2 Making sense of motherhood: cultural scripts

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I’ve heard people talking, like you know they are embarrassed and feel

shamed the way they check out you especially with your first baby . . . it’s

because they’re so different they’ve never seen these sorts of things

before. (Munia, commenting on the experiences of recently immigrated

Bangladeshi women receiving antenatal care in the UK)

The different and sometimes competing cultural scripts that shape

ways of knowing about reproduction and childbirth in different cultural

contexts were powerfully demonstrated to me at the time of the birth

of my first daughter. During the 1980s I had lived in Dhaka, the capital

of Bangladesh, for two and a half years. I worked at a children’s hospital

and spent time in the ‘bustees’, the urban slums. My job involved tracing

former inpatients of the hospital in order to assess their nutritional status.

Following an eventful pregnancy (see Introduction) I returned home to

England for the birth of my first child. The morning after my daughter

was born in the local National Health Service hospital, I was aware of

a commotion in the next bed. The new mother, by coincidence a young

Bangladeshi woman, was in a state of bewilderment. The two auxiliary

nurses she was appealing to had failed with sign language and were

looking slightly bemused. I was able to interpret for her; she was in

pain and thirsty. The sense of her bewilderment at being in hospital to

give birth with nomeans of communication and no family members there

to provide support has remained with me. The young mother had only

recently arrived in the UK. Her expectations around childbirth did not

resonate with the medicalised mode of birth widely practised in the

Western world. I knew from living in Bangladesh that in her culture

very different ways of knowing shaped expectations, and experiences, in

relation to pregnancy and childbirth. For the vast majority of women

there was no system of formalised, professional antenatal (prenatal) care.

Delivery for most women occurred at home, sometimes in a specially

built room because of associations with ‘pollution’. The event took

place either alone or with the assistance of female relatives or women

experienced, but not formally trained, in delivering babies, known as

 ‘dais’ or ‘dhorunis’ (Islam, 1980). Clearly, the cultural scripts that were

dominant in Bangladesh stood in stark contrast to those that shaped

childbirth in the UK.

The contexts in which women live their lives as mothers are, then,

socially constructed, historically specific and culturally varied. As noted

earlier, motherhood is often considered to be a universal experience

and yet becoming a mother is everywhere socially and culturally marked

and shaped (Jordan, 1993). For example, the new mother in Bangladesh

will have different expectations and experiences from the new mother in

the UK – and some aspects may be shared by both women. Becoming a

mother, then, is always more than a biological event. The ways in which

‘a society’s core values and organisational principles’ structure reproductive

behaviours and practices has been noted in recent years by anthropologists

and sociologists (Oakley, 1980; Rothman, 1989; Davis-Floyd,

1992; Jordan, 1993; Davis-Floyd and Sargent, 1997). Women’s expectations

and experiences around reproduction and childbirth are produced

through interactions with others, and shaped by reference to dominant

form s of ‘authorit ative know ledge’ ( Jordan , 1997 ). As a result, there may

be little ‘cultural space’ available for alternative ways of thinking or

knowing about reproduction and childbirth (Davis-Floyd and Sargent,

1997). In this chapter, the interplay between different ways of knowing in

relation to cultural scripts will be explored in the context of making sense

of motherhood and narrative construction.

As noted in the previous chapter, narrative construction is a means by

which we canmake sense of, and reconcile, past and present expectations

and experiences and future hopes. A focus on transition to motherhood

provides a rich backdrop against which to see how expectations and

experiences are culturally located and shaped: to explore the cultural

contexts in which narrative accounts are constructed. Cultures, according

to Willard ( 1988), ‘provi de a script or rather a specific cultu ral set of

ideas about how events should take place so that members of that culture

can be guided through major life events and chang es’ (1988 :226). In the

same cultures the different scripts available to guide people through an

array of life events may contain inherently contradictory messages, for

example, those which exist in the West in relation to mothers with young

children and working outside the home. Yet this does not diminish their

power, but rather helps to shape the complex context in which

experiences are lived out. In relation to pregnancy and childbearing

dominant cultural scripts are discernible, but these shift over time, and

have dimensions to them which may fit with and/or contradict individual

experiences. Whatever the particular dimensions of the cultural scripts

available in any culture, they will shape individual expectations in various

ways. For example, where dominant cultural scripts are underpinned by

social structures and practices which serve to reinforce and legitimise

them, they become accepted as the ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ way to do things

and, as a result, may be difficult to resist.