Representations of Motherhood

Donna Bassin

Margaret Honey

Meryl Mahrer Kaplan

Contrary to popular wisdom, "the oldest profession" is probably mothering. The work that mothers do, however, has changed considerably over time and most feminists today agree that mothering is also culturally constructed. In North America in the 1990s mothering is confronted by its own particular constellation of issues: the choice of whether or not to mother, lesbian mothering, reproductive technologies, balancing work and (extended) families, single mothering, and poverty. Two anthologies about mothering that appeared recently attempt to address some of these issues. They form part of a new body of research that has amassed in the last few years including, to name just a few, Maternal Thinking (1989), Don't Blame Mother (1989), and Mothers in Law (1995).

A feminist interest in mothering is not new though there have been alternations between positive and negative stands. In the late nineteenth century mothers struggled to professionalize their work in response to the devaluation of the private sphere (Bassin et al., p. 5). Alternatively, American second-wave feminism examined the ideology of the self-sacrificing mother that legitimates patriarchal society. In her 1984 collection, Mothers: Essays in Feminist Theory, Joyce Trebilcot again attempted to analyze motherhood more positively on women's terms. What is new in the recent research is a long overdue analysis on the mother's terms; and in a culturally diverse society this means on mothers' terms.

Ruddick's contributions then and now illustrate the change. In "Maternal Thinking," her influential 1984 contribution to Trebilcot's Mothering, Ruddick was remarkable in speaking about mothers' (theoretically including men) conceptual practices and their rational interests. Nonetheless these interests still coincided with those of the children in terms of their growth and social acceptance. In "Thinking Mothers /Conceiving Birth" (Bassin et al.), on the other hand, Ruddick's focus has shifted to the mother herself. She analyzes the practices of childbearing as characterized by active waiting and "natal thinking." And, unlike maternal thinking, reflections on the birthgiving experience are admitted to be culturally diverse. The themes of diversity and maternal subjectivity exemplify feminism's recent critical encounter with postmodernism: difference is embraced but the female subject will not be abandoned. The collections under review here address both themes and they are complementary insofar as Glenn et al. accent the former while Bassin et al. stress the latter.

Representations of Motherhood has the explicit aim of portraying the "mother-as-subject" or the real person (with her own needs, desires, and interests) behind the traditional Western image of the self-sacrificing madonna. The book uses a variety of disciplines to tell the mother's story, from philosophy to literary studies to political science. And in a postmodern move which challenges boundaries between cultural theory and practice, it even includes two pieces of fiction, by Jane Lazarre and Myra Goldberg, as well as a short interview (including visuals) with artist Barbara Kruger. One shortcoming of Representations, in my view, is its overemphasis on psychoanalytic and technological areas which together make up almost half the volume. This bias can probably be traced back to editorial interests as all three editors are psychologists, with Honey based at the Centre for Children and Technology. Nevertheless these issues are mainly of interest to the minority of women who are represented by the psychoanalytic model of the nuclear family and who have access to technological reproduction.

Another drawback of this volume is its lack of representation of French feminists Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. These absences are especially disconcerting because the editors do include an article by the much more orthodox Lacanian, Janine Chassegeut-Smirgel. Irigaray is far more mother-friendly, drawing on images of the umbilical cord to reinvent the body of the mother in terms of nourishing, sheltering wholeness. Similarly Kristeva reclaims the body of the mother as not lacking (a penis) but diversely erotic. She further claims that in childbearing mothers have privileged access to what she calls the abject, a transgression of the self's rational and moral boundaries which is a desirable means of rupturing the patriarchal Symbolic Order.

Of course there are interesting pieces included here, too. For instance, from a communications perspective, there is Honey's psychological research on gender differences among professionals in the "phallic universe" of computer science. Honey furnishes further empirical evidence for the arguments that women use information technology differently than men. She finds a marginalized maternal voice that domesticates this technology, that is, puts it in the service of people by emphasizing its communication functions. Also of note is Else First's feminist revision of object-relations luminary D. W. Winnicott. First claims that Winnicott's comparison of mothering to the work of the psychoanalyst makes him an ally in valorizing mothers' work. Like Adrienne Rich, he acknowledges the negative feelings that mothers have for their children and, what is more, he understands these feelings as psychologically healthy because they enable the child to express her or his aggression.

Representations of Motherhood also includes an important article by Patricia Hill Collins: "Shifting the Centre: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood." Here Collins castigates (white) feminist theory for normalizing the experiences of emotional nurture and personal autonomy of white, middle-class Americans (in particular those of an economically secure, nuclear family). She introduces the term "motherwork" to break down the liberal dichotomies implicit in these experiences between public and private, community and individual. Putting the concerns of women of colour first means ensuring children's physical survival, empowering mothers, and maintaining cultural identity in the face of racism. The Bassin volume as a whole, though, is still very centred on middle-class experience and its maternal subject remains very much within the scope of the liberal individual.

Motherhood: Ideology, Experience, and Agency, by contrast, puts diversity on the front burner. As the outcome of an interdisciplinary conference at SUNY that thematized disputed definitions of mothering, this book offers the reader an even wider range of disciplines while heeding Collins's call to shift the centre. Again the explanation may lie with the editors who bring a more diverse background (ethnic studies, women's studies, and education) to the project. Motherhood includes a lesbian perspective as well as a large number of analyses of race, again including the Collins article as well as pieces on Hispanic, Jewish, and African-American mothers. Unfortunately there is no essay about Aboriginal mothering.

Two articles are especially sensitive to differences. Denise Segura documents how Mexicans have less conflict between paid work and mothering than their American cousins. Because they have not internalized the middle-class myth of emotional nurturance, they see economic support as an equally valid form of nurture and do not experience guilt at going out to work. And in her literary comparison of Alice Walker and Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta, Barbara Christian compares two cultures that put motherwork in a religious context of maintaining spiritual continuity. Christian finds that the obstacles to cultural identity faced by women of colour in America may be greater than they are in Africa, yet their prospects for valorizing mothers as people rather than functions are also better because they have existing social movements to which to turn.

Also of interest to media scholars are essays by Ann Kaplan and Sau-Ling Wong. In a version of the last chapter of her 1992 book, Motherhood and Representation, Kaplan discusses how the mother's voice is displaced by that of fathers and even the fetus in recent American films. (In another version of the same chapter in the Bassin collection she argues that no Hollywood films to date have been able to represent mothers in the full range of their capacities as nurturing and working and sexual beings.) Wong, too, looks at a variety of film genres but she uses an expanded notion of the mother. In Driving Miss Daisy, Passion Fish, and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, for instance, caregivers of colour are depicted as providing emotional support in exchange for the financial support of white families. She claims that this illusion of mutuality hides growing middle-class fear of ethnic unrest. In a climate of backlash, I would add that these happy images also allay fears of women and people of colour abandoning their nurturing work.

In our contemporary situation where many mothers are balancing work responsibilities with single parenting or caring for elderly relatives, there is much to be learned by centring the experiences of women of colour. We can also learn from racial-ethnic deconstructions of the opposition between public and private spheres as well as from the positive depictions of mothers in African-American fiction. As Paula Caplan has argued, it is time our culture stopped blaming our mothers and started listening to mothers' voices.

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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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