Becoming a mother in late modern society

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Becoming a mother in late modern society is, then, a highly complex

experience. We must be cautious about any claims made in relation to

universal experiences, and at the same time acknowledge the embodied

act of birth and its cultural inscription and social location. In exploring

the pathways through the landscape of childbearing and motherhood,

feminists are continually faced with challenges. The key challenge is

summed up succinctly by Linda Rennie Forcey, who observes the need

to ‘seek balance between the essentialism lurking in simplified notions of

‘‘mothers’’ as a homogeneous group and the equally important need for

polit ical unity an d an ethic of care ’ (Force y, 1999 :304). Yet the cont ext

keeps changing, and we have to pay close attention to the ways in which

changes infiltrate and shape expectations and ways of doing and being.

So, whilst debates continue to surround the place of reproduction and

childbearing in women’s lives, the context in which childbearing takes

place reflects other shifts that have occurred across many Western societies.

Patterns within women’s lives have shifted, with many women

having children either much earlier or later in life, alone or partnered,

combining work and mothering, or choosing to remain childless (childfree).

These general trends are echoed across other Western societies

(Eurost ats, 2000; N ational Vi tal Statistic s, 2000) . Fath ers have also been

ident ified as a new consume r group (Barbo ur, 1990 ) an d the ir role

throughout the childbearing process and after has become a focus of

researc h an d debat e (Laque ur, 1992; Ru ddick, 1992 ; Mitch ell and

Goody , 1997 ; Helman , 2001 ). In the USA and acro ss m any E uropean

countries, ‘the family’ is increasingly repositioned as the cornerstone of

society and policies to support particular types of family are promoted,

whilst at the same time, families of choice and other ways of living are also

being championed. In the UK, the rights of the child have also been

increasingly recognised and detailed in legislation (for example,

Childr en Act 1989 ) and mee ting childr en’s needs has beco me an amb iguous

government concern. Parenting has been redefined in terms of skills

to be learned and practised and parenting classes are increasingly offered

or prescribe d (Webst er-Strat ton, 1997 ; Home Office , 1998). Across

many European countries maternity and paternity leave has been

increased or introduced although not necessarily financially supported.

But for all these changes, in almost all societies the rearing of children

continues to be predominately undertaken by women, a significant number

of whom parent alone and in poverty.

The context, then, in which women negotiate their journeys into

motherhood and in which mothering is experienced, continues to shift.

Writing in another context, Plummer has drawn our attention to the

possibilities of challenges to ‘old stories’ and the ‘obdurate grip’ of others

(1995 :131). It is the ‘obd urate grip’ of the myth s arou nd mothe rhood

which provides a recurrent theme across the chapters of this book.

Feminists have, over several generations, debated and called for changes

in the conditions in which mothering is experienced. Yet it appears that

the difficulties of ‘telling the hard things about motherhood’ (Ross,

1995 :398) rema ins, and essenti alist no tions of ‘norm al’ and ‘natural’

transition make confronting and voicing difficult experiences particularly

proble matic (Nic olson, 1998 ; Ma uthner, 2002 ). Wider soci al changes

have translated into mothering occurring at different times in women’s

lives. The significance of mothering to women’s lives within the context

of changed educational opportunities for (some) women and the resulting

shifts in patterns of employment, also has implications for constructions

of motherhood. There is an increase in the number of single mothers and

others who follow ‘non-traditional’ ways of living and parenting (McRae,

1999 ). In all late m odern societ ies, contemp orary mothe ring arran gements

are more diverse, yet often remain unrecognised in areas of family

polic y and pract ice (Sta cey, 1996; Duncan and Edwar ds, 1999 ). This is

app arent in relation to mothe rs whose moth ering challe nges stereotype s.

The experi ence s of mothe rs who have found the mselves to be marginalised:

teen mothers, immigrant mothers, lesbian mothers, homeless

mothers, welfare mothers and incarcerated mothers, have been studied

in recen t years (Garcia Coll et al ., 1998). These ‘types’ of mothers all

represent groups who challenge the ‘ ‘‘good’’ mothe r narra tive [wh ich]

attempts to assert uniformity where there is diversi ty; consen sus where

the re are differing perspe ctives’ (Garcia Coll et al ., 1998:12). But the

diffi culties of making women’s different and differing voices either heard

or count have remained . Fem inist and other research has continued to

explore the differences and commonalities of contemporary mothering

experiences. Yet the practices around motherhood in the West remain

grounded in assumptions of mothering as biologically determined,

instinctive and natural.