'My daughter has a career - I just raised babies': A researcher compares two generations
Archived article from Dec 6, 2004
By Carla Cantor
When Deborah Carr, assistant professor of sociology in New Brunswick/Piscataway, set out to compare the lives of mothers who came of age in the 1950s with the lives of their young adult daughters, she expected to find the mothers envious of their career-minded offspring.
She found just the opposite. “Midlife mothers respected their daughters, and were proud of their career accomplishments, but saw their lifestyle as problematic,” Carr says. Few described their daughters’ lives as more desirable than their own. “The mothers were concerned about their married daughters’ work-family stressors and troubled by their unmarried daughters’ personal lives.”
Carr’s study, “My Daughter has a Career – I Just Raised Babies: The Psychological Consequences of Women’s Intergenerational Comparisons,” appeared in the “Social Psychology Quarterly” in June. Her research is based on data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which tracked more than 10,000 Wisconsin high school graduates from the class of 1957 over a nearly 50-year span.
The mothers, primarily white women in their late 50s, had been raised with the traditional expectations of marriage and children, rather than high-powered careers. More than 80 percent were still in their first marriages at age 59. Their daughters, in their 20s and 30s, tended to have careers and were as likely as not to be married.
The older women perceived themselves as “stay-at-home” moms, although more than two-thirds had gone back to work (most commonly as teachers, secretaries or sales staff) after their children were grown. Most felt good about their life choices. “They characterized their decision to prioritize family over career pursuits as ‘in step’ with their peers,” Carr says.
The daughters, raised in the 1970s, were direct beneficiaries of the women’s movement and had richer educational and occupational opportunities than their mothers did. But these social changes also created “a new roadmap where women and men are expected to be both successful workers and involved parents,” Carr writes.
Social comparisons, or comparisons with significant others, are an important source of self-evaluation. “The ways that mothers compare their lives with their daughters provide important insights into how adults protect their self-esteem during periods of social change,” Carr says. The mothers with the highest self-esteem tended to take credit for their daughters’ outcomes and maintained the belief that they would have had the same successes as their daughters if they had entered adulthood in an era where richer career opportunities existed for women.
Carr will soon publish a study that focuses on father-son social comparisons based on the Wisconsin research. She and freelance journalist Julie Halpert also are expanding the mother-daughter study to include new mother-daughter pairs from a more ethnically and racially diverse sample. “We hope to develop ideas and strategies to help strengthen mother-daughter and father-son relationships that may be strained when adult children make life choices that are very different from their parents’,” Carr says.
Return to the Dec 6, 2004 issue