3 Setting the Western context: mothering in late-modern society

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As was noted previously, childbirth is alwaysmore than a biological event.

Within Western cultures this position has provided a powerful, shifting

and contested context in which women come to understand and make

sense of their experiences of becoming mothers and motherhood.

Experiences of becoming and being mothers are inextricably linked to

‘race’, social class, age and socio-cultural location and as a result are

diverse and fragmented. In contrast, dominant forms of knowledge and

associated practices shape the context in which mothering occurs. These

are largely based on notions of mothering as biologically determined,

instinctive and therefore universally experienced. In this chapter the

complex and changing contexts in which transition to motherhood is

experienced in contemporary Western society will be explored. This

will be undertaken through a focus on the interwoven processes of medicalisation

and late modernity, together with consideration of the ways in

which ideologies and normative practices have shaped expectations and

experiences in the Western world. How are the themes of late modernity

played out? What are the implications of these – uncertainty, risk and

responsibility – for women as they construct biographical narratives of

transition to motherhood? The contested terrain of reproduction and

motherhood has provided feminists with a rich arena in which to explore

constructions of motherhood and theorise women’s gendered and embodied

experiences. This body of work, which importantly draws our attention

to the ways in which notions of individuality and control are

grounded in particularly Western and culturally bound ways of thinking,

will be referred to throughout.

In Western cultures, the period of transition to motherhood, from

confirmation of pregnancy to feeling like a mother, is both a public

event and a very personal experience. As was shown in the previous

chapter, the ways in which motherhood is framed in these societies shapes

expectations and experiences. Women are confronted with an array

of expert, public and lay knowledges through which their expectations

and experiences of motherhood will be filtered. The medicalisation of

childb earing, in conjunc tion with the pervasi ve ideologies an d practices

that shape expec tations of m otherho od, can be seen to powerful ly rei nforce

notion s of approp riate ways of prep aring for becom ing a mothe r and

how a good mother ‘n aturally ’ acts. However, for some women, the

experi ence of becomin g a mothe r do es not resonate with expec tation s.

The gap bet ween ideologie s and lived experi ence can appear bewilder -

ingly large and difficult to reconcile and to voice. In m ost societies,

mothe rhood and family life are closely relat ed to being a moral perso n

and ‘moral ident ities’ may be perce ived as bei ng at risk if difficult ies are

experi enced and/or disclo sed (Rib bens Mc Carthy et al., 2000). The links

betw een perce ption s of risk and respo nsibility, or ind eed being regard ed

as irrespons ible, are par ticular ly sali ent in relation to chi ldbearin g and

mothe rhood, and will be returned to later in this chapter.

As we have alread y seen , the te rm ‘late modern ity’ is used in this book

to mean a peri od that has supersed ed the modern era, and is charac terised

by rapid chang e and uncerta inty. Fea tures of late mod ernity centre on

‘instit utional an d individu al reflexi vity combi ned wi th the reorgani sation

of time and spa ce’ (Lupt on, 1999 :73). Trans formatio ns in late modern

societie s, for exampl e chang es in fami ly livi ng arran gements are, it is

argued , hap pening at an unprec edented speed (Gidde ns, 1990 , 1991,

1999 ). Old tradition s and habits no longer provide the same certa inties

they on ce did . This has led to inc reased perce ption s of risk as long-t erm

certain ties are called into question (Gi ddens, 1990 , 1991 , 1999 ; Beck,

1992 ; Beck and B eck-Gern sheim, 1995 ; L upton, 1999 ). As no tions of

risk beco me heightene d, indiv iduals are incre asingly expos ed to expert

bodies of know ledge an d know ledge cl aims. At the same time the need to

explo re personal and socia l chang e reflexiv ely has beco me a more pro -

nounce d featu re of Western livi ng.

constru cting the project of the se lf ’ (199 9:76). As noted in chapter 1, in

An d this may indeed invo lve pla cing

trust in expert bodies of knowledge and ‘experts’. As Lupton has

obse rved, ‘indi vidual s have great er recours e to expert knowledge s in

societies where traditions and practices have shifted, leading to greater

personal uncertainty, making sense of our experiences has become, for

many, a reflexive component of everyday life. This is achieved through

the process of constructing and continuously revising our own individual

biographies as part of the reflexive project of the self. This is an engaged

and active project which moves beyond reflexivity as an intrinsic part of

all human action. As noted earlier in chapter 1, it seems that we increasingly

need to make sense of who we are, of our personal experiences, in

order that ‘onto logical se curity’ is maint ained (Gi ddens , 1991 ; 1999). In

relation to changes in gender, family and occupational roles, it has been

argued that individuals must now seek out and negotiate relations that

would previously have been part of gender fates (Beck and Beck-

Gernsheim, 1995). Claims made about late modernity and the process

of ‘individualisation’ are highly contested and alternative ways of seeing

the social world have been put forward (Jenkins, 1996). Lawler, for

example, recognises that changes in the way we live and the choices that

we make could be seen to ‘suggest that authoritative, expert knowledges

are losing their ground’ and that ‘the proliferation of expertise and various

forms of contestation between experts means that ‘‘expertise’’ is itself

breaking down’. However, she concludes that ‘these crises may be more

apparent than real’ (Lawler, 2000:19). Certainly in relation to reproduction,

childbearing and mothering, the uncertain and yet morally underpinned

context in which women come to motherhood continue to lead

many to seek out and prioritise what they see as expert knowledge. But it

is of course important to note that different groups will be touched by,

and experience dimensions of, late modernity in different ways (see

chapter 7).

So, how do the features of late modernity map on to the terrain of

reproduction, childbirth and motherhood in Western societies? Clearly,

changes in the ways we live mean that for many women becoming a

mother is no longer regarded as a gender fate. Even so, motherhood

continues to be central to the ways in which women are defined, whether

or not they actually become mothers. For those who do become mothers,

their expectations will be shaped by and through expert systems of

authoritative knowledge as they negotiate the ‘risky’ and morally underpinned

path to ‘responsible’ motherhood. The experiences of past generations

have become less relevant as technological developments change

the contours of pregnancy and childbirth in the Western world. These

‘developments’ ironically appear to have led women to perceive greater

uncertainty and risk in their journeys into motherhood. This is at a time

when biomedical, expert knowledge has apparently provided greater

scientific certainty and predictability. Perceptions of risk in pregnancy

and childbirth are not new. For example, wealthy women in the UK and

USA employed doctors during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

specifically to protect them from the risks of childbirth. However, perceptions

of risk have not diminished in late modernity but rather become

inextricably bound up with safety and responsibility: a potent mix in the

morally underpinned climate in which contemporary pregnancy and

motherhood are lived out. Further, as Lupton has noted, ‘risk-avoiding

behaviour therefore becomes viewed as a moral enterprise relating to

issue s of self-c ontrol, self-kn owled ge and self-imp roveme nt’ (19 99:91).

During pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, avoiding risk, and so

being seen to be responsible, continues to involve placing trust in experts.

To resist such engagement, to avoid screening tests, clinic visits and

expert advice would be regarded as irresponsible behaviour. Such actions

would be seen to jeopardise the woman’s own health ‘and more importantly,

that of the foetus she is carrying and expected to protect and

nourish in a proper maternal manner’ (Lupton, 1999:90). For women in

Western societies transition to motherhood is usually experienced against

a backdrop of professional, expert management and self-monitoring.

Women are compelled to take expert advice and avoid risk through

appropriate behaviours and self-management. In turn, transition to

motherhood challenges our sense of who we are as identities, and experiences

shift and coherent biographical narratives become more difficult to

construct: becoming a mother changes everything.