by Jennifer Lois
Home Is Where the School Is explores the emotional and temporal components of contemporary mothering. Based on 10 years of field research with homeschooling mothers in the Pacific Northwest, the book begins by showing how homeschoolers drew on definitions of intensive mothering in deciding to keep their children out of conventional schools. Extending the stay-at-home mothering commitment for 13 additional years was a decision these mothers understood in emotional terms, thus emotions were crucial in constructing their identities as good mothers. Homeschoolers fell into two groups. Staunch proponents, whom I call “first-choicers,” relied on “emotional epiphanies” to understand themselves as good mothers, whereas “second-choicers,” who were always looking for alternatives, relied on mainstream choice rhetoric to construct their good-mother identities. Further, homeschooling mothers had to present themselves as good mothers to non-homeschoolers, who often accused them of maternal emotional deviance for keeping their children out of school. These early chapters uncover the emotional conflict of intensive mothering, an angle yet to be explored from a sociology of emotions perspective.
Compounding homeschooling mothers’ emotional conflict, however, were issues of time. The next two chapters deal with what I have termed the “temporal-emotional conflict” of intensive mothering. The sheer workload of homeschooling created a quantitative temporal conflict for homeschoolers, which they had to manage to avoid emotional burnout. Even when mothers successfully juggled the vast domestic labor, they were still left with no “me-time,” which left them frustrated and resentful. To manage these feelings, mothers focused on the idea that their children’s childhoods, and thus their own identities as intensive mothers, were evaporating daily. This realization granted them not only the temporal ability to put their own lives “on hold” (as many said) for prolonged periods, but importantly, the emotional ability to do so willingly. The ways homeschoolers reconciled the emotional and temporal tensions of mothering are examples of what I have called “temporal emotion work.” I also push this theoretical intersection further to suggest that intensive motherhood may be an identity that is governed by the unrelenting progression of time, or what I call a “time-sensitive identity.” Thinking about maternal identity in this way has implications for how women may interpret their past, present, and future, and, through temporal emotion work, may influence how they construct their identities over the life course. Previous research has emphasized sacrifice (and its antithesis, selfishness) as the prominent theme in contemporary definitions of motherhood in the United States. My research, however, suggests that underlying this drive to sacrifice, at least among homeschooling mothers, and possibly among other intensive mothers, are the problematic emotions that arise from defining intensive motherhood as a time-sensitive identity.
In many ways, homeschooling is an exaggerated case of stay-at-home mothering; as such, it is useful in shedding light on cultural ideas about mothering more broadly. Thus, throughout the book I argue that these temporal-emotional conflicts are not unique artifacts of homeschooling, but rather represent a broader truth about intensive mothering: the temporal experience is emotionally problematic. My follow-up interviews, six to seven years after the initial interviews, form the basis for later chapters and trace homeschooling mothers’ experiences over time. This makes the book one of the only qualitative longitudinal studies of intensive mothering (albeit for only a highly select group). These chapters show that first- and second-choice homeschoolers had different experiences over time which affected their maternal identities accordingly. The book reveals that the emotional culture of intensive mothering contains a toolbox of strategies, from choice rhetoric to emotional epiphanies, which mothers can apply discriminately, interactively, and with different degrees of success, to manage the variety of temporal-emotional conflicts that occur with distinct mothering dilemmas.
Jennifer Lois is a professor in sociology at Western Washington University. Her book, Home Is Where The School Is: The Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering, was reviewed in the February 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review, click here.