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Critical Approaches to Motherhood

Summary and Keywords

Motherhood is not an inconsequential and ideologically neutral individual role in society. Instead, “motherhood” is considered, according to critical and cultural scholars and theorists, to be both a complex set of experiences individuals embody and a symbolic social institution that has been used to regulate human behavior through cultural norms and social scripts that are discursively struggled over across history. The institution of motherhood is imbedded in cultural, economic, and legal systems and is a central consideration in how we come to define the domestic and public spheres. Black feminist, liberal feminist, radical feminist, Marxist, queer, postcolonial, and decolonial theories are mobilized by critics in communication to investigate motherhood as a complex symbolic interlocutor. Critical scholars from these divergent theoretical and political traditions analyze motherhood as an experience, a practice, a performance, and/or an ideology. Because of the importance of the concept of mothering in society, examining discourses about motherhood is a central concern for critical and cultural communication scholars who are interested in the formation of gender and sexual scripts and the maintenance of racial and class-based systems of oppression.

Keywords: motherhood, mothering, cult of domesticity, institution of motherhood, social reproduction theory, empowered mothering, the nuclear family, othermothering, neoliberal motherhood, global motherhood, communication and critical studies

Introduction

While early work in communication and cultural studies examined topics about mothers and motherhood (Boor Tonn, 2001; Foss & Domenici, 2001; Schely-Newman, 1999), contemporary scholarship has increasingly focused on the theorization of the institution of motherhood and mothering as an empowering experience (Buchanan, 2013; O’Brien Hallstein, 2010). Predominately, however, scholarship on motherhood in the critical/cultural tradition frames motherhood as a socially and historically constructed institution—where ideological discourses constitute and shape expectations and ideals of motherhood. These critiques interrogate how cultural discourses espouse oppressive social expectations of mothers that naturalize normative gender and obscure racial and class-based biases. Because it is considered to be a prominent social institution, the emergence, maintenance, and naturalization of motherhood occurs through communication. Accordingly, communication scholars are uniquely poised to examine the symbolic and cultural struggle over motherhood and its meanings. The critical study of the cultural construction and maintenance of the institution of motherhood can also examine, among other things, communication about reproductive justice; the politics of domesticity and the nuclear family; the social production and reproduction of the sexual division of labor; and the symbolic maintenance of heterosexism, white supremacy, and colonial epistemologies of gender through rhetorics of and about “ideal” motherhood.

Motherhood is not just an oppressive institution, but also a state of being and the experiences one has as a result of that positionality. In addition to studying how motherhood is communicatively constructed and ideologically mobilized as an institution, motherhood has also been examined as experience. Critics centralize mothers’ experiences within scholarship by investigating the emancipatory possibilities of outlaw mothering (O’Reilly, 2004a, 2004b). Research explores how women enact resistant modes of empowered mothering that may resist the dominant institution of motherhood.

To engage critically with motherhood, communication scholars must understand early critiques of domesticity and motherhood, the theoretical and political commitment to studying motherhood as both an experience and an institution, and the various ways that one may engage in a critique of ideologies of motherhood. While each of the following sections reveal differing political commitments and analytical foci, critical scholars of motherhood share an understanding of motherhood as a powerful social institution that shapes the lives of subjects in modern society and is also challenged by those very acts.

Early Critiques of Motherhood

Early feminist, Marxist, and social critics in the 20th century focused on articulating how ideals of motherhood shaped expectations of women in society. Barbara Welter (1966) argues that around the middle of the 19th century the “Cult of True Womanhood” emerged as the dominant ideology for middle and upper-class white women’s behavior in the United States and the United Kingdom. Sometimes referred to as a “Cult of Domesticity,” this set of codes for ideal womanliness articulated that “true women” must cultivate piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Considering the centrality of domesticity and mothering to dominant conceptions of womanliness during this time period, American and European women’s rights activists in the 19th and 20th century argued for women’s right to education and suffrage because of their status as primary caregivers in society (Bryson, 2003, p. 87).

Marxist and materialist feminists also contended that the devaluation of domestic labor in the private sphere was a predominate factor in the formation of sexist oppression (see Ehrenreich, 1997; Engels, 1902; Hochschild, 1989; Smith, 2013; Vogel, 1995). The distinct separation between the public and domestic spheres of life is directly related to the emergence of gender inequality and the unvalued and excessive burden-of-care that is placed on women to be responsible for all aspects of child rearing. Critics argue that these material realities led to women’s labor being devalued, seen only in terms of the maternal experience, silenced in public, and often relegated to the private sphere (Beauvoir, 2011; Ehrenreich, 1997; Friedan, 2001; Hochschild, 1989; Vogel, 1995). Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex (first published in 1949) that the root of women’s oppression is in her role as primary child rearer. For Beauvoir, women are conditioned from infancy to believe that they are “made to bear children” and that motherhood will be their greatest and most splendorous achievement. The “disadvantages” of the maternal experience—Beauvoir argues—such as “periods, illness,” and even “the boredom of household tasks” are justified by this “marvelous privilege” women have been granted (Beauvoir, 2011, p. 531). Beauvoir wrote, “It is through motherhood that woman fully achieves her physiological destiny; that is her ‘natural’ vocation, since her whole organism is directed toward the perpetuation of the species. But we have already shown that human society is never left to nature” (p. 524).

In the 1960s and 1970s, shortly after Beauvoir’s provocation, liberal and radical feminists in the United States waged a set of critiques against the constitution of the nuclear family and the domestic sphere as oppressive mechanisms that maintain patriarchal institutions and interests. Betty Friedan, an early voice of liberal feminism, famously noted in her 1963 work The Feminine Mystique (2001) that, since the Second World War, in the United States, early “feminist dreams of education and independence had been displaced by an all-purpose ‘feminine mystique’,” which cultivated the belief among women “that their only fulfillment lay in domesticity,” (Bryson, 2003, p. 141). On the basis of this critique, white liberal feminists in the United States insisted that women should play a role in public life and argued that the maternal experience in the traditional nuclear family was oppressive. Friedan, the founder of the National Organization of Women, argued that women need fulfillment and purpose outside of the domestic sphere, and if they are given that equal opportunity they will thrive (Friedan, 2001). Liberal white feminist projects of the 1970s and 1980s often sought to increase women’s access to the workplace and create opportunities for women to participate in the public sphere.

The critiques of motherhood made by Friedan, however, centralize and universalize white middle to upper-class femininity and experience (O’Brien Hallstein, 2010). As bell hooks (1984) argued, Friedan’s text and white liberal feminist analysis of motherhood fails to attend to the experience of those arguable most impacted by sexist oppression: women of color and the poor. Friedan’s work, while necessary for white feminist political projects seeking to integrate white middle to upper-class women into the public sphere, ignored those women who were already working outside of the home and those who were not housewives. Friedan’s project, hooks contended:

did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife. She made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women.

(hooks, 1984, pp. 1–2)

In addition to centering white elite feminine subjectivity, Friedan asserted homophobic and heteronormative conceptions of the family (Bowlby, 1992). Despite these failures, Friedan’s work brought attention to the experiences of motherhood and the impact of the bodily activities of mothers (pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, rearing healthy children”, etc.). Accordingly, maternal health became a key focus of organizing feminist health movements in the early to mid-20th century in the United States (Morgen, 2002). Mothering practices (such as breastfeeding and natural and home childbirth) were championed by women’s health activists because these practices centralize women as the agents in control of their own reproductive health, as opposed to being controlled or directed by the male-dominated biomedical establishment (Morgen, 2002). Maternal health activists at this time fought for the right of women to control their own bodies and make informed health decisions.

Shulamith Firestone (1970), a radical feminist, controversially argued in her polemic The Dialectic of Sex, that the cult of domesticity would not be overcome unless motherhood ended all together. Firestone contended that “pregnancy is barbaric,” that the female body is imprisoned under maternity, and that there should be an “end to childhood.” Firestone contends that the elimination of the pre-condition of motherhood would lead to women’s ultimate emancipation. Firestone’s controversial text raised a radical alternative, but arguments like hers that “rejected motherhood” were also demonized in the Reagan-era and used as the basis for anti-feminist and feminist claims that white Second-Wave feminists were all “anti-motherhood” or “mother-hating” (Press, 2012; Snitow, 1992). These important critiques set the stage for new and emerging perspectives on the study of motherhood in the second half of the 20th century.

Motherhood as Experience and Institution

Beginning in the 1970s, critics began to argue that American liberal and radical feminist scholars and activists of the Second-Wave failed to truly address motherhood and mothering as primary subjects of analysis (Hirsch, 1996; Rich, 1976; Snitow, 1992). In 1976, Adrienne Rich contended, in Of Woman Born, that we must detach the practices and experiences of mothering from the patriarchal institution of motherhood. She maintained that the potentiality of an experience of motherhood that may or may not be empowering is distinct from the institution of motherhood that underpins the oppression of woman more broadly in patriarchal society (Rich, 1976, p. 13). Rich’s distinction between the institution of motherhood and mothering as experience provides a vocabulary for critics seeking to address the sexist and patriarchal institution of motherhood that is used as a foundation for the oppression of women, while also acknowledging that mothering as an experience can be a resource for women’s empowerment (Green, 2004). Like maternal health advocates of this time-period, Rich argued that creating equitable access to material resources would reduce the unequal burdens placed on women in the domestic sphere, particularly women of color and working-class women.

Rich’s distinction between motherhood as experience and institution forged a pathway for critiques of white Second-Wave feminist characterizations of motherhood and domesticity. While white Second-Wave feminists originated their critique of the oppression of women in domesticity, and radical activists of the 1960s and 1970s surely organized around issues related to motherhood and maternal health, critics argue that white Second-Wave feminists often focused their analysis on eliminating motherhood or the maternal experience as central to the project of emancipating women (Henry, 2004; Hirsch, 1996, p. 353; O’Brien Hallstein, 2010; O’Reilly, 2004a; Umansky, 1996;). O’Brien Hallstein argued in her book, White Feminists and Contemporary Maternity (2010), that the strategic emphasis on sisterhood in the white feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s resulted in a sustained matrophobia that haunts historical and contemporary feminist scholarship on motherhood and mothering. While scholarship on motherhood and mothering exist, she argues it is ultimately limited and incomplete because of matrophobia. These critiques are the catalyst for the formation of the now burgeoning subfield of “motherhood studies,” which began growing exponentially in the 1990s. This sect of motherhood scholars focused either on examining the institution of motherhood and how it is replicated or on studying outlaw mothering experiences that have the potential to resist the dominant and oppressive institution (O’Reilly, 2004b).

Examining Motherhood as Experience

By highlighting motherhood as an experience, Rich provided a vocabulary for critics to begin exploring empowered mothering more explicitly as outlaw mothering (O’Reilly, 2004a, 2004b, 2008). O’Reilly contended that the study of empowered mothering reveals the ways that mothering as an experience can be empowering for women if they are able to define mothering for themselves—untethered from the patriarchal assumptions and expectations of the institution of motherhood (O’Reilly, 2004b, 2008). For example, Valerie Palmer-Mehta and Sherianne Shuler (2017) contended that digital mediated projects, like “A Beautiful Body Project,” provided maternal subjects the opportunity to resist the dominant discourses that function to increase the surveillance and policing of the postpartum body.

Because Rich emphasized that motherhood is an experience and an institution, she also argued that we must attend to the material and structural components of motherhood. This assertion emboldened scholars to actively engage in the study of maternal health and the body and to explicitly examine mothering practices such as breastfeeding and childbirth as practices of “outlaw mothering,” which actively resists the institution of motherhood. The relationship between birth, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and the institution of motherhood is explored in recent scholarship (Dubriwny & Ramadurai, 2013; Hoerl & Casey, 2010; Lay, 2000; Mack, 2016; Pollock, 1999; Schuster, 2006).

Examining Motherhood as Institution

In one of the first essays on motherhood in the field of communication studies, Lynn Stearney (1994) contended that essentializing norms of motherhood ignored the very real complexities of “motherhood as an ideologically and socially constructed institution,” (p. 145). These “essentializing norms,” or ideals of mothering, express social norms, scripts, and expectations that mothers must negotiate in a quest to be seen as good women, mothers and citizens.

There have been four prominent contemporary theoretical conceptualizations of ideal mothering discourses. Ehrenreich and English (2005) argued that by the mid-20th century, motherhood was defined rhetorically by a dutiful self-denial and renunciation (pp. 296–297). They called this ideal of mothering masochistic motherhood, because of its emphasis on self-denial and self-renunciation in the face of undervalued and sometimes painful domestic work. Nearly 20 years later, Sharon Hays (1998) identified that intensive mothering holds individual mothers primarily responsible for child rearing and expects that mothering will be an intensive experience. New momism, according to Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels (2004), is a set of ideals, norms, and practices (most often represented in the media) that seemingly celebrate women and motherhood, but actually construct unattainable standards of perfection that undermine women. Douglas and Michaels argued that the creation of an idealized subject position for mothers restricts women’s ability to succeed at home or in the work place. In 2010, Joan Wolf argued that under neoliberalism we operate under a manifestation of intensive mothering that she called total motherhood. Guided by an ever-present need to produce efficient citizens and subjects, the ideology of total motherhood articulates that mothers must reduce or avoid all possible risks to their children’s health. Wolf contended that total motherhood reinforces neoliberal logics of efficiency and self-optimization, and further tethers women to the institution of motherhood by increasing the burden of labor associated with modern motherhood.

Examining communication that rationalizes and naturalizes the complex and ever-changing institution of motherhood is perhaps the most prolific area of study about motherhood within critical and cultural and communication studies (Barak-Brandes, 2016; Bradfield, 2010; Burke Odland, 2010; Chivers Yochim & Silva, 2013; Cooper & Phelan, 2014; Craddock, 2015; Dworkin & Wachs, 2004; Friedman, 2013; Garner & Slattery, 2012; Hayden, 2017; Hedge, 1999; Hill Collins, 2009; Hundley & Hayden, 2016; Johnson Thornton, 2011; Kim, 2016; Koven & Michel, 1993; Lahav, 2010; Mack, 2013, 2016; Moffit & Harris, 2014; Morrissey & Kimball, 2017; O’Brien Hallstein, 2015; Seidel, 2015; Shome, 2011; Soriano, Lim, & Rivera-Sanchez, 2015; Stearney 1994; Vavrus, 2007). In an effort to examine the institution of motherhood, scholars chart how ideals of “good” and “bad” mothering circulate through public discourses, institutions, and social mechanisms. For example, Sarah Burke Odland (2010) argued through her analysis of news representations of motherhood during the 1950s that maternal identity is a socially constructed practice that transforms with changing political realities. Linda Seidel (2015) argued that mediated and cultural representations of “bad mothering” solidify dominant ideals of “good” mothering. Essays in the edited book Mediated Moms (Hundley & Hayden, 2016) attempt to resist the dichotomy of bad/good mothering, while also acknowledging the ways that these constructs are negotiated through media. In each of these critiques, critical motherhood scholars explore how the institution of motherhood is maintained through the circulation of shifting dominant ideals of motherhood.

Ideological Critiques of Motherhood

In addition to investigating how ideals of motherhood are circulated and reconstituted through communication, critical and cultural scholars also focus on charting how dominant ideals of motherhood function ideologically to reinforce systems of oppression more broadly. Traditional white liberal or radical feminist approaches analyze how the institution of motherhood reinforces patriarchal power, naturalizes gendered social scripts, and restricts women’s access to opportunities. However, as noted, this scholarship has been critiqued for its erasure of the experiences of marginalized mothers whose racial, gender, and class identities are located at an intersection. Critical scholars, therefore, address how the institution of motherhood reifies and intersects with multiple systems of oppression. For example, materialist feminists analyze how rhetorics of motherhood rationalize broader economic inequalities and mystify material relations through analysis of the nuclear family, social reproduction, neoliberal motherhood, and commodification. Additionally, black feminist, postcolonial, decolonial, and queer critics document how the institution of motherhood re-asserts logics of white supremacy and heteronormativity in the ideological imaginary and reveal how we might imagine resistant alternatives that emerge from the margins.

Motherhood and Capitalism

Since the mid-20th century, critical scholars of motherhood have continually emphasized the examination of domesticity and the social idealization of the so-called nuclear family as central to the study of motherhood in the context of capitalism (Cloud, 1998; Coontz, 1992, 1998, 2011; Ehrenreich, 1997; Hochschild, 1989; Hoerl & Kelly, 2010; Stacey, 1996; Vogel, 1995). Stephanie Coontz (1992) argued that the U.S. American ideal of the nuclear family (two parents and their biological children) is perceived as the normative or dominant familial form even though families have never predominantly reflected this image. The idealized nuclear family produces unrealistic expectations of domestic life and motherhood based on inaccurate nostalgia. Judith Stacey (1996) similarly argued that rhetorics of family values are patriarchal fabrications that function to symbolically constrain motherhood and domesticity on the basis of sanitized and inaccurate depictions of domesticity that reflect predominantly white, middle, and upper-class understandings of kinship arrangements.

Through an analysis of abortion rhetoric in contemporary cinema, Kristen Hoerl and Casey Ryan Kelly (2010) introduced the concept of the post-nuclear family, which is a set of narrative configurations that seem to reject traditional notions of the nuclear family (such as two parent households) but maintain a commitment to a depiction of neo-traditional motherhood as women’s imperative. Judith Stacey (1996) noted that paradoxical discourses such as those described by Hoerl and Kelly are implicit in a larger discursive turn towards neo-family values in the 1990s. This set of values blamed fatherless families for social depravity and juvenile delinquency (such as crime rates and teen pregnancy), supported the reduction of social services that supported single mothers, and claimed that women should choose to put familial needs above their own attempts to achieve “male modeled” success (Stacey, 1996, pp. 52–82).

Social Reproduction Theory

In addition to scholarship that continues to examine the relationship between motherhood and the socio-historical construct of the nuclear family, materialist feminists persistently emphasize the importance of theorizing domesticity and motherhood in relation to material conditions. The reproductive function has been examined across critical Marxist theories as a primary site where social and economic inequality throughout capitalist and patriarchal societies is reproduced. This is the basic premise of Marx’s social reproduction theory, first published in 1867: Social relations (made up of cultural discourses, knowledge and ideas) function to reproduce social inequality across time and generations (Marx, 1967, p. 16). Lenin called the exploitation of women’s labor “domestic slavery,” which, as Sharon Smith (2013) noted is central for many materialist critiques of the family throughout the last century. “The source of women's oppression,” Smith (2013) argued, “lies in the role of the family as a reproducer of labor power for capitalism—and in women's unequal role inside the family.” However, as Lise Vogel (1995) contended, mainstream Marxist as well as contemporary motherhood scholarship has mostly ignored materialist feminist claims that domesticity and domestic labor are necessary points of inquiry into motherhood (see also Ehrenreich & English, 2005; Mack, 2013, 2016).

Vogel (1995) argued that at a fundamental level, the reproductive function is the basic mode of production in capitalist societies: the production of subjects who will grow up to be workers and consumers (p. 62). Vogel contended that the formal economy, where goods and services are produced and sold, is supported by an informal economy of domesticity focused on the production of life and labor power. These activities include childbirth, childrearing, and domestic/care activities that serve to regenerate the worker outside of the work context (providing food, entertainment, a clean atmosphere). Domestic labor is “free labor” in contemporary capitalist markets as the domestic sphere operates outside the formal economy and is often not “paid” labor. “In class societies,” Vogel explained, “Women’s childbearing capacity creates contradictions from the point of view of the dominant class’s need to appropriate surplus labor. The oppression of women in the exploited class develops in the process of the class struggle over the resolution of these contradictions,” (p. 148). Cultural ideas about motherhood and domesticity function to rationalize and resolve the contradictions regarding domestic labor. It is in this way, Vogel contends, that the reproductive function and its associated ideologies function to reproduce social inequalities throughout contemporary society.

Basic arguments and insights that originate in social reproduction theory are deployed in the analysis of motherhood and domesticity by materialist feminists (Cloud, 1998; Collins & Mayer, 2010; Duggan, 2004; Hochschild, 1989; Koven & Michel, 1993; Mack, 2013, 2016). This theoretical tradition provides a heuristic for examining how discourses rationalize the social relations that serve to maintain class society and oppress women. Engels (1902) famously argued that the proliferation of capitalism greatly affects familial, gender, and sexual relations, often producing and justifying exploitative and oppressive inequities. Collins and Mayer (2010) noted in their book, Both Hands Tied, that reforms (such as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996) shifted welfare programs (that responded to the burden of care placed on single mothers) into workfare programs, which systematically devalued the care work of mothers while simultaneously forcing them into low-wage jobs. Accompanying the systematic commodification and devaluation of domestic work was a move to privatize social responsibilities and costs to the family unit. Duggan (2004) explained, “The family [has become] a gendered institution for privatizing social costs.” The proliferation of the doctrine of supply-side economics celebrated during the Reagan era espoused vilified government spending on social safety nets. Therefore, programs that benefit poor mothers in the United States have been gutted. Social safety net measures such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), food stamps, and rent subsidies were drastically cut or abolished during the 1980s and 1990s.

Critical communication scholars who utilize social reproduction theories as a basis for their analysis examine how inequality in class society becomes naturalized into social logics and obscures the negative impact on mothers (Cloud, 1998; Koven & Michel, 1993; Mack, 2013, 2016; Stacey, 1996). This research addresses the dialectical relationship between material conditions and ideological discourses of motherhood, assessing if and how discourses about motherhood might rationalize broader economic relations (Cloud, 1998; Hoerl & Kelly, 2010; Mack, 2013, 2016; Rodino, 2003). Critical communication scholars also assess how domestic labor is devalued and/or negotiated in workplace settings. For example, Buzzanell and Liu (2005) studied the precarious relationship between labor and maternity leave. Furthermore, communication scholars have explored the tensions between academic labor and motherhood for academic mothers. Women’s Studies in Communication did a special issue in the summer of 2008, exploring the relationship between motherhood, work, and the academy.

Neoliberal Motherhood and the Commodification of Motherhood

As noted, Joan Wolf (2010) extended critiques of intensive ideals of motherhood initiated by Ehrenreich and English (2005), Hays (1998), and Douglas and Michaels (2004) into an examination of what Wolf calls total motherhood. Contemporary critics like Wolf noted that the ideological shift that began in the late 1970s (which we now refer to as neoliberalism), resulted in changes in the regulation of capitalism that fundamentally redrew the lines that demarcated what was considered public and private, and instituted policies aimed at austerity and the privatization of social responsibility that altered norms and expectations of motherhood (Stacey, 1996).

Communication and cultural critics have begun to detail the connection between neoliberal logics and changing ideals of motherhood in the 21st century (Hayden & O’Brien Hallstein, 2010; Hoerl & Kelly, 2010; Littler, 2013; Mack, 2016; Johnson Thornton, 2011). Sara Hayden and Lynn O’Brien Hallstein contend that women’s choices to be mothers, to get abortions, or to participate in particular maternal behaviors are all now framed as exercising individual liberty—seemingly no longer bound by structural or material barriers in society. In her work on the entrepreneurialization of motherhood, Davi Johnson Thornton (2011) argued that expert discourses in contemporary self-help books for mothers frame motherhood as a self-interested practice that produces entrepreneurial subjects under American neoliberalism. In this case, the neoliberal logic of individual entrepreneurship is imbued into the discourses present in books designed to help mothers make decisions about how to act during pregnancy and raise children post-birth. Finally, Mack (2016) further highlighted how neoliberal logics and motherhood discourses are intertwined through an analysis of YouTube videos of at-home births that espouse the self-made mythos central to rationalizing neoliberal logics of self-governance. Mack contended that self-made mothering rhetorics reflect the continued prevalence of masochistic motherhood while simultaneously diluting calls for a collective politics of birth and mothering that would meaningfully resist the biomedical industrial complex.

Recent scholarship on the commodification of motherhood further highlights how motherhood is commodified and culturally circulated in capitalist society (Demo, Borda, & Kroløkke, 2015; Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2002; Hochschild, 2004). Scholarship on the commodification of mothering continues to push motherhood scholars to attend to the intersections between capitalism, commodity fetishism, and motherhood (Demo et al., 2015).

Critiquing White Western Motherhood

Radha Hedge (1999) argued that motherhood is a site of ideological contestation over femininity and the representation of the body. According to Hedge, feminist theorization often fails to theorize from the standpoint of the margins in order to see mothering as resistive. Mothering rhetorics and scholarship about motherhood often invoke universalizing concepts of motherhood that conflate the concept with womanhood, ignoring the intersectional relationship between race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationhood (Stearney, 1994).

Considering these insights, critical scholars contend that examining motherhood as if there is a universal maternal subject who is oppressed by the institution of motherhood in homogenous ways is problematic. The presumption of a universal maternal subjectivity produces a limited and exclusionary view of maternal experience and women’s oppression that centers white Western women’s experiences. Story (2014) noted that, despite emerging black feminist work on black motherhood, “the dominant portrayal of what is, and what it means to be a ‘mother,’ [.|.|.] remains locked within a reductive and imaginary prism of white supremacy, heteronormativity, and sexism” (Story, 2014, p. 1). Motherhood has also been mobilized as a cultural mechanism of social control in differing ways for women of color. For example, Simonsen (2006) noted that white motherhood and domesticity were tools of domination in the North American West for colonial settlers who sought to control Native Americans through forced assimilation. Critical and cultural scholars examining the intersectional relationship between race, class, and gender through the lens of motherhood reveal myriad ways that white supremacy and classism are continually reinforced not only through dominant ideals of motherhood, but also through scholarship on mothering and motherhood that continues to re-center white, heternormative maternal experience (Craddock, 2015; Elliot, Powell, & Brenton, 2015; Feldstein, 2000; Hayden, 2017; Koven & Michel, 1993; Moffitt & Harris, 2014; Morrissey & Kimball, 2017; Roberts, 1998; Roth, 2004; Williams, 2016).

Black Feminist Critiques

bell hooks argued (2000) that the white Second-Wave feminist emphasis on motherhood as a dominant institution of oppression for women reflects how prevailing feminist works neglect to adequately attend to racism and classism in their analysis. hooks contended that, “had black women voiced their views on motherhood, it would not have been named a serious obstacle to our freedom as women. Racism, availability of jobs, lack of skills or education .|.|. would have been at the top of the list—but not motherhood,” (hooks, 2000, p. 133).

Black feminist thinkers argue that the critical study of black motherhood is central to the emancipation and examination of black women, but the material realities that historically shape the roles and expectations of mothers in the United States are distinct for black women (Simpson Smith, 2013). While dominant ideals of white motherhood (because they are the dominant and invisible center to discourse about motherhood in the public imaginary) may be used to negatively judge or disregard black mothers in the United States, black mothering in African American communities is often seen as both empowering and resistive (Hill Collins, 2009). Black mothers have played a key role in the survival of black families and communities in the face of enslavement, mass incarceration, and socio-economic inequality (Hill Collins, 1987; James, 1993). Black feminist critical scholars seek, therefore, not only to critique how the prevailing ideals of motherhood exclude black women, but also to articulate Afrocentric ideologies of motherhood as a resistant alternative.

The study of motherhood in the 1970s and 1980s, Patricia Hill Collins (2009) contended, focuses insufficiently on either white conceptions of motherhood or mythical depictions of black motherhood, such as the mammy and the welfare queen (Hill Collins, 2009, pp. 80, 174; Hill Collins, 2004, pp. 28, 57–59, 72, 138–184). These controlling images of black motherhood have to be combated through the self-definition of black mothering, according to Hill Collins (2009, p. 107). Hill Collins points out that white conceptions of motherhood often re-center white experiences of motherhood while ignoring how motherhood is enacted outside of traditional heteronormative and white cultural ideals of the nuclear family.

Hill Collins calls for black feminist critics to reexamine the institution of motherhood through the standpoint of black female experience. For example, othermothering is a central practice in black communities (Hill Collins, 1987). Othermothers are women who perform the labor of care, strength, and domesticity associated with mothering for black communities and non-biological children. Additionally, Katrina Bell McDonald (1997) analyzed black activist mothering as a form that was performed not only by African-American clubwoman during slavery and abolition, but also by black maternal activists who were seeking to advocate for disadvantaged black mothers in the 1990s. Critical and cultural scholars continue to explore how black mothering, othermothering, and Afrocentric ideologies of motherhood emerge and perform in society, often resisting white conceptions of ideal motherhood and emerging from black women’s locality (Bell McDonald, 1997; Hill Collins, 1987, p. 4; James, 1993).

The Coloniality of Motherhood

Transnational, decolonial, and postcolonial feminist scholars also call attention to how scholarship examining motherhood, as well as representations of motherhood in culture, reinforce logics of white supremacy, global elitism, neo-colonialism, colonial epistemologies of gender, and Western centrism (Barak-Brandes, 2016, 2017; Bradfield, 2010; Cooper & Phelan, 2014; Deomampo, 2016; Hedge, 1999; Kim, 2016; Lahav, 2010; Shome, 2011; Soriano et al., 2015). Critics examine how how white Western motherhood is circulated globally in ways that reinforce racist assumptions about motherhood and families (Hedge, 1999; Martínez Guillem & Barnes, 2018; Shome, 2011).

In her work on the cultural articulations and circulations of global motherhood, Raka Shome (2011) contends that the cultural phenomenon of “white Western women saving, rescuing, or adopting international children from underprivileged parts of the world, [and] rearticulating them through familial frameworks” functions to “recenter white Western (and especially North Atlantic) heterosexual kinship logics,” (p. 389). The cultural formation of “global white motherhood” is problematic precisely because global motherhood as a construct “circulates familial desires that shore up white heterosexual patriarchal kinship structures and in doing so erase the masculinist violence of western colonialisms that have destroyed familial domesticities in so many nations in the global south,” (Shome, 2011, p. 390). Scholars who examine the complex intricacies of the deployment of motherhood in transnational contexts focus their analysis on the politics of transnationalism and neocolonialism and the ways that motherhood is constructed, enacted, and operationalized as a function of coloniality. For example, Martínez Guillem and Barnes (2018) argues that the mobilization of “bad” mothering in AMC’s television program Mad Men reveals how post(racial)ideologies circulate and reify logics of white supremacy in the United States.

Decolonizing and Queering Motherhood

R. W. Connell (1987) noted that social relations of gender have historically been “organized in terms of, or in relation to, the reproductive division of people into male and female” (p.140). The biological distinction between man and woman’s reproductive function has been used as a basis for constructing those very same gendered categories, which is a chief concern for those interested in the critical study of gender, sexuality, and communication. Motherhood, therefore, is a social construction that arises from its roots in the presumed “naturalness” of the reproductive function. Evelyn Nakano Glenn (1993) argued, “Perhaps because the gendered allocation of mother appears to flow inevitably from the division based on reproductive function, mother—more than any other aspect of gender—has been subject to essentialist interpretation: seen as natural, universal, and unchanging,” (p. 3). Park (2013) challenged the monomaternalism of motherhood scholarship and suggested that we must resist the normative boundaries of heteronormative kinships systems and practices.

Accordingly, decolonial and queer motherhood scholars not only analyze how discourses about motherhood naturalize heteronormativity and colonial epistemologies of gender, they also document new modes of mothering from the margins, which provide possibilities for emancipation and gender decolonization (Lachance Adams, 2014; Moraga, 1997; Nautiyal, 2016; Pabón-Colón, 2017; Palmer-Mehta, 2016; Park, 2013). Jaishikha Nautiyal (2016), for example, argued that “emergent motherhood,” opens possibilities for resistant mothering. Emergent motherhood is a form of queer mothering, which allows maternal subjects to explore non-essentialist forms of mothering through the practice of embodied writing. Similarly, Pabón-Colón (2017) explores how gender-fluid performances of the queer mamí can disrupt colonial epistemologies of gender that reinforce and reinscribe coloniality through mothering discourses. Finally, Palmer-Mehta (2016) utilized a column by poet and activist Staceyann Chin to disrupt Western logics of universal maternal identity. Each of these interventions centers on the embodied practices of maternal subjects who resist Western logics of maternalism to provide emancipatory possibilities.

Conclusion

Research critically engaging motherhood and mothering is theoretically and politically diverse. Despite the foundational role of the mother in the emergence of class societies, the formation of individual subjectivity, and the formation and maintenance of communities of color, the study of motherhood is expansive yet still relatively uncharted. Undoubtedly, as Lindal Buchanan (2013) noted, critical scholars who explore the complexities of motherhood in the 21st century will continue to reveal how it is a source of both empowerment and oppression (p. 3). It is because motherhood and mothering function symbolically as both acts of resistance and tools of oppression that communication scholars must continue to explore the diverse and ever-changing discourses about reproduction, mothering, and the ways that motherhood is mobilized ideologically.

Further Reading

Bell McDonald, K. (1997). Black activist mothering: A historical intersection of race, gender, & class. Gender & Society, 11(6), 773–795.Find this resource:

    Buchanan, L. (2013). Rhetorics of motherhood. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.Find this resource:

      Collins, J. L., & Mayer, V. (2010). Both hands tied: Welfare reform and the race to the bottom in the low-wage labor market. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

        Collins, P. H. (1987). The meaning of motherhood in black culture and black mother/daughter relationships. Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Woman, 4(2), 4–11.Find this resource:

          Collins, P. H. (2004). Black sexual politics: African Americans, gender, and the new racism. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

            Collins, P. H. (2009). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

              Coontz, S. (1992). The way we never were: American families and the nostalgia trap. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

                Douglas, S., & Michaels, M. (2004). The mommy myth: The idealization of motherhood and how it has undermined women. New York: Free Press.Find this resource:

                  Ehrenreich, B., & English, D. (2005). For her own good: Two centuries of experts’ advice to women. New York: Anchor Books.Find this resource:

                    Hays, S. (1998). The cultural contradictions of motherhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

                      Hirsch, M. (1996). Feminism at the maternal divide: A diary. In A. Jetter, A. Orleck, & D. Taylor (Eds.), The politics of motherhood: Activist voices from left to right (pp. 352–368). Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.Find this resource:

                        hooks, b. (2000). Feminist theory: From margin to center (2nd ed.). Boston: South End Press.Find this resource:

                          Koven, S., & Michel, S. (Eds.). (1993). Mothers of a new world: Maternalist politics and the origins of welfare states. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

                            Nakano Glenn, E., Chang, G., & Rennie Forcey, L. (Eds.). (1993). Mothering: Ideology, experience, and agency. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

                              O’Brien Hallstein, D. L. (2017). Introduction to mothering rhetorics. Women’s Studies in Communication, 40(1), 1–10.Find this resource:

                                O’Reilly, A. (Ed.). (2004). From motherhood to mothering: The legacy of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.Find this resource:

                                  Park, S. (2013). Mothering queerly, Queeringmotherhood: Resisting monomaternalism in adoptive, lesbian, blended, and polygamous families. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.Find this resource:

                                    Pollock, D. (1999). Telling bodies, performing birth: Everyday narratives of childbirth. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                      Rich, A. (1986). Of woman born: Motherhood as experience and institution (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.Find this resource:

                                        Shome, R. (2011). “Global motherhood”: The transnational intimacies of white femininity. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 28(5), 388–406.Find this resource:

                                          Stacey, J. (1996). In the name of the family: Family values in the postmodern age. Boston: Beacon Press.Find this resource:

                                            Stearney, L. (1994). Feminism, ecofeminism, and the maternal archetype: Motherhood as a feminine universal. Communication Quarterly, 42(2), 145–159.Find this resource:

                                              Thornton, D. J. (2011). Neuroscience, affect, and the entrepreneurialization of motherhood. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 8(4), 399–424.Find this resource:

                                                Umansky, L. (1996). Motherhood reconceived: Feminism and the legacies of the sixties. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

                                                  Vogel, L. (1995). Woman questions: Essays for a materialist feminism. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                    Wolf, J. (2011). Is breast best? Taking on the breastfeeding experts and the new high stakes of motherhood. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

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