circa 1960: A mother feeds her baby a bottle.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
By Lily Rothman
May 6, 2016

Some aspects of being a mother never change. But, with Mother’s Day approaching this weekend, it’s worth remembering that society’s ideas of what made a newsworthy mother have shifted significantly over the years.

With help from the TIME archives, here’s a look at the stories and trends that have made motherhood news over the decades:

1937: And How They Grew

From the time of their birth in Canada in 1934, the Dionne Quintuplets captured the world’s attention. According to TIME’s initial report, they were “the 31st authentically known quintuplet in 500 years” and, after five days, they were the first known set to have lived that long. In retrospect, however, their mother’s story is a shocking one. When TIME caught up with the quints in a cover story in 1937, it was clear that their mother Elzire Dionne had been nearly replaced by the doctors who monitored the children. She had borne six children (five surviving) before the quints, and gave birth to another within about two years of the quints. By the time of her death in 1986, she had given birth to 14 children. But after the birth, her role in the quintuplets’ lives was minimal:

Medicine has controlled their every moment ever since Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe delivered them. Their birthday party this week will be a strictly hygienic affair. They will wear special party dresses with embroidery and ribbons, but their parents Oliva & Elzire Dionne, their five older brothers and sisters who are to eat most of the birthday cake, will be obliged to wear white cotton hospital gowns over their everyday clothes. If any one of them has a cold or even looks ill, he will lose his invitation to the party.

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1942: Women, Women Everywhere

As war swept the world, the idealized 1940s woman could be found in the factory just as frequently as she was found at the family hearth. However, motherhood still usually meant an end to work outside the home:

But for every woman who puts on unaccustomed overalls and goes to the factory for the swing shift, another puts on unaccustomed finery (sales of black lace underwear are booming) and travels to places she has never been before to be with her man in uniform. And for every woman who takes up a new occupation another takes up the oldest occupation—older than the oldest profession—motherhood.

1960: The Roots of Home

In a 1960 cover story about the suburban wife, TIME trained its lens at the rituals of family life in America at the close of the suburbia-embracing 1950s. And, in a world where fathers were expected to be away at work in the city, the magazine found that the mother was the center of daily suburban life. The picture of her routines reads as stereotypically retrograde today, all cooking and cleaning, but lurking below that pre-Feminine Mystique picture of white American womanhood was an nod at her power:

The key figure in all Suburbia, the thread that weaves between family and community—the keeper of the suburban dream—is the suburban housewife. In the absence of her commuting, city-working husband, she is first of all the manager of home and brood, and beyond that a sort of aproned activist with a penchant for keeping the neighborhood and community kettle whistling. With children on her mind and under her foot, she is breakfast getter (“You can’t have ice cream for breakfast because I say you can’t”); laundress, house cleaner, dishwasher, shopper, gardener, encyclopedia, arbitrator of children’s disputes, policeman (“Tommy, didn’t your mother ever tell you that it’s not nice to go into people’s houses and open their refrigerators?”).

1971: Single Motherhood

Within a decade, much had changed. Among the options opened for women during the 1960s was the possibility of respectable single motherhood, and some women seized the chance:

“I see no other way out,” Actress Lupe Velez wrote in 1944 before committing suicide. She was taking her life, she explained, because she was pregnant and her lover refused to marry her. Times have changed. During the past two years, such unwed public figures as Actresses Vanessa Redgrave and Mia Farrow and—just last week—Irish Firebrand and Member of Parliament Bernadette Devlin have chosen another way: they have openly and happily given birth to their babies. In an era of general sexual permissiveness, this new tolerance for unwed motherhood is not confined to the swinging world of show business and the anti-Establishment subculture; it has also become a middle-class phenomenon in conventional communities in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe.

MORE: 3 Historical Arguments Against Mother’s Day

1984: The New Origins of Life

By the 1980s, the topic of motherhood—at least on the conception side—was fodder for the science section, as individuals eager to become parents turned to new technology to help make their dreams reality. In 1984, TIME took a look at the new “age of the test-tube baby” and why more and more women were making use of the new technology:

The Bargers are victims of what Reproductive Endocrinologist Martin Quigley of the Cleveland Clinic calls “an epidemic” of infertility in the U.S. In the past 20 years, the incidence of barrenness has nearly tripled, so that today one in six American couples is designated as infertile, the scientific term for those who have tried to conceive for a year or more without success. More than a million of these desperate couples seek the help of doctors and clinics every year. Women no longer carry the sole blame for childless marriages. Research has found that male deficiencies are the cause 40% of the time, and problems with both members of the marriage account for 20% of reported cases of infertility.

2002: Babies vs. Career

Around the turn of the millennium, the big topic in motherhood was the struggle with work-life balance. As shown by a number of TIME articles over the years, women were confronting the sometimes conflicting desires to be have both family and career. Though some women chose not to have children on purpose, this 2002 cover story described what happened to those who found themselves approaching that situation with regret:

Recent Census data support Hewlett’s research: childlessness has doubled in the past 20 years, so that 1 in 5 women between ages 40 and 44 is childless. For women that age and younger with graduate and professional degrees, the figure is 47%. This group certainly includes women for whom having children was never a priority: for them, the opening of the work force offered many new opportunities, including the chance to define success in realms other than motherhood. But Hewlett argues that many other women did not actually choose to be childless. When she asked women to recall their intentions at the time they were finishing college, Hewlett found that only 14% said that they definitely did not want to have children.

For most women Hewlett interviewed, childlessness was more like what one called a “creeping nonchoice.” Time passes, work is relentless. The travel, the hours—relationships are hard to sustain. By the time a woman is married and settled enough in her career to think of starting a family, it is all too often too late.

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2003: When Mom Goes to War

TIME caught up with the first-ever married American battalion commanders going into battle together, Lieut. Colonel Laura Richardson and Lieut. Colonial Jim Richardson. Though the Richardson’s situation was unique, the increasing number of women serving in the military meant that more and more women were, like Laura Richardson, confronting what it meant to be both mom and soldier:

The pressure on families is growing because longer and more frequent deployments make for wrenching choices. As the number of women on active duty reaches 200,000, of a total of 1.4 million, it means that more mothers are likely to discover what it really means to balance job and family under extreme circumstances. The commute is hell, the business trip can last six months or a year, and the note left for the baby sitter includes your power of attorney and your will. Those who have husbands staying behind while they deploy find themselves conducting a crash course in smooth braids and matching clothes. “I gotta tip my hat to women,” says Robert Ward, 31, a father of three whose wife has just shipped out to the gulf from Fort Campbell. “I didn’t know it was so hard. Really hard.”


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