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Mapping the field of maternal studies : part 1

Problems, paradoxes and contradictions

Today is Wednesday and I’m sitting at my computer working on my overview of the field of maternal studies. I’m on a sabbatical and I have been reading and writing in silence for the best part of the day. Yet there is no school on Wednesday. In order to be able to go on focusing on my presentation, I took my children to the centre de loisirs, which is a community-run daycare centre for school-age children, like I do every Wednesday. They’re probably having a lot of fun playing ball with the other children, drawing, building Lego constructions. I’m certainly enjoying my time alone working without being interrupted. Yet I can’t help feeling racked with guilt. “Other mothers are keeping their children at home on Wednesdays”, I keep thinking, all the while reading book after book on the contradictions of motherhood. I don’t think my children’s father feels remotely the same.

This uncomfortable feeling reminds me of an observation made by Rachel Cusk in her memoir A Life’s Work, arguably one the most important books about being a writer and a mother. She had found it impossible to juggle mothering and writing so she and her partner decided to reorganise their lives.

My partner left his job and we moved out of London. People began to enquire about him as if he were very ill, or dead. What’s he going to do? they would ask me avidly, and then, getting no answer, him. Look after the children while Rachel writes her book about looking after the children, was his reply. Nobody else seemed to find this particularly funny.

Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work, 13

I do find this anecdote funny – in a cruel sort of way. Similarly, instead of playing with my children, I sit here feeling guilty about reading books on other women who also feel guilty about not playing with their children. This is the heart of what I would call the maternal studies paradox: writing about motherhood usually implies being a mother. Yet if she wants to be able to analyse her experience or simply tell things the way she experiences them before her children leave home for good, there is a moment when the mother who is also a writer will have to leave her children in someone else’s care in order to write about her own mothering, because school days are never long enough. Very often she will feel tremendously guilty about it.

This personal anecdote feels like a good introduction to my attempt to map the field of what I have decided to call “maternal studies” (other scholars will talk of “motherhood studies” or, perhaps more appropriately, “mothering studies”). As part of my work on writers who are also mothers (and vice versa), I have felt the need to read as much as possible about what has been published about motherhood in Western culture over the last 40 to 50 years (which dates back to the origins of maternal studies as a field). This overview does not aim at exhaustivity – I do not claim to have read every single piece of scholarship that has been written on the topic – nor does it purport to extend much beyond the borders of Western, white, middle-class motherhood. I am aware of the limitations of my approaches and I still hope to extend my knowledge of work on nonwhite, queer and working-class motherhood.

The scholarship I have been reading belongs to several fields, ranging from psychoanalysis to anthropology, philosophy, cultural studies and, of course, literary criticism. Yet they almost all have at the heart of their approach the perception of a paradox, a contradiction, a conundrum. Motherhood as an object of study is… complicated, guilt-inducing, probably best left untouched, a “minefield”, to quote anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Why is that so? My first guess would be that motherhood, which is in fact a rather recent concept, has always been constructed as the other to Enlightenment civilisation. When the typical Western liberal man constructed himself as an individual, he meant it as cutting the ties that kept him shackled to the mass, the unformed, the body; while at the same time women, and by extensions mothers, took the role of the glue that kept the home and the family from falling apart (Bueskens 2018). In a culture which is dominated by the figure of the Western enlightened capitalist individual, mothers are an anomaly (Hays 1996), they embody values that run counter to the dominant narrative, which is probably why it is so difficult to fit them in our conception of the contemporary self.

Before I attempt to map the field of maternal studies, I feel it is necessary to mention some of the fundamental texts which have participated to its creation. Most texts I have read refer to Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (Rich [1976] 1995), Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering (Chodorow 1978) and Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking (Ruddick 1980) as pioneering texts. One should also mention Canadian scholar Andrea O’Reilly, who has edited several of the major collections of scholarly work belonging to the field of maternal studies, including the seminal Maternal Theory: Essential Readings (O’Reilly 2007) republished in 2021, and who founded the Journal of Motherhood Initiative. As I embark on a tour of the field, I would like to follow three main avenues of throught: motherhood as a cultural representation, the question of subjectivity and the possibility for mothers to write about being mothers. In this post, I will focus on motherhood as a cultural representation, while I’ll be addressing the other two subjects in separate posts.

The web of contradictions

Looking after children is a low-status occupation. It is isolating, frequently boring, relentlessly demanding and exhausting. It erodes your self-esteem and your membership of the adult world

Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work, 13

Most, if not all the texts that adopt a cultural studies approach to the question of motherhood refer to Adrienne Rich’s book (which I have already written about here) as the first major text on the topic: with its references to history, anthropology, literary criticism and its frequent forays into the autobiographical, Of Woman Born’s main contribution was to separate motherhood as a patriarchal institution from motherhood as an experience and especially as a practice. Andrea O’Reilly, in her book of essays acknowledging the legacy of Adrienn Rich’s text, explains that it is probably the main takeaway:

The term “motherhood” refers to the patriarchal institution of motherhood that is male-defined and controlled and is deeply oppressive to women, while the word “mothering” refers to women’s experiences of mothering that are female-defined and centered and potentially empowering to women.

Andrea O’Reilly, From Motherhood to Mothering :  The Legacy of Adrienne Rich’s ‘Of Woman Born’, 2

The other major contribution Rich has made to our representation of motherhood is in her attempt to “de-naturalise” motherhood, away from the usual clichés about “maternal instinct” and “a mother’s unconditional love”, an effort that was taken further by anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her book Mother Nature (Hrdy 1999), which is considered another major contribution to the study of the maternal. Motherhood, is not a monolithic tenet of our culture, it is an institution forged by historical and cultural tensions, and mostly by the need for men to subjugate women and keep them within the home. For Ann Dally, for example, “There have always been mothers but motherhood was invented” (Dally 1983, 17); an invention she believed appeared during the Victorian period, and is closely related to the idealization of the housewife as “angel of the house” (see Gilbert and Gubar [1979] 2000).

Along with other cultural critics of motherhood (Hays 1996), Bassin, Honey, and Kaplan (1994),], Petra Bueskens has shown (Bueskens 2018), the Victorian period is the time in history when the workplace became completely separated from the home, which meant that women, and mothers, were increasingly expected to work outside of the home. For Bueskens (and Dally before her) this possibility created a backlash in the form of the separation between public and private sphere: society was gripped by a moral panic over the possibility that the family as an institution would collapse if mothers stopped taking care of the home. As a result, women needed to be construed as conssubtantial with the home. It didn’t stop women from seeking employment outside of the home, especially in the first half of the 20th century, when men were dying on the frontlines of the two World Wars. While this may at first have seemed like a form of progress for women who could escape the private sphere and become their own individuals, it created the original conundrum: if women could enter the public sphere, it meant someone else would pick up their responsibilities. Generally, that “someone else” ended up being being another facet of women’s divided self. Cue the “second shift” or “double burden”: women ended up being more tired by having to combine employment and their duties as mothers, and they still remained behind in their professional careers. For Bueskens then, motherhood remains “the central unfinished business of feminism” (Bueskens 2018, 3).

The relationship of feminism with motherhood is indeed a fraught one. For Simone de Beauvoir (Beauvoir 2012) and later Shulamith Firestone (Firestone 1971), motherhood was the original patriarchal institution – it kept women away from full individualisation and it justified their enslavement within the home. In Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (Friedan 1963), the “problem which has no name” is largely correlated with women’s return to the home in the aftermath of the second World War. Further along in the 80s and 90s, the pendulum would swing in the other direction, with feminist critics like Sara Ruddick (Ruddick 1980) making maternal love a tool of resistance against liberal individualism. The jury is still out, therefore, as to how motherhood can be articulated with feminism, as Patrice diQuinzio has demonstrated in her book, The Impossibility of Motherhood (DiQuinzio 2013). She explains that because of the nature of mothering, which is relational as it implies an intense bond with one’s children, mothers cannot pretend to individualism, which is the promise of liberal feminism.

The existence of a contradiction in the relationship between motherhood and the wider cultural context of Western capitalism is also analysed by sociologist Sharon Hays in The Cultural Contradictions of Mothering (Hays 1996), where she asks an admittedly cynical question: in a society where women, and mothers among them, are encouraged to take part in the race to professional success, why would mothers invest some much time, energy and money in adopting the style of mothering that Linda Rose Ennis (Ennis 2014) describes as “intensive mothering”? What is the ideology that has shaped our conceptions of mothering to the point that most mothers now feel that they have failed their mission if their children aren’t properly stimulated intellectually on a daily basis, enlisted in an endless number of activities, to which they must use their free time to ferry their children day in and day out? Is it because, on top of having to accumulate capital for themselves, mothers also feel it is essential to accumulate as much social and cultural capital for their children?

Guilt, guilt and more guilt

It is all too easy to accept unconsciously the guilt so readily thrust upon any woman who is seeking to broaden and deepen her own existence, on the grounds that this must somehow damange her children. That guilt is one of the most power forms of social control of women; non of us can be entirely immune to it.

Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, 206

Mothers are then caught in a web of contradictions, and are expected to choose between alternatives, all of which are the absolute worst, to the exceptions of all the other ones, of course. Bueskens identified two main roles mothers could identify with: the mother who stays and the mother who leaves. In Victorian times, these roles were taken up by either the “Angel in the house” figure or by the “New Woman” who cut ties with the domestic in order to live her own life. Today this contradiction is embodied by the two figures of the working mother, often pitted against the stay-at-home mother, who are supposed to be glaring at each other from each side of the cultural divide. What these two figures share is an enormous amount of guilt, a negative emotion which courses through absolutely each of the text that I have encountered on the topic of the maternal. Whether this feeling of guilt is warranted or not in the case of individual mothers, it is the logical result of the contradictory demands made on mothers as a social category. Damned if they stay at home to look after their children, to the detriment of their own self-fufilment, damned if they don’t, mothers are condemned to getting it wrong every single time. On top of that, as Jacqueline Rose has shown in her study of motherhood in culture, they are held responsible for everything that is wrong in today’s society:

Why are those mothers so hated? Why are mothers so often held accountable for the ills of the world, the breakdown in the social fabric, the threat to welfare, to the health of the nation – from the funding crisis in the NHS to the influx of foreigners on our shores? Why are mothers seen as the cause of everything that doesn’t work in who we are?

Jacqueline Rose, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, 11

No wonder mothers end up retreating behind the “mask of motherhood” described by Susan Maushart (Maushart 1999): unable to express their ambivalent feelings about being mothers (more on that in the next post), they are condemned by a culture which represents motherhood as the ultimate form of fulfilment for a woman and as an endless source of joy and contentment. By embracing the persona of the perfectly happy, serene and selfless mother which Western culture wants her to be (via countless popular culture artifacts), she is perpetuating the illusion that mothers need to be unambiguously devoted to their children. Several books attempt to analyse and deconstruct the cultural representations of ideal motherhood and they all identify the same enemies, which are universally reviled: the mothering advice books. In a chapter where she describes her frantic attempts at making sense of her new responsibilities as a mother, Rachel Cusk turns to mothering advice book for help, and she ends up finding more impossible cultural prescriptions, and more contradictions. In a hilarious passage, she imagines Dr Spock, one of the most famous authors of all, sitting in his office lonely and misunderstood:

I imagine Spock in his office, at the end of the day, sitting in a black leather chair while the world grows dark outside. […] he wonders for the hundredth, the thousandth time how he could be at once so accepted and so misunderstood, so dominating and yet so powerless. He has been fair, he’s looked at it from all sides, and yet he can’t seem to get his procreation-civilisation message over. In his head, it is perfect, sound, complete, but on paper, he is read as both permissive and oppressing, at once th eman who spawned a generation of draft-dodgers and a sort of pediatric prince of darkness presiding over the nocturnal misery of helpless infants. They’re all angry with him, and yet what did he ever do but try to help? 

Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work, 70

In her book The Myths of Motherhood (Thurer 1994), Shari Thurer blames the advice books for the guilt that gnaws at the conscience of most contemporary mothers, and she astutely remarks that their authors’ sympathies have shifted over time from the mother to the baby. Mothering books are no longer about helping tired, bewildered mothers get through the first few years with their children with commonsense, time-tested advice, they have become quasi-religious prescriptions, which are particularly cruel to those mothers who have decided to seek a career on top of their mothering duties. Judith Warner uses the same religious vocabulary to describe the new “theology of Motherhood” (Warner 2006)which she believes emerged as a new ideology to soothe cultural anxiety about societal change. Women, she believes, are let down by the “religion of motherhood”, whose Grand Inquisitor is psychologist John Bowlby, ready to burn women at the stake of their self-fulfilment fantasies.

Why John Bowlby? His name is associated with the main theory he developed, often dubbed “attachment theory” or “bonding theory”, which demonstrated that in order for children to be able to thrive as adults, they needed to form a strong attachment to their mother (or – and this is often forgotten – to a mother figure) for the first few years of their lives. As many cultural critics of motherhood have shown, Bowlby’s theories have been used, rather opportunistically, by traditionalists to justify keeping women within the confines of the home, lest their children grew up to be emotionally stunted individuals. Maternal guilt, some feminists felt, had been weaponized to naturalize the woman’s role as a mother and to make working outside of the home a cultural prohibition. As we will see in the next post, psychology, and more particularly psychoanalysis, has a lot to answer for in terms of holding women responsible for the ills that may befall their children. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is also useful here as she offers a very nuanced view of John Bowlby’s contribution to our understanding of mothering: she does recognize that Bowlby was not immune to the patriarchal biases of his time, and he certainly did take a rather dim view of those women seeking emancipation outside of the home. Yet Hrdy feels that a lot of the attacks against his theories were made in bad faith and were probably the result of a knee-jerk reaction on the part of newly-emancipated feminist mothers who were still struggling with their guilt. Claiming that children need to be securely attached to their mother (why their mother and not their father? Hrdy would reply “lactation”) does not necessarily entail that women should quit their jobs to become full-time mothers. Judith Warner does recognise this nuance and quotes one of Hrdy’s most important conclusions from her observations of primates:

Female primates have always been dual-career mothers, forced to compromise between maternal and infant needs. It is precisely for this reason that primate mothers including human foragers, have always shared care of offspring with others–when it was feasible. Acknowledging infant needs does not necessarily enslave mothers. 

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mother Nature, 494

The role of “allomothers”, or other women from the community who can take care of the child when her mother is away is absolutely crucial, whether she is a grandmother, sister or employee from the local daycare facility. In fact, the figure of the mother isolated at home taking care of her own children alone is a rather exceptional one, from a cultural point of view, and is associated once again with Western, white middle-class conceptions of the family. As Patricia Hill Collins has shown in her work on Black Motherhood, the choice between staying at home to take care of her children and venturing out into the world of work is simply not one that Black mothers can afford. Constrainted by the limitations of their resources, they must work if they want to keep their children clothed and fed (Collins 1987). Black motherhood, she argues, is much more female-centered, and is much more communally organised than white motherhood, as the boundary between “bloodmother” and “othermother” is much more fluid than in white culture. Children are the responsibility of the community as a whole, and their mothers can rely on a network of othermothers who will pick up their duties when they are gone. This ties back to the conclusions made by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her observations of African and Asian cultures. To me, her work on motherhood belongs to the canon of maternal studies because it allows us to widen the lens and look beyond our own culture to escape the web of contradictions we so often found ourselves trapped in as mothers.

Works cited

Bassin, Donna, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, eds. 1994. Representations of Motherhood. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 2012. Le deuxième sexe I: Les faits et les mythes. Le deuxième sexe, Simone de Beauvoir ; 1. Paris: Gallimard.

Bueskens, Petra. 2018. Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities: Rewriting the Sexual Contract. 1st ed. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY : Routledge, 2018. | Series: Routledge research in gender and society ; 67: Routledge. 

Chodorow, Nancy J. 1978. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Oakland: Univ of California Press.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1987. “The Meaning of Motherhood in Black Culture and Black Mother-Daughter Relationships.” Sage 4 (2): 3.

Cusk, Rachel. 2001. A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. New York: Picador.

Dally, Ann. 1983. Inventing Motherhood: The Consequences of an Ideal. New York: Schocken.

DiQuinzio, Patrice. 2013. The Impossibility of Motherhood: Feminism, Individualism and the Problem of Mothering. London: Routledge.

Ennis, Linda Rose. 2014. Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood. Bradford, Ontario: Demeter Press.

Firestone, Shulamith. 1971. The dialectic of sex: the case for feminist revolution. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.

Friedan, Betty. (1963) 2010. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. (1979) 2000. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Hays, Sharon. 1996. The Cultural Contradictions of Mothering. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1999. Mother Nature: Natural Selection and the Female of the Species. London: Chatto & Windus.

Maushart, Susan. 1999. The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend It Doesn’t. New York: New Press New York.

O’Reilly, Andrea, ed. 2004. From motherhood to mothering : the legacy of Adrienne Rich’s “Of woman born”. Albany (N.Y.): State university of New York press.

———, ed. 2007. Maternal Theory Essential Readings. Bradford, Ontario: Demeter Press.

Rich, Adrienne C. (1976) 1995. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. 2nd ed. Women’s studies. New York: Norton.

Rose, Jacqueline. 2018. Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty. London: Faber & Faber.

Ruddick, Sara. 1980. “Maternal Thinking.” Feminist Studies 6 (2): 342–67.

Thurer, Shari. 1994. The Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Warner, Judith. 2006. Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. Harmondsworth: Penguin.



Cite this blog post
Alice Braun (2023, February 2). Mapping the field of maternal studies : part 1. Mothers and writers. Retrieved May 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/rolw

By Alice Braun

Maîtresse de conférences en anglais à l’université Paris Nanterre/Senior lecturer in English at the Paris Nanterre university.

2 replies on “Mapping the field of maternal studies : part 1”

Thank you for this review of literature, it is a fine introduction for newcomers like myself 🙂 It is quite rare to find a field of study that touches the heart of humanness, both in a pragmatic and an emotional sense. I cannot wait to see where this research path takes me. My intuition would say there may be another interpretation of motherhood in the Western-white-middle-class society today, but unfortunately (the adjective is purely subjective) that follows the liberal individualism: Women at home, with unschooled children, sometimes travelling around the world (the home being then a minivan). (I am ending this comment while my child is crying after me – and the guilt is very powerful…)

Dear Laurence, I’m glad you enjoyed this post, and I’m also glad that it resonated with your experience. The fact that you should interrupt your reflection on the topic because your child needs you is a perfect demonstration of what I am trying to demonstrate! My only hope for mothers is that we can one day get rid of the guilt as it – needlessly – damages our confidence as both mothers and… writers.

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