Performing motherhood outside the home

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A sense of being a mother was only gradually experienced by many of the

women as they came to terms with the practical tasks and responsibilities

that shape mothering in many Western cultures. Doing the practical

things around a new baby could, after time, be managed in the home.

But the outside world presented different challenges. Potential scrutiny

and judgement by others was regarded as risky amongst those who

did not yet feel confident or skilled in their mothering abilities.

Managing a performance of being a mother in the public sphere, especially

when facets of self were experienced as uncertain and tenuous as

a consequence of transition, led many women to stay at home. Being

perceived as a competent social actor, a ‘real’ mother, in public places was

regarded as too daunting by many of the women, and led to limited social

action in the public sphere. Interestingly, withdrawal from social networks

has been identified as a factor in the development of ‘postnatal

dep ression ’ (Mauth ner, 1995 , 2002 ; Nicols on, 1998 ). In the followin g

extracts some of the women relate how, because their experiences of early

motherhood did not resonate with their expectations, they did not actually

feel in control or like ‘a mother’ and they regulated their interactions

in public spaces. It was considered risky to be visible in a public place,

while not feeling able to confidently present as a ‘good’ or ‘proper’

mother, as Philippa describes in the following extract:

So I didn’t go out very much, which really made it hard . . . I don’t think I went out,

literally set foot outside the door, for three or four weeks or something which is

quite . . . it was a long time, and that was too long actually, because I didn’t . . . but

I just felt . . . I didn’t feel very confident taking her out because I just thought she

was going to cry the whole time and I felt a bit sort of self-conscious about it,

I suppose, and I thought at least at home I can always feed her and I didn’t feel

confident about feeding her out of the house and things . . . I mean even now I sort

of feel if I take her out shopping and she started crying . . . this woman in a shopping

queue said to me, ‘they hate shopping’, and they’re so sort of accusing and I felt like

saying ‘well, I have to eat’ . . . I mean I am sure she didn’t mean it like that, but I

took it as, you know, you’re inflicting this awful thing on your child. But I mean I

sort of feel I get disapproving glances. I’m sure you don’t at all, but I can’t . . . that’s

how I interpret it.

Being perceived as a ‘real’ mother, and being able to give a convincing

performance in the public sphere, was a concern for many of the women.

Felicity relates an early outing to the doctor’s with her young baby:

We had to go to the doctor’s and both of us went, Robert and I went with the baby

and then I got a prescription. Robert went to get the prescription. I said, I’ll come

home because the estimators were coming for the removals. And I’d done . . . you

know I’d got one of the changing bags like you’re supposed to, taken a bottle of

milk with us in case he got horrible, and he had in the doctor’s, and Robert had

started to feed him and then we’d left and he was quite happy. But I was coming

home and he started to get hungry again and Robert had the bottle in his pocket

and had gone off to the shop to get the prescription, so I had this screaming child

in the middle of [town] on, I think it was a Thursday afternoon, and it was hot and

the tourists were there, and I felt like shit and I couldn’t walk very fast, and I had to

virtually run from the middle of town to here, over the bridge, and you could tell

everyone was, ‘poor child’, ‘what’s that woman doing with that child’. And

I thought, I was convinced somebody was going to like stop me and say you’ve

pinched that child, that’s not your child, you aren’t a mother, you don’t look like

you can cope with him, this baby, you should be doing something to stop it crying.

Other women spoke of gradually gaining the confidence to leave the

safety of their homes and do mothering in the public sphere:

. . . but it’s taken eight weeks to be confident to walk along with a pram with a

screaming child. (Abigail)

. . . but it’s absolutely exhausting, yes, I was quite sort of lonely to start with when

he wasn’t doing much and I didn’t really feel confident enough to go out. (Clare)

I know I’m a mother but I don’t quite feel like a mother yet . . . I went to [the shop]

once and she screamed the whole way round, then I did feel like a mother because

all these old ladies were there and they were going . . . ‘that baby shouldn’t be out’,

‘it’s too hot for that baby to be out’. I could hear them rabbitting on behind me. So

then I did feel very much like a mother . . . a dreadful mother. (Gillian)

I know, sort of, how long she can go without food so if I want to go down town or

something I can sort of time it . . . so I don’t have to feed her when I’m out. (Faye)

You know, you just feel so tied to this one little thing, and tied to the house,

just . . . and also I think because I’m . . . I’m so organised and such a . . . like, sort

of, things well planned, I found it impossible to be able to make appointments . . .

I was never quite sure when he was going to feed and when he was going to sleep,

and I think because I couldn’t control him I was worried about making any

appointments, whereas now I think, well, I’d take him with me and if he cried

so what . . . whereas at the beginning I think I thought if he cried it was my fault

and I was very aware of people thinking, you know, he’s crying, why doesn’t she

pick him up . . . and that made me feel guilty. There’s this awful guilt, sort

of . . . oh, it’s dreadful. (Kathryn)

Clearly then, striving to make sense of the intensely private experience

of becoming a mother within the context of public expectations is both

challenging and potentially baffling. Difficult experiences may remain

unvoiced and social action be regulated. Concerns about being perceived

as a ‘real’ mother were also implicit in other accounts, where women felt

that their ‘pretence’ of being a mother would be found out. In the extract

above, Felicity talks of her fear that others will think that she has ‘pinched’

her child, and other women voiced similar concerns:

. . . but I still feel I’ve borrowed him, that I’m not his mother, that he’s not mine.


We kept looking at them and thinking no, somebody’s going to take them away

because they are not ours really. (Sheila, mother of twins)

Coming home with him was odd in that we both felt that we’d kidnapped him and

even though I’d been pregnant, it didn’t really feel right. But we were both very

natural with him. So there was complete conflicting things, that we must have

stolen him but he was ours and we coped with him really well. It was really

odd . . . really bizarre, freaky. (Abigail)

The complexities of becoming a mother, in circumstances where changing

familial arrangements have reduced the likelihood of women having

previous experiences around babies and childrearing practices, have

become more intense. One consequence of such transformations has

been a greater emphasis placed on individuals and the monitoring of

their actions through reflexive practices. Yet as was noted in chapter 1,

being a mother is always more than ‘playing a part’ and in these extracts

we see the women trying to come to terms with conflicting experiences.

Becoming a mother involves embodied, visceral experiences and responsibilities

for meeting the needs of another dependent human being.

However, the very things that patterned these women’s pre-baby lives –

planning, coping and having control – are the very constituents of a life

that now, at times, elude them. Reflexively sustaining and maintaining a

sense of self through this period, whilst necessary for ontological wellbeing,

is complicated by the essentialist constructions of motherhood that

continue to dominate Western societies, knowledges and practices.

The relationship between mothering and paid work outside the home

was explored in an earlier chapter. The relationship has, historically, been

subject to change according to societal needs, and has always differentially

affec ted different groups of women (Hill Collin s, 1994; Segura,

1994 ; Duncan and Edwar ds, 1999 ). The women’s decisions in this

study about whether to return to work or to mother full-time, drew upon

a range of recognisable discourses. For some, returning to workwas seen as

offering the possibility of regaining dimensions of a pre-baby, recognisable

self, in an environment where they would not be ‘just a mother’, their

‘performance’ at work being measured according to different parameters:

. . . that’s why I want to go back [to work], is to be me. (Abigail)

I’m looking forward to it in a way ’cos it will give me a break, I think, ’cos it’s

surprising how much work it is, you’re on the go all the time. I think I have about

an hour [a day] to myself. (Angela)

. . . because I think work, well for me it was very much a part of my identity, it’s

part of who you are, and I think that I didn’t really realise that until I didn’t have it,

and having the baby has made me realise I do need something back for myself,

because I have lost my identity – to everyone else I’m Sonia’s Mum and that’s

what I am, who I am, and I don’t think I will regain any of that feeling of having my

own identity until I get back to work, which is why it’s important, I think, for me to

go back to work. I’ll never be the same because I can never be at work what I was

before because I’m still Sonia’s Mum, but I will always have something a bit

different, something for myself, and when I get back to work I know that I will

have something for myself like I’ll go to the gym when I’m at work and I’ll chat to

people and I’ll have a bit of a laugh and I’ll talk about things other than babies, but

then I’ll come back and I’ll still be Sonia’s Mum and I’ll still have to get up in the

middle of the night or change dirty nappies and talk about baby things on the days

when I don’t go to work, but that’s OK as long as I’ve got something for myself,

I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t survive without having that, I don’t think. (Diana)

I’mnot sure that I am cut out to be a full-time mother . . . I don’t know that I’d find

it stimulating enough . . . well, not stimulating enough, but . . . I don’t know really

whether I would be good at it . . . I need to do both anyway, I think. (Philippa)

For most of the women, work offered the possibility of regaining a sense

of self, which is experienced as either ‘lost’ or submerged in full-time,

intensive mothering. But one mother spoke of her satisfaction with being

at home with her baby daughter:

. . . so the future at the moment just for me, I’m just concentrating on Emily at the

moment, I’m afraid. I’ve just not really thought about what I’m going to do.


Yet, interestingly, Faye finds it necessary to apologise, ‘I’m afraid’, when

she voices apparent contentment in concentrating on her daughter:

intensive mothering as an option also has to be justified.