7 Conclusions and reflections: making sense of motherhood

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This chapter draws together the theoretical debates raised by the empirical

data in relation to reflexivity, narratives and gendered selves in late modernity.

The research and fieldwork observations collected together in this book enable

us to see, close up, how mothering and motherhood are differently – and

similarly – experienced, and culturally, socially, historically and politically

patterned and shaped. The profound difficulties of voicing unexpected and

unanticipated personal experiences of early mothering are confounded by the

moral context in which women continue to mother in theWest. This context

is shaped in different ways and is underpinned by essentialist assumptions of

women’s instinctive capacities to be there for others,meeting needs and acting

responsibly. So entrenched are these assumptions that women coming to

motherhood are guided by reference to them and can be distressed and

confused when ‘natural’ and ‘instinctive’ feelings elude them in the early

days and weeks – and sometimes months – of mothering. A social self as a

mother has to be developed. But letting go of essentialist expectations can be

tricky, striking at the very core of awoman’s sense of her self as a ‘real’woman.

The parameters around what can and cannot be said in relation to our

dependent children can lead to normal ‘difficult’ experiences of earlymothering

remaining unvoiced; ironically, this self-silencing only serves to further

perpetuate the old myths ofmotherhood.The lapse of time, formanywomen,

enables them to become more practised in their mothering skills and to

become experts on identifying and meeting their children’s needs.

Mothering, then, is hard – and often lonely, isolating and undervalued –

work as it is currently configured in the West. But for all that, the positive

dimensions of loving a child and unconditionally being loved back can involve

a profound sense of having achieved something worthwhile, leading to a

deeply meaningful, special life-long relationship. The contradictions, then,

that have formany years characterised feminist and other debates in relation to

mothering and women’s lives show no sign of abating: the relationship is

confusing, compelling, loving and ultimately confounding.

In this chapter aspects of reflexivity will be mapped in order to explore

further dimensions of a reflexively constituted sense of self, and how

selves are made sense of and narrated through a period of transition. This

focus raises several questions. For example, in what ways is a capacity for

reflexivity and narrative assumed in late modernity and do certain life

events prompt periods of heightened reflexivity? How do events that are

inextricably bound up with constructions of selves, especially those involving

embodied change, shed light on how we make and understand our

selves in late modernity? A focus on transition to first-time motherhood

enables us to explore these issues, but also adds further layers of complexity,

for example assumptions made in relation to needs and responsibilities

and essentialist ideas about women’s ‘natural’ capacities. Real, fleshy

maternal bodies are also hard to ignore in any analysis of women becoming

mothers, yet the trap of essentialism lurks at every turn. The irony of

motherhood is that ‘on the one hand it is an unutterably personal array of

experiences’ yet it is largely lived out and measured in the public sphere

(Chase and Rogers, 2001). The context, then, is key as we make sense of

experiences for ourselves – to maintain ontological security – and produce

accounts for others; the two not necessarily being the same thing. The

ways in which our understandings of mothering and motherhood in the

West are powerfully shaped by bodies of expert, authoritative knowledge

and associated practices and their continued grip will also be revisited.

For example, what can the experiences of women living in other cultures

tell us about cultural scripts in the West? The complex interplay between

technology, perceptions of progress and different ways of knowing about

women’s (reproductive) bodies in an increasingly globalised world also

requires further comment. Finally, the methodological issues arising from

the work, and the ways in which a narrative approach may only serve to

reproduce a modernist subject, will be considered.