Perfectly Normal Mothers?

By Angela Frederick

* We are so proud that Dr. Frederick won the 2017 Outstanding Publication in the Sociology of Disability Award. Congratulations Dr. Frederick!

Gender scholars have been critical of the expectations placed upon women to accomplish a perfect version of motherhood. Yet, as I argue in my recent Gender & Society article, what we have often understood to be a “perfection project” is in fact a “normalcy project.” Exemplified by our celebration of infants born with all ten fingers and all ten toes, we desire, not perfect babies, but normal babies. Under the guidance of medical and scientific experts, mothers are expected to devote ample amounts of their energy and resources to the project of preventing disability and other unwelcome differences in their children.

Women themselves are also expected to possess “normal” bodies as they carry out the demands of modern motherhood. Yet, how do mothers who do not have typical bodies – those with disabilities – experience these ideals? I explore this question through interviews and focus groups with mothers who have physical and sensory disabilities. I find these Deaf women and disabled women experience a profound paradox of visibility as they mother.

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Hypervisibility

The mothers I interviewed shared numerous stories of feeling hypervisible as they were held to higher scrutiny by medical professionals and others who assumed their atypical bodies and ways of mothering rendered them inadequate mothers. Denise, who is blind, recalled being asked by staff at her Obstetrics and Gynecology (OBGYN) clinic, “Are you thinking about getting fixed?” Heather, who has a physical disability, recalled her OBGYN physician remarking, “You sure have a grasp of what’s going on for someone in your condition.” And Grace, who is Deaf, once looked over at a nurse’s notes during a prenatal visit and saw that the nurse had written “deaf and dumb” on her chart.

These pathologizing assumptions can lead to serious consequences for Deaf mothers and disabled mothers. One in four of the mothers I interviewed faced a serious threat to her parenting rights, when doctors initiated state intervention or when former partners or family members threatened to use the mother’s disability against her in custody disputes.

Invisibility

Though many of the mothers I interviewed experienced heightened levels of scrutiny as they sought medical care, at the same time their individual needs and ways of mothering were rendered invisible within the medical system and in the consumer market of advice and products targeting mothers. Accessibility issues manifested in different ways for these women. Mothers with physical disabilities had more issues with inaccessible hospital rooms and medical offices, as well as with restricted choice in doctors. Deaf mothers expressed frustration at medical institutions’ reluctance to provide ASL interpreters for doctor visits. And, though patient forms can be made accessible through online access, blind mothers discussed common experiences of being asked to complete their paperwork verbally in the waiting room where other patients could hear their private medical information being exchanged. Many of the mothers also engaged in additional mothering labor to access hard to find baby equipment compatible with their disabilities, and even built equipment on their own.

Baby Signs

The use of baby sign presents one of the most peculiar contradictions embedded in modern mothering. New brain research suggests teaching infants and toddlers sign language will improve their verbal and cognitive development. As a result, signing has become a common practice among U.S. middle and upper class hearing families.

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I find, however, that the appropriation of sign language by hearing families has not come with an increased appreciation of the identities of Deaf mothers and other mothers with disabilities. Consider the experience of Sarah, who is Deaf, when she sought interventions for her son, who has developmental delays. Two therapists who visited her home on separate occasions claimed Sarah’s use of American Sign Language was inhibiting her son’s language development. Thus, Sarah continued to be regarded as an inadequate mother for using sign language, even as hearing middle and upper class families are consuming sign for the benefits it purports to offer their hearing children.

Too often feminist scholarship has reinforced the binary of care, the notion that we can be neatly divided between women who provide care and those who receive it. This artificial divide renders the care work of women with disabilities invisible in our analyses. Not only are these women’s stories important in their own right, but Deaf and disabled mothers are well-positioned to expose the underlying beliefs about normalcy with which all of us contend.

Angela Frederick is assistant professor of sociology at The University of Texas at El Paso. Her research interests include gender, disability, and intersecting identities. Her article, Risky Mothers and the Normalcy Project Women with Disabilities Negotiate Scientific Motherhood, can be found in the 2017 February 31 (1) issue of Gender & Society

Gender Differences in Working and Caring? A New Mom’s Perspective

By Mara A. Yerkes

For the past fifteen years, I have studied how men and women combine their paid jobs with care for children. I look at how governments and businesses differ in creating policies that can help people reconcile these responsibilities, and at how men and women differ in the way they work and provide care when they have children. In the past year, research from myself and others took on a new dimension as I experienced the combination of work and care first-hand after becoming a mom in late 2015 and returning to work a few months later.

Flexibility when going back to work

As a new working mom, it became clear to me how flexibility upon returning to work is valued by mothers. In an Australian study about the flexible arrangements mothers enter into when returning to work (e.g. part-time work, reduced hours work or working flexible hours), we found that mothers without university education and/or in female-typed occupations with limited career prospects rarely question the fairness of the arrangements they enter into when returning to work after having a child. But for mothers with university degrees, what is ‘fair’ when returning to work is much less settled. For all mothers, how they are treated at work when negotiating these arrangements matters.  If mothers feel they have been treated fairly and appropriately, they are much more likely to perceive flexible work arrangements as fair despite any long-term disadvantages.

Who works and who cares?

Becoming a working mom also heightened my awareness of gender differences in how men and women share work and childcare tasks after having children. In the US,  nearly two-thirds of mothers with at least one child under the age of 14 work.

Yerks_3In the Netherlands, where I now live, – nearly three-fourths of mothers are employed. But here, women are much more likely to work part-time than US mothers, particularly after having children. Despite these differences, the US and the Netherlands share a similarly unequal division of care tasks between mothers and fathers. In the US, mothers spent more than twice as much time as fathers providing physical care to children on an average day in 2015. The most recent data for the Netherlands (from 2011) tells the same story. In fact, research on the gender division of care tasks confirms that in most western countries, mothers consistently spend more time caring for children than fathers, and which types of care tasks moms and dads do differs as well.

Yerks_2Why do moms and dads differ in how they care?

So why do moms consistently provide more care than dads? And why do they often spend more time doing more tasks than fathers? In another Australian study, my colleagues and I investigated how couples negotiate who does which care tasks after having a baby and how they explain these choices. Even in couples where dads take an active role in caring for their child, key differences exist in the type of care tasks that parents perform. Our study shows that fathers often opt out of care tasks they perceive as difficult, such as comforting a very upset baby or night care. Moms and dads rationalize these differences by talking about mother’s superiority in caring for and nurturing infants, for example. Mothers’ willingness to step in and do care tasks when fathers step back supports and reproduces these gendered differences.

The need for better work-care policies

Such gender inequalities are persistent and difficult to address. On the one hand, such inequalities can reflect personal work and care preferences of mothers and fathers, as well as differing country contexts. For example, I feel lucky to live in a country where it’s possible for my to each spend at least one day a week caring for our son. Living in the Netherlands, our jobs are flexible enough to make this possible. On the other hand, gender inequalities in work and care reflect structural problems, such as unequal access to time off from work to care for children or unequal access to childcare alternatives, such as formal care. Unequal access to paid leave following the birth of a child helps to establish gender unequal divisions of care that persist long-term. If I have learned one thing by becoming a working mom, it’s that fathers can and do play a crucial role in caring for their children. Providing fathers with opportunities to care is not only essential for children’s development, it is key to improving gender inequality in care and paid work. Hence work-care policies that provide fathers with such opportunities are crucial to achieving greater gender equality in work and care.

Mara A. Yerkes is Assistant Professor in Interdisciplinary Social Science at Utrecht University and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR), University of Queensland. Her research interests include work, care and family, the sociology of gender and sexuality, comparative welfare states, industrial relations, social inequality and women’s employment. She is the author of Transforming the Dutch Welfare State: Social Risks and Corporatist Reform (2011; Policy Press) and co-editor of The Transformation of Solidarity. Changing Risks and the Future of the Welfare State (2011; Amsterdam University Press). Yerkes is also the author of multiple articles, including the recent article on mothers’ perceptions of justice and fairness in paid work ] and an article on attitudes towards the social and civil rights of diverse families.  She is also an editorial board member for Gender & Society.

 

 

 

The Societal Womb

By Jeanne Flavin & Lynn M. Paltrow 

Where do we come from? There are many ways to answer this, but most of us come from a womb inside of a person we think of as “Mom.” As we’ve just celebrated Mother’s Day and March for Moms, we wonder: to what extent do we really celebrate the pregnant women our mothers once were? How much does our existence and our well-being trace back solely to this one person, this one nine-month period? We give moms a lot of credit. We also assign a lot of blame. So we pause here to explore here some of the things we could fix by recognizing the problems pregnant women face and by taking some collective responsibility for improving the health and well-being of women and babies in the United States.

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HAMZA BUTT / Creative Commons

Despite having the costliest maternity care in the world, pregnancy and birth remain health- and life-risking events in the U.S. Each year, an estimated 800-1,200 women die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth in the United States. Another 55,000-60,000 women suffer near-fatal close calls. Deaths and near-misses are both on the rise. Globally, maternal deaths have dropped by nearly 50 percent since 1990; the United States is the rare wealthy country in which these deaths have increased. Since 1950, black mothers have had maternal death rates at least three times higher than those of white women. Many of these deaths are preventable, too. For example, after a woman gives birth (when most pregnancy-related deaths actually occur), the focus is often on the baby’s health. Giving more postpartum attention to the mother would reduce her risk of dying due to hemorrhage, infection, eclampsia or suicide. Continue reading “The Societal Womb”

There Is No Maternal Instinct

By Amy Blackstone

Cross-posted with permission from Huffington Post (May 10, 2017).

Mother and baby girl lying on the bed together looking at each other.
Mother and baby girl lying on the bed together looking at each other.

While we give the mothers in our lives their well-deserved thanks and recognition, this Mother’s Day, let’s remember something very important about motherhood: It’s not a given. Not every woman wants to be a mom.

Despite our culture’s deeply held belief that women are uniquely wired to want children, the notion of maternal instinct is a myth. Evidence for the idea that women are innately drawn to having children is scant, if it exists at all.

Not one of the over 700 entries in Sage Publishing’s Encyclopedia of Motherhood is dedicated to the concept of maternal instinct. Professor Maria Vicedo-Castello reviewed the history of scientific views about maternal instinct and concluded that “there is no scientific evidence to claim that there is a maternal instinct that automatically gives women the desire to have children, makes women more emotional than men, confers upon them a higher capacity for nurturance, and makes them better equipped to rear children than men.” Continue reading “There Is No Maternal Instinct”

Perfectly Normal Mothers?

By Angela Frederick

Gender scholars have been critical of the expectations placed upon women to accomplish a perfect version of motherhood. Yet, as I argue in my recent Gender & Society article, what we have often understood to be a “perfection project” is in fact a “normalcy project.” Exemplified by our celebration of infants born with all ten fingers and all ten toes, we desire, not perfect babies, but normal babies. Under the guidance of medical and scientific experts, mothers are expected to devote ample amounts of their energy and resources to the project of preventing disability and other unwelcome differences in their children.

Women themselves are also expected to possess “normal” bodies as they carry out the demands of modern motherhood. Yet, how do mothers who do not have typical bodies – those with disabilities – experience these ideals? I explore this question through interviews and focus groups with mothers who have physical and sensory disabilities. I find these Deaf women and disabled women experience a profound paradox of visibility as they mother. Continue reading “Perfectly Normal Mothers?”

Moral Women, Immoral Technologies: Negotiating Gender, Religion, and Assisted Reproductive Technologies

By Danielle Czarnecki

Pope Francis made headlines in February when he told an audience in St. Peter’s Square that, “The choice to not have children is selfish.” In a more recent homily, he acknowledged that some do not choose to be childless. But how does one distinguish a person who chooses not to have children from someone suffering from infertility? Unless one discloses their infertility—an already stigmatized condition—to others, those suffering from infertility would likely face judgment from those who equate childlessness with selfishness. Continue reading “Moral Women, Immoral Technologies: Negotiating Gender, Religion, and Assisted Reproductive Technologies”

My Body Will Never Be the Way It Used to Be

By Bonnie Fox and Elena Neiterman

Ironically, at a time when getting married and having children are becoming optional for women, motherhood has acquired a mystique. Even women with advanced educational credentials and successful careers devote phenomenal amounts of time and energy to their babies and young children in the hope of ensuring their current and future security. Popular magazines regularly feature Hollywood celebrities’ stories about how motherhood transformed their lives. Yet motherhood seems not to have changed how these women look. The photos accompanying stories about celebrity moms promise that mothers devoted to their babies can also be trim and fit.

Woman and Baby_Fox and Neiterman

Our study examines Canadian women’s feelings about their changed bodies in the months following childbirth. In 2008-2009, Elena interviewed 27 Canadian women who had given birth within the last 18 months, to find out about their physical experiences of pregnancy. Although she was not asking, these women often talked about how upset they were with their changed bodies: They were upset about the weight they had gained with pregnancy, and very conscious of the messages about “getting your body back” that are so common in the popular magazines read by new mothers. To explore women’s feelings about their postpartum bodies, in 2012-2013 she interviewed another 21 women who had given birth within 20 months. These two samples of women were diverse with respect to age, number of children, income, education and occupation. Eleven women were immigrants and eight were racial minorities. Most women were employed, some were in school, and only five were full-time homemakers. Almost half, however, were on paid maternity leave, and others were back at work after having taken the year of maternity/parental leave that most Canadian women with full-time jobs can take. Continue reading “My Body Will Never Be the Way It Used to Be”