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Shar Lynn (L), her adult daughter Darcy and Shar Lynn's other daughter Camryn (JOHN WOODS FOR GLOBE AND MAIL)
Shar Lynn (L), her adult daughter Darcy and Shar Lynn's other daughter Camryn (JOHN WOODS FOR GLOBE AND MAIL)

Why the 1970s were the best time to be a mom Add to ...

As the mother of a seven-year-old, Shar Lynn dutifully watches what her daughter eats. A note on her kitchen cupboard tracks how many eggs she eats in a week and whether she's getting enough salmon. (Kraft Dinner? Never!) Ms. Lynn sits outside every ballet class. She has plans to complain to the Grade 1 teacher that Camryn is getting too much homework.

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What a change, the second time around. Ms. Lynn, a 65-year-old former teacher who now operates a home daycare in Winnipeg, has a unique perspective on motherhood. Having raised three children in the 1970s with her former husband, she chose to do it all again more than 30 years later as a single parent, when she adopted a baby girl whose birth mother could no longer care for her. "It's quite a bit different," she says with a laugh.

A few examples: On her first go, she fed her kids "whatever I knew how to cook." In elementary school, she sent them out the door to dance lessons and hockey practice at the community centre down the road, and stayed home to do the laundry. "I assume my kids had homework," she says. "I assume they did it, and if they didn't I assumed they got in trouble for it at school." Back then, she says, children were expected to be bathed and in bed by 7:30 p.m. When she socialized with other mothers on the street, they actually talked, rather than distractedly drawing chalk figures with their kids on the sidewalk.

Motherhood, today, she acknowledges, "feels more overwhelming, as if I am totally responsible for [Camryn's]social and psychological life. There's incredible pressure to make sure she has certain experiences every week." A recent British survey asked modern moms which decade they believed was the best time to be a mother - half of them chose the 1970s, with the 1980s placing second. It makes sense - after all, this is when the survey participants were kids, with memories of running free in the park and mom being home, but not obsessing about their math scores.

Andrea O'Reilly, an associate professor in the women's studies department at Toronto's York University and author of several books on motherhood, points out that the 1970s was also a pivotal era for women, when the June Cleaver image of the proper wife was collapsing, but children weren't yet all-consuming "projects," doomed for failure if they weren't read six stories at bedtime.

When Dr. O'Reilly was a toddler, she recalls, "my mother would have me in the playpen, my sister in the pram and my brother tied to the front tree. She'd be down doing laundry, as she was supposed to do as a good housekeeper, and we would be outside 'airing.' And I don't think you air children on the front porch any more. If somebody walked past and saw three kids in such a situation today, the police would be called."

Julie Matlin, is a Montreal mom raising a five-year-old and a two-year-old who blogs and works as a social media strategist for the National Film Board. She and her mom often discuss who had it best. "I think it was a lot more carefree," she says. "I don't remember ever seeing my mom lose her temper. I lose my temper on a daily basis."

"I am sure I lost it sometimes," laughs her mom, Evelyn Matlin, now 70. But over all, she says, "it was a more relaxed way of life." While she sympathizes with the stress on moms today, squeezing in homework and housework between jobs, it's also tinged with envy - even though she had part-time help, getting a job was discouraged. "Women stayed home with babies," she says. On the plus side: "All the ordinary tasks, we had all day to do."

And in some ways it was easier, on the mothering front at least. According to U.S. time-use data, moms were present more, but spent less time interacting one-on-one with their kids. They also, by most accounts, worried less. A 2005British survey asked moms with young children and mothers who had raised kids the 1970s to compare their experiences: Moderns mom reported feeling more stressed and more cranky, and were far more likely to say a lack of sleep was wrecking their sex lives - with percentage gaps wide enough to account for rose-coloured reminiscing on grandma's part.

And those moms of old certainly weren't fretting over food labels. In a Canadian survey in 1978, 30 per cent of mothers couldn't name any food that their family should avoid. Compare that to the 80 per cent of moms who now monitor their children's sodium intake or compare labels before buying food for their toddler, as a 2010 poll by Ipsos Reid reported.

"I remember my mom sitting around drinking martinis with her friends and we would run free," recalls Jen Maier, a Toronto mother of two and founder of UrbanMoms.ca. "I ate a lot of hot dogs." Including frozen ones. "I think I'd barf if my child did that now."

But moms today don't spend less time caring for their kids over all. One U.S. survey suggests that employed mothers in 2000 spent the same time with their kids as a stay-at-home mom in 1975. But the newer moms managed to squeeze it in by cutting back on leisure time and housework. Today, women don't boast that their "floors are so clean you can eat off of it," Dr. O'Reilly observes. Society now values home-grown prodigies over ironed sheets, so it's piano concerts and scholarships that earn bragging rights.

But before mothers today feel too misty-eyed, consider what their counterparts in the 1970s didn't have to make life easier. There was no popping a lasagna in the microwave (less than 5 per cent of Canadians homes had one) or running the dishwasher (22 per cent). And just over half of Canadian moms could toss clothes in a dryer at home. And even if the feminist movement was transforming life for women, in 1975, only 57 per cent of Canadians thought a husband should share in the housework.

"It blows my mind," Ms. Lynn says of the fathers at her daycare who get their children up in the morning, make them lunch and drop them off. Back in the seventies, she says, "if there was the odd guy doing that, I never met him."

But balancing the pros and cons, weighing the convenience of a microwave compared with moms who could still laugh together over their "bratty" kids, which decade does she prefer? "A mom in the seventies," she laughs, "with more money."

Editor's note: The original version of the graphic associated with this article contained inaccurate information. The graphic has now been updated.

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