Educated for Motherhood: natural instincts versus expert advice


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Although motherhood is something that all women are ‘expected’ to do it is only considered ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ when achieved within the so-called ‘right’ sexual, social and economic circumstances. Similarly, mothering is often thought to be based on instinct but at the same time mothers-to-be and mothers are expected to listen to and follow expert opinion and advice. In this paper Gayle Letherby explores the pressures and tensions surrounding the, at times contradictory, expectations of women who mother.

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  • FOCUS IN PRISONS IRONIC OF COURSE – as women often far away from children YET still parenting from the ‘inside’ NOT NECESSARILY A BAD THING . . . Single women were perceived to be a drain on welfare providers and much effort was therefore invested by the state, through a range of official p53 discourses, in treating them as undeserving, self destructive sexual deviants. Many professionals believed that infant mortality between the wars was caused not by poverty, but by a failure of motherhood. Governments decided that a sense of maternal responsibility needed to be taught to working –class mothers. In the first decade of the twentieth century, ‘schools for mothers’ were set up in Britain by voluntary agencies to give advice and training to working-class mothers. Since the middle classes employed nannies and/or nursemaids and were not expected to take part in ‘hands-on’ childrearing, they were not targeted. . .. WITH colleagues in Coventry – series of projects focusing of teenage pregnancy and young parenthood – young women more likely than other women to engage in RISKY BEHAVUORS and therefore make RISKY parents BUT we found overwhelmingly most at risk by not accessing the services they are entitled too ALSO – negative discourses are pervasive – some groups of people more likely to be bad parents – some young women distance themselves from OTHER young mothers/the real young mothers ie the bad ones
  • Educated for Motherhood: natural instincts versus expert advice

    1. 1. Educated for Motherhood: natural instincts versus expert advice Gayle Letherby University of Plymouth
    2. 2. Introduction <ul><li>Every Girl's Dream . . . Inevitable Destiny? </li></ul><ul><li>Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? </li></ul><ul><li>Further Final Reflections on Good Mothers and Bad (M)Others </li></ul>
    3. 3. Every Girls Dream . . . Inevitable Destiny? <ul><li>In Western society, all women live their lives against a background of personal and cultural assumptions that all women are or want to be mothers and that for women motherhood is proof of adulthood and a natural consequence of marriage or a permanent relationship with a man. A great deal of social and psychological research has focused on women and the role of children in their lives and is thus complicity in reproducing societal assumptions about women deriving their identity from relationships in domestic situations and particularly from motherhood within the family. Consequently, 'and how many children have you got?' is a 'natural' </li></ul><ul><li>question. (Letherby 1994: 525) </li></ul>
    4. 4. Every Girls Dream . . . Inevitable Destiny? <ul><li>Thus: ‘The 'right to choose' means very little when women are powerless. Women make their own reproductive choices but they do no make them just as they please; they do not make them under conditions which they themselves create but under social conditions and constraints which they, as mere individuals, are powerless to change’ (Petchesky 1980 cited by National Bioethics Consultative Committee 1990:48) </li></ul>
    5. 5. Every Girls Dream . . . Inevitable Destiny? <ul><li>However, although motherhood is something that all women are 'expected' to do it is only considered 'natural' and 'normal' when achieved within the so-called 'right' sexual, social and economic circumstances. </li></ul><ul><li>In 1989 Elaine DiLapi argued there was a hierarchy of motherhood and teenage mothers along with lesbian mothers, older mothers, disabled mothers, non-biological mothers and so on often defined as ‘less appropriate’ </li></ul><ul><li>even ‘inappropriate’. </li></ul>
    6. 6. Every Girls Dream . . . Inevitable Destiny? <ul><li>Similarly, Kath Woodward (2003: 23) notes: </li></ul><ul><li>Motherhood may be taken for granted and even assumed to be 'natural' but who is allowed to be a mother is strongly contested, whether in terms of having the right to adopt a child or to be permitted access to reproductive technologies. . . older women, lesbian women and women from minority ethnic groups have all had difficulty in obtaining access to assisted reproductive technologies. . . Motherhood is up for public debate in all manner of different places and the key issue is often to pinpoint the 'bad' mother and by implication the good mother, who nonetheless receives less attention than her negatively constructed counterpart. Who ought </li></ul><ul><li>to be a mother? </li></ul>
    7. 7. Every Girls Dream . . . Inevitable Destiny? <ul><li>As Katherine Arnup (1994) notes that it is likely that women have always needed to ‘learn how to be mothers’ </li></ul><ul><li>In earlier centuries much of this knowledge was passed along through female support networks, from mother to daughter, from elder to younger sister, from friend to friend. </li></ul><ul><li>By the late eighteenth century books aimed at new mothers were available. Books on infant feeding and care written specifically for mothers appeared in Britain and the United States as early as the 1760s – mostly handing out ‘common sense’ advice. </li></ul><ul><li>In contrast to those volumes, child-rearing manuals of the 20th century were presented as scientific tracts, written by officials in various levels of government and members of the medical, nursing, and psychological professions – people whose knowledge of children was and is frequently based on a professional rather than a parental relationship - so just as birth became </li></ul><ul><li>‘ scientific’ so did childcare. . . </li></ul>
    8. 8. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>So in addition to the ‘natural instinct’ to reproduce and care for children it appears that women also need ‘help’ when caring for their children for as Ann Kaplan (1992) notes there is a large body of experts busy engaging in ‘motherhood discourses’ – representing a tension between authorized and experiential knowledge. </li></ul>
    9. 9. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>So why the need for authorized knowledge? </li></ul><ul><li>Some like eugenicists C.W. Saleeby, writing about ‘The Maternal Instinct’ in the early 20 th century felt that women’s maternal instincts had been blunted by the modern age (Arnup 1994). </li></ul><ul><li>Also: ‘The trouble is that the home today is the poorest run, most mismanaged and bungled of all human industries . . . . Many women running homes haven’t even the fundamentals of house management and dietetics. They raise children in the average, by a rule of thumb that hasn’t altered since Abraham was a child’ ( Canadian Home Journal 1932) (Arnup 1994). </li></ul>
    10. 10. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>So education clearly needed – e.g. in 19th century UK when mass education for girls was introduced the aim was to produce ‘competent home makers’. . . So began the teaching of ‘mothercraft’. . .similarly between the wars in the 20 th century ‘schools for mothers’ set up by voluntary agencies to give advice and training to working class mothers. </li></ul><ul><li>And now - NVQ – childcare qualifications; often childcare classes alongside sex education classes; focus on childcare/refeminisation in prison. . . </li></ul>
    11. 11. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>Not necessarily a bad thing – but aimed at particular groups and individuals – e.g. working class, non-white, single, young . . .and continues today. . . </li></ul>
    12. 12. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>Indeed, we found that ‘experts’ themselves often need training and education (see various publications list available from SURGE, Coventry University </li></ul>
    13. 13. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>This education does not just exist at the level of the institution. It is supported by/continued in childcare manuals which are basically as Hannah Marshall (1991) notes ‘cookbooks’ telling women how to mother properly - providing information and developmental guidelines from conception to adolescence. </li></ul><ul><li>Not surprisingly here the emphasis is on the ‘good mother’, the ‘ideal mother’ who is responsible in her behaviour and who puts her children before anything else including her own sexual and intellectual identity; her first responsibility is to her child(ren)– and she is expected to be grateful and find motherhood completely fulfilling. Thus, there is no room for ambivalence. </li></ul>
    14. 14. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>During the interwar years of the 20 th century the focus of advice was regularity and order e.g. in The Expectant Mother (Toronto) women were advised that the newborn baby: </li></ul><ul><li>‘ . . . should be fed regularly, should be made comfortable and left in his bed to sleep. He should not be handled any more than is absolutely necessary. . . ‘ </li></ul><ul><li>BUT in 1950s advice manuals told parents that their children needed love. In The Canadian Mother and Child 1953 edition: </li></ul><ul><li>‘ Let him know you love him and think he’s the finest baby ever; be easy-going; accept the child as he is; never waver in being kind to him; try to provide him with the things he needs to grow; physically, intellectually and emotionally; and really enjoy your baby </li></ul><ul><li>and make him a welcome member of your family circle. . . ‘ </li></ul><ul><li>(cited by Arnup 1994: 89). </li></ul>
    15. 15. Natural Instincts. . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>Dr Benjamin Spock – whose advice dominated women’s magazines in the 1950s and 1960s and whose book, originally published in 1946 - The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care - sold more than any other book in history with the exception of The Bible (50 million copies) - challenged much of interwar ideas about importance and value of schedules but was careful not to blame other experts. </li></ul><ul><li>The problem lay not in the schedules themselves, but in the application of advice for an average baby to all babies. </li></ul>
    16. 16. Natural Instincts – Expert Advice? <ul><li>‘ Mothers have sometimes been so scared of the schedule that they did not dare feed baby one minute early. They have even accepted the idea that at baby would be spoiled if he were fed when he was hungry’. [a baby cries] ‘not to get the better of his mother’ but because ‘he wants some milk’. In turn, he sleeps for the next four hours ‘not because he has learned that his mother is stern’, but ‘because the meal satisfies his system for that long’. (cited at,1454,,00.html ) </li></ul>
    17. 17. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>‘ Trust yourself . You know more than you think you do . . . Bringing up your child won’t be a complicated job if you take it easy, trust your own instincts, and follow the directions that your doctor gives you’ (Spock 1946, cited at,1454,,00.html ) </li></ul><ul><li>‘ His life covered most of the last century. His influence will reach far into the next. He was, and will always be, a man for all children.’,1454,,00.html </li></ul>
    18. 18. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>Not just Spock of course: </li></ul><ul><li>‘ At present there are so many gaps in the average woman’s knowledge of pregnancy that she is extremely vulnerable to many old wives tales, horror stories and unfounded advice which continues to surround motherhood, and there is not comprehensive work to which she can turn to relive her anxiety and answer her questions. This book is a genuine attempt to fulfill this need’ (Bourne, Pregnancy 1979 cited by Marshall 1991: 73). </li></ul><ul><li>‘ The modern mother takes for granted that she will have the advice of experts and will not have to rely on the advice of her mother. The previous generation of mothers may not necessarily be the best advisers of the present generation’ (Jolly, Book of Childcare 1986 cited by Marshall 1991: 73) </li></ul>
    19. 19. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>‘ Some women are eager to meet the challenge of motherhood which for them brings immense fulfillment and is the ultimate process whereby they become complete human beings’ (Bourne, Pregnancy 1979 cited by Marshall 1991: 68). </li></ul>
    20. 20. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>For some women, the books and pamphlets represented a friendly, welcome voice . . . the advice literature provided information about the tasks of childrearing that had become, for many women, frightening, alien chores. </li></ul><ul><li>Arguably though - in exchange women had to surrender power over themselves and their offspring even though much their faith in experts leads to increased fear, anxiety and even paranoia and is often misplaced </li></ul><ul><li>(Furedi 2001). </li></ul>
    21. 21. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>While different countries have had their particularly influential experts, mothers were increasingly spoken to by experts from an orthodoxy which stressed the mother's responsibility for the psychological well-being of the child. E.g. paediatricians such as Spock and social psychologists such as Leach, all argue that consistent nurture by a single primary care-giver is absolutely crucial. Day-care centres, pre-schools, spouses, and baby-sitters may help out but they are incidental to the bond the child really needs with an individual adult, usually the biological mother </li></ul><ul><li>The increasing entry of mothers into the labour force has not been accompanied by the public story which de-emphasizes the significance of 'mother'. Rather the ideology of intensive mothering which holds the individual mother as primarily responsible for child-rearing heightens the tensions between work and mothering which women manage (Hays 1996). </li></ul>
    22. 22. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>Which of course leads to GUILT . . .’During the later part of my pregnancy, partly as an antidote to all the serious and alarming books on the subject – such as those by Penelope Leach and Sheila Kitzinger, to name but two, which I had previously devoured and which mainly left me feeling that I’d already got parenthood wrong and she wasn’t even born yet . . . I decided to keep a diary (Walters 2008: 262)’. </li></ul>
    23. 23. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>Yet women themselves have not been completely passive in all of this and we have evidence of resistance. For example, Jocelyn Cornwell’s early 1980s research in the East End of London demonstrated that women do resist expert/authorized knowledge – Cornwell talked to people about their understanding of their own health and illness and found that it was in the area of antenatal care that there was the most resistance to the medical model – when women had kin close by they listened to them and not to the medics when pregnant and preparing for birth . . . Clearly then whatever doctors and others say there is value in ‘old wives tales’ . . . . . </li></ul>
    24. 24. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>Elizabeth Murphy’s (1999) project on ‘infant feeding’ (which of course has always been an area about which women should take expert advice) – found that yet again that there is evidence to suggest that to be good citizens and good mothers women must be sensible and listen to experts – yet again mothers are held responsible for their children yet are considered incapable of doing this without expert help. Thus, Murphy (1999) argues that infant feeding a moral issue as well as a nutritional one. </li></ul><ul><li>Yet, here too evidence of resistance . . . </li></ul>
    25. 25. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>Clearly the implication is that authorised and expert versions have higher status than the experiential knowledge of actual mothers. Indeed, as Arnup (1994) notes one early version The Care and Feeding of Children written by De L Emmett Holt in 1894 was billed as the ‘Bible for Young Mothers’. Further to this any woman-centred perspective was and is devalued. </li></ul><ul><li>Historically, women have been advised not to listen to ‘old wives tales’ (Ussher 1991) and listen to expert advice. But we know also that the authorized version of correct mothering is subject to fashion. The best way to give birth, the best way to feed babies, the best way to care for children’s physical and emotional needs, have all been the subject of changing ‘expert’ opinion and is historically and culturally variable and the dominant ideologies of the time are supported by dominant media constructions/representations of motherhood. </li></ul>
    26. 26. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>Talking of the media: </li></ul><ul><li>As Woodward (2003) notes media reports often focus on mothers as good or bad, with examples of bad mothers including those who abandon their children, leaving them at home while they go on holiday, or who selfishly put the interest of their own careers before the care of their children. Woodward adds that fathers are rarely subjected to the same kind of scrutiny or classification as ‘bad’ parents in similar cases. In 2002 one mother in the UK was send to prison for failing to ensure that her daughters attended school, although there was no mention of a father in the newspaper reports that led on this story. </li></ul><ul><li>Also good mothers today are recognised as responsible for the safety of their children, for managing the’culture of fear’ – both from ‘external’ and ‘internal’ threats – in a way that they were not in the past. </li></ul><ul><li>In addition women’s magazines, alongside other Western media, frequently feature ‘celebrity’ mothers. </li></ul>
    27. 27. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>A variety of super models such as Kate Moss, pop singers such as Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice) and Jordan, actors, the merely famous, and several women whose pregnancies and births (predominantly by Caesarean section) are of interest because they are rich and occupy public media space are included.. . . Magazines often run mother and daughter fashion features at Christmas time. . . </li></ul><ul><li>The upmarket fashion magazines also feature famous women such as Jerry Hall who clearly demonstrate that it is possible to retain the body of a supermodel after having four (glamorous, attractive) children . . . ‘What is new is that the women are not otherwise very different from their non-pregnant or non-maternal selves in what they wear and in looking sexually attractive. Successful motherhood is encoded as ‘ well-off’ and sexually attractive ’ . . . . (Woodward 2003: 23-30 – see also Douglas and Michaels 2004 for similar </li></ul><ul><li>examples from North America). </li></ul>
    28. 28. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>And what of the current advice – in addition to plethora of books. . . </li></ul>
    29. 29. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? Mother & Baby (February 2009) <ul><li>P12 YOUR WORK: Earn extra money with a job that works around your baby. </li></ul><ul><li>P134 20 OF THE BEST: Feeding gadgets and accessories to make mealtime easy. </li></ul><ul><li>P99 ASK OUR EXPERTS: From newborn niggles to taming toddler trantrums </li></ul><ul><li>A paediatrician </li></ul><ul><li>A GP </li></ul><ul><li>A phychotherapist </li></ul><ul><li>A health visitor </li></ul>
    30. 30. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? Mother & Baby (February 2009) <ul><li>P33 THE BIG QUESTION: Should the Government teach new mothers to breastfeed? </li></ul><ul><li>‘The State plans to spend an extra £2million on ‘Breast Buddies’ – middle-class women who go into deprived neighbourhoods and encourage mums-to-be to breastfeed. . . </li></ul>
    31. 31. Natural Instincts . . . Expert Advice? <ul><li>Although there is some emphasis on experiential e.g.: </li></ul><ul><li>P32 ASK A MUM: Mothers give their tips on getting a toddler dry through the night. </li></ul><ul><li>P162 MUMMY IN TRAINING: Erin weights up the options of where she should have her baby. </li></ul><ul><li>Plus Mother & Baby and Pregnancy & Birth have an associated website . . . </li></ul>
    32. 32. Natural Instincts . . .Expert Advice? <ul><li>Use of internet – as in other areas (e.g. Broom 2005 reporting on the significance of the Internet to Dr/patient relationships) can be empowering – e.g. see Friedman and Calixte (2009) Mothering and Blogging – but as in Bloom’s study likely that some women will lack the confidence to judge between difference information available. . . </li></ul>
    33. 33. Further Final Reflections on Good Mothers . . . Bad (M)Others <ul><li>Evident then that mothering is not something that women do without external comment and censure and women’s mothering is defined as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Good mothering as noted earlier is ‘intensive mothering’ (Hays 1996) where the individual mother is primarily responsible for childrearing and which is child centred, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labour-intensive and financially expensive. </li></ul>
    34. 34. Further Final Reflections on Good Mothers . . . Bad (M)Others <ul><li>Link this to historical and other contemporary views of good/bad mothers/mothering . . . ‘different applications of mother in the history of the word reveal an ambivalent attitude towards the primary love object. For just as the good mother is cherished and venerated as the one who creates, loves and nurtures, so also is she feared and hated as the bad mother, the one who thwarts the desires of the young infant, who rejects and abandons her child when she withdraws the breast. Ultimately she is associated with death; she is the despised CRONE, for each child she gives birth to is destined to die’ (Mills 1991: 169). </li></ul>
    35. 35. References <ul><li>Broom, Alex (2005) ‘Medical specialists' accounts of the impact of the Internet on the doctor / patient relationship ’ Health 9(3): 319 - 338 </li></ul><ul><li>Cornwell, Jocelyn (1980) Hard Earned Lives: Accounts of health and illness from East London. Published in the USA by Tavistock Publications in association with Methuen </li></ul><ul><li>Arnup, Katherine (1994) Education for Motherhood: Advice for Mothers in Twentieth-Century Canada. Toronto: Toronto University Pres </li></ul><ul><li>DiLapi, Elaine M. (1989) Lesbian Mothers and the Motherhood Hierarchy Journal of Homosexuality 18 (1-2): 101-121 </li></ul><ul><li>Douglas, Susan J. and Michaels, Meredith W. (2004) The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women. Canada: Simon & Schuster </li></ul><ul><li>Friedman, May and Calixte, Shana L. (eds) (2009) Mothering and Blogging: The Radical Act of the Mommy Blog. Toronto: Demeter Press </li></ul>
    36. 36. References cont <ul><li>Hays, Sharon (1996) The cultural contradictions of motherhood. New Haven: Yale University Press </li></ul><ul><li>Furedi, Frank (2001) Paranoid Parenting. Allen Lane (Penguin) </li></ul><ul><li>Kaplan, Ann E. (1994) Motherhood and Representation London: Routledge </li></ul><ul><li>Letherby, Gayle (1994) Mother or not, mother or what? Problems of definition and identity, Women's Studies International Forum 17(5): 525 – 532 </li></ul><ul><li>Marshall, Hannah ( 1991 ) `Childcare and Parenting Manuals', pp. 66-85 in A. Phoenix, A. Woollett and E. Lloyd (eds) Motherhood: Meanings, Practices and and Ideologies. London: Sage </li></ul><ul><li>Mills, Jane (1991) Womanwords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Patriarchal Society. London: Virago Press Ltd; </li></ul><ul><li>Murphy, Elizabeth (1999) 'Breast is best': Infant feeding decisions and maternal deviance’ Sociology of Health and Illness 21(2): 187 - 208 </li></ul><ul><li>The National Bioethics Consultative Committee (1990)  ‘Surrogacy report 1’  April 1990 </li></ul>
    37. 37. References cont. <ul><li>Spock, Benjamin (1946) The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce </li></ul><ul><li>Ussher, Jane (1991) Women's Madness: Misogyny or Mental Illness? Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf </li></ul><ul><li>Walters, Julie ( 2008) That’s Another Story: The Autobiography. Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd). </li></ul><ul><li>Woodward, Kath (2003) Representations of Motherhood in S. Earle and G. Letherby (eds) Gender, Identity and Reproduction: social perspectives. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan </li></ul><ul><li>And: </li></ul><ul><li>Dr Spock the website -,1454,,00.html accessed Dec 2008 </li></ul><ul><li>Mother & Baby Magazine (February 2008) and see askamum? accessed December 2008 </li></ul>