Motherhood is the word that sociologists tend to use to refer to the social expectations, experiences, and structures associated with being a mother. The use of the term motherhood differentiates the biological fact of producing a baby (becoming a mother) and the practices involved in taking care of children (mothering) from the public and cultural norms linked to the creation and care of children. Motherhood, in other words, is a social institution – one that contributes to the reproduction of gender differentiation and hierarchy in family and work.
Scholarship about motherhood shares the challenge of much sociology to represent a general social experience while at the same time acknowledging the diversity of social actors. Spanning disciplines beyond sociology, research about motherhood also exists outside of conventional academic contexts. One general body of work emphasizes social expectations for mothers and the processes through which mothers negotiate these norms. This literature tends to be more qualitative, interpretive, and directed at generating theoretical perspectives on mothering as a practice and motherhood as a social institution. Another body of work about mothers represents more positivistic attempts to document the determinants and effects of individual mothers’ behavior through the use of surveys and other statistical methodologies (Arendell 2000).
The study of motherhood parallels and was shaped by changes in behavior and beliefs related to gender that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Increases during this time in the labor force participation of married women and mothers generated a vast amount of academic work – in part because the employment of mothers of very young children seemed to conflict with a particular image of mothers as always present and ultimately responsible for the well-being of their children. Some researchers tested empirically for negative effects of maternal employment. Others criticized the question, suggesting that the ”stay at home” mother image associated with institutionalized motherhood was historically specific to the splitting of productive and reproductive labor that occurred during nineteenth century industrialization.
The social construction of mothering as ideologically separate from material provision, most visible in the United States during the post war 1950s, has been identified as anomalous across cultures, races, and classes (Bernard 1974). Paradoxically, the expectation of constant maternal presence to children remains a standard to which many mothers hold themselves, including scholars of motherhood. Some sociologists, such as Maushart (1999), write openly about being motivated to study mother hood by their own experiences of becoming mothers, their observations of contradictory expectations for mothers, and their identification with feminism as a conceptual framework with which to understand and change these experiences and expectations.
Theorists of motherhood treat its institutionalization as a social arrangement to explain, rather than as a biological given. Intensive social norms for mothers exceed biological necessity, Hays (1996) notes, and many mothers nurture children to whom they are not biologically linked. One of the approaches taken to explaining more sociologically why mothers mother the way that they do is the view, grounded in psychoanalytic theory, that mothering behavior is transmitted intergenerationally. In Chodorow’s (1978) influential work on the ”reproduction of mothering,” she argues that daughters internalize their mothers’ identities, which tend to include an overinvestment in motherhood as a primary source of self-esteem and accomplishment. Sons, on the other hand, develop their gender identities by disidentifying with their mothers, resulting, according to Chodorow, in a devaluing of the caretaking behavior that they associate with femaleness.
Another theoretical strand that surfaced in the 1980s suggests that maternal practice is not simply an outcome of gender hierarchy and women’s disempowerment in a sexual division of labor, but represents an alternative to more self-centered and competitive approaches to social life. McMahon (1995) notes, for example, that women change as a result of becoming mothers in ways that produce in them a moral transformation. In this view, first argued by Ruddick (1983), the behaviors of mothers contain the potential to be morally redemptive of society. ”Maternal thinking” develops in mothers’ responses to children’s needs, which, at their best, reflect a desire to preserve and foster life. Maternal thinking offers the possibility of increasing human caring and peace beyond the private relationships of mothers and children.
Along with the interactions they have with their children, other social influences affect how mothers think about their children’s needs and arrange their lives as parents. Some sociology of motherhood examines dominant ideologies about appropriate maternal behavior as they are reinforced in expert advice literature, sustained in interactions between women and men, and internalized and owned by women as their identities. In these approaches, mothers are perceived as active agents in constructing motherhood, but they do so while encountering already existing prescriptions for mothers -perhaps most notably about whether and where labor force participation should fit into maternal identity.
Although some scholars suggest that employment is being integrated into dominant social conceptions of motherhood, others argue that mothers continue to be perceived as either more oriented to family or to work. Financial need is apparently the number one (though not only) impetus for maternal employment, yet what Garey (1999) refers to as an ”opposition model” of motherhood and paid work is reflected in research that seeks to identify why mothers do or do not work. This question is not asked of fathers, and assumes that mothers are in a nuclear family context and generally have a choice about whether to earn money. More research is emerging, however, that looks at mothering from particular social locations, examining differences in ideology related to work as well as potentially negative outcomes, including poverty, of becoming a mother outside of marriage or in other ways that are not socially sanctioned (Arendell 2000).
Another twist on social definitions of motherhood appears in scholarship exploring implications of reproductive technology and situations in which maternity may be contested, such as when a surrogate mother does not want to give up custody of the baby to whom she has given birth. These types of circumstances resurface the question of how biology enters into definitions of motherhood, but with some new answers. While scholars in the 1970s dismissed biological arguments as justifications for maternal responsibility, some more recent work, such as Rothman’s (1989), invokes the physical connection mothers have to babies as a way to empower them with decision making power for the fetuses they grow. Hrdy (1999) draws on an evolutionary perspective to argue for the “naturalness” of women combining work and mothering.
There is a circular process to scholarship about motherhood – certain questions being asked, answered, and asked again about how motherhood is socially defined, the implications of its institutionalization for individual mothers and children, and its intersections and conflicts with other social institutions (Walzer 2004). Although some scholarly work about mother hood combines theoretical examination with empirical grounding, there remain gaps between what scholars think about motherhood and what they actually know through examination of mothers’ experiences. Future research should seek to close these gaps – testing theoretical contentions emerging from qualitative studies with larger, diverse samples that in turn generate new theory generating studies. Future researchers will also continue to struggle with the difficulty of recognizing mothers’ diversity without positioning them as entirely the same or different by virtue of their social locations, relationship statuses, family arrangements, and life courses.
Finally, future scholarship about mother hood is likely to benefit from less exclusive attention to mothers and greater exploration of the relationships and institutions in which they live. Mothers enact mothering with other people: their children certainly, and often, other adult partners. We will increase our understanding of motherhood by studying these interactions as well as the complementary and constraining assumptions underlying other institutions that intersect with motherhood: fatherhood, work, marriage, heterosexuality, and gender.
- Arendell, T. (2000) Conceiving and Investigating Motherhood: The Decade’s Scholarship. Journal of Marriage and the Family 62: 1192 1207.
- Bernard, J. (1974) The Future of Motherhood. Dial Press, New York.
- Chodorow, N. (1978) The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Garey, A. I. (1999) Weaving Work and Motherhood. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
- Hays, S. (1996) The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. Yale University Press, New Haven.
- Hrdy, S. B. (1999) Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection. Pantheon, New York.
- McMahon, M. (1995) Engendering Motherhood: Identity and Self Transformation in Women’s Lives. Guilford Press, New York.
- Maushart, S. (1999) The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend It Doesn’t. Penguin, New York.
- Rothman, B. K. (1989) Recreating Motherhood. Norton, New York.
- Ruddick, S. (1983) Maternal Thinking. In: Trebilcot, J. (Ed.), Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory. Rowman & Littlefield, Savage, MD, pp. 213 30.
- Walzer, S. (2004) Encountering Oppositions: A Review of Scholarship about Motherhood. In: Coleman, M. & Ganong, L. H. (Eds.), Handbook of Contemporary Families: Considering the Past, Contemplating the Future. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 209 23.