How Feminism Begat Intensive Mothering

Contrary to popular belief, intensive mothering is the product of the rise of women in society

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A rally for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, October 12, 1981

Feminism and motherhood have long been cast as feuding sisters, one always attempting to undermine the other. In this calculation, women had to choose between the independence, education and self-expression of the feminist path and the nurture, sacrifice and child-centricity of the family path. The more feminist a woman is, the less appetite, it has been suggested, she will have for mothering.

Ironically, however, the opposite is true.

Women’s rising social and economic power has not squelched their desire to be mothers. Quite the opposite: it has enabled women to mother with ferocity. They research; they seek out best practices; they join a group, form a committee and agitate for their version of feeding/disciplining/sleeping. If you don’t believe me, just visit a breast-feeding support group with former litigators, marketing executives and investment bankers. Reluctant sucklers don’t stand a chance.

(MORE: Confessions of an Accidental Attachment Parent)

At heart, the reality of the feminist revolution was that women could do just about anything. But to get the opportunity to do it, they had to surmount men’s — and other women’s — assumptions. They had to get educated, work hard and exceed the expectations of those around them. And it worked, pretty much.

More women now graduate from college than men. Young working females in dozens of big cities across the country earn more than young working males. A Big Business CEO with ovaries, while not common, is no longer a miraculous being.

But as women have brought more education and commitment to their careers, they have also brought those qualities to their other job: having and raising children. From the labor room onward, women strive to overdeliver. Attachment parenting requires sacrifice, dedication, strategizing and a lot of long hours doing thankless tasks. In other words, it’s exactly like climbing the corporate ladder. Except there is no glass ceiling. Or annual bonus.

(MORE: Parents Do What’s Right for Them, Not for the Kids)

This is not to say that the aims of motherhood and feminism are always in harmony. The affluent, slightly older and well-educated moms who are most likely perusing parenting books like those written by William Sears have already tasted financial independence, self-sufficiency and freedom of movement. They quickly become acutely aware that parenting severely curtails those things. And they want to make their sacrifices mean something. If they’re giving up so much to raise this new human, they’re going to make sure the kid is raised like a blue chip stock price.

Having been urged all their lives to make choices, take charge of their lives and be their best selves, they have become parents reflective of that push. We’ve educated women to forge a new path. Why did we think they’d treat raising children any differently?

MORE: Cover Story: “The Man Who Remade Motherhood”

MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage on Attachment Parenting