U.S. National Institutes of Health

Class 1: Modern Motherhood


The module begins with a class session about the complicated and shifting position of middle class mothers in the 1950s and 1960s. The secondary sources prepare students to analyze primary sources like magazine articles, films, and medical textbooks. Students consider different ideas about the family and the kinds of expert advice available to families in the mid-20th century. These different sources of advice and expectations about parenting informed a great deal of the debate around rubella. The various ways that mothers were instructed to protect their children from disability shape this class discussion.

  • Vandenberg-Daves, Jodi. Modern Motherhood: An American History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014, pp. 173–209.
  • If Your Child Has a Congenital Heart Defect. New York: American Heart Association, 1967.
  • “Can Mothers Influence Unborn Children?” Jet (July 8, 1954): 28–30.
  • National Institutes of Health. “Infections and Birth Defects: A Research Approach.” Filmed 1966, 20 mins. Posted by National Library of Medicine, 2016. http://resource.nlm.nih.gov/101661857.
  • Stander, Henricus Johannes. Textbook of Obstetrics, Designed for the Use of Students and Practitioners. Stander’s 3d revision. New York: D. Appleton–Century Company, 1945, pp. 496–497.

  1. What are some of the events and trends that happened in the 1950s and 1960s that contributed to American culture’s fascination with the nuclear family?
  2. How did rubella threaten the idea of a nuclear family?
  3. Citing examples from the Jet article and American Heart Association pamphlet, explain what kinds of anxieties women felt about the health of their children? How did these materials position a woman’s blame for disease or disability in a child?
  4. Citing examples from Infections and Birth Defects and the Textbook of Obstetrics, what role did experts imagine that mothers had in relationship to their children’s health?
  5. How would you describe the tone used to address mothers in the Jet article? What does it tell you about how American culture treated mothers during this time?
  6. What roles and expectations do you ascribe to the mothers described in Vandenberg-Daves’ chapter? How would rubella complicate their role?
  7. How are fathers described in the Vandenberg-Daves’ chapter? How would you describe their power in relationship to their wives when it comes to the family?
  8. What contemporary issues can you connect to Vandenberg-Daves’ arguments about motherhood? To what extent are today’s issues the same or different?