Selves and bodies

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What, then, can the focus on transition to first-time motherhood taken

in this book contribute to debates on selves in late modernity? How

are selves constituted, experienced, made sense of and presented to

others through transition, anticipating and preparing for motherhood

and doing mothering? Are different selves discernible and how are these

incorporated into existing ‘schemas of self understanding’? (Lawler,

2000:57–8). It was argued at the outset that some readings of the self

did not take sufficient, or any, account of embodied, gendered and

Conclusions and reflections: making sense of motherhood 143

embedded dimensions of selves. Similarly, that the contexts in which

selves are experienced, made sense of and presented have often been

overlooked. It was also acknowledged that any discussion of selves and

mothering necessarily involves engaging with ‘fleshy, sensate bodies’ and

that this, almost unavoidably, takes us into the tricky terrain that encompasses

essentialism (Jackson and Scott, 2001:9). In the discussion around

selves that follows, which draws on the empirical data presented in the

previous chapters, some distinctions between these contested ways of

being in the world will be made. How are selves configured and understood

in late modernity and what do the women’s accounts of transition

add to the debate?

Facets of a self – embodiment, material and fleshy bodies – in relation

to motherhood can be seen to appeal to essentialist ideas of how selves

are constituted, that is, as core, pre-existent and biologically given and

determined. Indeed, in many ways the women in this book anticipated

that they would instinctively and naturally know how to mother – clearly

drawing on essentialist ideas. These ideas, then, shape professional practices

and bleed into women’s expectations of what their own mothering

will be like. Similarly, when we talk of meeting needs and having a sense

of responsibilities in relation to our dependent children, essentialism

lurks close by. However, we can avoid falling into essentialist explanations

because meeting needs is a gendered, conventional expectation,

an expectation which is embedded in particular cultural constructions of

needs and responsibilities and associated gendered practices. These

are then reinforced and reproduced in different ways in different societies

rather than biologically determined. For example, some of the women

in the study were concerned and confused because they felt they might

be thought to have borrowed or ‘pinched’ their children or had not

‘bonded’ with their child as they had expected, that is, they did not

instinctively feel like mothers in the ways they had expected. These are

complex and highly contested debates that will endure, particularly

in relation to women and motherhood. For example, if we return to

McNay’s work cited earlier, she critiques aspects of theories of reflexive

modernity because they fail to take account of aspects of identity which

are ‘pre-reflexive, unconscious and entrenched’ and cites maternal feelings

as an example of these (1999:103). Yet this stance appears to take

us perilously close to essentialist claims in relation to women and their

bodies. The sense of aspects of an identity, or self as ‘entrenched’,

is appealing as it relates to what I refer to as practised and recognisable.

But the disentangling of what is unconscious and what is socially constructed

lies at the heart of these debates. For me, the idea of an entrenched

and enduring self fits with the women’s goal of ‘getting back to normal’

and regaining a sense of a pre-baby recognisable and practised self: something

that for some was only felt to have been achieved once they

had returned to work. Yet the idea of maternal feelings as unconscious

is more complicated. Clearly a sense of love and all the associated emotions

that we (usually) come to feel for a child are embedded in more than

a veneer of reflexivity or a well-managed performance of mothering.

However, this should not necessarily lead us into assuming unconscious

or pre-reflexive maternal feelings. This is because it is the dependency of

a child, and our culturally shaped expectations of meeting needs and

having responsibilities to and for our children, that lead us to a relationship

of love, which as a mother (or father) may be experienced immediately

or only gradually acquired. But that is not to doubt or undermine the

deep and all-encompassing dimensions of this relationship: we need only

imagine the almost unimaginable experience of the death of a child

to confirm the profound, poignant and enduring dimensions of the


For most of the women, the selves we eventually see them develop,

across the accounts collected in this book, are social selves as mothers.

These are constructed and understood in relation to others and

contingent on past experiences, for example their old, recognisable and

practised selves in the world of work. These emerge through practice

and gradually making sense of initially perplexing and confusing experiences

when mothering is not found to be instinctive. Eventually, a social

self as a mother becomes incorporated into existing schemas of

self-understanding. This ontological shift enables previous narratives,

premised on essentialist versions of selfhood and constructed to satisfy

what they thought they should be feeling and saying (remember the

limited repertoire of available story lines that characterise this period

and the risk of being labelled as not coping and, as Diana feared, having

your baby taken from you), to be revoked and revised. Importantly,

without the longitudinal dimensions of the research these shifts in how

selves as mothers are understood, made sense of over time and narrated

would have been lost. A focus just on the early postnatal interviews at

six weeks after the birth of their children would have left us with a sense

of the women having overcome some early difficulties and mothering

now ‘coming naturally’. The development of a social self as a mother is

also linked to social action. Here we return to concerns expressed earlier

in relation to performing a self as a mother. In chapter 1 it was noted

that whilst the performative nature of self is emphasised in Goffman’s

work, the complexities of putting on and maintaining a performance as

mothers warranted further consideration and it is to this that we now


In their work, both Goffman and Giddens have been criticised for

failing to take sufficient account of embodied and gendered dimensions

of social action and presentation of self. Jackson and Scott have drawn

attention to Goffman’s social stage where ‘embodied actors are ever

present’ but lament his lack of attention to the fleshy materiality of

‘sensual, visceral’ bodies (2001:11). Similarly, there is also a lack of

attention to the moral context in which as pregnant women and mothers

we understand and perform our selves, and the ways in which performances

are shaped by wider, public expectations. This moral context also

has implications for social action – where and how as new mothers we feel

able to competently and confidently present our selves – to do mothering.

Crucially for me, being a mother is always more than performing and

playing a part. This is not because of some essentialist connection to

mothering that women have. Rather it is because of a context, which as

noted earlier, circumscribes a cultural and moral imperative thatmothers

act responsibly in relation to their children, identifying and meeting

needs. Practised over time, this for most women leads to the development

of a deeply felt, loving relationship. The cultural ‘props’, as Goffman

might call them, for a performance of mothering – baby, pram, changing

bag – are not enough in this moral climate because when performing or

‘doing’ mothering a cursory, or amateurish, performance is not sufficient,

although it might initially be managed in this way. Rather doing and

performing mothering requires time to master. It involves a relationship

and connection to our children which is developed through practice and

interaction, rather than being experienced as innate. Doing mothering in

public places, then, can be particularly daunting for the new mother.

Although she has the props, she has not yet become practised, and a

poor performance is ultimately risky. Remember back to the profound

accounts of some of the women when they ventured out in the early weeks

with their babies and felt they had been ‘found out’ (chapter 5). Or those

who confined themselves to the perceived safety of the home, where

doing mothering could not be so publicly evaluated. The link between

social isolation and ‘postnatal depression’ was highlighted earlier

(Mauthner, 1995: 2002; Nicolson, 1998). Yet restricting social action

in the public sphere appears a rational response to the demands that are

placed on women as they try out, and come to terms with, early mothering

experiences. If women knew this was a rational response and that others

were feeling similarly, and could share their experiences of normal

‘unnatural’ feelings, we would go some way towards breaking down the

old myths of motherhood (again remember in chapter 5 how friends

Helen and Diana were experiencing just these feelings but felt unable to

voice them to each other).

Selves, then, are interactionally and at some level reflexively experienced,

narrated and practised, yet are circumscribed in particular ways.

As Holstein and Gubrium have noted, ‘selves don’t simply ‘‘pop out’’ of

social interaction. Nor does just anything go (and) while culture cannot

specify the actual working details of the self, it does provide a broad

outline for the possibilities’ (2000:12–13). For example, remember

back to the cultural scripts explored in chapter 2. My argument, however,

is that in relation to mothering in the West, the possibilities are narrowly

focused and there is a limited repertoire of story lines in which to locate

unexpected and confusing experiences, and that this has implications for

understanding and practising mothering and motherhood. In time, and

as elements of control are regained, individual strategies of resistance can

be employed. For example, women feel able to challenge expert constructions

of childrearing practices and may produce counter-narratives whose

plot lines are not those found in the narrowly focused ‘possibilities’ that

equate to the ‘good mothering’ narrative (Garcia Coll et al., 1998). The

passage of time also offers the possibility for (some) women to assert their

individuality, through experiencing different dimensions of their selves,

for example through a return to work; as Abigail said, ‘I do like being a

professional person and myself.’ Selves, then, are not just performing,

reflexive entities. Rather they are more complex than that, embedded in

particular individual histories and cultures and inextricably bound with,

and emanating from, corporeal, fleshy, sensate bodies. Yet in relation to

mothering and motherhood our ideas of our selves as mothers, which are

reinforced by our changing maternal bodies which have to be managed,

continue to be confounded by the myths which obdurately shape our

expectations and silence early experiences.