Introduction

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Becoming a mother changes lives in all sorts of ways and this book

explores how a group of womenmake sense of their journeys into motherhood.

The seeds for this book were sown many years ago: probably

around the time I left school and spent a year in Canada employed as a

‘mother’s help’ and had my first taste of doing mothering work.

University and a degree in sociology were followed by a number of

years living and working in different places – the Solomon Islands and

Bangladesh – and observing different practices around pregnancy, birth

and childrearing. More recently, university posts have involved my teaching

sociology to a range of students from different disciplines, including

midwives and other health professionals, and somewhere along the line I

became a mother myself to three very lovely daughters. This book then

emerges from the criss-crossing of threads that have run through my

academic and personal life.

The context in which I became a mother is different from that of my

mother, or her mother, but many features have also remained constant.

For example, even though fertility rates are declining in many countries in

the West, amajority of women will still at some point in their lives become

mothers and take primary responsibility for the rearing of their children.

To this extent little has changed for women over the centuries. But in

other ways there have been significant changes. In the UK and the USA

the average age of all mothers at childbirth has risen, but is highest for

those who are married. Whilst women are increasingly delaying childbirth,

in the UK teenage pregnancy is also a feature of patterns of

reproduction. For those who delay childbearing – a group who are largely

represented in this book – becoming a mother is increasingly a planned

event in lives where choice and control are more dominant features. At

the same time shifts in family formations and different ways of living

mean that informal sources of knowledge and support may no longer be

readily available, or as relevant, as families are geographically dispersed

and many more women work outside the home. Average family size has

also decreased and women have much less opportunity to learn first hand

about mothering. In the West, for most women, childbirth is safer than at

any time before and yet perceptions of risk lead us to seek out and rely on

expert guidance throughout transition to motherhood. This changing

context raises questions about the ways in which motherhood experiences

are shaped and maternal responsibilities configured in contemporary

society.

This book is written with the intention and hope of reaching a wide

audience. Although it is written from the discipline of sociology with a

broader social science and health professional readership in mind, the

kernel of the book interweaves women’s own accounts of their multifaceted

journeys into first-time motherhood with contemporary debates.

The intention is that the book should engage the academic, the practitioner

and, importantly, those for whom being a mother is perhaps a

desire, an experience or even a fear: women. At different levels and in

different chapters the book both theorises what it means to become a

mother in late modernity and explores the experiences of a group of

women as they become mothers. This is achieved through the inclusion

of their profound, personal accounts produced as their experiences of

transition unfolded, and gathered through longitudinal research. The

theoretical and empirical threads of the book are prioritised in different

ways in different chapters – the theoretical stage is set across the first three

chapters and then illustrated with empirical data in the central three

chapters and finally returned to in the concluding chapter. Your interests

may lie across all the areas covered in the book, but the following signposts

are provided for those who may have more specific interests and

limited time.

As noted above, chapt er 1 pro vides the theo retical, conce ptual and

methodological framework for the book. It engages with contemporary

debates on how human life is storied, reflexivity practised and selves

constituted and maintained. The research which provides the materials

for the core chapters in the b ook is also outline d. In chapt er 2 the cultu ral

dimensions of birth practices and different constructions of ‘authoritative

knowledge’ are explored. Fieldwork observations from the Solomon

Islands and Bangladesh provide a backdrop to this chapter. The focus

ret urns to the West in chapter 3, which chart s the m edicalis ation of

reproduction and childbearing, engaging with contemporary feminist

debates around mothering and motherhood. In the following three chapter

s the women’ s own accounts move ce ntre stage. Chapt er 4 focuses on

wome n’s expe riences of the ante natal (pre natal) peri od, chapt er 5 on the

birt h and early postn atal peri od and chapter 6 on the late r postn atal

period, as their children reach nine months of age. These core chapters

focus on how women make sense of their transition to motherhood and

the ways in which they narrate their experiences: what can and cannot be

said in relation to mothering and motherhood. The theoretical and

methodological questions raised across the chapters are drawn together

and address ed in chapt er 7.

In some chapters you will find key terms used and definitions of these

now follow. The book is set within the context of ‘late modernity’ and this

refers to a period that has followed themodern era and is characterised by

rapid changes and uncertainty. ‘Cultural scripts’ refers to ‘a specific

cultural set of ideas about how events should take place’ (Willard,

1988 :226). The ter m ‘discours e’ is used to mean ‘a bou nded body of

knowle dge and assoc iated pra ctices’ (Lupt on, 1999 :15). ‘Knowl edges ’ is

also used to describe different ways of knowing – non-expert and expert,

horizont al and hiera rchical (see chapt er 2 ) – an d as sociated pra ctices.

Different ways of knowing are underpinned and shaped by different

discour ses, which can dominat e in powerful ways. Similarl y, the term

‘meta-na rrative’ (Some rs, 1994 ) is used to describe the tradition s in

which we are embedded as actors in the social world, these again are

shaped by dominant and powerful discourses especially in relation to

mothering and motherhood and they will in turn shape the ‘ontological

narratives’ – the personal, individual stories – that we produce. The terms

‘mothering’ and ‘motherhood’ are also of course used liberally throughout

the book. ‘Mothering’ refers to the personal, individual experiences

that women have in meeting the needs of and being responsible for their

dependent children. ‘Motherhood’ on the other hand refers to the context

in which mothering takes place and is experienced. The institution of

motherhood in the Western world is, then, historically, socially, culturally,

politically and, importantly, morally, shaped. In turn, it powerfully

shapes our experiences as women, whether or not we become mothers,

because of the cultural assumptions related to women’s desire to be

mothers. It also makes it hard to talk about unexpected and/or difficult

aspects of new mothering, leading us to conceal what are normal experiences

and reactions, and so perpetuates the old myths of motherhood.

My own experiences of becoming a mother are also included here

because they touch on many of the themes raised in the book. They also

range across different countries and cultures. I found out I was pregnant

with my first child on a short holiday in the UK whilst living and working

in Bangladesh. My pregnancy was confirmed shortly after I had received

confirmation that I had also contracted hepatitis A – probably picked up

on a trip I had made to Darjeeling shortly before the trip to the UK. The

doctor in England who confirmed the diagnosis of hepatitis A prescribed

medicine that was contra-indicated for pregnant women, asking as he did

so whether I felt pregnant. I replied that having never been pregnant I

didn’t know what it felt like, but that as I had been trying to conceive there

was a possibility that I could be pregnant. This was brushed aside, no

pregnancy test offered and the prescription made out. Back in my home

town, I revisited my own general practitioner (GP), who two weeks earlier

I had seen because ofmy concern that I was taking some time to conceive.

I relayed to him my diagnosis of hepatitis A, and the fact that I was also

pregnant. He immediately and without hesitation recommended that the

pregnancy be terminated. As far as he was concerned there was no other

course of action and he made no attempt to soften the blow, to suggest

any alternatives, or to offer any support. I left the surgery numbed and

confused. I clearly remember the twisted irony and emotion of telling my

mother the news she had long hoped for – that I was pregnant with her

first grandchild – and in the next sentence that I couldn’t actually have the

baby. Deciding to seek a second opinion, I was told that my liver would be

in such a bad state from the hepatitis that I would not be able to withstand

a general anaesthetic even if I wanted to terminate the pregnancy. I then

set about trying to find out as much as I could about hepatitis and

pregnancy, writing to the world-renowned London School of Hygiene

and Tropical Medicine. I received a very polite reply but I was told that

any detailed information could only be given to me via my GP. I returned

to Bangladesh to join my partner, pregnant and worried. Four months

into the pregnancy, I flew to Bangkok, Thailand for a scan, as part of an

arrangement made for British employees in Bangladesh. The state-ofthe-

art hospital had all the latest equipment but hard as we tried, we could

not understand either the fuzzy images on the monitor or the explanations

of the doctor; we left feeling even more confused and uncertain. Back in

Bangladesh, the American doctor said that because I had hepatitis so

early on in my pregnancy the most likely outcome would be that the baby

would be born with a limb missing. At just over seven months’ pregnant I

returned to theUKto await the birth of my baby and during one antenatal

(prenatal) visit met an Indian trained obstetrician working in the local

National Health Service. He told me that his experience in India suggested

that hepatitis was much more of a problem in later pregnancy. The

birth was not as I had expected. I soon realised the taped music (‘Relax

don’t do it’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, cheerfully recorded by my

sixteen-year-old sister) would be completely redundant and the Evian

spray for my face incredibly annoying! I gratefully accepted a large dose of

pethidine (routinely offered at that time) and thought ruefully that none

of the books, or anyone else, had described the pain of birth in any ways

that came close to what I was feeling. Imagine then my absolute relief

when Hannah was finally born with all her limbs, a perfect, pink, warm,

wrinkly baby. When she was brought to me from the nursery the next

4 Making Sense of Motherhood

morning (a practice that now seems archaic), it felt like the best

Christmas present ever as I cradled the little warm body – something I

don’t think I had allowed myself to envisage through the months of my

pregnancy.

Mothering is of course diverse; it is not a universal experience and yet

many mothers (and fathers) will share similar ‘struggles, joys, and hopes

and dreams for their chi ldren’ (Ch ase and Rogers, 2001 :xiv). Whilst

researc hing an d writing this book I have watched my own da ughters

grow and sisters and friends become mothers and grandmothers, whilst

other friends have made decisions not to become parents. I have witnessed

their fears, as births have not gone as planned and new babies have

given cause for concern, and their hopes for their children as they have

grown. I have watched other friends comfort their children through the

loss of a parent, and shared the sadness with my own children at the loss of

their grandparents. Even the loss of family pets can require disproportionate

amounts of comforting and love. I have celebrated their achievements

and commiserated on failures: the highs and the lows, demands

and rewards of mothering. Being a mother is clearly filled with mixed

emotions and feelings – and hopefully large amounts of love. If we ever

doubt the deep and all-encompassing dimensions of this relationship we

come to have with our children, we need only imagine the almost unimaginable

experience of the loss of a child to confirm its profound, poignant

and enduring dimensions.

There are so many caveats that I want to place around what follows in

the book. I am aware that the majority of the women whose stories unfold

identify themselves as middle-class; they are white and partnered, and live

in circumstances that afford them possibilities and choices denied to

others. They had mostly planned their pregnancies and all the births

went to term and resulted in the births of healthy children. But this allows

us to see both similarities and differences in women’s lives and experiences

of mothering and motherhood. Similarly, when I have presented

the findings from the research at academic, practitioner and service user

conferences in the UK, mainland Europe and North America, I am

always surprised and gratified by the resonance they have for so many

different women. Somewhere in the accounts I have presented at these

conferences, women in the audience find their own experiences – often

tucked away and long unspoken – being voiced. Most importantly then,

what lies at the heart of this book are women’s personal and profound

accounts of their journeys into motherhood.