Narratives and the modernist subject

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A key concern in this book has been to explore the ways in which

reflexivity is a feature of changing lives, heightened through particular

life events in late modernity and more discernible amongst certain groups

in the West. Linked to this, the narrative approach taken has sought to

explore how individuals actively construct and reconstruct narratives

reflexively in the process of making sense and presenting their selves.

Yet, ironically, one of the threads that runs across the chapters of this

book relates to what can and cannot be said about mothering and

motherhood. There is some irony, then, that what I have attempted to

do is capture women’s accounts of transition, through a focus on narratives,

in the knowledge that only particular versions of experiences will, or

indeed apparently can be voiced (see for example the exchange with

Abigail in chapter 6, page 124). But of course all research is circumscribed

in various ways. The empirical data in this book illustrates the

ways in which women draw upon the limited repertoire of story lines

available to them in the West in the context of late modernity. Further, it

shows how these are strategically used to present versions of a changing,

and sometimes tenuous, sense of self as transition to motherhood is

experienced and made sense of. It also shows how eventually the

repertoire of narrowly focused story lines can be challenged and counternarratives

produced. And of course it is not just the limited story lines that

shape the types of individual narratives that can be constructed in an

interview, even a relatively unstructured one. The interview is a social

interaction, the questions asked will in some ways shape the responses

given, and the materials gathered are a co-production. The interpretation

of those materials continues to rest with the researcher, although more

recently alternative research practises have been advocated in relation to

the greater involvement of participants in aspects of the interpretation

process (Birch and Miller, 2002). Clearly, as researchers we have a

responsibility to give credible and trustworthy accounts of our research,

especially when it involves us in narrating ‘the narrations of others’ as is

the case in this book (Andrews, 2000:3). Indeed, I ‘tried out’ my developing

ideas as the research unfolded on the women participating in the

study. I have also used lengthy extracts so that their voices can be seen

and heard; nevertheless, the final product rests on my interpretations, for

which I am accountable.

This leads us to consider how far qualitative research methods in

general, and the sort of narrative approach taken here, serve only to

reproduce the modernist subject. It has recently been argued that the

‘interaction in the research interview tends to elicit presentations of self

which largely conform to dominant cultural forms because of the implicit

expectations that shape the interview process’ (Alldred and Gillies,

2002:146). In the West this presupposes and reproduces a model of

the individual as ‘bounded, rational and autonomous’ ( ibid., 2002:146).

These arguments are of course closely bound up with those discussed

earlier in relation to reflexivity, and how far a generalised capacity for

reflexivity exists and is experienced and embedded in (un) equal ways.

Taking a narrative approach of course assumes some capacity for reflexivity,

as does all qualitative, interview-based, research. It assumes that

as individuals we have stories to tell, but clearly the enterprise of gathering

materials in such circumstances is more complex than this statement

might suggest. As we have seen across the chapters of this book, reflexively

making sense and producing culturally recognisable, and socially

acceptable, narratives of becoming a mother initially involves drawing

on a limited repertoire of possible story lines and is further shaped by

women increasingly having little or no first-hand experience of mothering

or motherhood against which to weigh these up. Clearly, then, the qualitative,

or in-depth interview, invites constructions of selves that are

recognisable, and in turn participants (mostly) produce accounts that

draw on what they perceive to be culturally and socially acceptable ways

of talking about their experiences. It is clear that as researchers ‘we elicit

performances of self in which radical difference is suppressed by virtue

of contemporary understandings of research’ (Alldred and Gillies,

2002:147). Yet to break out of this culturally configured way of exploring

personal experiences requires more than just a rethinking of the research

process. It necessitates a fundamental re-evaluation of Western models

of selfhood and reflexivity, well beyond the scope of the work in this

book, but certainly food for thought. Working with a Western model of

selfhood, the research focus taken here has shown how participants

have expectations of the interview encounter (not always met – remember

Faye’s surprise that I did not produce a questionnaire? chapter 4, page

67), how they initially present what they perceive to be appropriate

accounts of mothering, only retrospectively disclosing different versions

of their experiences. Strategies of self-governance in the interview

encounter (and beyond) also shape how, and what, and when, experiences

of transition to motherhood and mothering are voiced.

Other factors clearly influence the interview encounter. The fact that I

was a researcher who had intimate experience of the topic under study – I

am the biological mother of three children – will also have shaped the

ways in which women presented their experiences to me. This was

especially so during the early antenatal interviews. Recall, for example,

how in chapter 5 Felicity talks of feeling let down because I had not told

her exactly what giving birth could be like. As a mother I must surely have

known – and of course I did. In fact, I side-stepped this question from the

women in all the antenatal interviews, saying that it was different for

everyone, which it would be. Ironically, by doing this, I was contributing

to the conspiracy of silence that so often exists around the pain of labour

and childbirth. For others my experience as a mother was regarded as

having a positive affect on the research design; for example in the end-ofstudy

questionnaire, Diana wrote:

I thought the interviews were timed to perfection, possibly because the researcher

was a mother herself and therefore understood the amazing swing of emotions

during that very short period . . . in relation to life before baby, once you have

accepted that the life you are now living is yours – not someone else’s, and that the

baby is here to stay. (end-of-study questionnaire)

Qualitative research methods in general, and research focusing on

narrative construction in particular, assume, then, a modernist subject

with a capacity for reflexivity. I am aware that by inviting individuals to

narrate their experiences this may lead them to reflect in ways that they

may otherwise not have done: to engage in heightened reflexivity, even to

experience the research encounter as ‘therapeutic’ (Birch and Miller,

2000). Also, as I have earlier argued, periods of personal transition such

as becoming a mother may in any case heighten reflexive practice as we

make sense of our changing maternal bodies and selves and associated

experiences. Some extracts taken from interview transcripts and the

end-of-study questionnaires demonstrate this and once again reinforce

ideas of reproducing the reflexive, modernist subject:

I’ll think about all these questions and I’ll think, you know, God, I haven’t

asked myself that, and you know, how is life going to change, and . . .I have,

I’ve thought about it, but not really asked myself, you know. (Lillian: interview

transcript)

The interviews themselves were extremely adept at making me consider

certain issues and feelings which I might otherwise have dismissed. It was

also fascinating to look back at the way in which I had responded in previous

interviews and then to consider my changing views and feelings. It also

helped me to rationalise my otherwise irrational thought processes. (Diana:

end-of-study questionnaire)

I found the interviews very thought provoking and good for myself because it gave

me time to sit and reflect on my life and also to see how my views changed once

babies arrived. (Sheila: end-of-study questionnaire)

At the third interview I didn’t recognise any of my answers to the second one . . . I

always thought of lots of things I’d wanted to say after the interview was finished,

but of course had forgotten them completely by the next interview. (Peggy: endof-

study questionnaire)

I remember when, you know, I was in hospital and things, I thought, oh, I’ll have

to tell Tina this, I’ll have to tell Tina that. (Philippa: interview transcript)

Clearly the interviews – or anticipation of subsequent interviews – were a

catalyst for the women, provoking some to be (more) sensitive to the processes

in which they were caught up, to reflect in ways they might otherwise

not have done about their experiences of transition.The timing of interviews

was also a clear factor in how accounts were constructed and presented. As

Sarah informed me in one interview, I had got her on a ‘good day’:

SARAH: And you have caught me on a good day.

TINA: Oh right, and that, so what is a bad day like?

SARAH: I just wander round moping.

Similarly, in the following extract, Felicity’s comment on the timing of

the interviews again illuminates the tenuous dimensions of the modernist

subject:

I mean, it would have been really different because, I remember thinking after I’d

had Harry in subsequent days and I thought if Tina came and spoke to me and

asked me these questions now about how the birth was, it would have just been so

awful. (early postnatal interview)

A further important dimension of the research that provides the empirical

data for much of this book was that it was longitudinal, following

women through a year in their lives. This meant that over time, I had the

opportunity to develop relationships with the women, to receive news

about their babies and to be a small part of this significant period in their

lives. This will almost certainly have contributed to the ways in which the

women felt able to voice their experiences to me in the later interviews.

Interestingly, though, it was the cold, objective research tool that was the

end-of-study questionnaire, posted out to the women after the final interview,

that elicited some of the most heartfelt comments about how they

had really felt at times during the interviews.

It is clear, then, that taking a narrative approach in order to research

individual experience implicitly and/or explicitly presumes a modernist

subject. The interview does not just ‘look in upon but actively serve(s) to

produce modern subjects’ through inviting and assuming reflexivity

(Alldred and Gillies, 2002:146). But if this approach is applied longitudinally,

it can illuminate the ways in which Western assumptions or

understandings of individuals as ‘bounded, rational and autonomous’ are

misplaced as the tenuous (and entrenched) dimensions of schemas of

self-understanding are played out. Rather than such an approach ‘reinforce

the centrality and superiority of this Western model of the self’

(Alldred and Gillies, 2002:147), it can challenge such assumptions and

contribute to debates on how selves are constituted, understood and

maintained in late modernity. Similarly, reflection on the research

encounter and any awkward lapses experienced in the interview can be

illuminating and challenge our assumptions as researchers. Remember,

for example, Faye saying to me in her first interview ‘I’m not very good on

words and things like that’ (chapter 4). At the outset, then, my intention

was to create a space, through informal and friendly interviews, in which

women would (hopefully) feel able to talk about any, or all, of their

feelings and experiences, as they journeyed into motherhood. Yet this

space, the interview, was already circumscribed by the limited cultural

story lines or scripts which shape expectations and experiences of childbearing

in the West. For example, in her end-of-study questionnaire,

Helen reflects back on the early postnatal interview and talks of my

(unintentional) concentration on her emotional state,

In the second interview it was one of the first times anyone had taken so much

time in concentrating on my emotional state (even more than the health visitor) –

but I now realise that I was not being 100 per cent honest with my answers and

was too eager to attempt to create a feeling of control, relaxation and total

happiness and contentment. In fact I was feeling quite disorientated and out of

control.

Of course Helen could not have risked revealing how she had been

really feeling at that time, and I was naı¨ve to presume that I could create

a space in which such things could be voiced – at that time. Yet this again

serves to reinforce the moral climate that exists around mothering and

motherhood. It confirms how hard it is to reveal what are felt to be

difficult ‘unnatural’ – but actually quite widely shared – experiences of

early mothering. Certainly, later interviews offered the possibility of

producing counter-narratives encompassing more challenging story

lines.

All research involves ethical considerations and there have been many

in my work. One I am most acutely aware of and feel responsibility

for is that of the ethics of raising expectations, in some ways ‘consciousness-

raising’. In the end-of-study questionnaire, Sarah wrote, ‘I hope my

input will be able to help others’, and Linda also hoped that her input

(and bravery in voicing her very difficult experiences, see chapter 6)

would help ‘in enlightening us all, that we are allowed to feel the way

we do’. My concerns arising from this are twofold. The first is that I am

aware of the difficulty of enabling women’s voices to be heard, and that

this research can only make a small, albeit timely, contribution to much

needed debates that prioritise women’s voices. Arendell has recently

drawn attention to the need for ‘more attention to . . .mothers’ own

voices’ (2000:1202) and Brook has also noted that ‘discourses of pregnancy

and childbirth from the perspectives of pregnant women themselves

are limited and usually invisible’ (1999:41). The approach taken in

this book goes some way to addressing their concerns. However, one

research project will not in and of itself allow women more generally to

‘feel the way they do’ – and more importantly feel able to openly talk

about their feelings. But it might in a very small way help, for example by

changing the practices of a midwife or other health professional who reads

the book. My second concern is that the women’s accounts be dismissed

as relativist and therefore of little consequence in certain arenas within

the social sciences. Although I will not rehearse here the ways in which

a ‘relativist despair’ is avoided (see for example Edwards and Ribbens,

1998), my response to this, and noted earlier, is that ‘somewhere behind

all this story telling there are real active, embodied, impassioned lives’

(Plummer, 1995:170). These lives are worthy of our scrutiny as social

scientists and help us in theorising the connections and dissonances

between individual lives and experiences and wider social and cultural

contexts.