Motherhood, myths and late modernity

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It is clear, then, that women continue to come to motherhood with

expectations which do not match their early mothering experiences.

The myths which continue to shape these expectations in many

Western societies are the co-productions of health professionals, authoritative

medical knowledge and other mothers. These in turn are perpetuated

by new mothers themselves, as they feel unable to voice their own,

sometimes difficult, experiences of early mothering which are not felt to

be instinctive, and therefore are thought to be abnormal. Yet it is not the

mothering per se that is the problem, although it may be initially difficult

and confusing, but rather the ways in which mothering and motherhood

are configured and culturally scripted in the West. This shapes what can

and cannot be said about our experiences. The contradictions that

women can experience on becoming mothers have been repeatedly noted

over many years; for example, Oakley, writing more than twenty years

ago, commented on the ‘prized and necessary occupation’ that mothering

was, yet noting ‘at the same time it is the most socially undervalued

occupation of all’ (1993:92). And such contradictions may have deepened

as many women’s lives in the West have changed, and now increasingly

involve paid work outside the home. Yet other aspects of women’s

lives remain unchanged, for example cultural assumptions around maternal

responsibilities and caring. A key factor in the configuration of

motherhood continues to centre on gendered assumptions of who cares

for children. As Evans has recently noted, ‘science may have created new

forms of reproduction, but so far it has failed to offer a form of childcare

unchanged for centuries and across cultures: the primary care of children

by women’ (Evans, 2003:62). In the West the private responsibility for

childcare is usually a solitary one, unlike other cultures where siblings and

other family members are often involved. Indeed, is mothering a more

lonely and isolating experience than in previous times? Have changes in

family size, more complicated living arrangements and greater geographical

mobility translated into women caring in more solitary ways than

women in previous generations? Certainly, many of the women found the

doing of mothering lonely, and seeking support from other mothers outside

the home only served to confirm them in their decisions to return to

work: mothering was not enough for them. As Clare, a teacher, said, ‘I

still sort of want to get a part of my life back and not just talk nappies . . . it

wasn’t really me going to parent–toddler groups all the time . . . I mean

when I’m at work I’m more my old self.’ Again, it is important to note

that ‘choices’, particularly in relation to work outside the home, do not

exist in the same way for all women who are mothers and ‘that women’s

choices about fertility and participation in the labour market are often

very far from free’ (Evans, 2003:65; Segura, 1994; Duncan and Edwards,

1999). Similarly, individual experiences are diverse and women who are

able to ‘choose’ not to work but opt for intensive, full-time mothering

construct their experiences in different ways, where mothering is

accepted as a primary role. For example, in an earlier chapter, Sheila

drew on such discourses to justify her decision not to work outside the

home, saying, ‘I really want to be there for them, the old-fashioned style

isn’t it?’’

The debates which have occupied feminists and others over many years

around ‘the uniqueness of women’s embodied experience and the desire

to deny that any such uniqueness exists’ continue, and progress can feel

slow (Lupton, 1994:131). Key to these debates have been attempts to

delineate what it is that mothers do, what represents meeting children’s

needs and how maternal responsibilities are constructed and played out.

The ways in which ‘conceptualisations of children’s needs’ feed into

powerful and dominant constructions of maternal responsibilities and

mother–child relationships and good mothering in late modernity has

provided a particular focus in recent research (Duncan and Edwards,

1999:126). Clearly, the often taken for granted association between

children’s needs and maternal responsibilities, emanating from essentialist

ideas about women’s natural capacities to nurture and care for

others, provides a difficult context in which to make sense of early

mothering experiences: a context that in late modernity is morally

inscribed and closely bound up with risk and responsibility. Being

responsible for a new baby, and finding that you do not instinctively

know what to do, is a daunting situation and the women in this book

looked to others to share the responsibility. In this climate it is little

surprise that women feel unable to risk talking about these early experiences

and may only voice them – and in so doing challenge constructions

of maternal responsibilities – once they have developed mothering skills

through practice.

In an earlier chapter, Rothman eloquently drew our attention to ‘the

history of Western obstetrics’ being a ‘history of technologies of separation’,

noting that ‘it is very very hard to conceptually put back together

that which medicine has rendered asunder’ (Rothman, 1992 cited in

Davis-Floyd and Davis, 1997:315). This theme of separation highlighted

through the processes of medicalisation, characterises contemporary,

Western constructions of mothering and motherhood at many levels. It

inscribes individual experiences and dominant discourses, and it is difficult

to see how we go back, how we repair andmake good the connections

once again: indeed, how far would women even regard this as desirable?

In many ways, as noted earlier in chapter 2, this would involve moving to

amore consensualmodel of authoritative knowledge. But this again raises

the question of how willing women would be to relinquish, or change, the

relationships they have with those they perceive to be experts. The focus

on cultural scripts and associated practises explored in chapter 2 illuminated

the differences, and indeed some similarities, in women’s expectations

and corresponding experiences. In the West, women come to

mothering knowing less about their bodies and usually with little or no

first-hand experience, because of the changing patterns in how we now

live. The average family size in the UK, for example, is predicted to be

1.74 children per woman born in, or after, 1985 ( Socia l Trends, 2003).

This trend is echoed across other Western countries. Women have

become further separated from knowing their bodies or the practices

associated with childbirth because experts have managed preparation

and birth occurs for most in hospitals, a practice now largely accepted as

‘normal’ and ‘natural’. Heightened perceptions of risk further separate

women from feeling able to take decisions without recourse to the experts

who they look to – either to share or take – responsibility. As Peggy

commented in an earlier chapter, ‘don’t keep giving me decisions to

make, I don’t know, I’ve not done this before.’ Many women have greater

possibilities in their lives in comparison with previous generations, for

example in relation to education and employment. However, these serve

to emphasise their non-expert status in relation to mothering and motherhood,

which they tend to come to – if at all – later in life, adding a further

dimension to experiences of separation. So, in many ways heightened

perceptions of risk, and not being skilled in mothering, can be seen to

explain ‘rational’ behaviours of seeking out professional expert advice, of

colluding with expert, authoritative knowledge. Yet ironically the practices

and procedures that characterise Western hierarchical forms of

authoritative knowledge further separate us from knowing our bodies.

Does this context make it harder to reveal difficult experiences in the early

postnatal period when the expectation – previously shared by the women

and the experts – that women will instinctively know how to mother is

found to be misplaced? Certainly it can lead to confusion and a reassessment

of what has gone before. But again, how far are such concerns

shared with other women who may not have experienced control in

their lives, for example through having similar educational opportunities

and career choices, or experienced individuality in the same ways?

Whatever the differences in life experiences – and clearly these are

inscribed by class, gender and cultural location – the overriding concern

here is with the ways in which motherhood is currently configured in the

West. Although individual responses to its configuration will differ within

and between different groups of women, this should not preclude us from

continuing to challenge its more oppressive dimensions.

So, in the early twenty-first century, changes in the ways we live have

led to new challenges to conceptualisations of motherhood, maternal

bodies, women and selves: and some dominant themes persist. For

example, obdurate constructions of children’s needs and mother’s

responsibilities in many Western cultures remain. These continue to be

reinforced through the processes of medicalisation, policy initiatives and

legal statute; see for example the ‘Unborn Victims of Violence Act’

recently passed in the USA (March 2004). Yet as much research has

now indicated, medicalisation and hierarchical forms of authoritative

knowledge are accepted and widely engaged with by most women in the

West as they become mothers, although theymay later come to challenge

aspects of them. Indeed, ‘unlearning deeply ingrained beliefs, skilfully

implanted, is never a quick or painless process’ (Tew, 1998:384). So,

what can we learn from the ways in which reproduction, childbirth and

motherhood are currently constructed in the West when we turn our gaze

to women’s reproductive rights and experiences in other parts of the

world? Earlier, in chapter 2, the contours of cultural scripts and different

ways of knowing in relation to reproduction and childbirth were explored.

This provided an important backdrop against which to compare Western

practices and experiences, to see how we have got to where we are. We

now turn to consider how perceptions of development and progress, in

the context of an increasingly globalised world, are played out in relation

to reproduction and childbirth in other parts of the world. Once again,

just as in the debates around essentialism, this requires us to negotiate a

sensitive and tricky path.