Data on Motherhood The Atlantic Monthly

Number of Births Per 1,000 Women, by Age Group, from The Atlantic (May 2018)

Over the centuries, Western culture has both idealized and scapegoated the image of mothers in society. In the U.S. today, the percentage of American women who are mothers is lower than it has been in a quarter-century.  There is much to be said about the choices, and challenges, of motherhood. This is a conversation for everyone, not just parents. We have several ShopTalk presenters ready to enrich the discussion with history, research, and contemporary realities of motherhood.

Jodi Vandenberg-Daves is a historian and professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Her book, Modern Motherhood: An American History, is the first synthesis of the history of motherhood in the United States. Book her free ShopTalk discussion, “Being Mom: A Conversation About Motherhood in Modern History” or “Workplace Equity for Mothers.”

Jessica Lyn Van Slooten is an Associate Professor of English, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at UW-Manitowoc. She teaches courses on women writers, gender and popular culture, multicultural American literature, and composition. Book her free ShopTalk discussion, “How I Didn’t Become a Mother: Childless Women, Family, and Professional Success.


Why it matters

The graph above shows the complexity of the declining birth rate in the U.S. Simply put, the share of the American population who are mothers is at the lowest point it has been in a quarter-century. Economist Lyman Stone made some educated guesses about the factors behind the data and the possible social implications of this trend in “The Decline of American Motherhood.” (The Atlantic, May 13, 2018)

While millennial working women may embrace traditional notions of what this survey calls ‘motherliness,” the same survey shows that few are optimistic about combining parenting and career.

Data collection and interpretation on parenting trends from economists and statisticians, such as Stone, can truly help us understand contemporary social trends and tendencies. However, motherhood is a value-loaded concept that fuels many heated conversations. 

For a robust humanities approach to interpreting the concept of motherhood, we like Jacqueline Rose’s book “Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty.” Rose explains that over the centuries, Western culture has both idealized and scapegoated the image of mothers in society. This historical process, she asserts, leads us to create and impose impossible expectations and cruel habits both of mind and practice over women.  

She concludes that ‘motherhood is, in Western discourse, the place in our culture where we lodge, or rather bury, the reality of our own conflicts, or what it means to be fully human’.  You can learn more about Rose, and her  scholarly perspective on the roots of our cultural understanding of motherhood, in gender studies expert Zoe Strimpel’s article “It’s impossible to live up to the expectations of motherhood.

Check out all our ShopTalk discussion starters about Women’s Working Lives and book a free event in your community today!

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