Social And Cultural Aspects of Motherhood Research Paper

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To understand motherhood one needs to look at how it is personally experienced, socially organized, and talked about publicly and among scholars. Changes in women’s lives, contested understandings of gender, sexuality, family, new reproductive technologies, and political debates on the welfare state, and on population, development, and environment show that there is little agreement on the meaning of motherhood. In the scholarly literature, the recognition of diversity has replaced the search for generalizing accounts. In many accounts, the framing has shifted subtly from that of oppression to motherhood as cultural resistance. The assumed determinacy of biology has been abandoned, although issues of the body and biology return again and again to unsettle social and cultural explanations. Methodologically, research shifted from outsider, expert stories to a focus on experiences of mothering and of being mothered. Publicly, talk of motherhood is framed by the idea of choice. Scholars pursue increasingly complex questions about motherhood through hotly debated theories of embodiment and biology, sex and gender, subjectivity and relationships, connectedness and autonomy, and the ethics of care, crossing disciplinary borders, and blurring the lines between science, philosophy, and literature. The area is truly interdisciplinary. For some, the social and cultural dimensions of motherhood are produced discursively. The concept of motherhood is now often mined as much for its symbolic and ideological significance as for an empirical referent.

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Scholarly theories shape cultural meanings of motherhood and the politics of motherhood shapes scholarship. The story told here is a situated account that centres feminist work and directs attention to important connections rather than providing an exhaustive review. The empirical relationship between changes in how motherhood is organized, experienced, and debated should be located in different regions’ own historical contexts. Yet, in all disciplines, discussion of motherhood has been shaped by feminist politics and scholarship. Feminist scholarship developed in the context of universalizing and biologically-based accounts in which motherhood appeared as natural, unchangeable, private, and thus outside politics and culture (de Beauvoir 1960, O’Brien 1981). Historically, dualistic understanding of the relationship between nature and culture in the West had meant that motherhood and nature were associated culturally and devalued empirically (O’Brien 1981, Rothman 1989). If motherhood was outside politics and culture, there was little to discuss or change. In practice, poor or minority women’s fertility and mothering had long been of public and political interest. Feminism, New Left, Gay and Lesbian, and other social and counter cultural movements challenged the separation of the social and natural, public and private, turning mother- hood, family, sexuality, and culture into political issues and giving motherhood the new contested cultural meanings it has today.

How did the social meanings of motherhood become so contested? British scholars (Boulton 1983, Oakley 1979) explained that thinking had been dominated by biologically and psychoanalytically oriented theories that saw mothering as largely instinctual, the fulfillment of mature femininity, and adaptively tailored to the needs of the uniquely dependent human infant. These views were inaccurate, they argued, and helped make mothering oppressive. Historical research became a way of testing and challenging taken-for-granted meanings of motherhood. It shows, for example, that motherhood was not always emotionally or socially central in mothers’ lives (Badinter 1981), and anthropological research documents the cross cultural variability in birth mothers’ responsibility for children. Then why does an expectation of ‘intensive mothering’ (Hays 1996) organize many Western mothers’ experience? Cross-cultural ly and historically, motherhood and children have enormously variable social meanings. One can think of children as ‘cultural objects,’ and thus the meaning of those who mother these cultural objects varies with the meaning of children. One can see pressure towards intensive mothering as rooted in the cultural idealization of children as sacred and innocent (Zelizer 1985) that emerged in the nineteenth century. Intensive mothering, others add, serves both capitalism’s interests, and men’s. Behind the general idealization, children of different race ethnic mothers can be valued differently in terms of investment in their health, education, or welfare. Children’s different social worth and their mothers’ differently valued maternal identities may be inscribed in social policy (Solinger 1992). More disruptive to common sense understandings is that giving birth does not necessarily mean that a woman is socially or legally recognized as a mother. Women are often encouraged to think about pregnancy and maternity as part of an achieved identity which only some women have the right to claim and which it is their responsibility to get right. Scholarship also shows that popular understanding of motherhood in terms of choice is misleading, and hides the lack of choice open to many women.

Sociological research first exposed mothers’ role conflict and role strain (Bernard 1974, Lopata 1971) and later showed the new forms of inequality mothers face as they manage both paid work and motherhood (Hochschild 1989). Mothering can be understood as unpaid, culturally devalued reproductive and caring labor in a society characterized by a separation of public and private spheres and dominated by market exchange value. But this leaves mothering as a relationship under-theorized. Moreover, the framing doesn’t always fit. It misses the interdependence of public and private spheres and the fact that caring isn’t always private but may be low paid work done by race ethnic minority persons. Rich (1976) distinguished between the institution of motherhood that was oppressive, and the relationship of mothering which was a potential source of joy and strength. Psychoanalytic and psychological accounts had theorized the mother–child relationships. But they had tended to universalize a culturally specific view of child development that emphasize the need for uninterrupted nurturance from a solitary psychological, always available, parent (usually the mother) over the importance of a network of caring relationships in children’s lives. More sociological accounts challenged these ideas for their sexism, ethnocentricism, and unrealisability. Ironically, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the privileging of the mother–child bond was part of cultural changes that enabled mothers to challenge fathers’ ownership of children, allowing them to claim custody in cases of separation and divorce, and later opening professional opportunities for women in social work and child welfare. By the 1980s, feminist analyses (Benjamin 1988, Chodorow and Contratto 1992) were explaining that prevailing theories of child development contributed to a cultural fantasy of the perfect mother that devalued the actual work mothers did and encouraged mother blaming. From Benjamin (1988) one learned that children’s recognition of the mother’s autonomous subjectivity was important for healthy child-development; thus mothers’ demands for some autonomy were not merely the demands of selfish women. Cross-cultural research and the experiences of race ethnic minorities in the US (Collins 1994, Glenn et al. 1994) also show that shared caring, mothering other women’s children, or being an economic provider are considered part of good mothering in different contexts. To make intensive mothering central to social definitions of good mothering was to privilege idealizations of white middle-class family life and was race and class biased. Research shows that prevailing academic theories about good mothering become embodied in policies and laws which regulate and control mothers, especially those who don’t fit the white, middle-class, heterosexual family model on whose idealized experience the theories were first based.

Early research exposed the oppressions in mothers’ lives that cultural romanticization made invisible (Bernard 1974, Firestone 1970, Lopata 1971, Oakley 1979, Rich 1976). Research also showed that many women in Western industrialized countries were marrying later, having fewer children, having them later in life and thus spending less of their lives actively involved in mothering, living in a far greater variety of family arrangements (Eichler 1983, Stacey 1990), yet retaining motherhood as a central identity in their lives (McMahon 1995). Also, more women were having children outside legal marriage, fewer ‘unwed’ mothers were giving children up for adoption and childlessness was talked about as a valid option. In the

US, the economic costs of parenthood have risen and are increasingly privately borne by women. Most Canadian and US mothers of preschool children are now employed outside the home, but still do most of the work of mothering, which is framed by an ideology of intensive mothering. Mothers often embody the cultural tensions of their societies, trapped in the contradictions between the ideals, values, and logic that organize the world of paid work and those that are believed to organize family life. Whether they are mothers or not, women remain defined in relation to motherhood. Despite romantic ideologies, mothers and their children may be treated as of little public value, given little support, be isolated or marginalized, or blamed for a variety of society’s ills. The genderneutral term of parent often replaces the use of mother or father. However, in the context of unequal responsibility for the care of dependent children and unequal access to the resources necessary to meet these responsibilities, Fineman (1995) explains, the gender neutrality of social policy discourse and of family law harms mothers and children. Mothering may be seen as maternal practice and a positive discipline that is oriented towards the preservation of children’s lives, the fostering of emotional and intellectual development, and preparing children for their roles in life by making them socially acceptable (Ruddick 1989). Thus, it is useful to look at mothering as a relationship of care and responsibility rather than a genetic one. By centring the experiences of white middle-class mothers in heterosexual families in emerging studies of mothering, however, there was danger of creating new kinds of universalizing and ideological accounts. Until recently, the diversity of mothering remained largely invisible. Only slowly, for example, did mothers’ experiences under slavery, of leaving their own children to care for privileged women’s children, of mothering in a racist society, or in war zones, or civil war, of migration and immigration, of shared community responsibility for childrearing, of extreme poverty and infanticide, of lesbian mothers’ struggles for custody, that is, of the roles of race, class, heteronormativity, and poverty in organizing mothering enter dominant understandings of motherhood.

Feminism earned the misleading reputation of being anti-motherhood (Umansky 1996) and of promoting selfishness. How could one value mothering and also criticize it—even if the criticisms were really of compulsory motherhood and the patriarchal conditions under which women mothered? Chodorow (1978) clearly values motherhood yet asks why women want to mother. She argues that the proclivity to nurture becomes embedded in women’s personality because, unlike boys for whom separation and differentiation from the mother are central to psychosexual identity development, girl’s identity develops around a continuity of connectedness with the mother. Girls, therefore, grow up with greater relational capacities and needs than men and with psychological senses of self-in-relationship that directs them towards motherhood. She explains that men need to become equally engaged in parenting for their own growth and development, so that men and women can be both nurturant and autonomous and the world a better place. Critics argue that this reduces social change to psychological rather institutional transformation. Chodorow identifies the social value of care and of subjectivities grounded in connection and relationships rather than in masculinist values of separation and autonomy. French feminism postmodern feminism attempts a different kind of appreciation of the maternal. The importance of a potentially libertory prelinguistic, imaginative, chaotic, pre-oedipal phase of union with the mother is recovered from an abject existence and the privileged role of the oedipal phase in child development is recast as entry into the regulatory symbolic order, a repressive world of logocentric, phallocentric language culturally symbolized in and by ‘the father.’ In other words, new scholarship profoundly challenges the cultural and academic devaluation of the maternal.

The 1980s brought increasingly positive experiencecentered accounts of mothering. Literary work by African-American and other ethnic race minority women in the US honored their mothers and their own experiences as daughters. Research on the social, not just private, value of caring and caregiving proliferated. For Ruddick (1989), maternal practice could develop alternative values of care and nurturance capable of resisting oppression and conflict. Motherhood, as the physical embodiment of connectedness, challenged the dominant political culture of separation and individualism that underlies the commodification of human relationships, Rothman (1989) argued. Mothering allowed oppressed communities to survive and struggle against inequality (Collins 1994). The political potential of motherhood to rehabilitate social relationships of care and connectedness (Fineman 1995, Rothman 1989), to culturally resist commodification (Hays 1996), and build community (Umansky 1996) have been persistent themes in feminist work. At first the move towards a positive re-evaluation of mothering and unpaid caregiving positioned gender as the key explanatory variable over race, class, or heterosexuality. By virtue of being mothers, do women develop special knowledge and moral qualities? Mothers’ own accounts often express this belief. Were these more positive scholarly accounts of motherhood essentialist and did they universalise maternal nurturance as constitutive of (all) women’s identities and reproduce ideological stories that oppressed mothers? Although research showed that mothers tend to experience their mothering as an expression of love, mothers can have multiple and different relationships with children, whether instrumental, contractual, caring, moral, or even violent. The question lingers, however, as to whether there is something unique in the activities of caring, empathy, attentiveness, and responsiveness to children (or dependent others) that could develop social values of caring, enrich democratic society, and make the world a better place. The difficulties of juggling optimistic and negative interpretations of motherhood, of emphasizing the struggle for equality in terms of sameness or recognizing difference (the differences mothering makes in women’s lives, or differences among mothers, for example), of minimizing sex differences or reclaiming motherhood as special, remain a central tension or paradox in feminist analyses of motherhood.

New theories about sex and gender, about situated, embodied subjectivities, about socially constructed emotions and experience problematize motherhood. In new research, minority women’s experience is increasingly centered, difference is depathologized, gender and the body retheorized, sex gender systems analyzed as power regimes, motherhood seen as a gender masquerade, and mothers’ sexual identities reclaimed. More is known about the diversity of mothering; about how race ethnic minority mothers teach their children to resist and survive in a racist society, how mothers of children killed in war may claim political agency and public voices as mothers, and how desperately poor mothers in a Brazilian suburb ‘let go’ and neglect sickly children. We learn that mothers of disabled infants may feel themselves blamed for producing a less than perfect baby and define their children as special gifts, and that while new reproductive technologies may change women’s experience of pregnancy, surrogate mothers and gamete donors and their recipients can resist economic and technological definitions of their unusual relationship by defining the exchange as the gift of life. Young alone mothers can resist the cultural association of heterosexuality and motherhood and reject the social disparagement of their maternity and see themselves as mature and responsible parents. Lesbian mothers, who may have to struggle for custody of their children, can resist but also reproduce conventional understandings of motherhood. Mothers struggling with postpartum depression can use illness to politicize motherhood, and unsettle prevailing theories about social movements. Understandings of motherhood are expanded by learning that nonbirth mothers may ‘othermother’ children from their communities, infertile women may be blamed for their infertility, prospective adoptive parents may try to naturalize adoption by waiting for their baby ‘out there,’ and childless women are often still seen as selfish. In contrast to the diversity and despite gender neutral talk of parenting, mothers are still held responsible for their children in ways fathers are not and, unlike in many Scandinavian countries, there is still little social policy support for childrearing in the US. Scholarly analysis often inverts popular fears about mothers becoming too individualistic by asking if the real risk to a caring society may come from the individualism that is embedded in social and economic restructuring in accordance with market forces.

Despite motherhood’s aura of intimacy, its meanings are political and metaphoric. Talk about motherhood carries coded messages about race, class, gender and sexuality, epistemology, political order, the meaning of the good society, and so on. The abortion debates in the US were about the meaning of motherhood and its place in women’s lives (Ginsberg 1989). Moral panics about unwed mothers in Great Britain were about immigration, race, patriarchal heterosexuality, public responsibility for child rearing, and the social role of the State (Phoenix et al. 1991, Silva 1996). Lone mothers were often blamed for Britain’s ‘moral decay’ and we can see the withdrawal of public support for lone mothers and shifting costs to absent fathers as part of the dismantling of the welfare state.

The motherhood of women in the poorer nations of the South is often talked about in terms of population, development, and environment. Population control policies embedded in development aid packages may organize maternity. Some feminists from the South (Akher 1999) turn to community and women’s indigenous gendered knowledge rather than to notions of individual rights for liberatory analyses of mother- hood. Others caution that although birth control may be coercively encouraged by some patriarchal nation states in the South and financial and development organizations in the North, it is a mistake to see modern technologies as inevitably patriarchal and unhelpful to women or to dismiss contraceptive technologies, individual choice or reproductive rights as western impositions. It might be better to recast Western rights discourse in a more ‘referential universe,’ and thereby transform the classical liberal rights model so that it emphasizes the social nature of rights and the multiple nature of different individuals’ identities (Correa and Petchesky 1994).

Motherhood is a difficult issue not only because of its unstable empirical and politicized meanings but also because representations of motherhood, even in academic work, are often projections of individual and collective identities, what we feel is important to society, and the kind of persons we like to think women (and men) are, or are capable of being. Thus, despite all the changes, talk of motherhood still comes very close to the heart.


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