Reflexivity and motherhood

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What does a focus on transition to first-time motherhood tell us about

reflexivity in late modernity? Theories of reflexive modernity have

focused on rapid transformations leading to detraditionalisation. The

certainties that once were assumed – including gender fates – can no

longer be so conceived. Rather, late modernity is characterised by uncertainty,

heightened perceptions of risk, a demise in trust in experts associated

with a greater imperative to make our selves, reflexively (Giddens,

1991; Lupton, 1999; Adkins, 2002). Social theorists have used the term

‘reflexivity’ to describe both ‘structural reflexivity’ and ‘self-reflexivity’

and it is the latter which is of concern here. The question posed throughout

the book has been ‘how do womenmake sense of motherhood?’ and a

focus on self-reflexivity can help us to see the ways in which this is

engaged with. In her critique of aspects of reflexive modernity, Adkins

notes that self-reflexivity is where ‘agency reflects on itself and there is

increased self-monitoring’ and that this takes place as a response to rapid

transformations, the demise of ‘structural forms of determination and the

‘‘unleashing’’ of agency from structure’ (2002:14–15). A response to

these changes has, it is argued, led to greater emphasis on individuals

and their capacity to make themselves. This occurs as we are all increasingly

freed from the strictures of rules and particular ways of being and

behaving.

But whilst some aspects of theories of reflexivemodernity are attractive

and have resonance for our understanding of women’s experiences of

becoming mothers, others do not. This is because they do not sufficiently

take account of the continuities and changes that shape women’s lives.

For example, mothering continues to be evaluated in morally underpinned

ways, yet at the same time there have been dramatic changes in

family formations. This means that in relation to childbearing and

mothering, women now have much less first-hand experience than previous

generations as families have fewer children and live in more geographically

dispersed ways. In this context, women do not possess the

experiential knowledge to enable them to confidently make individual

decisions. Rather, they increasingly look to expert bodies of knowledge

and expert practices to guide them through this period of uncertainty.

The demise, then, of expert authoritative knowledge may ‘be more

apparent than real’ (Lawler, 2000:19). Similarly, as noted earlier, the

history of obstetrics in the West is one of separation and women have

become increasingly separated from knowing their bodies (Rothman,

1992, cited in Davis-Floyd and Davis, 1997; Lupton, 1994). So in the

case of reproduction, childbirth and mothering, women are ‘not increasingly

free from the rules, expectations, and forms of authority associated

with modernity’ (Adkins, 2002:16). This is because at the root of these

experiences and relationships is a continued moral and cultural imperative

to act responsibly towards our (even unborn) children. In relation to

becoming a mother, and the contexts in which motherhood is lived out,

women’s agency has not been freed from structure but rather structural

and material concerns continue to shape expectations and experiences,

albeit patterning them in different and unequal ways. In chapter 1 it was

noted that self-reflexivity is not universally experienced. This is not

because individuals or some groups lack the capacity to be reflexive, but

rather because of more pressing material and structural concerns in a life,

for example in the case of those living a hand-to-mouth existence in

extreme poverty in Bangladesh. Lash makes a similar observation and

asks ‘just how reflexive is it possible for a single mother in an urban ghetto

to be?. . . just how much freedom from the ‘‘necessity’’ of ‘‘structure’’

and structural poverty does this ghetto mother have to construct her

own ‘‘life narratives’’?’ (Lash, 1994:120). Yet this is not to deny certain

groups agency, but once again to reiterate the need to take account of

the material and structural contexts which pattern lives in different

and unequal ways. The women whose journeys into motherhood we

have followed across this book identified themselves predominately

as ‘middle class’. According to Lash’s critique of the reflexive

modernisation thesis, this group could be seen as ‘reflexivity winners’ in

comparison with the single mothers in the urban ghetto he draws our

attention to, who would be ‘reflexivity losers’. Yet Adkins poses the more

fundamental question of ‘how is it that so many women are reflexivity

losers’, drawing our attention to the ways in which theories of reflexivity

have largely ignored its highly gendered dimensions (2002:38, emphasis

added).

Myargument, then, is that in late modernity we can discern practices of

self-reflexivity over and beyond intrinsic reflexivity, but that it is practised

in different ways and circumstances and, importantly,may be heightened

by some life events or changes. Transition to first-time motherhood is one

such life event. For some this is experienced as a period of heightened and

intensified reflexivity as attempts to assert or retain individuality and

control in a life are made. This is because of the changes – both bodily

and in terms of a shifting sense of self – that have to be accommodated

as transition is experienced, and new responsibilities and identities made

sense of. Indeed, it may be that self-reflexivity is more intensively practised

when embodied aspects of identity and gender are challenged. Real,

fleshy maternal bodies are hard to ignore, and the materiality of bodies

needs to be taken account of in how we reflexively make ourselves. As

noted earlier, both Giddens and Beck have been criticised in their writing

on reflexivity. This is because of their failure to take account of dimensions

of gendered and embodied identity and for producing masculinist

and ‘overly cognitive or rationalistic understanding of the latemodern self

and human action’ (Adkins, 2002:36). So, we may reflexively make sense

of our changing selves, but always from positions that are gendered and

embodied, and in the context of practices that are culturally embedded

and morally underpinned. We do notmake sense of our selves, or exercise

agency as mothers from within a vacuum, but rather from gendered

positions in complex lives, shaped by material and structural

circumstances.

One aspect of reflexivity which was clearly practised in the women’s

accounts of transition to motherhood was ‘self-monitoring’. But this

practice was not undertaken because rules no longer exist to guide action,

although the circumstances in which we mother have changed. Rather,

self-monitoring arises in response to the continued dominance ofmorally

underpinned discourses of ‘good mothering’, which influence what can

and cannot be said in relation to our dependent children. Although

practices of self-governance shift over time ‘the ideal of performing an

individualised biography’ – ‘living ones’ own life’ – is in sharp conflict

with the conventional expectation of ‘being there for others’ and this is

particularly the case in relation to mothering (Adkins, 2002:45).

Gendered notions of responsibilities are hard to escape and these are

further compounded by perceptions of risk. Ironically, these have become

heightened as scientific developments apparently offer us greater certainty,

for example in relation to the viability and progress of a pregnancy,

than was possible at any time previously. Perceptions of risk and acting

responsibly help to explain women’s engagement with hierarchical forms

of expert, authoritative knowledge and medical practices, and how these

have come to dominate in the West and shape available cultural scripts.

Clearly, then, there are limitations in theories of reflexive modernity, not

least of which is a failure by some to take sufficient account of the ways in

which reflexivity is gendered, embodied and materially and structurally

patterned. In her work ‘Gender, Habitus and the Field’, McNay (1999)

has drawn attention to these particular limitations in some accounts of

reflexivity, arguing that they ‘reproduce the disembodied and disembedded

subject of masculinist thought’ (1999:95). But she also goes

further to reject notions of reflexivity as arising from a generalised capacity

of individuals in response to the rapid transformations of late modernity.

Rather, she argues that subjects’ reflexivity ‘arises unevenly from

their embeddedness within differing sets of power relations’ (1999:110).

My argument, however, is that there is a generalised capacity but that it is

contingent on the material and structural conditions in which individuals

live their lives. Therefore it is differently and unequally realised, and

practised in different ways.