals of television personas, when in reality, no one was that way. That’s the whole idea of television, to escape reality and spend half an hour in an ideal world.

    Can’t wait to read more posts!

    • Hi Colleen,

      Very interesting points. True, the television world along with our modern “reality tv” sure isn’t all that “real.” I don’t have a television since I don’t enjoy much of what is showing (besides public television), but I do enjoy movies and some old sitcoms. Did you used to watch I Love Lucy on nick at nite? I recently checked out some of the series again from the library (I used to love that show when I was little) and it is interesting to see the house set up, clothing, and roles. I love the tenacity and rambunctiousness of the character of Lucy. Watch out 1950s, we’ve got a wild one leading the way for women! Perhaps the future generations will look back at our shows such as desperate housewives or parenthood episodes and question the ways we lived our lives… It’s definitely a discussion that evokes endless emotion and debate.

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