Susan Walzer. Handbook of Contemporary Families. Editor: Marilyn Coleman & Lawrence H Ganong. Sage Publication. 2004.
The experience of being a mother no matter how one becomes one is both an embodied and a social experience. It is an individual identity and a relationship. It is pleasure and pain. It is work and relief from work. It is a wholly unique experience and one that is patterned and predictable in some ways. Too often we think about motherhood as though it had to be one thing or another. One of the stories that I tell in this chapter is about how the dominant approaches in academic work about motherhood over the last three decades both reflect and criticize this tendency to compartmentalize mothers a tendency related to the larger issue of gender.
As Ann Oakley (1979) has written: “There have always been mothers but motherhood was invented” (p. 17). From Oakley’s sociological perspective, when we differentiate the biological fact that women produce babies from the less fixed social expectations for how women should care for children, becoming a mother is a confrontation with “the full reality of what it means to be a woman in our society” (p. 1). More than a physical passage, the transition into motherhood reveals the meanings and contradictions associated with being female in the context of particular relationships, institutional settings, and historical moments. On one hand, for example, mothers are perceived as naturally and ultimately responsible for the care of children. And on the other hand, it is assumed that mothers are mothering in a nuclear family, that they are not economically necessary to children, and that they, unlike fathers, must answer for their employment behavior.
The study of motherhood uncovers these kinds of intersections between cultural understandings and social arrangements at times revealing them and at other times reinforcing them. There is a voluminous assortment of literature about mothers with differing purposes. One body of work, for example, focuses on identifying social norms for mothers and the processes through which mothers negotiate these norms. This literature tends to be more qualitative, interpretive, and directed at generating theoretical perspectives on motherhood and mothering. Another body of work represents more positivistic attempts to document the determinants and effects of mothers’ behavior through the use of surveys and other statistical methodologies (Arendell, 2000). My emphasis in this chapter is on the former, but I do not provide an exhaustive description of either of these academic approaches in this chapter. Rather, my goals are to describe some of the major themes and texts in scholarship on motherhood, to provide some historical context for how they have evolved, and to suggest some directions for work on motherhood in the future.
I use the words academic and scholarship in the broadest senses possible. Work on motherhood crosses many disciplines and also exists outside conventional academic contexts while employing academic methods. I chose in this chapter to focus on providing an overview of how the study of motherhood mirrors and is embedded in the massive shifts in behavior and beliefs related to gender since the 1970s, emphasizing some of the most highly cited and influential texts that define particular developments in thinking about motherhood. There is much that I leave out because of the quantity of work on motherhood as well as its connections to many other topics (see other chapters in this book and Arendell, 2000, Dixon, 1991, and Ross, 1995, for reviews of research about motherhood).
I begin the chapter with some historical background in which to situate analyses of motherhood and to understand the imagery associated with it. The next sections deal with how scholars have described motherhood as a social institution and theorized about how institutionalized motherhood is reproduced. Because the issue of work is so implicated in dilemmas surrounding mothers, the following section addresses theoretical and empirical treatments of this issue. Throughout these sections, I share the struggle present in this scholarship to represent general contentions about motherhood while also recognizing that all mothers are not alike, in part because they do not live in the same social categories and circumstances. I conclude with a discussion of directions for future work.
Historical Shifts and Cultural Imagery of Motherhood
To understand how the work on motherhood in North America developed during and since the 1970s, it is useful to know something of what preceded it. The post-1960s work on which this chapter focuses emerged in the context of increases in mothers’ labor force participation that seemed to conflict with a particular image of mothers as “always there” for their children. Thompson and Walker (1989) described this “enduring” image as follows: “Motherhood is a constant and exclusive responsibility. A mother is all-giving and all-powerful. Within the ‘magic circle’ of mother and child, the mother devotes herself to her child’s needs and holds her child’s fate in her hands” (p. 860).
These dominant cultural expectations that mothers will always be patient, available, and focused on their children are active in individual mothers’ imaginations and reinforced in advice literature for parents (Hays, 1996; Walzer, 1998). They even make their way into public parody. In Roz Chast’s cartoon of “bad mom cards,” there is a picture of Gloria B., who promised to take her daughter to the mall after school “and then didn’t.” Suzie M. let her kid play 2 hours of Nintendo “just to get him out of her hair” and Deborah Z. has “never even tried to make Play-Doh from scratch” (Chast, 2001, p. 50).
The point that some analysts of motherhood make is that the imagery associated with “good” mothering is historically specific. During the 18th century, for example, motherhood was not particularly emphasized, and “child rearing was neither a discrete nor an exclusively female task…. [B]oth parents were simply advised to ‘raise up’ their children together” (Margolis, 1984, p. 12). With the process of industrialization in the 19th century, there was a shift in norms for parents because of a new separation between reproductive and productive labor. As other productive activities moved out of households, a home economics movement emerged in which children became perceived as a project in themselves rather than as integrated participants in family work (Ehrenreich & English, 1978). Middle-class wives whose husbands were absent from the household in a new way were urged to devote themselves to parenting full time; the mother-child relationship was now viewed as central and exclusive (Margolis, 1984).
Skipping ahead to the middle of the 20th century, it was the image of a stay-at-home mother that appeared on the televisions of postwar 1950s families in shows like Leave It to Beaver. As Coontz (1992) noted, the prosperity of the postwar years affected family arrangements in ways that have been perceived as typical or “traditional” but were in fact anomalous (see also Cherlin, 1992). During the 1950s, and for the first time in 100 years, the ages at which people married and became mothers fell, fertility increased, and families were more insulated than ever before encouraged to make domesticity a central part of their identities.
There was an underside to the insulation of nuclear families that Betty Friedan (1963) addressed in a widely read book called The Feminine Mystique. In this book, Friedan identified a malaise in well-educated, middle class mothers who were full-time homemakers. From her point of view, for women to have to choose between full-time homemaking and careers kept them from “growing to their full human capacities” (p. 364). Friedan’s book was one catalyst in a social movement that was percolating among middle-class women in particular (see Umansky, 1996, for a discussion of the various strains of the second wave of the women’s movement as well as the discourse associated with motherhood). Although it was not the first time that women had challenged their social positions they had won the right to vote a few decades before in this wave of collective activity, one of the areas of focus was women’s participation in another part of the public world: the labor force.
The changes in attitudes that became visible during the late 1960s and early 1970s happened in the context of already existing shifts in the economy and in women’s work behavior (Umansky, 1996). The proportion of women in the formal labor force had increased across racial-ethnic groups (Garey, 1999), but perhaps the most notable change occurred in the rates of employment of mothers, and mothers of young children in particular. Whereas less than 20% of married mothers of children under 6 were employed in 1960, by 1970, a third of them were (Chadwick & Heaton, 1999). In 1983, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than half of all mothers with children under the age of 6 were employed (Rubin, 1984). And by 1990, close to 60% of married women with children under 6 and 80% of married women with children aged 6 to 17 were employed (Chadwick & Heaton, 1999).
The sharp increase in the labor force participation of mothers sparked the questions that underlie an increasingly large and multidisciplinary collection of literature about motherhood. In 1974, for example, the Journal of Marriage and the Family devoted a whole issue to the question of mothers and employment, whereas there had been no such attention in the prior decade’s review. But the vast changes in mothers’ behavior generated even broader reflections about what it means to be a mother and how society influences definitions of motherhood. Academic work emerged that addressed what appeared to be the “unnatural” trend of mothers working outside their homes. “What are the consequences of maternal employment?” researchers asked. Another body of literature challenged the premise of this question, however, and suggested that the conflict perceived between work and motherhood was socially constructed.
Motherhood as an Institution
One of the slogans of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s was that the personal is political. It might be said that what is personal and political became academic as well. Before the 1970s, much academic research assumed that motherhood was intrinsically rewarding and not particularly problematic (Boulton, 1983). Many of the analyses of motherhood that emerged in the 1970s, however, were openly motivated by the researchers’ own experiences of becoming mothers, their challenges in negotiating social expectations and judgments of mothers, and their identification with feminism as a conceptual framework with which to analyze and change motherhood.
A related theme that appeared then and continues now was the need to speak some form of “truth” about motherhood to get past taboos, clichés, and highly idealized or critical images of mothers. Writing in 1999, for example, Susan Maushart described a conversation with her older sister, who had said to her: “I’m going to tell you this now, and I want you to remember it … Everyone lies. Do you hear me? Everyone lies about what it’s like to have a baby. Don’t listen to them. Just watch me, and remember” (p. 11). The secret, Maushart and others argued, was that being a mother was not an easy experience. Ross (1995) wrote, for example, that “the love and care of children is, for everyone, an open invitation not only to unending hard work but also to trouble and sorrow, if not usually to tragedy. Telling the hard things about motherhood has usually been labeled gossip and been confined to women’s private conversations on playgrounds, doorsteps, or telephones” (p. 398).
When scholars in the 1970s began to talk about the problems associated with being a mother, they focused on the social organization of motherhood as a role. Adrienne Rich’s (1976) much-cited literary and historical analysis Of Woman Born differentiated between mothering as an experience and motherhood as a social institution. For Rich, the intimacies, gratifications, and thoughtfulness involved in mothering are embedded in a social environment that expects rather than credits mothers for choosing to behave as they do: “Institutionalized” motherhood, she wrote, demands of women “maternal ‘instinct’ rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realization” (p. 42).
Another prominent voice in identifying and criticizing motherhood as an institution, Jessie Bernard (1974) argued that “assigning sole responsibility for child care to the mother, cutting her off from the easy help of others in an isolated household, requiring round-the-clock tender, loving care, and making such care her exclusive activity is not only new and unique, but not even a good way for either women or for children” (p. 9). Citing cross-cultural studies, Bernard noted the effects of heavy child care loads on maternal warmth toward children; in cultures with the heaviest loads, mothers are more erratic in expressing warmth toward children. Isolated mother-child households also tend to have higher rates of infliction of pain on children. In cultures where isolation is decreased, and grandmothers or other caretakers are present, “maternal instability” is decreased.
These cross-cultural findings resonate with more recent studies of maternal violence and stress in the United States. Mothers who handle rearing children by themselves tend to be more stressed than other mothers (Arendell, 2000). Demo (1992) cited research suggesting that rates of child abuse are “highest among women who normally spend the most time with their children housewives with preschool children and lowest among those assumed to spend the least time with their children-mothers with full-time jobs” (p. 301).
Aside from questioning the notion that the separation of reproductive and productive work is a healthy context for children, Bernard (1974) pointed out that in most parts of the world, “women have been, and still are, too valuable in their productive capacity to be spared for the exclusive care of children” (p. 7). Her identification of cultural differences was implicitly a rebuttal of the notion that biology determines the gender-differentiated arrangements of the nuclear family. As Hays (1996) pointed out, even though women have the capacity to grow babies and perhaps “some animal instinct” to ensure their offspring’s survival, “this makes up only a minuscule portion of what is understood as socially appropriate mothering” (p. 14). Nature also does not explain the mothering of women such as adoptive or stepmothers who are not biologically connected to their children (Woollett & Marshall, 2001). Hrdy (1999) noted that “there is probably no mammal in which maternal commitment does not emerge piecemeal and chronically sensitive to external cues. Nurturing has to be teased out, reinforced, maintained” (p. 174). But if nurturing itself needs to be nurtured and is not instinctually induced, what explains the ways that mothers mother?
Theoretical Approaches to the Reproduction of Mothering
Intergenerational Transmission of Mothering
Analyses of motherhood in the 1970s pointed to its social organization as a form of oppression of women in patriarchal society, suggesting that power imbalances between women and men result from women’s being tied to child care (Umansky, 1996). With this analysis, the riddle became: Why do women do it? And one of the answers, argued influentially by Nancy Chodorow (1978), was: because their mothers did.
In her book, The Reproduction of Mothering, Chodorow (1978) attempted to explain the tendency for women rather than men to care for children by examining how mothers reproduce themselves in their daughters. Her argument, grounded in psychoanalytic theory, was that women’s exclusive investment in mothering, within the context of a sexual division of labor, reproduces in daughters a new generation of women who will be overly involved in mothering as a sole and insufficient source of self-esteem and personal accomplishment. Because mothers are denied outlets in the public sphere and are isolated from relationships with other adults, Chodorow suggested, they overinvest and overwhelm their children. Girls identify with their mothers, and boys must disidentify with their mothers to achieve their appropriate gender roles; boys therefore devalue caretaking behavior, which they associate with femaleness.
Chodorow’s theory has been criticized for leaving out other variables that influence the dynamics of male dominance and female devaluation that she rooted in mothering (see Boyd, 1989; Lorber, Coser, Rossi, & Chodorow, 1981; Johnson, 1988). She countered, however (in Lorber et al., 1981), that alternative arguments focus on how mothers are forced into primary caretaking roles but do not explain why mothers want these roles. For Chodorow, that enigma is explained by women’s internalization of their mothers’ gender identities.
Maternal Practice and Maternal Thinking
Whereas Chodorow’s aim was to explain women’s voluntary oppression as mothers, some of the work that emerged in the 1980s was more affirming of motherhood (Ross, 1995), suggesting that maternal practice and thinking hold the potential to decrease oppression. Sara Ruddick’s work is widely cited as an affirmation of the potential power in motherhood because she argued that the behavior of mothers generates a quality of thinking that provides nothing less than a blueprint for human caring and peace in the world (Umansky, 1996). Ruddick (1983) wrote that when mothers respond to the needs of children preserve their lives, foster their growth, and shape them into social acceptability they acquire a conceptual scheme in which there is “a unity of reflection, judgment, and emotion” (p. 214). She referred to this unity as “maternal thinking” and argued that it can benefit the public realm, “to make the preservation and growth of all children a work of public conscience and legislation” (p. 226).
Ruddick did not suggest that this way of thinking is biologically innate in mothers or even socialized; rather, she saw it as an outgrowth of their day-to-day experience of mothering, which at its best reflects a desire to sustain and facilitate life. Children demand care; and mothers, in ways that may vary for them as individuals, respond. Ruddick’s themes echo in some more recent work on mothering as a caring practice potentially redemptive of society (McMahon, 1995) or at least as representing a kind of opposition to relationships based on the competitive pursuit of one’s own interests. Hays (1996) argued, for example, that women are primary caregivers not only because they have less power than men but because their mothering represents an alternative to the paradigm of self-interest that dominates society.
Mothering as an Enactment of Cultural Contradictions and Gender
Whereas Ruddick suggested that maternal thinking comes out of maternal behavior, another approach looks at how mothers’ thinking about their children’s needs is influenced by dominant ideologies about socially appropriate motherhood ideologies that make their way into the practice and interaction of parents. One of the cultural artifacts that has been analyzed in this kind of work is advice literature for parents. Ehrenreich and English (1978) noted, for example, that the change in ideology about motherhood that occurred in the 19th century was part of a general orientation toward making a science of the domestic world. Male child-rearing experts emerging in the context of the home economics movement perpetuated the notion that mothering was an “all-engulfing” activity, while also suggesting that mothers were at great risk of doing it wrong.
With the increase of mothers in the paid labor force, Margolis (1984) suggested, experts began to speak of a more important role for fathers and to find an absence of negative effects on children from mothers’ involvement in paid work. Dr. Spock, for example, deleted his discussion of “The Working Mother” from the “Special Problems” section of his 1976 edition of Baby and Child Care, including instead a new chapter on “The Changing Family.” But not all of the changes were what they seemed, as Hays (1996) pointed out in a content analysis of best-selling child experts Drs. Spock, Brazelton, and Leach (see also Marshall, 1991). Advice literature still contains an implicit ideology of “intensive mothering,” a style of child rearing that requires much time, energy, and money from individual mothers. Expert advice has changed more in form than in content, Hays argued: For example, Spock undermines gender-neutral language when he suggests that “the ‘parent’ buy ‘a new dress’ or go to the ‘beauty parlor’ if child-rearing is giving (him or) her the blues” (p. 55). Other forms of advice literature, including breast-feeding guides, reinforce the sense that mothers are essential to babies in a way that fathers are not and that there are negative effects for babies and mothers in spending too much time apart (Blum, 1999; Walzer, 1998).
McMahon (1995) noted that dominant representations of woman’s character “so tie women to caring, and in particular to caring for their own children, that it becomes unthinkable for a woman not to act in a responsible way toward her child to be an irresponsible mother” (p. 159). More than that, however, McMahon suggested that women are not merely victims of cultural ideology. Rather, they change as a result of becoming mothers in ways that produce in them a gendered experience of their identities. A woman does not simply become a parent; she becomes a mother and “makes decisions about motherhood on the basis of her conception of who she is, rather than in terms of conformity to social roles” (p. 21). Mothers’ changed identities represent a moral transformation, McMahon argued, and one that has a meaning different from that which is ascribed to fathers.
In the “doing gender” perspective of West and Zimmerman (1987), gender is accomplished in the context of social interactions. Men and women create gender by behaving in the ways that socially defined men and women are supposed to behave or by being accountable to social expectations even if their behavior diverges from them. This perspective has been applied to the interactions of men and women who become parents together the ways that they “do” parenthood reflecting accountability to gender-differentiated expectations for mothers and fathers (Walzer, 1998). This can be stressful for mothers in particular because the standards to which they hold themselves feel unattainable and contradictory. Some mothers in qualitative interviews speak of feeling judged negatively by other people regardless of whether they are at home with their children or employed. Although their male partners can easily exceed ambiguous social models for being a good father, these mothers describe feeling as if they can only do worse (Hays, 1996; Walzer, 1998).
Within the context of the expert assertion of the primacy of the mother-child bond, there is much room for mothers to question what they are doing and to wonder about the proper balance between too little and too much mothering. Glenn (1994) suggested that ideology of motherhood revolves around both idealization and blame, around the glorification of mothers’ selflessness and condemnation of their influence: “Mothers are romanticized as life-giving, self-sacrificing, and forgiving, and demonized as smothering, overly involved, and destructive” (p. 11). Mothers are held ultimately responsible for children, but not necessarily with any authority.
The academic work about how gendered cultural imagery influences women’s approaches to mothering has largely been qualitative and, like much of the theoretical work in motherhood, untested on large populations (Arendell, 2000). There is no doubt, however, that among heterosexual couples, mothers do a disproportionate amount of child care (Coltrane, 1996). Qualitative studies of “shared” parenting arrangements between women and men reflect that mothers remain ultimately responsible for parenting arrangements even in couples who claim to evenly split the work of parenting (Coltrane, 1996; Deutsch, 1999; Ehrensaft, 1990). It is this enduring norm that some mothers report as the biggest downside to being a mother (McMahon, 1995) and that underlies tensions surrounding mothers and employment.
Mothers and Work
The amount of empirical research that has been generated about mothers and employment throughout the last three decades illustrates the importance of norms about paid work to dominant conceptions of motherhood. Spitze’s (1988) review of research literature investigating possible effects of women’s employment on children described a change from relatively negative assessments before the 1970s to more benign assessments after this period, but the vast number of studies focused on this question is an indication of the unresolved role of work in social definitions of motherhood.
Ideology and Maternal Employment
Some researchers argue that mothers’ involvement in both reproductive and productive work is receiving greater societal recognition and that more and more mothers experience their involvement in financially supporting their children as part of their parental role (e.g., Nock, 1987). Garey (1999) suggested, in contrast, that we continue to analyze mothering and working from a model of opposition, constructing mothers as being more oriented toward either family or work. This may, in part, be because of the dominant perception that mothers are employed in managerial and professional positions an assumption underlying some past research that cast mothers as either oriented toward having a career or not (Ferree, 1987; Garey, 1999). When the experiences of working-class women are brought into the study of maternal employment, the existence in mothers of both economic and domestic identities becomes apparent: “Working-class women, unlike more affluent women, are not offered the financial incentives to deny or minimize the experience of contradiction and so to express an unqualified preference for either paid work or housework” (Ferree, 1987, p. 298).
Garey (1999) proposed the metaphor of “weaving” work and family to replace the dominant cultural notion that women choose between them, yet mothering continues to be perceived as somehow incompatible with wage work (Thompson & Walker, 1989). Writing in 1992, Moen suggested that although Americans are increasingly comfortable with married women’s employment, they are still not necessarily comfortable about the employment of mothers of young children. Ten or so years later, the question of whether women in high-status positions (such as tenured professorships) can “have it all” is very much alive (Cohen, 2002).
Lewis (1991) argued that the experiences of both motherhood and employment are affected by the notion that the ideal for both is full-time, exclusive attention. The current counterpart to the ideology of the stay-at-home mother is the supermom who makes no “concessions” to motherhood “while doing all the things ‘good mothers’ are expected to do” (p. 197). Hays (1996) suggested that the coexistence of the traditional mom and the supermom reflects a serious cultural ambivalence about how mothers should behave; and mothers in both groups respond by returning to the ideology of intensive mothering. “Bad mom cards” do not address whether a mother is employed or not only that she waits until the next day to retrieve her daughter’s stuffed bear from the grocery store (Chast, 2001).
Against this ideological backdrop is the lingering question examined quite frequently over the last three decades: Why is it that new mothers are or are not employed? The opposition model of motherhood and employment is revealed in research that seeks to find the determinants of new mothers’ work statuses and related well-being in their personality characteristics, sex role attitudes, and career orientations. Questioning why a parent is employed assumes a nuclear family context and does not seem to pertain to new fathers, although as it turns out, the greatest impetus for mothers appears to be that which is assumed for fathers: financial need (Volling & Belsky, 1993). Mothers who contribute more to the total family income tend to return to work more quickly (Sanchez & Thomson, 1997; Wenk & Garrett, 1992), as do those who receive maternity benefits (Coltrane, 1996) and perceive more rewards on their jobs (Desai & Waite, 1991).
Work as a Lens on Differences between Mothers
Framing the question as why some mothers choose work does not necessarily get at the larger context in which mothers negotiate employment (Walzer, 1997), including differences in their social locations and relationship statuses. Recent scholarship has emerged that looks at mothering from more particular standpoints rather than as a general experience (see, e.g., Collins, 1994).
When we bring race into the discussion, for example, we see the bias in treating employed mothers as a new category. Collins (1987) pointed out that African American women “have long integrated their activities as economic providers into their mothering relationships” (p. 5). In fact, the maternal roles of racial ethnic women have largely been ignored in favor of their roles as workers (Glenn, 1987).
Hays (1996) noted that native-born white mothers of the dominant classes are most likely to be able “to have the cultural and economic resources as well as the time to define and engage in the form of mothering that is considered proper” (p. 164). Dominant notions about what is “proper” for mothers may differ depending on their social locations. Most mothers are not supposed to be wage workers, yet poor, single mothers should be, even though having a job does not guarantee living above the poverty line (Arendell, 2000).
Currently one third of births in the United States are to unmarried women. This is an increase from one in 10 in 1970 and from one in five in 1980, and the rates are expected to continue to rise (Arendell, 2000). About 30% of nonmarital births are to women less than 20 years old (Seltzer, 2000). Mothers who become mothers outside institutionalized expectations are mothering “against the odds” (see analyses in Coll, Surrey, & Weingarten, 1998). This may be most starkly expressed in a comparison of poverty rates between female-headed households with children present (31.6%) and married-couple families with children (5.2%) (Arendell, 2000). The feminization of poverty is in large part created by the negative consequences for single mothers of the opposition approach to family and work. According to Pearce (1990), In concrete terms, as long as we accept the denigration of women who take care of dependent children as “dependent,” and as long as the welfare problem is termed one of “dependency,” then the policy choices are constrained to a set of equally impossible choices for a single mother. She must choose between limiting her paid employment to devote more time to her children or limiting her time with her children in order to take more time for paid employment. Either choice perpetuates her poverty, both of income and of life. (p. 275)
Mothers as Disenfranchised Workers
In the dominant imagery of motherhood, it is not necessarily enough to be a woman who nurtures children to have one’s motherhood validated. Mothers who fall outside biological nuclear families and heterosexual relationships may find their motherhood contested and devalued. Barbara Katz Rothman (1989) wrote a book called Recreating Motherhood after hearing debate about a surrogate mother who did not want to give up the baby to whom she had given birth. What Rothman felt was crystallized in this mother’s loss of the baby to the wealthier couple who had contracted her surrogacy was the commodification and denigration of motherhoodits “use as cheap labor, in the service not only of men, but also of women of higher status” (p. 24). This is another lens on women as workers the notion of women as containers for fetuses, producing babies as a job, under contract.
Rothman argued that pregnancy should be perceived as both a physical and social relationship between a mother and her fetus the implication being that the fetus “is part of its mother’s body as long as it is in her body” (p. 258). For Rothman, the mother who grows the baby is the mother until she decides not to be. As Ragoné (1994) pointed out, however, surrogacy raises even greater dilemmas in defining motherhood because it creates potentially three “categories” of mothers:
(1) the biological mother, the woman who contributes the ovum (the woman whom we have traditionally assumed to be the “real mother”); (2) the gestational mother, the woman who gestates the embryo but bears no genetic relationship to the child; and (3) the social mother, the woman who nurtures the child. (p. 111)
When becoming a mother is taken out of the culturally expected family context, new questions surface about who and what invents motherhood. I suspect that the use of reproductive technology as well as the increasing disassociation of baby making from nuclear families and marital relationships will revive scholarly debate about the role of biology in defining motherhood and family in general. In fact, the most recent decade review of research in the Journal of Marriage and the Family had its first article about biosocial perspectives (Booth, Carver, & Granger, 2000). And whereas scholars in the 1970s cautioned against biologically based arguments as justifications for mothers’ primary responsibility for children, some analysts in the 1990s invoke women’s bodily connections to children to enhance mothers’ positions.
Hrdy (1999), for example, used an evolutionary perspective to support the naturalness of women’s interweaving of work and mothering. Taking a long-term view, she argued, supports the recognition that primate mothers for “most of human existence, and for millions of years before that” have combined productive lives and reproduction (p. 109). The difficulty lies not in the link between maternity and ambition but in the greater compartmentalization of productive and reproductive work and in a scarcity of people to help mothers with the care of children. “Acknowledging infant needs does not necessarily enslave mothers,” Hrdy suggested (p. 494). But it remains to be seen whether the return of biology to scholarly discourse will challenge or reinforce women’s experiences in the institutions of work and motherhood.
Future Directions for Scholarship on Motherhood
This chapter illustrates that the evolution of knowledge about motherhood is more of a circular process than a linear one. The questions underlying much research about mothers are asked and answered and asked again. Who defines motherhood and how? What are the implications for mothers and their children of the social environments in which mothering is embedded? What are the meanings, experiences, and consequences of the work that mothers do?
We need to continue efforts to convey the multidimensionality of motherhood to bridge the oppositions that have shaped mothers and study of them: biological and social, domestic and public, love and work. We need to continue working to integrate analysis of the rich individual narratives of mothering with the sweeping, systematic social structuring of motherhood. To quote Terry Arendell (2000),
[W]e need more attention to the lives of particular mothers to mothers’ own voices and to the lives and voices of diverse groups of mothers … At the same time, we need to study the influences on mothers’ activities and experiences of various political, economic, and other social arrangements and developments. We need work that connects mothers’ personal beliefs and choices with their social situations. (p. 1202)
Although some academic work about motherhood combines theoretical conceptualizations and empirical examination, there continue to be gaps between interpretive and positivistic approaches (Arendell, 2000). Qualitative studies are able to ground theoretical narratives in data, but we need research that tests the findings and contentions of qualitative studies with larger samples in ways that generate new qualitative studies. We need research that seeks to validate some of the theoretical arguments we take for granted, particularly about differences between mothers.
Race is theorized to affect mothers’ standpoints, for example, but there are similarities across race that surface in empirical research about transitions into parenthood. In one study, African American and white spouses appear to experience similar decreases in marital quality and similar increases in conflict, although there may be differences in how the conflict is expressed (Crohan, 1996). The imagery of good mothering to which women are accountable appears to override social location differences, while at the same time some groups of mothers have greater potential to realize the ideal of intensive mothering than others (Hays, 1996). We need more research that gets at these kinds of nuances and does not position mothers as entirely the same or different by virtue of their class, race, or ethnicity.
At the same time, we also need to recognize other kinds of diversity that may affect women’s experiences of motherhood, including the forms that their families and life courses take. Some female-headed households begin with single mothers; others become so as a result of divorce or death; still others evolve into new forms when mothers are joined by partners. The fluidity of maternal practice becomes visible when we examine mothers’ living arrangements and life transitions.
The compartmentalizing of motherhood leads to research that isolates women’s experiences from the interactions and institutions in which their views of themselves as mothers are created. One study concludes, for example, that mothers who are too conflicted or are not conflicted enough about holding jobs may have lower-quality interactions with their babies, yet the roles of mothers’ partners, workplace expectations, babies’ temperaments, and other situational variables are not necessarily addressed in identifying the sources of mothers’ conflict. This kind of analysis harks back to the early-20th-century expert literature condemning both rejecting and overprotective mothers. How much conflict is just right? What is a mother to do?
We will understand more about mothers by focusing less exclusively on them and more on their social contexts and relationships. Hertz and Ferguson (1995) pointed out that doing paid work carries with it the consequence that women who have grown up believing that mothers are irreplaceable must find a way of “replacing” themselves during the hours that they are at their jobs. This issue has generated a vast array of research attempting to ascertain the consequences for children of nonmaternal child care (Scarr, Phillips, & McCartney, 1989), yet research about maternal employment has not generally intersected with research about nonmaternal child care, even though both are focused on child outcomes (Perry-Jenkins, Repetti, & Crouter, 2000).
Children are the people with whom mothers do their mothering, yet the agency of children is relatively unexamined (Thorne, 1987; Woollett & Marshall, 2001). How do children’s ages, identities, and temperaments shape what mothers do and feel? How does ideology related to children and childhood affect the experiences of mothers? What are the relationships between mothers and children like, and how do the relationships between children affect the experiences of mothers?
Though on some level it is frequently assumed that all mothers have partners, on another level mothers are often studied as if none of them do (Walzer, 1995). This reinforces a sense of maternal practice as automatic and fixed. We need more studies that reveal how mothers negotiate partnership and motherhood studies that treat women’s own relationships as a salient context for understanding their approaches to mothering. Qualitative work on lesbian couples suggests, for example, that differentiation in parenting roles is not an inevitable outcome of a mother’s biological connection to a baby (Reimann, 1997).
Coltrane’s review of research about fathering in Chapter 13 of this book is instructive in revealing the presence of gender-differentiated approaches to parenthood in heterosexual couples. Many studies ask what makes fathers “involved” with their children, yet it would be surprising to see research addressing this question in relation to mothers. We need more work that examines how social definitions of fatherhood affect expectations for mothers. Mothers may be implicated in explaining fathers’ approaches to parenthood (Walzer, 1995), but we have relatively less analysis of the impact that interactions with fathers have on the shape of mothers’ mothering. Given the recent surge of research about fathering and how men think about fatherhood (Marsiglio & Hutchinson, 2002), there is good potential for synthesis in this area.
Finally, we can certainly use more applied research that contributes to improving the well-being of mothers and children as well as to policy debates about what is best for them. The scholarship of motherhood reviewed in this chapter has mattered to women. We can expect for texts to be created that mothers, as well as people who work with and make decisions about mothers, will read. Scholars of motherhood should take advantage of this opportunity by producing studies that point toward ways of bridging the oppositions in women’s lives.
Just as the scholars of 30 years ago found themselves in a changing world, we are living in a social environment in which there are vast economic and social shifts. For us, new forms of domestic and international violence make it ever more difficult to fulfill the promise of maternal practice. Now, as then, it may be tempting to cling to the idea that mothers alone can make everything all right for children. But now, as then, we have to acknowledge that mothers do not mother in a social vacuum. There is all the more reason to examine the variety and fullness and potential in the ways that we mother and know about motherhood.