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The term motherhood, which began to be used at the end of the nineteenth century, refers to the state or condition of being a mother. Motherhood is usually distinguished from the term mothering in that mothering is the set of activities or practices concerned with nurturing and caring for children. While mothering entails a focus on the everyday practices associated with being a mother and looking after children, motherhood is a social institution and is thus characterized by specific meanings and ideologies. The two terms are, however, inextricably linked in that the practices of mothering in any society are performed and experienced in the context of the meanings and ideologies of motherhood.
The difference between mothering and motherhood has consequences for understandings of both mothering and motherhood. For example, the focus on mothering as performance of the tasks essential to child rearing meant that those who studied child development in the 1970s and 1980s extended the term mothering to include child rearing done by men who nurture children. This usage of mothering has diminished as the importance of fathering and the need to understand better what fathers do with children gained increased emphasis beginning in the 1990s. In contrast, motherhood is associated only with women since the state of motherhood has a direct impact on women’s lives, regardless of whether or not they become mothers. In most societies a central feature of motherhood is that it should ideally occur within a heterosexual relationship where a man and a woman are cohabiting (and preferably legally married). The rearing of children is supposed to be the major task of this unit, which is idealized as bound together through mutual ties of affection, common identity, and relationships of care and support. This model is often assumed to be the natural and normal (as well as ideal) form of social organization and to be stable over time.
A focus on motherhood arose from feminist work on gender relations as a key aspect of recognition that motherhood is central to women’s lives—whether or not they become mothers. For example, in 1975 the sociologist Jesse Bernard suggested (in The Future of Motherhood ) that there is a tension between the idealized image of the selfless mother and many mothers’ experiences of hard, repetitive work that is socially devalued and unfulfilling. In the 1970s Bernard and other feminists in Europe and North America, such as Adrienne Rich, argued that the institution of motherhood was oppressive in making most women feel that they should become mothers and stay at home in segregated gender roles rather than, for example, pursuing employment and careers. At the same time researchers such as the sociologist Ann Oakley pointed out (in Becoming a Mother) that the idealized image of motherhood is unattainable and causes women to feel guilt, unhappiness, and anxiety about their failure to measure up to the ideal in their everyday practices.
Motherhood is Changing
While it is often assumed that motherhood is historically stable, it has changed a great deal. For example, Linda Nicholson, a historian of ideas, suggests that it was only in the economic boom of the 1950s that it became possible for working-class women in Western countries to stay at home with their children as many more privileged women had been doing (although working-class mothers did not have servants to do the housework and look after the children). As the technology for housework and cooking became more sophisticated, motherhood came to be idealized as the institution responsible for entertaining and ensuring the optimal development of children—morally and academically. Ann Dally argues in Inventing Motherhood that also in the 1950s women in the affluent Europe and North America could be relatively confident each pregnancy would lead to a live birth and to the baby’s survival. As researchers have pointed out, this situation still does not pertain for poorer women in countries where there continue to be high rates of maternal and child mortality as well as higher birthrates. Access to efficient contraception and abortion in the more affluent countries led to markedly decreased birthrates from the late 1950s, with a few exceptions, and mothers have been expected to devote more time and effort to caring for and developing their children.
Since the 1950s, motherhood—the condition in which women mother—has changed markedly and become more complex in many societies. In particular, as Fiona Williams makes clear in Rethinking Families, demographic changes in many societies mean that women in the early twenty-first century are more likely to be single mothers than previously and to live in reconstituted, blended families or stepparent families with children sometimes being shared across households. Mothers in European and North American society and affluent mothers in any society are likely to be older when they have their first child and to have fewer children. There has also been an increase in the number of affluent women who have only one child or no children and an increasing number who give birth through assisted reproduction techniques or as surrogates for other women. In addition governments frequently intervene (directly or indirectly) in motherhood to limit or increase population size or to attempt to guarantee the quality of the population. Examples include the Chinese one-child policy instituted in the twentieth century and pronatalist policies designed to encourage reproduction (e.g., in France and the former Soviet Union).
In modern times it is common for mothers to be employed outside the home, and there is ideological commitment to equality between women and men with expectations that child care and housework will be shared between employed parents. Motherhood within one society is therefore as differentiated as is motherhood between societies. Idealized images of motherhood have adjusted to accept that women may be employed outside the home and even that they may cohabit without being married. Images of motherhood have not, however, changed sufficiently to accommodate the demographic and social changes. As Estella Tincknell points out in Mediating the Family, media representations frequently accommodate some changes but reassert the ideal of the white, middleclass nuclear family. Ideologies of motherhood continue to suggest implicit disapproval of many categories of mothers, including those who are single, aged under twenty, and either out at work for long hours each day or unable to make economic provision for their children. In practice there is often less sharing of household and child care work between mothers and fathers than might be expected. As a consequence there is a marked discrepancy between the expectations of motherhood and the experiences of mothering, with the result that motherhood is painful and disappointing for many women. This discrepancy points to the fact that motherhood is not naturally occurring but is socially constructed in ways that suggest that there is an essence to motherhood.
Expectations and Experiences of Motherhood
Despite the changes in motherhood, most women in all societies still become mothers. The oft-reported unhappiness of those who find that they cannot have children provides an indication of how psychologically important it can be for women to become mothers. To some extent this is because motherhood is socially constructed as an essential part of adult femininity so that women who do not become mothers (for whatever reason) can be made to feel that they are not proper women. In addition many women share the idealized view of motherhood common in many societies so it is not the case that they are coerced into having children. Many women choose to become mothers, and whether or not they do, their identities are partly negotiated in relation to motherhood. It is therefore important to consider women’s desires in relation to motherhood (conscious and unconscious) as well as the contexts in which they mother. In other words, motherhood requires psychosocial (both psychological and social) understandings.
One benefit of feminist work on motherhood has been its focus on women’s expectations and experiences of it. While many women want to become mothers and subscribe to social constructions of motherhood as natural, blissful, and something with which they should be able to cope, women frequently feel conflicted about how they will be able to manage as mothers. In the early twenty-first century the sociologist Tina Miller conducted a study of motherhood that used cultural scripts from Bangladesh and the Solomon Islands to contextualize experiences of motherhood in the United Kingdom. Miller found that women often said they were worried and frightened about becoming mothers. Miller suggests that this is related to cultural messages about the right way to be a good mother and the moral context within which motherhood occurs.
After birth, almost all women learn the tasks associated with successful mothering. However, it can take time for women to feel comfortable with their identities as mothers. The British sociologist Stephanie Lawler suggests that this is partly because women have to negotiate a contradiction between a belief in autonomy as a central part of adulthood and a perception that autonomy is lost with motherhood. Women therefore have to develop practices and narratives that allow them to inhabit identities as mothers. Experience of the contradictions of motherhood do not, however, lead mothers to feel solidarity with other mothers. The psychologist and anthropologist Meryle Kaplan points out: “Instead of questioning what has been called an institution of motherhood, these modern women most frequently question other mothers and resist affiliating themselves with other women” (Kaplan 1992, p. 202). This self-differentiation between mothers is one reason why motherhood is differentiated among mothers.
Motherhood is also expressed differently over time and varies by social class, race, ethnicity, and culture. For example, in Janani: Mothers, Daughters, Motherhood, Maitreyi Chatterji says:
Motherhood may have been pitched to an exalted position, but the ground reality for Indian mothers is an entirely different matter. India’s maternal mortality rate and chronic malnutrition makes a mockery of motherhood myths … yet we find women legitimize motherhood through acts of immense sacrifice. Indian mothers eat last or not at all.… Women go through multiple pregnancies to continue the male family line or risk abortions if the fetus is female. (Bhattacharya 2006, pp. 36–37)
It is important, however, to recognize that there are marked differences between mothers within each country because social class, ethnicity, and culture all intersect to position women in different ways. Yet as the sociologist Terry Arendell reported in 2000 after a decennial review of U.S. literature, although the United States is diverse, little is known about the meanings and practices of motherhood for minority ethnic women, who are frequently used only as comparisons when white U.S. motherhood is being reified. This is also the case within other European and North American societies.
The enormous changes in the conditions under which motherhood occur demonstrate that motherhood is not an essentialist concept. Instead, it is diverse and practiced in different ways according to the social, economic, and psychological contexts in which women live. Nonetheless, ideologies of motherhood continue to idealize and romanticize motherhood in ways that make ideal motherhood unattainable and a source of anxiety for most women as they forge motherhood identities. For this reason, many motherhood researchers argue that it is important to expand the range of narratives around mothering and to challenge the pervasive myths of motherhood.
- Arendell, Terry. Conceiving and Investigating Motherhood: The Decade’s Scholarship. Journal of Marriage and Family 62 (4): 1192–1207.
- Bernard, J 1975. The Future of Motherhood. New York: Penguin Books.
- Chatterji, Maitr 2006. My Mother, My Daughter. In Janani: Mothers, Daughters, Motherhood, ed. Rinki Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Sage.
- Dally, 1982. Inventing Motherhood: The Consequences of an Ideal. London: Burnett.
- Hollway, Wendy. The Capacity to Care: Gender and Ethical Subjectivity. London: Routledge.
- Kaplan, Mer 1992. Mothers’ Images of Motherhood. New York: Routledge.
- Lawler, S 2000. Mothering the Self: Mothers, Daughters, Subjects. London: Routledge.
- Macfarlane, Alison, Miranda Mugford, Jane Henderson, et al. 2000. Birth Counts: Statistics of Pregnancy and Childbirth, v 1 London: Stationery Office.
- Miller, T 2005. Making Sense of Motherhood: A Narrative Approach. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Nicholson, 1997. The Myth of the Traditional Family. In Feminism and Families, ed. Hilde Lindemann Nelson. London: Routledge.
- Oakley, 1979. Becoming a Mother. Oxford: Martin Robertson.
- Orbach, S 1997. Family Life. In Living Together, eds. David Kennard and Neil Small. London: Quartet Books.
- O’Reilly, Andrea, 2004. Mother Matters: Motherhood as Discourse and Practice. Toronto: Association for Research onMothering.
- Phoenix, Ann, Anne Woollett, and Eva Lloy 1991. Motherhood: Meanings, Practices and Ideologies. London: Sage.
- Rich, A 1976. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Norton.
- Tincknell, 2005. Mediating the Family: Gender, Culture, and Representation. London: Hodder Arnold.
- Williams, F 2004. Rethinking Families. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
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