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Ellen Ross

Motherhood, as defined here, is the cultural process of locating women's identities in their capacity to nurture infants and children. As a set of concepts it dates only from the late eighteenth century or the early nineteenth century in Europe. English dictionaries do not make these distinctions, yet "motherhood" can be differentiated from mothering, actually caring for children, and also from the biological events, pregnancy, birth, and lactation, associated with maternity. The panorama of changing discourses and practices offered by social history vividly demonstrates the error of conflating motherhood, mothering, and maternity.

Four main eras are identifiable in the history of mothers' child rearing practices and in dominant ideas about women and their mothering capacities:

  1. the early modern period, with its shifting and contradictory narratives and images of mothers and communal child care patterns;
  2. the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century with their elaboration of motherhood as a sacred female calling;
  3. the twentieth century from 1918 to about 1970, when birthrates plummeted, psychological constructions of motherhood dominated the helping professions and the mass media, and motherhood as a symbol was central in the formation and reconfiguration of war-torn nations; and
  4. the late twentieth century, characterized by a dramatic reconfiguration of the material experience of motherhood.

This entry covers both the discursive aspects of motherhood as eventually constructed by the literate elites as well as the phenomenology of mothering among the peoples of Europe—strands that are deeply intertwined. Meanings of motherhood and motherly roles have been communicated to the inhabitants of Europe in a variety of ways. Communities have informally enforced their own norms through gossip, shaming rituals, or exhortation. Voluntary associations accepting foundlings or offering aid to mothers have played major roles in communicating principles of motherhood. As Jean-Louis Flandrin and Michel Foucault have pointed out, clergymen, especially in the early centuries, have been central in establishing the discussive outlines of motherhood and fatherhood. State legislation on such issues as compulsory education, child custody, child labor, and workplace protection are also powerful statements about parental duties. The mass media, of course, have also played an incalculable role in propagating models of motherhood.


Europe's Catholic heritage offered an ambivalent view of mothers. Celibates were the holy ones, and not until the late Middle Ages were married people considered for sainthood. Christ's mother Mary, whose cult was promoted by the twelfth-century church as a way of stimulating lay piety, was different from all other mothers—not only because of her lifelong virginity but because of the enraptured devotion to a single child with which she was often depicted. Late medieval and humanist writers often preferred Anne, the mother of Mary and the matriarch of a large extended family, as a more familiar model of maternity.

With the Reformation, the saints lost both their shrines and their vivid personal presence. The new moral center of the Christian universe was the family. Though Martin Luther revered maternity and women's nurturing of children, in Protestant countries marriage rather than motherhood dominated female identities. In the public rhetoric of Reformation-era Augsburg, for example, a woman was almost always referred to as a Frau or Weib, almost never as Mutter, which referred to the uterus.

In both Catholic and Protestant countries, families were patriarchal. In law and to a great extent in custom too, children belonged to their fathers, whose duty it was to raise them to be decent, God-fearing, and self-supporting. The Renaissance Florentine system of placing infants with wet nurses was organized through fathers, who often negotiated with the balia or her husband and who decided when the child should be weaned or transferred. In Samuel Richardson's Pamela, Part 2 (1741), Pamela's husband and former master autocratically insists on a wet nurse for their new baby despite Pamela's strong desire to breast-feed, another indication that wetnursing signified paternal power more than maternal indifference. Patriarchy did not always mean a stern and remote father, of course. Dutch fathers were depicted in seventeenth-century paintings playing with or teaching children, even infants.

Being a mother—giving birth or caring for children—was the destiny of European women in the early modern era and fully occupied the adult lives of most of the female population. In early eighteenth-century France approximately five children per family survived, and about two more did not live beyond childhood. For the average European in 1700, life expectancy was only about twenty-five years, and few lived past age forty. A woman marrying in her mid-twenties or a little later would most likely die with young children still in the home.

Not all children's births have been welcomed. Women have always tried to limit births that would cause hardships, and recipes for abortifacients were part of folk knowledge and the more specialized knowledge of healers. In some of the poorest regions of the world even in the twentieth century, to be a mother could involve a form of triage, the selection of some children for neglect or abandonment and nearly certain death. Very poor or unmarried woman were more likely to abandon their newborns. This practice had become so common by the Middle Ages that special homes for foundlings, whose death rates were extraordinarily high, proliferated in major European towns. The number of foundlings increased whenever economic conditions deteriorated.

Wife, housekeeper, and breadwinner were identities that competed with and often overshadowed that of mother. For the poorest women, the preoccupations of income earning and the price of the grains that made up family diets were far more central than the development of each child. Household survival was based on "an economy of makeshifts" (Hufton, 1974, pp. 69–127), such as begging, thieving, charity, or street selling. The collective desperation of poor mothers entered the historical record through the bread riots of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including the October Days in 1789, which constituted a crucial stage in the French Revolution. Mothers' sense of "food entitlement," to use the term of the economist Amartya Sen, brought women into the streets well into the twentieth century, most famously in Saint Petersburg in March 1917 but also in early twentieth-century Italy and in Germany during World War I.

Mothers were extremely important as educators of the children in their care, especially girls. Literate mothers produced literate children. Mothers also taught daughters household skills, such as growing vegetables, keeping hens, feeding pigs, making cheeses, or simply preparing meals. Sewing—fancy or plain depending on the status of the household—constituted another important set of skills mothers imparted to their daughters. The poorest mothers often made their daughters partners in subsistence activities, such as selling milk or vegetables at market or even begging. Mothers sometimes managed to save enough money from their own by-employments of fattening chickens or rabbits or selling honey to help daughters accumulate dowries that would dramatically improve their marriage prospects.

The biological mother and child pair that seems so natural today received relatively little cultural emphasis. Both urban and rural women in the early modern period supervised and befriended many who were not their biological children. Households exchanged children, especially teens, as apprentices and servants. In eighteenth-century Paris, for example, domestic servants, workshop apprentices, and local neighborhood children and young people circulated constantly through both domestic and work spaces. Servants sometimes inherited from their masters as if they were kin. The formal adoption of children, while difficult in this period when blood lineages were essential to definitions of family, did take place, at least in France, under a variety of legal fictions.

For artistocratic and bourgeois women of the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries in many parts of Europe, breast-feeding by the biological mother of an infant was not considered essential. Wetnursing, especially common in France among the well-off and those of moderate means, meant that a woman might spend little time with her biological children during the first few years of their lives. Wetnursing apparently was the norm in eighteenth-century Hamburg, where a surprising five thousand of its ninety thousand inhabitants were wet nurses by profession.

To say that the construction of motherhood is a twentieth-century phenomenon is not to claim that fertility, birth, or children received no cultural emphasis in the early modern period. They were in fact at the center of elaborate systems of folk magic and storytelling. Themes related to motherhood are also prominent in definitions of witchcraft, in many regions a capital crime, for which at least 200,000 were executed between about 1450 and 1725. Men constituted under 20 percent of that number. The witch, as the definition was formulated over many generations in clerical treatises and court transcripts, was a distorted mother. She was betrayed by her "witch's teat," any extra fold of skin upon which the devil could suck. The ingredients of the brew served at witches' weekly sabbats included dead babies, and witches killed or caused to sicken animals and children, especially babies. A witch's daughter or granddaughter might well become a witch. Court records and trial transcripts reveal the jealousies, grudges, and fears generated by issues of fertility and childbearing that often were the motives for denunciations and may have given the crime of witchcraft its vivid inverse relation to motherhood. The accused included a disproportionate number of midwives and lying-in assistants.

Perhaps the inchoate mother of this era is most easily seen in folktales, which portray a wide range of mothers and stepmothers, loving, cruel, witchlike, strong, clever, and stupid. Tellingly, in the nineteenth-century Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, whose versions of these tales became widely read, turned the jealous and vicious biological mother of Snow White into a stepmother. By this time cruelty and envy did not square with notions of selfless motherhood.


The cult of motherhood developed in the context of a new anatomy and physiology. Late eighteenth-century anatomists broke with the "one-sex" view that had dominated the study of anatomy since the Renaissance, in which the female was simply an imperfect or perhaps inverted version of the male. Medical writers began to stress the anatomical differences between women and men and to detail female reproductive anatomy and menstruation, a trend that was accentuated with the early twentieth-century discovery of the endocrine system and hormonal differences between women and men. Physicians and other Enlightenment authors, most famously Jean-Jacques Rousseau inÉmile (1762), claimed breast-feeding and a mother's full-time care of her infants and children was "nature's will," using as models both animal mothers and aboriginal peoples in Africa and South America. Though some of the new arguments outlined the health advantages of mothers' milk and maternal care, the feeding method represented a new, idealized mission for leisured woman free of other demands. Their pleasure and fulfillment was to come through motherhood.

Indeed motherhood became, in advice books for women, the central female identity. The touch of the child was supposed to bring out the latent, intensely tender feelings in women. As the nineteenth-century British physician P. H. Chevasse put it: "The love of offspring is one of the strongest instincts implanted in women; there is nothing that will compensate for the want of children. A wife yearns for them; they are as necessary to her happiness as the food she eats and the air she breathes" (Oakley, 1980, p. 9).

In Victorian ideology motherhood was associated with the home, which was distinguished from the public world of politics and industry. The private realm was the special arena of mothers, who presided there as "the bright spirit of the home" or as "our warming sunshine," as middle-class Swedes stated (Frykman, 1987, p. 121). Family events, such as dinners and holiday celebrations, revolved around the presence of the mother, then seen as the only such figure in a child's life. Conceptions of the central place of female nurture in children's spiritual development circulated in thousands of middle-class advice books. Many well-off mothers closely charted their children's motor skills, language, and social development and were deeply involved in their achievements.

In France the cult of motherhood was heavily accented with populationism and, given France's low birthrates, had official government support. The long-lived Bordeaux Society for Maternal Charity offered material aid and close surveillance and was typical of nineteenth-century French voluntary and government organizations formed to promote the new motherhood and to encourage procreation. The upper-class volunteers of the society accepted only women of demonstrated respectability, cleanliness, and thrift but supported them with generous cash payments. Meanwhile French statisticians adopted new ways of charting population size that focused on classifying women in terms of their childbearing potential and counting the babies born to women in their "fertile" years. Although government and private agencies in France offered a number of services to pregnant women and new mothers, they also treated women with small families almost as traitors undermining the nation's vitality.

The new motherhood doctrines were by no means fully instituted in wealthy women's daily lives, though there they had the greatest chance of acceptance. To be sure the practice among the comfortable classes of hiring wet nurses gradually died out everywhere in the nineteenth century, as much the result of the feasibility of bottle-feeding because of antisepsis as of new desires for intimacy with infants. In Paris by the nineteenth century the majority of wet nurse patrons were poor working women. Wealthy women continued as wives and socialites first, mothers second. In the early nineteenth century many mothers in the Nord province in France continued to run family textile businesses and visited their infants and children on Sundays at their wet nurses or boarding schools. Many dissenting voices throughout the nineteenth century challenged the new motherhood paradigm. Feminists harshly criticized their own mothers' lives and motherhood as an institution more generally. To take just one example, Florence Nightingale loathed domestic life and suggested that there should be "crèches for the rich as well as the poor."

For the bulk of the population, the experience of mothering was little changed by the new doctrines. Being a mother meant, as it had in the past, the struggle to feed and dress a large family on an economy of makeshifts. Fatalism about frequent pregnancies predominated, and families were especially large through most of the nineteenth century. Even the best-educated women in most of Europe did not limit their births significantly in the first half of the nineteenth century. Britain between 1800 and 1850 and Russia between 1850 and 1900 averaged completed family sizes of over six children plus stillbirths and child deaths. Maternity constituted a physical feat, as it had in earlier times. Even though life expectancy increased substantially in the richest European countries by the nineteenth century, only a few mothers lived long enough to see all of their children grow up and leave home.

If domesticity and motherhood were the only appropriate callings for women, the vast majority of the female population was stigmatized as unwomanly. As industrial capitalism developed in the early nineteenth century, more mothers and nonmothers became waged workers, though at about only half of men's rate of pay, rather than creating subsistence goods for their own families. In rural Hungary and England women plaited straw in their homes for national markets. In Danish villages women shaped and fired clay pots. Throughout Europe women were farm laborers. They were forced to work for landlords in eastern Europe, where serfdom existed until the middle of the nineteenth century in the Hapsburg lands and until 1861 in Russia. Urban mothers toiled in factories and workshops, worked at home on piece rates, took in lodgers, sweated in industrial-sized laundries, or took in washing at home.

In much of rural Europe women were still agricultural workers under the discipline of a father, a husband, a father-in-law, or in feudal regions a landlord. Under these conditions women's maternal functions were considered secondary. In late nineteenth-century Russia, for example, breast-feeding was the rule, but as new mothers quickly returned to the fields, babies were fed several solid meals each day. Often pacifiers of cloth filled with grain and bacon rind, often prechewed by an adult and obviously quite deadly, were given to babies. Folk sayings such as "It's better to lose an egg than a chicken" minimized the loss that an infant death represented and also stressed the importance of the mother as a worker.

In urban working-class households, motherhood, whether accompanied by waged work or not, involved hard physical work and careful budgeting rather than finely tuned child nurture. What would have been called "mother love" by Victorian middle-class observers was, as understood by poor mothers and children, embodied in the mother's physical exertions, such as frantic bargaining for discount food, after-hours factory piecework done at home, late-night hours spent sewing or ironing children's clothing, and bedside vigils with sick babies. Indeed mothers' incessant work is central in French and German nineteenth-century working-class autobiographies. The daughter of a Paris lace maker wrote that it was her mother "who with her needle and agile fingers built a wall against misery" (Maynes, 1995, p. 79).

Children in these urban settings were expected to repay their mothers' efforts back in cash or in kind. They minded younger siblings, did household chores, helped with mothers' home manufacturing, or freed their mothers from the costs of their keep by taking jobs as servants or factory hands. In late nineteenth-century London they ran household errands and often were sent to fetch things that required a long wait in line, such as the penny-a-quart soup served by a local mission, where one autobiographer often waited in the 1890s with his empty jug. As their children grew though their teens and earned higher wages, mothers claimed a diminishing share of this cash, though sons kept more pocket money than did daughters.

These patterns of mother-child reciprocity became strained, especially in the early twentieth century. Compulsory education, introduced in some of the German states as early as the eighteenth century, represents one of the tensions. In northern and western European countries the years of required schooling expanded in the late nineteenth century or the early twentieth century. The French system, which from 1833 had educated only boys, included girls after 1881. In Britain after 1881 all children between five and ten were expected at school, and the years of compulsory schooling gradually increased thereafter. Mothers' rights to children's services were thus defied by national education systems. Educators, for their part, sometimes attacked maternal claims on the time and loyalty of their children.

The new classification of women as mothers is evident in a variety of nineteenth-century institutions and was sometimes beneficial to women, sometimes not. Unions fought to keep women workers out of their shops in the name of their motherhood capacity, legislators enacted special conditions for hiring women workers, and pregnant or lactating women had claims on particular state or municipal services in many countries. A German law of 1878, for example, mandated unpaid maternity leave for factory workers for three weeks after a birth. Otto von Bismarck's health insurance scheme of 1883 included short-term maternity benefits, though the payment was at the discretion of the funding agency.

For many suffragists and feminists, motherhood provided the basis for claims to citizenship and voting rights. The former seamstress Jeanne Deroin, a utopian socialist and feminist inspired by Olympe de Gouges, argued in 1848 for women's right to work and for full political participation by stressing their importance to fulfilling a mother's "duty." Deroin said, "It is especially the holy function of motherhood, said to be incompatible with the exercise of the rights of the citizen, that imposes on the woman the duty to watch over the future of her children and gives her the right to intervene, not only in all acts of civil life, but also in all acts of political life" (Scott, 1996, p. 70). Deroin was imprisoned in 1850 for her political activism.

The infant welfare movement of the early twentieth century, an international campaign for infant and child health led by medical and social work professionals, added new meanings to motherhood. For the first time it was not only a special kind of female nurture but a highly complex and technical calling. The campaign introduced new knowledge about nutrition, vitamins, for example, and the measure of food energy in calories; bacteriology; statistics on infant death rates; and new data on child development. Professional journals and popularly written pamphlets offered mothers practices, such as antisepsis in the home, that could improve the health and survival of their children. Anna Fischer-Dueckelmann's The Housewife as Doctor, first published in German in 1910, included detailed information on the home, health, pregnancy, and birth. Eight full pages were devoted to the chemical composition of dust. Infant welfare activists were successful in getting European legislators of this era to pass such measures as licensing childbirth personnel, tighter supervision of foster parents, and free or subsidized medical care for working-class mothers and infants.

The turn of the century's increased public attention to motherhood and infant care heartened those feminists who had long been concerned with the needs of working mothers but with little legislative success. French feminists openly played on population fears to improve the situations of mothers and of women in general. Maria Martin said in 1896, "If you want children, learn to honour the mothers" (Cova, 1991, p. 120). Feminists of varying positions combined suffrage agitation with proposals for government support for working mothers, mothers' child custody rights, and support from fathers of illegitimate children. Others developed this preoccupation with mothers' importance in a more radical direction. For instance, the Norwegian feminist Katti Anker Moeller argued in the first decades of the twentieth century that mothers should not be dependent on husbands but, single or married, should be paid by governments to raise their children independently. Furthermore, she thought without reproductive choice for women, motherhood would simply be "slavery." Women should be able to choose or reject childbearing with available contraception and abortion. Moeller's international contacts with feminists of similar views, Helene Stoecker, head of the German Mutterschutz movement in particular, suggest the vitality of "maternalist" feminism in this important era in the social history of motherhood.


For the majority in western Europe, the sheer physical work of mothers—childbearing, child care, and probably also housework—began to decrease in the interwar period. Most obviously, child care declined along with birthrates in most of Europe, including Poland, Yugoslavia, Norway, Britain, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. Only Ireland maintained its prewar birthrates through the 1920s. In the interwar years workers' birthrates began to approximate those of artisans and the professional and middle classes, which had begun, in general, to decline in the second half of the nineteenth century. Caring for two or three children was surely less taxing than caring for five or six. The expansion of social infrastructures also helped to ease the mother's burden, especially with municipally supplied clean and plentiful water, indoor plumbing, electric lighting, gas stoves, and in the l930s antibiotics to treat children's illnesses, such as pneumonia, rheumatic fever, and bacterial infections.

The expansion of a mass consumer culture in the 1920s brought new kinds of proscriptions for mothers, however. New behaviorist ideas about the importance of "training" children, transmitted through advice literature and medical personnel, paralleled the movement to rationalize industrial production. The experts of the interwar period, including the Australian doctor Truby King and Americans L. Emmett Holt and John Watson, advocated efficient child rearing methods, such as rigid "habit training" and avoiding germ transmitters like kissing and cuddling. The U.S. home economics movement positioned mothers mainly as efficient homemakers and consumers of household cleaning supplies, packaged foods, and small appliances like toasters, radios, and irons. Scholars have explored some of the paradoxes of an American-born trend when electrification and income levels in Europe were considerably lower than those in most of the United States. Even in Berlin fewer than half of the homes had electricity in 1928. The campaign to modernize the home in Weimar Germany did little more than accentuate the domestic sexual division of labor, conflating motherhood and housekeeping.

Developments in psychology were crucial to twentieth-century motherhood. Particularly after World War II, psychoanalytic thought was popularized through many service professions, including social work, psychology, and psychiatry. In mid-twentieth-century Britain, as Denise Riley noted, psychology was a major "historical actor" in the postwar re-creation of gender and motherhood. Initially Sigmund Freud had remarkably little to say about mothers and certainly did not blame them for the problems of his analysands. However, in his writings of the 1930s, the decade of his death, Freud reassessed his thinking on gender. The girl's discovery of her "castration," her readiness to blame this on her mother, her wish for a baby as a substitute for the "lost" penis were the ingredients of a psychoanalytic position that postulated motherhood as a basic need of all women. D. W. Winnicott, on the other hand, put mothers and their mothering at the center of his writings beginning in the 1930s. He viewed infant development as a social as opposed to an instinctual process, but this "society" included only the mother and child. The emphasis, in all the schools derived from Freud, on invisible and unconscious forces irrevocably shaping children's personalities together with the Winnicott-inspired concentration on mother-infant interactions made a close social scrutiny of women's child care inevitable. Motherhood had become associated with continuous contact between mother and child, and other potential caretakers, such as fathers, siblings, grandparents, or neighbors, were viewed as secondary figures in a child's emotional world. Mothers' obligations to their children were expanding markedly, while those of the child were dropping away.

The twentieth century's many episodes of deadly violence on European soil, two world wars, at least three episodes of genocide, and many fascist or totalitarian regimes with their huge casualties, brought a distinct kind of suffering to mothers perhaps unprecedented in its severity. The Turks' forced marches of Armenians in 1915 killed hundreds of thousands of women and children. Famines generated by World War I and its aftermath killed many more among the Central Powers and in the Soviet Union. The World War II bombings of civilians and the Nazi genocide did not guarantee respect or protection to mothers. Indeed mothers with infants and small children were usually executed first in concentration camps. In the Bosnian Civil War of the early 1990s, Serbian soldiers systematically raped Muslim female civilians, intending to force them to bear their captors' offspring.

Being a woman at home in wartime meant both material hardships and perpetual fears for the safety of husband or son. The soldiers' death tolls of the two world wars, between 9 and 10 million in World War I and about 22 million in World War II, left millions of widows with young children and populations with long-lasting sex-ratio imbalances. World War I killed nearly a quarter of the Serbian male population aged fifteen to forty-nine. In 1950 women headed a third of German families, and the Soviet Union in 1959 had seven women to every four men in the age group thirty-five to fifty. In the two decades after World War II the revival of early marriage, high birthrates, and intense female domesticity constituted in part an effort to reestablish some form of normality.

Twentieth-century states sometimes enforced "normal" motherhood with a vengeance. Benito Mussolini, ruling over an overpopulated country whose emigration route to the United States had just been cut off, nonetheless promoted "births, many births" (De Grazia, 1992, p. 41) as a way to restore the conventional gender relations that had been shattered in the aftermath of World War I. Mussolini defined all women in terms of motherhood, implementing new penalties for abortion, the repression of birth control, the exclusion of women from many professions, and discrimination against girls in secondary and higher education.

Similarly motherhood figured prominently in the reconstitution of West Germany after l945. With so many soldiers dead or still prisoners of war, the new state was a "country of women." High proportions of women lived alone or with their children, and the illegitimacy rate was over 16 percent in 1946. Even in 1950 the country counted 130 women to every 100 men aged 25 to 40. The few women who were feminists before 1933 and survived the Nazi years hoped that Germany's new constitutional order would include more egalitarian family law and welfare measures to benefit married and single mothers. But West Germany was constructed as a patriarchal state, a link in cold war Europe's anticommunist chain. The conventional two-parent family with a Hausfrau mother became the symbol of the "free" Germany.

Post World War II state welfare programs expanded in much of Europe. Though based on a variety of views of women's capacities, these programs included family allowances, maternity leaves, medical care, and in some countries state-run child care and after-school centers for all children of working or non-working mothers. Sweden provided a salary and housing allowance to women whose partners did not offer child support. Although postwar government policy in France continued to be based on efforts to encourage population, the socialists and communists who helped formulate the French policies in 1945 also strongly supported women's and mothers' rights to work and to equality in the workplace.


By the last decades of the twentieth century, motherhood had been transformed yet again. A majority of mothers, even those with young children, had broken with Winnicott's dicta and were now in the labor force. Taboos on births outside of marriage had waned, and with highly reliable birth control methods and legal abortion in the great majority of European countries, the one-child family became the new norm in many regions.

One departure from the European past was the proportion of mothers not married to their children's fathers, though in many cases the parents were cohabiting. In western Europe as a whole and worldwide, about a third of households were headed by women. The proportion of births to single women in Britain, for example, shot up dramatically in the 1980s, reaching about one-third of all births in the early 1990s, the highest in its history to that date. In Denmark and Norway the proportions approached 50 percent in the mid 1990s.

The completed fertility rates of European women in the late twentieth century were at a historical low. In the late 1990s the Italian rate was under 1.2 children per woman. An Italian sociologist commented, "The ethic of sacrifice for a family" has dissipated (Spector, 1998, p. 6). The highest European Union rates were those of Ireland and Norway at slightly under two children. Spain and Italy had the lowest. European Muslim countries had higher fertility rates, 2.5 in Albania and 2.7 in Azerbaijan, than their Christian neighbors, but these were considerably lower than in the Muslim parts of Africa. European conditions, attitudes, freedoms, and services quickly transformed the birthrates of North African immigrants to France, which declined steeply during the 1980s, and of West Indian, Indian, and Chinese immigrants to Britain.

Mothers' work outside the home lost much of its stigma in the late twentieth century. Indeed among the best-educated mothers, over 90 percent of those with postgraduate degrees had jobs in virtually every country in the European Union according to 1995 figures. Although mothers' job holding varied from country to country, rates were high, partly reflecting the fact that most of the jobs generated in late twentieth-century decades were "female" ones. Among the women between twenty and fifty-nine years old with at least one child under the age of eleven, proportions in the labor force ranged from a high of 89 percent in Denmark to a low of 67 percent in the western states of Germany in 1992. Labor force rates were about as high among mothers of children under seven years of age.

Not surprisingly, motherhood as a doctrine faced lively challenges in this period, beginning in the 1970s with the objections of Ann Oakley, Adrienne Rich, Jessie Bernard, and Christine Delphy. Motherhood's overwhelming demands were among the elements critiqued. As Rich wrote in Of Woman Born (1976), "The institution of motherhood finds all mothers more or less guilty of having failed their children." At about the same time the wages for housework movement, with Italian roots, attacked the association of mother with socially dependent homemaker. Activists argued that housework and child care, productive activities beneficial to society as a whole, ought to be waged by governments or husbands, a position that had not been enunciated since the 1900s. In her 1947 Housewife, a sociological study of mothers' attitudes, Oakley continued this line of argument: that love of children was by no means equivalent to enjoying housework. The two needed to be separated. In the 1970s and 1980s, the growing acceptance of fathers as capable of child care, supported by parental leave in several states, further shifted what it meant to be a mother. In the 1990s the acceleration of genetic research also challenged the older concept of motherhood. Researchers in many scientific disciplines found that personality traits of all kinds have genetic bases and may have little to do with the quality of a person's mothering. Finally, the reproductive technologies available to at least some European women, separating conception, pregnancy, and birth, shook the biological foundations of motherhood.

Twentieth-century feminists attempted to move motherhood from the realm of the private and culturally invisible into the center of culture and politics. Feminist environmentalists defined the Earth as a mother and viewed women as more respectful of nature because of their experiences of pregnancy and childbirth. Other feminist activists, with a revived sense of mothers' social importance, attacked welfare-state bureaucracies for failing to provide housing and quality medical services for mothers and children. They demanded public support for those, mainly women, caring for dependents of all needs.

It would be wrong, of course, to see the patterns of the late twentieth century as the end of motherhood discourses or of female mothering. In general child care continued to be socially coded as female. In two-parent, two-earner families, including those in Denmark and Sweden, where fathers were most involved with their families, the preponderance of both child care and housework is done by women. Single parents are overwhelmingly women. Raising children alone, while relatively free of the disgrace of "bastardy," often means poverty. Welfare benefits declined in the European Union during the 1980s and had never, in most countries, offered parity for those not fully in the workforce. As a result, from about a fifth to a quarter of female-headed households in Europe were poor. Proportions were higher in Ireland and lower in Sweden. Poverty rates for such households appeared somewhat larger for some groups of immigrants and ethnic minorities.

Elisabeth Badinter, in her social history of motherhood, Mother Love: Myth and Reality (1981), implied that the regime most "natural" to women was the era of casual care and benign neglect destroyed by Rousseau's writings on motherhood and childhood in the 1760s. It is tempting to suggest that the contemporary European regime comes closer to meeting women's fundamental needs as mothers. After all, it includes the ability to limit conceptions, end pregnancies, and maintain small families and offers opportunities for economic independence and job holding while raising children. History, however, is not the place to look for hypothesized natural human tendencies. Instead history offers a range of material possibilities that enables us to interpret our own lives with clarity and wisdom.

See alsoThe Population of Europe: Early Modern Demographic Patterns; The Population of Europe: The Demographic Transition and After (volume 2);Women and Femininity; Gender and Education; Childbirth, Midwives, Wetnursing (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


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Atkinson, Clarissa W. The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

Badinter, Elisabeth. Mother Love: Myth and Reality. Translated by Roger DeGaris. New York, 1981.

Caine, Barbara. Destined To Be Wives: The Sisters of Beatrice Webb. Oxford, l986.

Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook 1999. Washington, D.C., 2000.

Cole, Joshua H. "'There Are Only Good Mothers': The Ideological Work of Women's Fertility in France before World War I." French Historical Studies 19 (Spring 1996): 639–672.

Cova, Anne. "French Feminism and Maternity: Theories and Policies, 1890–1945." In Maternity and Gender Policies: Women and the Rise of the European Welfare States, 1880s–1980s. Edited by Gisela Bock and Pat Thane. London, 1991.

De Grazia, Victoria. How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922–1945. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.

Duncan, Carol. "Happy Mothers and Other New Ideas in French Art." Art Bulletin 55, no. 4 (December 1973): 570–583.

Fildes, Valerie A. Breasts, Bottles, and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding. Edinburgh, 1986.

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views updated May 23 2018


Motherhood is the product of particular historical circumstances, social processes, and ideologies, and its social definition and meaning vary by culture, race, ethnicity, religion, and historical time period. Despite these variations motherhood is a major role for women in many societies. Lois Wladis Hoffman and Martin Hoffman (1973) report that in the United States until the 1970s, any role for women other than motherhood was considered deviant. In Confucian societies such as China, Korea, and Japan, motherhood has also been the central role for and status of women. By the early twenty-first century the number of choices for women in many societies had increased and diversified to include motherhood as one of the options rather than a requirement.

Contemporary mothering can be defined in flexible terms as the social practice of nurturing and caring for people. It is also important to recognize that mothering activity is not exclusive to women. Some scholars, such as Terry Arendell (2000), argue that it is possible for men to physically and psychologically take care of children, and thus the term mothering should not be exclusively reserved for women's experiences. In most societies, however, women not only bear children but also are assigned the primary caretaking role for infants and children. Therefore, motherhood is still an important experience in many women's lives. The description that follows focuses only on women's motherhood practices and experiences.


Although the vast majority of the world's women do become mothers, historical investigations of motherhood were relatively rare until it became an important topic in women's studies in the 1980s. The lack of historical studies of motherhood is perhaps due to an emphasis on new roles for women rather than traditional ones and on the benefits of change. Studies on motherhood emerged partly, however, in response to criticism by those who considered the new scholarship antagonistic to women's maternal role. Within the United States context alone, Alice Walker (1983) showed the importance that maternal legacies played in African-American culture in encouraging much positive attention to practices of mothering.

In many European, North American, and Asian societies, the dominant cultural ideals of motherhood changed dramatically over the last 300 years. In the United States, women's primary role shifted from being a good wife for the domestic patriarchal husband in the colonial period to a full-time homemaker for the bread-winning husband and his children in the mid-twentieth century, and then to a balance between paid work and family life in the late twentieth century. Prior to the Meiji period (1868–1912), Japanese women were expected to bear children, but the task of caring for them fell to others, often members of the extended family network or, in the case of middle-class mothers, nannies and maids. This situation changed in the Meiji period, as the government and scholars alike, partly in response to the increasing influence of European and North American ideologies, actively promoted a new conception of mothers as nurturers and educators.

In many societies the modern construction of motherhood that emphasizes women's devotion to their children owes a great deal to modernization, which created the husband-as-breadwinner and wife-as-homemaker roles in families. In the early twenty-first century, although motherhood is still an important experience for many women, it is viewed from a much broader perspective, with options for women to be full-time working mothers, part-time working mothers, or full-time homemaker mothers.


In many societies a mother is often expected to be a perfect and loving parent who is dedicated to the care-taking role of the child. Sharon Hays (1996) defines the ideology of intensive motherhood as the normative model of the emotionally absorbing, expert-driven, child-centered care that a mother gives her fragile children. This intensive motherhood is largely a myth, however, especially given changing workforce demographics in the industrialized world, such as increases in both female labor-force participation and dual-earner and single-parent households. Consequently, many mothers in different societies are attempting to balance work and parenting responsibilities while trying to meet societal norms and expectations for ideal motherhood. Many mothers report pressures to conform to the image of ideal motherhood and, as a result, the gap between ideal motherhood and real mothering experiences is reported to cause a high level of maternal anxiety and stress, as in the case of Japanese mothers, to the extent that some mothers emotionally and physically abuse their own children. Scholars, workers, and employers in many industrialized societies in the early twenty-first century are concerned with mothers' struggles to balance paid work and family responsibilities and obligations.

The various functions of motherhood include the physical and emotional caretaking, educating, and disciplining of children. In contemporary societies most of these functions can be shared with children's fathers. In reality, however, fathers' participation in child care is extremely limited compared with that of mothers. Another important function of motherhood is that of being an economic provider for their children and families. This maternal role is particularly vital for single mothers who frequently report the difficulties of balancing the roles of motherhood and economic provider given limited financial and personal resources.

It is also important to understand that expectations and functions of modern motherhood vary greatly by economic and political conditions. In contemporary African societies, although mothers are held in high regard, they often find it difficult to fulfill mothering responsibilities because of political unrest (including civil wars), women's lack of education, and poverty. According to Save the Children's State of the World's Mothers 2006 report, for example, uneducated mothers are at a severe disadvantage, as are their babies. Uneducated mothers are more likely to be poor, to get pregnant younger, to have higher rates of newborn and maternal mortality, to be less knowledgeable about family planning, and to be less prepared to take care of their babies. Angola provides one example of an African nation reporting high newborn and maternal mortality rates. These problems are primarily attributable to a long-lasting civil war, which has limited access to health care for the majority of mothers. In addition, approximately 70 percent of Angolan women give birth to their first child while they are still teenagers (Save the Children 2006), and they have little knowledge about prenatal and maternal care of infants.

A similar case can be found in Peru where adolescents make up 16.4 percent of first-time mothers, a rate that continues to increase (Koroleff and Pierina 2006). Most of these women come from the nation's poorest areas. In a 2006 study focusing on Peruvian adolescent mothers, Traverso Koroleff and Mariella Pierina found that these mothers tend to have more unstable and conflictive relationships with their partners, whereas older mothers tend to live with their partners in more or less stable relations. It is predictable that these unstable relationships would have a negative impact of these women's parenting abilities. Indeed, Koroleff and Pierina reported that children of adolescent mothers are less lively in their interaction compared with those of older mothers.

Societal and political factors have also influenced maternal functions in Iraq, where many years of conflict and international sanctions have damaged the health system and taken a serious toll on the well-being of mothers and babies. Additionally, Iraqi women are more likely to be uneducated than their male counterparts and thus are often deprived from gaining knowledge about family planning and maternal and child care.


Because of the rapid increase in mothers' labor-force participation since the early 1980s and the subsequent changes in child-care arrangements and parent-child relationships, many studies in the United States have examined the impact of maternal employment on children. For the most part these studies have yielded inconsistent results. Some studies found that maternal employment has a negative effect on children's cognitive and social development, whereas others found enhanced cognitive outcomes for children as a function of early maternal employment (Vandell and Ramanan 1992). A 1999 study by Elizabeth Harvey found that neither early maternal employment status nor the timing and continuity of maternal employment were consistently related to a child's developmental outcome. Among the study's significant results, Harvey reported that mothers' working longer hours in their children's first three years was associated with slightly lower vocabulary scores up through age nine. Low-income adolescent mothers' employment was also associated with their children's lower verbal development (Luster et al. 2000). It was also found, however, that maternal employment during the first year of the child's life was slightly more beneficial for the children of single mothers, and early parental employment was related to more positive child outcomes for low-income families (Harvey 1999).

Many researchers have focused on the effect of maternal employment on cognitive outcomes of young children, paying much less attention to its possible effects on school-age children. In a 2004 study on adolescents' risky behavior, Alison Aughinbaugh and Maury Gittleman found little support for the view that what happens in the first three years of a child's life can have long-lasting effects on the child's development, at least with respect to whether maternal employment influences the likelihood of adolescent children engaging in risky behaviors. Aughinbaugh and Gittleman also report that maternal employment does not greatly reduce the time that parents spend with their children. According to Suzanne M. Bianchi (2000) there are several reasons why the increase in maternal labor-force participation has little effect on the amount of time mothers spend with their children. First, nonworking mothers may spend longer hours on housework, such as cleaning and cooking, than might working mothers, who may be more likely to hire professionals for housecleaning and other household work and thus free up time to spend with their children. Second, given flexible work arrangements, working mothers may be able to ensure that their paid work does not significantly reduce the time spent with their children. Third, reductions in family size and preschool-age children spending more time in school-like settings have reduced the time demands on mothers, regardless of their work status.

Except for drinking alcohol, Aughinbaugh and Gittleman report that maternal employment is largely uncorrelated with adolescents' risky activities. They argue that the positive effects of maternal employment, such as providing a positive role model or allowing teens more independence, may serve to offset any potentially harmful effects. There are also many other factors affecting adolescents' risky behavior. Therefore, within the family, the amount of time a mother works is only one of the factors affecting her adolescent children.

Balancing work and motherhood is often a challenge for women in many societies. According to the International Social Survey Programme's 1994 report titled "Family and Changing Gender Roles II," which was conducted in countries such as the United States, Sweden, Italy, and Japan, more positive attitudes toward maternal employment were reported in the United States and Sweden, where many more mothers are employed, compared with Japan and Italy, where not only are fewer mothers employed but more traditional views toward gender roles also remain. It should also be noted that the availability of nonfamily child care is generally greater for mothers in the United States and Sweden than in Japan and Italy.


The qualities of the relationship between a husband and wife influence their children's cognitive and social competence. The marital relationship provides the primary psychological and physical support for mothers' parenting behaviors, which in turn affects the adjustment of the children. For example, studies have shown that a harmonious marital relationship promotes competence and maturity in the couple's children and encourages their autonomy (Cummings and Davies 1992). In contrast, marital conflict may result in the children experiencing cognitive delays or school difficulties or exhibiting antisocial or withdrawn behavior.

Mothers who are satisfied in the marital relationship are more likely to have realistic expectations for their children than are mothers who report having an unhappy marital relationship. In addition, mothers who provide a positive relationship model contribute to their children's attitudes toward intimate relationships and long-term relationship stability. There is also evidence that various characteristics of the marriage, such as marital satisfaction, are related to the strength of the parenting alliance. Moreover, low marital power has been associated with depression, particularly in women, and depression has been related to poorer parenting behaviors.

The degree of marital quality and satisfaction varies greatly from one society to another. For example, Yoshinori Kamo (1993) found that Japanese mothers' marital satisfaction tends to be lower than that of their counterparts in the United States. One possible reason for this is that in Japan marriage is seen as an institution to ensure family continuity, whereas marriage in the United States focuses more on individual and intimate relationships. Despite this variation mothers' marital quality seems to have an important effect on their children's social and emotional development as well as psychological well-being in many societies.


Whereas mother-child relationships in European and North American societies are based on the assumption that children will eventually become financially and emotionally independent from their parents, mothering in Asian societies emphasizes long-lasting codependency between parents and their children. This strong child-parent, and mother-child in particular, bonding in Asian societies is evident when children's perceptions of their mothers are examined. According to an international study "Family and Changing Gender Roles II" (International Social Survey Programme 1994), 80 to 85 percent of children in Japan, China, and Korea reported that their mothers understood their psychological needs and problems, whereas the comparable figures were less than 50 percent among children in the United States and England.

These differences may come from cultural and historical roots in Asian and European and North American societies. In China, Korea, and Japan, where Confucian thoughts such as respect for the elderly still strongly remain, children are expected to take care of their own parents when they age. Parents, therefore, devote their time and energy to educate their children in order for them to have successful careers and the economic means to support the parents in old age. Mothers, in particular, play a major role in emphasizing the importance of education to their children. In Japan these mothers are known as education mamas, and they devote their lives to providing their children with the best educational opportunities.


Viewing motherhood as a social construction allows one to consider its cultural, societal, and religious variations. Motherhood is a significant experience for women in many traditional societies because women's reproductive capacity is something that women consider their source of power and as defining their identity and status. At the same time, however, women in many societies experience difficulties because of the stereotypical expectations of motherhood. For example, women in Vietnam are severely burdened by the pervasiveness of culturally ascribed gender stereotypes. The strong association of women with home and family has reinforced their identities to be critically intertwined with their status as wife, mother, and daughter (-in-law). Further, with respect to motherhood, deeply entrenched values and stereotypes have subjected Vietnamese women to many harsh practices and policies.

In India, which is mostly a patriarchal society, motherhood has connotations of respect and power. However, the view of motherhood as a source of power also varies from one culture to another. For example, in Korea, where the continuity of family lineage is extremely important, the status of women depends largely on the ability to produce sons. This role continues to be a major burden for most Korean women. In the United States, where the centrality of work and providing in people's lives are emphasized, motherhood is frequently viewed with respect to the women's ability to find a balance between paid work and family. In Japan, where the birthrate has dropped dramatically since 1997, fertility and motherhood are seen not only as individual experiences but also as important events with strong political and policy implications. In Brazil, one of the most developed countries in South America, mothers are in charge of the household, including child care. Brazilian fathers love their children, but they usually maintain a distance from the children's actual upbringing. Religion may have played an important role in defining women's maternal roles in Brazil, where 70 percent of the population is Catholic. Even if a significant number of contemporary Brazilians do not practice strict Catholic traditions, many parents still continue to celebrate religious holidays and practice the traditions for which mothers play an integral role.

These differences regarding motherhood come from variations stemming from the cultural, religious, historical, demographic, and economic backgrounds of each society. Regardless of these societal and cultural variations, however, motherhood remains a strong institution in many societies, and it is also surrounded with various myths and controversies.

see also Birth; Fatherhood.


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                                        Masako Ishii-Kuntz


views updated May 29 2018


Contemporary mothering and motherhood are viewed from a much broader perspective than in previous decades by emphasizing the relational and logistical work of childrearing. Mothering is defined as the social practices of nurturing and caring for people, and thus it is not the exclusive domain of women (Arendell 2000). In most societies, however, women not only bear children but also are primary caretakers of infants and children. Motherhood is one of the few universal roles assigned to women. Historically, despite changes in women's labor force participation, fertility rates, and age at first marriage, the experience of motherhood has remained a central aspect of most women's lives. Therefore, the description that follows is limited to women's motherhood practices and experiences.

Major issues about motherhood are divided into five interrelated contexts: transition to motherhood, maternal role in child rearing, the extent of maternal employment and its impact on child outcomes, the relationship between motherhood and marital quality, and mothers' psychological well-being.

Transition to Motherhood

In the United States, women are under tremendous pressure to bear children, and motherhood is often associated with their maturity and achievement in life. Becoming a mother is also considered to be a "normal" life course stage for women. This perception is also common in other societies. For example, Angelina Yuen-Tsang (1997) reported that many Chinese women accepted without question the view that childbearing was a natural and necessary part of their family life course; therefore, few ever considered the option of not having children. The pressure for women's childbearing is derived not only from their personal network of relatives and friends but also from society. In Japan, where low fertility rates have been of great governmental concern, young women are frequently accused of being selfish when they pursue higher education or prolong employment that distracts women from their "primary" duty of motherhood ( Jolivet 1997).

Despite these societal and familial pressures, an increasing number of women today are either choosing not to have children or delaying childbearing until midlife. According to U.S. Bureau of Census data (1998), 23 percent of women between the ages of thirty-five and forty-four remained childless in 1992. This figure increased to 26.5 percent in 1999. Moreover, the percentage of mothers who gave birth at age twenty-four or younger decreased during the 1990s (U.S. National Center for Health Statistics 2001). In 1992, approximately 39 percent of total live births came from women younger than twenty-four, whereas 59 percent of live births came from mothers in between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-nine. In 1999, 36 percent of mothers were younger than twenty-four when they gave birth whereas 61 percent of live births came from mothers in between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-nine. Many women who choose to delay the birth of their first child wish to enjoy an autonomous life for themselves and achieve career objectives before beginning the tasks of parenting (Wilkie 1987).

Although contemporary motherhood can be seen as a choice for many women, some pregnancies occur without a conscious decision. Many of these unplanned pregnancies occur among teenage women. The causes of unplanned pregnancy are often complicated. Despite the availability of information about reproduction, many teenagers do not seem to understand how conception takes place and believe that they are somehow immune to pregnancy. Some researchers have attributed adolescent pregnancy to the individual's self perception, and have suggested that low self-esteem is a factor, or to social causes such as family problems and poverty. Most importantly, however, adolescents become pregnant because they frequently lack the judgment necessary to deal with their sexuality.

In a number of studies focusing on teenage mothers, poverty and child abuse have been found to be persistent problems (Geronimus and Korenman 1992). Children of teen parents are also found to be disadvantaged in terms of cognitive performance, and daughters of teen mothers are likely to give birth in their teens (Manlove 1997).

Maternal Role in Childrearing

Mothers are likely to be a constant presence throughout their children's lives. Mothers frequently refer to the use of common sense and intuition in raising children—as if no special knowledge is required and as if many of their practices are grounded in some biological instinct. However, almost all mothers admit that they seek at least some explicit advice on how to raise their children. Childrearing manuals are one of the most important sources of advice. These advice books for mothers, to a large extent, represent cultural expectations for motherhood. For example, in a cross-cultural study comparing mothering books in Japan and the United States, Arlie Russell-Hochschild and Kazuko Tanaka (1997) found that compared to their U.S. counterparts, Japanese advice books emphasize collective life such as rites and rituals, whereas U.S. books focus more on individual aspects of childrearing. Further, it was found that Japanese books praise mothers for their attention to beauty, deference, and motherliness whereas U.S. books praise women for their creativity and brilliance in mothering.

With respect to styles of parenting, an attentive and hands-on approach is reported to be more common among mothers than fathers. For example, a six-nation study on children and their parents found whereas fathers are more likely to be involved in intrinsically fun activities with children, such as playing or taking a walk with them, mothers are often involved in routine care of children such as bathing, changing, and helping with homework ( Japanese Association for Women's Education 1995). According to this study, 64 percent of parents in the United States reported that providing meals and feeding children are mainly the responsibility of the mother. The figures reported in other countries were 88.3 percent ( Japan), 58 percent (Korea), 65.3 percent (Thailand), 75.5 percent (UK), and 67.4 percent (Sweden). Among various parental activities included in the survey, fathers in all of the aforementioned countries are most likely to report "playing with children" as one of their major parental roles.

Different styles of interaction with children between mothers and fathers are reflected by children's affection toward their parents. In a comparative study, it was found that children report liking and respecting their fathers more than their mothers. This may be due to the infrequent father-child interaction and children's "idealizing" of fathers' roles (Ishii-Kuntz 1993). Despite these findings, mothers continue to influence their children in numerous ways and mothering styles are affected by several demographic and psychological factors surrounding mothers. Using a sample of working- and middle-class African-American mothers, Cheryl Bluestone and Catherine Tamis-LeMonda (1999) found that maternal education contributed to child-centered parenting, and that maternal depression was negatively associated with child-centered parenting styles. In Japan, mothers' childcare stress and anxiety were found to negatively influence the child's social development (Makino 1988).

Extent and Effects of Maternal Employment

During the past few decades the proportion of women in labor force has increased dramatically in all industrialized societies. In the United States, the married mothers' employment rate increased from 39.7 percent in 1970 to 70.1 percent in 1999 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000). Among mothers of children aged six to seventeen, 49.2 percent and 77.1 percent were employed in 1970 and 1999, respectively. Among mothers with children under the age of six, their employment rate doubled from 1970 (30.3%) to 1999 (61.8%). The increasing trend of maternal employment is seen in other industrialized countries such as Japan and Canada.

The above figures indicate that the majority of mothers in the United States experience dual roles of being a parent and a paid worker. A number of studies also show that women still bear more responsibility for childcare than their male counterparts (e.g., Hochschild 1989). Working mothers, therefore, are engaged in a second shift of caring for their children and families upon returning from their first shift of paid work (Hochschild 1989). Since mothers are more likely to prepare their children for day care and school in the morning hours than fathers, working mothers, in reality, are engaged in three shifts combining family carework and paid work.

An increase of labor-force participation among mothers also suggests that being a mother—even of an infant—is no longer a major deterrent to women's employment (Moen 1992). According to Moen, the three types of mothers most likely to return to work before their infants are a year old are the young mother (a married mother under age twenty-four with a high school education), the delayed childbearer (a mother with at least some college education who postponed starting her family until after age twenty-four), and the unmarried mother (a white high school graduate who already has two or more children and has been divorced or separated). It should be noted, however, that although the American public has shown more acceptance of the employment of married women, the employment of mothers with young children has not enjoyed the same level of endorsement (Moen 1992). This is largely due to beliefs that maternal employment has harmful effects on young children.

A number of studies in the early 1990s explored the effects of maternal employment on child outcomes but yielded inconsistent results. Whereas some studies reported that maternal employment was a negative influence on children's cognitive and social development, others found enhanced cognitive outcomes for children as a function of early maternal employment (Vandell and Ramanan 1992). Studies in late 1990s report that neither early maternal employment status nor the timing and continuity of maternal employment were consistently related to a child's developmental outcome (Harvey 1999). A few significant findings reported that mothers' working more hours in the first three years was associated with slightly lower vocabulary scores up through age nine (Harvey 1999). Among low-income adolescent mothers, maternal employment was also associated with their children's lower verbal development (Luster et al. 2000). However, maternal employment during the first year of the child's life is slightly more beneficial for the children of single mothers, and early parental employment was related to more positive child outcomes for low-income families (Harvey 1999).

Although these results suggest that maternal employment status has few negative effects on young children, other research in the 1990s reported some of the conditions under which maternal work makes a difference in family relations. For example, when mothers frequently engaged in shared activities with children such as reading books and telling stories, the potentially disruptive effects of changes in maternal employment status on children's social and cognitive competence were mitigated. Additionally, less secure attachment relationships between mothers and children were more common when the quality of alternative childcare was poor and unstable (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network 1997).

The mothers' struggle of balancing work and family has also been reported in developing regions (such as Latin America), post-socialist regions (such as Russia), and industrialized countries (such as Great Britain and Japan). Helen Safa (1992), for example, reports that despite increased employment of married women in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, housework and childcare are still perceived as women's responsibility, even when they are making major contributions to the household economy. Similarly, for many women in Great Britain, the absence of choices concerning childcare poses a major problem in pursuing outside employment (MacLennan 1992). Compared to these countries, mothers in Nordic countries have a less stressful experience in balancing motherhood and paid work due to the comprehensive maternity-parental leave system in which parents of children under the age of one are financially supported for childcare by governmental policies (Haavio-Mannila and Kauppinen 1992). It should be noted, however, this does not mean that gender-based discrimination in the larger social context does not exist in Nordic countries as evidenced by sex segregation in the workplace.

Motherhood and Marital Quality

One issue that has been studied extensively is the relationship between marital quality and parental satisfaction. The assumption that parenting satisfaction is primarily an outcome of marital satisfaction has not been firmly established. With respect to the relationship between motherhood and marital quality, studies during the last two decades found that women's relationships with their children are richer and more complex than men's (Umberson 1989) and thus women will experience both more strain and greater rewards from the parental role. The complex nature of parental satisfaction among mothers is reflected in their marital satisfaction. Overall findings suggest that the marital and parenting relationships are more closely linked for fathers than for mothers, although no significant gender differences in this relationship were noted by Stacy Rogers and Lynn White (1998).

Mothers and Psychological Well-Being

Women's psychological well-being is influenced by many factors including mothering performance. Mothers frequently assume the caretaker role in the family, which may increase the likelihood that they are attentive to, and thus possibly receivers of, emotions from other family members. In contrast to fathers' experiences, the emotions mothers experienced at their jobs did not foreshadow their emotional states at home in the evening (Larson and Richards 1994). This suggests either that mothers are more capable of compartmentalizing work and home (i.e. leaving work behind) than are fathers, or that the urgent tasks they must perform when they come home readily overwhelm what happened that day at work.

Mothers' psychological well-being, however, is more likely to be influenced by the daily routine of childrearing activities. Mothers report greater satisfaction with parenting than fathers, and they are more supportive than fathers of their children (Starrels 1994). At the same time, however, mothers of infants report higher levels of stress and anxiety when they evaluate their own performance as mothers than do their male counterparts (Arendell 2000). Compared with fathers, mothers are more involved with the responsibility for daily childcare, which exposes them to a wider range of disagreements and tension with their children (Hochschild 1989). David Almeida, Elaine Wethinton, and Amy Chandler (1999) found that mothers reported almost twice as many days of parental tension as fathers. The number of children in the household are also important predictors of family tension for mothers. Having more children in the household was associated with more mother-child tension (Almeida, Wethinton, and Chandler 1999).

Additionally, the extent of mother's child-care related stress level is frequently affected by the societal expectations for women to be "good mothers" (Villani 1997). Shari Thurner (1994) asserts that the contemporary "Good Mother" myth in Western society sets standards that are unattainable and self-denying. In Japan, Katsuko Makino (1988) also found the unrealistic expectations (on the part of society as a whole and mothers in particular) on what it means to be a good mother, and a mother's social isolation from the support networks are the major cause of maternal stress and anxiety.

See also:Adolescent Parenthood; Attachment: Parent-Child Relationships; Childcare; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Coparenting; Dual-Earner Families; Family Life Education; Family Roles; Fatherhood; Fertility; Grandparenthood; Lesbian Parents; Marital Quality; Nonmarital Childbearing; Parenting Education; Parenting Responsibilities: Parenting Styles; Pregnancy and Birth; Separation-Individuation; Single-Parent Families; Stepfamilies; Stress; Substitute Caregivers; Surrogacy; Transition to Parenthood;

Wife; Women's Movements; Work and Family


almeida, d. m.; wethinton, e.; and chandler, a. l. (1999). "daily transmission of tensions between marital dyads and parent-child dyads." journal of marriage and the family 61:49–61.

arendell, t. (2000). "conceiving and investigating motherhood: the decade's scholarship." journal of marriage and the family 62:1192–1207.

bluestone, c., and tamis-lemonda, c. s. (1999). "correlates of parenting styles in predominantly workingand middle-class african american mothers." journal of marriage and the family 61:881–893.

geronimus, a., and korenman, s. (1992). "the socioeconomic consequences of teen childbearing reconsidered." quarterly journal of economics 107:1187–1214.

haavio-mannila, e., and kauppinen, k. (1992). "women and the welfare state in the nordic countries." in women's work and women's lives: the continuing struggle worldwide, ed. h. kahne and j. z. giele. boulder, co: westview.

harvey, e. (1999). "short-term and long-term effects of parental employment on children of the national longitudinal survey of youth." developmental psychology 35:445–459.

hochschild, a. (1989). the second shift. new york: avon books.

ishii-kuntz, m. (1999). "children's affection toward fathers: a comparison between japan and the united states." international journal of japanese sociology 8:35–50.

japanese association for women's education. (1995). international comparative research on home education. tokyo: author.

jolivet, m. (1997). japan: the childless society? new york: routledge.

larson, r., and richards, m. h. (1994). divergent realities:the emotional lives of mothers, fathers, and adolescents. new york: basic books.

luster, t.; bates, l.; fitzgerald, h.; vandenbelt, m.; and key, j. p. (2000). "factors related to successful outcomes among preschool children born to low-income adolescent mothers." journal of marriage and the family 62:133–146.

maclennan, e. (1992). "politics, progress, and compromise: women's work and lives in great britain." in women's work and women's lives: the continuingstruggle worldwide, ed. h. kahne and j. z. giele. boulder, co: westview.

makino, k. (1988). "child care anxiety: reconsideration of definitions and influential factors." journal of family education research center 10:52–55.

manlove, j. (1977). "early motherhood in an intergenerational perspective: the experiences of a british cohort." journal of marriage and the family 59:263–279.

moen, p. (1992). women's two roles: a contemporarydilemma. new york: auburn house.

nichd early child care research network. (1997). "the effects of infant child care on infant-mother attachment security: results of the nichd study of early child care." child development 68:860–879.

rogers, s. j., and white, l. k. (1998). "satisfaction with parenting: the role of marital happiness, family structure, and parents' gender." journal of marriage and the family 60:293–308.

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safa, h. i. (1992). "development and changing gender roles in latin america and the caribbean." in women's work and women's lives: the continuing struggle worldwide, ed. h. kahne and j. z. giele. boulder, co: westview.

starrells, m. e. (1994). "gender differences in parent-child relations," journal of family issues 15:148–165.

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umberson, d. (1989). "marriage as support or strain: marital quality following the death of a parent." journal of marriage and the family 57:709–723.

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vandell, d. l., and ramanan, j. (1992). "effects of early and recent maternal employment on children from low-income families." child development 63:938–949.

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views updated Jun 11 2018





The term motherhood, which began to be used at the end of the nineteenth century, refers to the state or condition of being a mother. Motherhood is usually distinguished from the term mothering in that mothering is the set of activities or practices concerned with nurturing and caring for children. While mothering entails a focus on the everyday practices associated with being a mother and looking after children, motherhood is a social institution and is thus characterized by specific meanings and ideologies. The two terms are, however, inextricably linked in that the practices of mothering in any society are performed and experienced in the context of the meanings and ideologies of motherhood.

The difference between mothering and motherhood has consequences for understandings of both mothering and motherhood. For example, the focus on mothering as performance of the tasks essential to child rearing meant that those who studied child development in the 1970s and 1980s extended the term mothering to include child rearing done by men who nurture children. This usage of mothering has diminished as the importance of fathering and the need to understand better what fathers do with children gained increased emphasis beginning in the 1990s. In contrast, motherhood is associated only with women since the state of motherhood has a direct impact on womens lives, regardless of whether or not they become mothers. In most societies a central feature of motherhood is that it should ideally occur within a heterosexual relationship where a man and a woman are cohabiting (and preferably legally married). The rearing of children is supposed to be the major task of this unit, which is idealized as bound together through mutual ties of affection, common identity, and relationships of care and support. This model is often assumed to be the natural and normal (as well as ideal) form of social organization and to be stable over time.

A focus on motherhood arose from feminist work on gender relations as a key aspect of recognition that motherhood is central to womens liveswhether or not they become mothers. For example, in 1975 the sociologist Jesse Bernard suggested (in The Future of Motherhood ) that there is a tension between the idealized image of the selfless mother and many mothers experiences of hard, repetitive work that is socially devalued and unfulfilling. In the 1970s Bernard and other feminists in Europe and North America, such as Adrienne Rich, argued that the institution of motherhood was oppressive in making most women feel that they should become mothers and stay at home in segregated gender roles rather than, for example, pursuing employment and careers. At the same time researchers such as the sociologist Ann Oakley pointed out (in Becoming a Mother ) that the idealized image of motherhood is unattainable and causes women to feel guilt, unhappiness, and anxiety about their failure to measure up to the ideal in their everyday practices.


While it is often assumed that motherhood is historically stable, it has changed a great deal. For example, Linda Nicholson, a historian of ideas, suggests that it was only in the economic boom of the 1950s that it became possible for working-class women in Western countries to stay at home with their children as many more privileged women had been doing (although working-class mothers did not have servants to do the housework and look after the children). As the technology for housework and cooking became more sophisticated, motherhood came to be idealized as the institution responsible for entertaining and ensuring the optimal development of childrenmorally and academically. Ann Dally argues in Inventing Motherhood that also in the 1950s women in the affluent Europe and North America could be relatively confident each pregnancy would lead to a live birth and to the babys survival. As researchers have pointed out, this situation still does not pertain for poorer women in countries where there continue to be high rates of maternal and child mortality as well as higher birthrates. Access to efficient contraception and abortion in the more affluent countries led to markedly decreased birthrates from the late 1950s, with a few exceptions, and mothers have been expected to devote more time and effort to caring for and developing their children.

Since the 1950s, motherhoodthe condition in which women motherhas changed markedly and become more complex in many societies. In particular, as Fiona Williams makes clear in Rethinking Families, demographic changes in many societies mean that women in the early twenty-first century are more likely to be single mothers than previously and to live in reconstituted, blended families or stepparent families with children sometimes being shared across households. Mothers in European and North American society and affluent mothers in any society are likely to be older when they have their first child and to have fewer children. There has also been an increase in the number of affluent women who have only one child or no children and an increasing number who give birth through assisted reproduction techniques or as surrogates for other women. In addition governments frequently intervene (directly or indirectly) in motherhood to limit or increase population size or to attempt to guarantee the quality of the population. Examples include the Chinese one-child policy instituted in the twentieth century and pronatalist policies designed to encourage reproduction (e.g., in France and the former Soviet Union).

In modern times it is common for mothers to be employed outside the home, and there is ideological commitment to equality between women and men with expectations that child care and housework will be shared between employed parents. Motherhood within one society is therefore as differentiated as is motherhood between societies. Idealized images of motherhood have adjusted to accept that women may be employed outside the home and even that they may cohabit without being married. Images of motherhood have not, however, changed sufficiently to accommodate the demographic and social changes. As Estella Tincknell points out in Mediating the Family, media representations frequently accommodate some changes but reassert the ideal of the white, middle-class nuclear family. Ideologies of motherhood continue to suggest implicit disapproval of many categories of mothers, including those who are single, aged under twenty, and either out at work for long hours each day or unable to make economic provision for their children. In practice there is often less sharing of household and child care work between mothers and fathers than might be expected. As a consequence there is a marked discrepancy between the expectations of motherhood and the experiences of mothering, with the result that motherhood is painful and disappointing for many women. This discrepancy points to the fact that motherhood is not naturally occurring but is socially constructed in ways that suggest that there is an essence to motherhood.


Despite the changes in motherhood, most women in all societies still become mothers. The oft-reported unhappiness of those who find that they cannot have children provides an indication of how psychologically important it can be for women to become mothers. To some extent this is because motherhood is socially constructed as an essential part of adult femininity so that women who do not become mothers (for whatever reason) can be made to feel that they are not proper women. In addition many women share the idealized view of motherhood common in many societies so it is not the case that they are coerced into having children. Many women choose to become mothers, and whether or not they do, their identities are partly negotiated in relation to motherhood. It is therefore important to consider womens desires in relation to motherhood (conscious and unconscious) as well as the contexts in which they mother. In other words, motherhood requires psychosocial (both psychological and social) understandings.

One benefit of feminist work on motherhood has been its focus on womens expectations and experiences of it. While many women want to become mothers and subscribe to social constructions of motherhood as natural, blissful, and something with which they should be able to cope, women frequently feel conflicted about how they will be able to manage as mothers. In the early twenty-first century the sociologist Tina Miller conducted a study of motherhood that used cultural scripts from Bangladesh and the Solomon Islands to contextualize experiences of motherhood in the United Kingdom. Miller found that women often said they were worried and frightened about becoming mothers. Miller suggests that this is related to cultural messages about the right way to be a good mother and the moral context within which motherhood occurs.

After birth, almost all women learn the tasks associated with successful mothering. However, it can take time for women to feel comfortable with their identities as mothers. The British sociologist Stephanie Lawler suggests that this is partly because women have to negotiate a contradiction between a belief in autonomy as a central part of adulthood and a perception that autonomy is lost with motherhood. Women therefore have to develop practices and narratives that allow them to inhabit identities as mothers. Experience of the contradictions of motherhood do not, however, lead mothers to feel solidarity with other mothers. The psychologist and anthropologist Meryle Kaplan points out: Instead of questioning what has been called an institution of motherhood, these modern women most frequently question other mothers and resist affiliating themselves with other women (Kaplan 1992, p. 202). This self-differentiation between mothers is one reason why motherhood is differentiated among mothers.

Motherhood is also expressed differently over time and varies by social class, race, ethnicity, and culture. For example, in Janani: Mothers, Daughters, Motherhood, Maitreyi Chatterji says:

Motherhood may have been pitched to an exalted position, but the ground reality for Indian mothers is an entirely different matter. Indias maternal mortality rate and chronic malnutrition makes a mockery of motherhood myths yet we find women legitimize motherhood through acts of immense sacrifice. Indian mothers eat last or not at all. Women go through multiple pregnancies to continue the male family line or risk abortions if the fetus is female. (Bhattacharya 2006, pp. 3637)

It is important, however, to recognize that there are marked differences between mothers within each country because social class, ethnicity, and culture all intersect to position women in different ways. Yet as the sociologist Terry Arendell reported in 2000 after a decennial review of U.S. literature, although the United States is diverse, little is known about the meanings and practices of motherhood for minority ethnic women, who are frequently used only as comparisons when white U.S. motherhood is being reified. This is also the case within other European and North American societies.

The enormous changes in the conditions under which motherhood occur demonstrate that motherhood is not an essentialist concept. Instead, it is diverse and practiced in different ways according to the social, economic, and psychological contexts in which women live. Nonetheless, ideologies of motherhood continue to idealize and romanticize motherhood in ways that make ideal motherhood unattainable and a source of anxiety for most women as they forge motherhood identities. For this reason, many motherhood researchers argue that it is important to expand the range of narratives around mothering and to challenge the pervasive myths of motherhood.

SEE ALSO Children; Family; Family Structure; Fatherhood; Feminism; Gender Gap; Inequality, Gender; Parent-Child Relationships; Parenthood, Transition to; Parenting Styles; Work and Women


Arendell, Terry. 2000. Conceiving and Investigating Motherhood: The Decades Scholarship. Journal of Marriage and Family 62 (4): 11921207.

Bernard, Jesse. 1975. The Future of Motherhood. New York: Penguin Books.

Chatterji, Maitreyi. 2006. My Mother, My Daughter. In Janani: Mothers, Daughters, Motherhood, ed. Rinki Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Sage.

Dally, Ann. 1982. Inventing Motherhood: The Consequences of an Ideal. London: Burnett.

Hollway, Wendy. 2006. The Capacity to Care: Gender and Ethical Subjectivity. London: Routledge.

Kaplan, Meryle. 1992. Mothers Images of Motherhood. New York: Routledge.

Lawler, Stephanie. 2000. Mothering the Self: Mothers, Daughters, Subjects. London: Routledge.

Macfarlane, Alison, Miranda Mugford, Jane Henderson, et al. 2000. Birth Counts: Statistics of Pregnancy and Childbirth, vol. 1. London: Stationery Office.

Miller, Tina. 2005. Making Sense of Motherhood: A Narrative Approach. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Nicholson, Linda. 1997. The Myth of the Traditional Family. In Feminism and Families, ed. Hilde Lindemann Nelson. London: Routledge.

Oakley, Ann. 1979. Becoming a Mother. Oxford: Martin Robertson.

Orbach, Susie. 1997. Family Life. In Living Together, eds. David Kennard and Neil Small. London: Quartet Books.

OReilly, Andrea, ed. 2004. Mother Matters: Motherhood as Discourse and Practice. Toronto: Association for Research on Mothering.

Phoenix, Ann, Anne Woollett, and Eva Lloyd. 1991. Motherhood: Meanings, Practices and Ideologies. London: Sage.

Rich, Adrienne. 1976. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Norton.

Tincknell, Estella. 2005. Mediating the Family: Gender, Culture, and Representation. London: Hodder Arnold.

Williams, Fiona. 2004. Rethinking Families. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Ann Phoenix

Surrogate Motherhood

views updated May 29 2018


A relationship in which one woman bears and gives birth to a child for a person or a couple who then adopts or takes legal custody of the child; also called mothering by proxy.

In surrogate motherhood, one woman acts as a surrogate, or replacement, mother for another woman, sometimes called the intended mother, who either cannot produce fertile eggs or cannot carry a pregnancy through to birth, or term.

Surrogate mothering can be accomplished in a number of ways. Most often, the husband's sperm is implanted in the surrogate by a procedure called artificial insemination. In this case, the surrogate mother is both the genetic mother and the birth, or gestational mother, of the child. This method of surrogacy is sometimes called traditional surrogacy.

Less often, when the intended mother can produce fertile eggs but cannot carry a child to birth, the intended mother's egg is removed, combined with the husband's or another man's sperm in a process called in vitro fertilization (first performed in the late 1970s), and implanted in the surrogate mother. This method is called gestational surrogacy.

Surrogacy arrangements are categorized as either commercial or altruistic. In commercial surrogacy, the surrogate is paid a fee plus any expenses incurred in her pregnancy. In altruistic surrogacy, the surrogate is paid only for expenses incurred or is not paid at all.

The first recognized surrogate mother arrangement was made in 1976. Between 1976 and 1988, roughly 600 children were born in the United States to surrogate mothers. Since the late 1980s, surrogacy has been more common: between 1987 and 1992, an estimated 5,000 surrogate births occurred in the United States.

The issue of surrogate motherhood came to national attention during the 1980s, with the Baby M case. In 1984 a New Jersey couple, William Stern and Elizabeth Stern, contracted to pay Mary Beth Whitehead $10,000 to be artificially inseminated with William Stern's sperm and carry the resulting child to term. Whitehead decided to keep the child after it was born, refused to receive the $10,000 payment, and fled to Florida. In July 1985, the police arrested Whitehead and returned the child to the Sterns.

Does Surrogacy Involve Making Families or Selling Babies?

Medical science continues to devise new procedures and treatments that test the boundaries of law and ethics. One such result is modern surrogate motherhood, which has been made possible by artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization.

Surrogate motherhood has both advocates and detractors, each with strong arguments in their favor. A number of important questions lie at the heart of the debate over the ethics and legality of surrogacy: Does surrogacy necessarily involve the exploitation of the woman serving as the surrogate mother, or turn her into a commodity? What rights does the surrogate mother have? Is surrogacy equivalent to baby selling? Should brokers or third parties be allowed to make a profit from surrogacy arrangements?

The Case Against Surrogacy Nearly all opponents of surrogacy find it to be a morally repugnant practice, particularly when it involves a commercial transaction. Many base their opposition on religious grounds, whereas others judge it using philosophical, legal, or political criteria.

The Roman Catholic Church is just one of many religious institutions that oppose surrogacy. It is against all forms of surrogacy, even altruistic surrogacy, which does not involve the payment of a fee to the surrogate. It holds that surrogacy violates the sanctity of marriage and the spiritual connection between mother, father, and child. It finds commercial surrogacy to be especially offensive. Commercial surrogacy turns the miracle of human birth into a financial transaction, the church maintains, reducing the child and the woman bearing it to objects of negotiation and purchase. It turns women into reproductive machines and exploiters of children. The church argues that surrogacy also leads to a confused parent-child relationship that ultimately damages the institution of the family.

Some feminists oppose surrogacy because of its political and economic context. They disagree with the notion that women freely choose to become surrogates. They argue that coercion at the societal level, rather than the personal level, causes poor women to become surrogate mothers for rich women. If surrogacy contracts are legalized, they maintain, the reproductive abilities of a whole class of women will be turned into a brokered commodity. Some feminists have gone so far as to call surrogacy reproductive prostitution.

Other critics join with Catholics and feminists to decry surrogacy as baby selling and a vehicle for the exploitation of poor women.

The Case for Surrogacy Advocates for surrogate motherhood propose it as a humane solution to the problem of infertility. They note that infertility is common, affecting almost one out of six couples, and that surrogacy may represent the only option for some couples who wish to have children to whom they are genetically related. Advocates also point out that infertility is likely to increase as more women enter the workforce and defer childbirth to a later age, when fertility problems are more common.

Advocates of surrogacy also argue that adoption does not adequately meet the needs of infertile couples who wish to have a baby. They point out that there are many times more couples than available infants. Moreover, couples must wait three to seven years on average to adopt an infant. Here, too, social trends have contributed to a greater call for alternative reproductive options. Most important, an increased use of contraceptives and abortion and a greater acceptance of unwed mothers have led to a shortage of adoptable babies.

Those who favor commercial surrogacy object to characterizations of the practice as baby selling. A surrogacy contract, they assert, is a contract to bear a child, not to sell a child. Advocates of surrogacy see payment to a surrogate as a fee for gestational services, just like the fees paid to lawyers and doctors for their services. Some advocates even argue that the prohibition of commercial surrogacy infringes on a woman's constitutional right to contract.

Surrogacy is also supported by those who believe that society is served best when the liberty of individuals is maximized. They claim that women and society as a whole benefit from the increased opportunity of choice offered by surrogacy.

Advocates also maintain that in a successful surrogacy arrangement, all parties benefit. The intended parents take home a cherished child, and the surrogate receives a monetary reward and the satisfaction of knowing that she has helped someone realize a special goal.

In 1987 the New Jersey Superior Court upheld the Stern-Whitehead contract (in re baby m., 217 N.J. Super. 313, 525 A.2d 1128). The court took all parental and visitation rights away from Whitehead and permitted the Sterns to legally adopt the baby, whom they named Melissa Stern. A year later, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed much of this decision (In re Baby M., 109 N.J. 396, 537 A.2d 1227). That court declared the contract unenforceable but allowed the Sterns to retain physical custody of the child. The court also restored some of Whitehead's parental rights, including visitation rights, and voided the adoption by the Sterns. Most important, the decision voided all surrogacy contracts on the ground that they conflict with state public policy. However, the court still permitted voluntary surrogacy arrangements.

The Baby M. decision inspired state legislatures around the United States to pass laws regarding surrogate motherhood. Most of those laws prohibit or strictly limit surrogacy arrangements. Michigan responded first, making it a felony to arrange surrogate mother contracts for money and imposing a $50,000 fine and five years' imprisonment as punishment for the offense (37 Mich. Comp. Laws § 722.859). Florida, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Kentucky enacted similar legislation, and Arkansas and Nevada passed laws permitting surrogacy contracts under judicial regulation.

In 1989 the american bar association (ABA) drafted two alternative model laws involving surrogate motherhood. These laws are not binding but are intended to guide states as they formulate their own laws. One legalizes the practice of surrogate motherhood and makes surrogacy contracts enforceable in court; the other bars the enforcement of contracts in which a surrogate mother is paid to have a child and then give up any claim to the child.

Under either ABA model, states legalizing surrogate contracts limit them to agreements between a surrogate mother and a married couple. A genetic link must be established between the couple and the child, by the husband's supplying sperm or the wife's contributing an egg, or both. To be valid, the contract must be approved by a judge before conception takes place, and it must be accompanied by proof that the wife is unable to bear a child. The surrogate mother has the right to repudiate the contract up to 180 days after conception, in which case she may keep the child. If she does not repudiate the contract during that time, the couple becomes the child's legal parents 180 days after conception.

In 1993 the California Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling declaring surrogacy contracts legal in California. The case, Johnson v. Calvert, 5 Cal. 4th 84, 19 Cal. Rptr. 2d 494, 851 P.2d 776, involved a surrogacy contract between a married couple, Mark Calvert and Crispina Calvert, and Anna L. Johnson. Crispina Calvert was unable to bear children. In 1990 the Calverts and Johnson signed a surrogacy contract in which the Calverts agreed to pay Johnson $10,000 to carry an embryo created from the Calverts' ovum and sperm. Disagreements ensued, and later that year, Johnson became the first surrogate mother to seek custody of a child to whom she was not genetically related.

After the child's birth, the Calverts were awarded custody. Johnson appealed the decision. The state supreme court finally upheld the legality of surrogacy contracts under both the state and federal constitutions. The court held such contracts valid whether or not the surrogate mother provides the egg. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Johnson's appeal.

In many states, surrogacy contracts are considered unenforceable because of existing adoption laws designed to discourage "baby selling." These laws may, for example, forbid any consent to adoption given prior to the birth of the child. They may also make it illegal for a birth mother to receive payment for consenting to give up a child or for an intermediary or broker to receive a fee for arranging an adoption. In states with these laws, a surrogate mother who wishes to keep the child rather than give it up for adoption may successfully challenge an already established surrogacy contract.

Laws concerning artificial insemination can also conflict with surrogacy agreements. Some states have laws maintaining that semen donors are not legally the fathers of children created with their sperm. These laws were originally designed to facilitate the development of sperm banks. In a surrogacy arrangement, they conflict with an attempt to adopt the surrogate child. Increasingly, states are drafting laws that clarify the legal status of surrogacy arrangements, including who is the rightful parent of a child born through surrogate mothering.

State laws differ in the way they handle surrogate motherhood contracts. Most state laws on the issue are designed to prevent or discourage surrogacy. Four states (Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Virginia) specifically allow surrogacy contracts under certain conditions. Several other states (Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, and Tennessee) specifically prohibit surrogacy contracts as void and in violation of public policy. In some states (Kentucky, Michigan, Utah, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia) entering into a surrogacy contract or assisting in procuring such a contract is a criminal act, punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.

State laws likewise vary in the way they handle disputes over custody. Surrogacy laws in Michigan and Washington make custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, attempting to reach the decision that best serves the interests

of the child. In New Hampshire and Virginia, such laws presume that the contracting couple are the legal parents but give the surrogate a period of time to change her mind. In North Dakota and Arizona, the surrogate and her husband are the legal parents of the child.

The commissioners on uniform laws created a stir when it amended the Uniform Parentage Act to authorize gestational agreements as valid contracts. According to the prefatory note to the uniform act, the commissioners determined that such agreements had become commonplace during the 1990s, so the law was merely designed to provide a legal framework for such agreements. However, several organizations have decried the inclusion of these provisions. As of 2003, two states, Texas and Washington, had adopted the new uniform act, while legislatures in four other states were considering its adoption.

further readings

Andrews, Lori B. 1995. "Beyond Doctrinal Boundaries: A Legal Framework for Surrogate Motherhood." From the symposium New Directions in Family Law. Virginia Law Review 81 (November).

Birck, Mary Lynne. 1994. "Modern Reproductive Technology and Motherhood: The Search for Common Ground and the Recognition of Difference." University of Cincinnati Law Review 62 (spring).

Cumming, Jennifer L. "The Proposed Uniform Parentage Act and Surrogate Motherhood." Minnesota Family Council. Available online at <> (accessed August 27, 2003).

Hall, Mark A., Mary Anne Bobinski, and David Orentlicher. 2003. Health Care Law and Ethics. 6th ed. New York: Aspen.

Havins, Weldon E., and James J. Dalessio. 2000. "Reproductive Surrogacy at the Millennium: Proposed Model Legislation Regulation 'Non-Traditional' Gestational Surrogacy Contracts." McGeorge Law Review 31 (spring)

Larkey, Amy M. 2003. "Redefining Motherhood: Determining Legal Maternity in Gestational Surrogacy Arrangements." Drake Law Review 51 (March).

Macklin, Ruth. 1994. Surrogates and Other Mothers: The Debates over Assisted Reproduction. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

Ohs, Alayna. 2002. "The Power of Pregnancy: Examining Constitutional Rights in a Gestational Surrogacy Contract." Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 29 (winter).

Rae, Scott B. 1994. The Ethics of Commercial Surrogate Motherhood: Brave New Families? Westport, Conn.: Praeger.


Adoption; Child Custody; Family Law; Parent and Child.


views updated May 17 2018






It is tempting, especially in terms of feminist discourse, to define “motherhood” as a unifying, universal vocation that women can look to and through for a common ground on which to stand and understand each other. After all, as Naomi Lowinksy has stated, “Women are the carriers of the species, the entry way to life. Although a woman may choose not to have children or be unable to do so, every woman is born of woman. Every woman alive is connected to all the women before her through the roots of her particular family and culture” (2000, p. 230). This oft-assumed connection, however, can be lost or severed because of each woman’s particular family and cultural roots and the interlocking structures of class and race that work together to create different definitions, ideas, stereotypes, and experiences of motherhood.

Every day, Americans are confronted by normative constructions of “ideal motherhood.” The socioeconomic culture in the United States benefits and adheres to majority rule: White is right. Because the privileged American position is wealthy, white, and male, those in that position (or those who benefit from someone in that position) define the ideal American mother. Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, in their 2004 book, The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women, examine the constraints placed on even the most privileged (which they acknowledge) of American mothers, the middle- to upper-class white woman of the early twenty-first century. Through the media, and as a result of the progress that women, especially white women, have made in America via the women’s movement (or because of the backlash against this movement), women are being coerced into believing “the new momism”: that is, “that motherhood is eternally fulfilling and rewarding, that it is always the best and most important thing that you do, that there is only a narrowly prescribed way to do it right, and that if you don’t love each and every second of it there’s something really wrong with you” (Douglas and Michaels, p. 4). That white women especially are bombarded with such an idealization of motherhood in the first place is indicative of their recognition as normative mothers. As such, they are supposed to embody American expectations of motherhood and women: Have a career, but do not neglect your children, while looking good, consuming, and protecting your children from a seemingly endless number of internal and external threats. This stress is aggravated not only by the so-called mommy wars, which pit working (white) mothers against stay-at-home (white) mothers, but also by the pitting of white, ideal, supposedly capable mothers against unfit mothers—that is, women of color.

Whereas middle- to upper-class white women are ushered into fertility clinics when they have difficulty conceiving, women of color are still often scorned for having children, viewed by society as indiscriminate breeders. Patricia Hill Collins, in her 1994 essay, “Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood,” analyzes how race affects women’s expectations and experiences of motherhood. Collins recognizes that “racial domination and economic exploitation profoundly shape the mothering context not only for racial ethnic women in the United States but for all women” (p. 56). Often, even feminist analysis of motherhood is done through a middle-class, white perspective: That is, women’s experiences with motherhood are defined via a family with a male head of household—a nuclear family in which the father brings home the bacon, the mother/wife cooks it, and then Father and children eat it together while Mom hovers over them expectantly, anticipating needs for drink refills and napkins.

Experience for women of color mothers (and many white mothers) may be vastly different, as men may play an altogether different role in their lives, “since work and family have rarely functioned as dichotomous spheres for women of color” (Collins 1994, p. 58). To hold not only their own families, but entire communities together, mothers of color often work not just in the home, but outside it, in economically fragile positions, in contrast to ideals of stay-at-home motherhood.


Collins examines how survival itself is a prominent theme in the lives of mothers of color. Whereas “physical survival is assumed for children who are white and middle class … racial ethnic children’s lives have long been held in low regard. African-American children face a mortality rate twice that for white infants … [and] one-half who survive infancy live in poverty” (p. 61). These grim statistics, however, are counteracted by the power and respect that can accompany motherhood for African-American women. “In a racist culture that deems black children inferior, unworthy, and unlovable, maternal love of black children is an act of resistance; in loving her children the mother instills in them a loved sense of self and high self-esteem, enabling them to defy and subvert racist discourses that naturalize racial inferiority and commodify blacks as other and object” (O’Reilly 2000, p. 151). The logic may follow, then, that if “motherhood is the pinnacle of womanhood,” African-American women will strive to reach that pinnacle (O’Reilly, p. 150). In the process, African-American mothers may be sensationalized, served up by the media as “the hideous counter-examples good mothers were meant to revile … and were disproportionately featured as failed mothers in news stories about ‘crack babies,’ single, teen mothers, and welfare mothers” (Douglas and Michaels 2004, p. 20). What the news does not feature is the strength African-American women may draw from their communities, their children, and each other. “Many African-American women receive respect and recognition within their local communities for innovative and practical approaches to mothering not only their own biological children, but also the children in their extended family networks and in the community overall” (Collins 1994, p. 67). In spite of, or in response to, cultural standards of motherhood, African Americans can empower themselves through ways of mothering that do not fit the ideal.


The struggle for power can be a common one for women of color, as they “are concerned with the power and powerlessness within an array of social institutions that frame their lives” (Collins 1994, p. 64). Native American women (like African-American women and other women of color) traditionally relied on extended family formations to help raise children and maintain their power. However, as Mary Crow Dog describes in her 1990 autobiography, Lakota Woman, the white government of the United States worked to dissolve such family arrangements in order to promote nuclear family formation, which depleted women’s autonomy. Government controls over and influence on Native American life have had serious impacts on how women have been able to mother. One way in which this can clearly be seen is through implementation of forced sterilizations of Native American women. Crow Dog’s account reveals that her mother was sterilized without her permission after the birth of Crow Dog’s youngest sister, “which was common at the time, and up to just a few years ago, so that it is hardly worth mentioning. In the opinion of some people, the fewer Indians there are, the better” (p. 9). Her sister was also sterilized after the birth of her first and only son, who died within a few hours of his birth. For Crow Dog, the attempted extermination of her people made her own motherhood more triumphant.

Sterilization was not the only form of powerlessness Native American women faced. For years, children were taken from their families and put into white (often religious) boarding schools, where attempts were made to strip them of their culture. Not only does the separation of child from mother create feelings of powerlessness for the mother, but, as Collins points out, “In contrast to middle-class white children, whose experiences affirm their mothers’ middle-class values, culture, and authority, children [of women of color] typically receive an education that derogates their mothers’ perspective” (p. 66). However, as Collins further explains, “A culture that sees the connectedness between the earth and human survival, and that sees motherhood symbolic of the earth itself holds motherhood as an institution in high regard” (p. 72). It is this view of motherhood, and firm connections to their culture, that can empower Native American women in their motherhood.


Ideals of motherhood for Latina and Asian-American women are convoluted by American’s mixed feelings about immigration. White Americans may view Latinas and Asian-American women as outsiders even when they are native citizens. On the other hand, Latina’s mothering abilities are valued not only in their own communities, but by families who employ Latinas as nannies. When immigration is discouraged or actively fought against, as is often the case for Latin Americans, the message sent to these women is often “we don’t want you; we certainly don’t want your children.” This sentiment can be seen not only through media, but also through various welfare reforms. As Lisa C. Ikemoto asserts in her 1999 essay, “Lessons from the Titanic: Start with the People in Steerage, Women and Children First”: “Since employers use gender, race, ethnicity, and immigration status to structure the labor sectors, and since welfare reform is part of a larger economic restructuring that has a disproportionately negative impact on women… . [I]mmigrant Latinas and Asian women are among those who are taking the heaviest blows” (p. 159). While the media may focus on welfare abuse, immigrant women must negotiate ways in which to obtain work and help support their families. For Latina women, this may include a redefinition of conventional motherhood. Though traditionally motherhood has been emphasized in relation to the home, and therefore separate from employment and embodied in cultural figures such as the Virgin de Guadelupe, the economy may demand that mothers work for pay (Hondagneu-Soptela, Avila 1997, p. 551). Transnational mothers who must leave their children in their home country to work, often as domestics, for better pay in America, may define themselves as better mothers than the mothers they work for who can afford to pay for in-home care for their children while they pursue their own careers. Latinas’ experiences and definitions of motherhood may vary widely depending upon their own economic condition and their necessity to alter their ideas of “good-motherhood” to include their own position.

Tied to the struggle of work and defining good motherhood is the struggle to form a bridge between two (or more) cultures, to teach the children they may be separated from or working alongside that leaving one land for another does not mean abandoning one’s culture, even while the dominant American culture seeks to assimilate the children. Joonuk Huh, in her 2000 account, “Constantly Negotiating: Between My Mother and My Daughter,” explains how when she is with her Korean mother, “I wish my mother would let me be my own person instead of insisting that I be a Korean woman… . [W]hen I resume my mother role … I am confronted by my daughter’s question… . She is not happy with me for reminding her that she is Asian-American, not American” (p. 268). M. Elaine Mar reveals a similar struggle with her Chinese mother in her 1999 memoir, Paper Daughter. Working with her mother in her aunt’s home and in their family restaurant, Mar struggles with her mother’s seemingly contradictory pressures to both assimilate and remain a loyal Chinese daughter. “Many Asian-American mothers stress conformity and fitting in as a way to challenge the system” (Collins 1994, p. 71). This claim to American identity through performance, regardless of ethnicity, is one more way that women of color negotiate their roles as mothers.

The differences and similarities between motherhood for women of color and white women cannot be broken into sections, or easily summarized, and certainly not all can be included in an explanation as brief as this. For all mothers living in a system that privileges some and devalues the lives and experiences of others, motherhood cannot be viewed as a simple vocation. It must be examined through the many ways in which it is influenced by race, class, sexuality, ability, and other institutions that affect women’s lives. Through multiracial feminism, it can be further understood how race affects everyone, in every social location. Motherhood, like other women’s experiences, must be analyzed and understood with race as a crucial aspect of that understanding. Analyzing motherhood through only one lens provides a distorted and incomplete view. Only by incorporating race as one of these lenses can one hope to form a cohesive understanding of motherhood for the diverse women who define it how they may.

SEE ALSO Adolescent Female Sexuality; Families; Sexuality.


Collins, Patricia Hill. 1994. “Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood.” In Representations of Motherhood, edited by Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, 56–74. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Crow Dog, Mary, and Richard Erdoes. 1990. Lakota Woman. New York: Harper Perennial.

Douglas, Susan J., and Meredith W. Michaels. 2004. The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women. New York: Free Press.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierette, and Ernestine Avila. 1997. “I’m Here, but I’m There: The Meanings of Latina Transnational Motherhood.” Gender & Society 11 (5): 548–571.

Huh, Joonuk. 2000. “Constantly Negotiating: Between My Mother and My Daughter.” In Mothers and Daughters: Connection, Empowerment, and Transformation, edited by Andrea O’Reilly and Sharon Abbey, 267–275. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ikemoto, Lisa C. 1999. “Lessons from the Titanic: Start with the People in Steerage, Women and Children First.” In Mother Troubles: Rethinking Contemporary Maternal Dilemmas, edited by Julia E. Hanigsberg and Sara Ruddick, 157–177. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lowinsky, Naomi. 2000. “Mother of Mothers, Daughter of Daughters: Reflections on the Motherline.” In Mothers and Daughters: Connection, Empowerment, and Transformation, edited by Andrea O’Reilly and Sharon Abbey, 227–235. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Mar, M. Elaine. 1999. Paper Daughter: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins.

O’Reilly, Andrea. 2000. “‘I Come from a Long Line of Uppity Irate Black Women’: African-American Feminist Thought on Motherhood, the Motherline, and the Mother–Daughter Relationship.” In Mothers and Daughters: Connection, Empowerment, and Transformation, edited by Andrea O’Reilly and Sharon Abbey, 143–159. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Zinn, Maxine Baca, and Bonnie Thornton Dill. 1996. “Theorizing Difference from Multiracial Feminism.” Feminist Studies 22 (2): 321–332.

Mary Alice Long


views updated May 23 2018


Renaissance Europeans did not generally idealize motherhood or give special praise to the role of mothers. The one exception, the widespread love and respect for the Virgin Mary as mother of Christ, did not carry over to mothers in everyday life. Fathers acted as heads of the family, supervising children's upbringing and making decisions about their futures. Death or desertion took fathers from many households, however, leaving women alone with children to raise.

Pregnancy. Society expected married women to be mothers. Most women became pregnant within a year of marriage, and a large number of brides were pregnant when they married. A steady stream of pregnancies usually followed, spaced two or three years apart, for the rest of the woman's childbearing years. Most women breast-fed their babies for at least a year or two. Breast-feeding reduced their chances of becoming pregnant during this period, as did social customs that discouraged sexual activity for nursing mothers. Women of the upper classes, however, often did not breast-feed their infants themselves but instead turned them over to wet nurses—usually peasant women whose own infants had died. For this reason, wealthy wives might have babies as often as once a year.

Infertility, a woman's failure to become pregnant, was a source of distress to married couples. Doctors assumed that the source of this problem lay with the woman, labeling childless married women as "barren." Some barren women sought help by praying to the Virgin Mary. Folklore also offered methods for improving fertility, such as eating crabs or wearing amulets*.

Most people did not try to avoid pregnancy through planning or the use of birth control. Prostitutes and courtesans* were believed to have secret methods for preventing unwanted pregnancies, but respectable society frowned on the idea. Abortion also had shady associations, yet it may have been fairly common. There was little concern about ending a pregnancy in its very early stages, before the mother had "felt life" (movement within the womb).

Birth. Renaissance women gave birth in the company of many other women. Female relatives and neighbors gathered at a birth to offer help, comfort, and social contact. Men, even doctors, had no place at the scene of a birth. The most important attendant was a midwife, an older woman who had borne children and received training in the skills needed to assist at childbirth. However, if serious complications threatened the life of the mother or the child, a male surgeon might be called.

Childbirth posed medical risks for both mothers and infants. The main cause of death for mothers was probably infection, usually caused by a hand or instrument inserted into the birth canal. Newborns also faced many dangers. Between 20 and 40 percent of all babies died during their first year. Half of those who reached their first birthday died before the age of 10. People at all levels of society, aware of the high rate of infant and childhood deaths, wanted their babies baptized as soon as possible, to protect their souls in case of premature death.

Bringing Up Children. Little information is available about the relationships between mothers and their young children in the Renaissance. In general, poor mothers had more and closer contact with their children than wealthy women, whose children often spent their first years under the care of wet nurses in the nurses' own homes.

Wet-nursing aroused mixed feelings. Both medicine and religion strongly urged women to nurse their own babies, and images of the Virgin Mary nursing the infant Jesus became very common in Renaissance art. In addition, many people believed that children absorbed character traits along with breast milk, which led to fears that upper-class children might acquire undesirable qualities from the peasant women who nursed them. Despite these concerns, however, many parents who could afford to employ wet nurses did so, either so that they could remain sexually active or for other reasons. Wet-nursing was a thriving and highly organized business throughout Europe.

Mothers tended to keep small children out of trouble by restricting their movement. They usually kept infants wrapped in "swaddling clothes," which kept them warm and prevented them from moving around. Most babies stayed in cradles near the fire, with a mother, a servant, or an older child keeping an eye on them while going about other tasks. Even once they came out of swaddling clothes, babies were not allowed to crawl or walk around freely. Children in poor households, who were less strictly controlled, sometimes seriously injured themselves.

Mothers in Society. Mothers affected their children's lives through their family connections. Children, whether they lived in the village society of peasants or in the great world of nobles, benefited from whatever wealth and status their mother's family possessed. Maternal grandparents and other relatives could also make up an important part of a child's emotional life.

Mothers played a role in the inheritance of money and property, usually by passing property from their husbands to their children. The law viewed mothers not as the owners of property but as temporary caretakers, safeguarding it for their children. When a man died, his children commonly inherited his possessions, with a certain amount set aside for their widowed mother to use during her lifetime. Some men, however, made their wives their heirs, especially if their children were quite young.

Conflicts sometimes arose when a widow with children remarried, especially if she had children by her second marriage. Children of the "first bed" and the "second bed" frequently battled over their mother's property in court. In 1560 the French crown protected children of first marriages by setting limits on the amount a widowed mother could carry into a new marriage.

(See alsoFamily and Kinship; Love and Marriage; Medicine; Women. )

* amulet

small object or ornament worn as a magic charm to ward off evil

* courtesan

prostitute associated with wealthy men or men in attendance at a royal court

Surrogate Motherhood

views updated Jun 08 2018


SURROGATE MOTHERHOOD is the process by which a woman bears a child for another couple, typically an infertile couple. There are two kinds of surrogate motherhood. In traditional surrogacy, the mother is artificially inseminated with sperm from the father or with sperm from a donor, if the father is infertile. In gestational surrogacy, sperm is taken from the father (or from a donor) and the egg is taken from the mother, fertilization happens in vitro, and the embryos are then implanted into the surrogate mother's uterus. Thus, the surrogate mother is not genetically related to the child.

For over one hundred years artificial insemination was used as a way of managing male infertility that kept the family intact and allowed children to be born to a married couple. Artificial insemination was generally kept secret. Couples did not tell friends, family, or the children themselves that donor sperm was used, thus maintaining the fiction of biological paternity.

Though stories of surrogate motherhood, often with familial surrogates, date back two thousand years, in 1976 the lawyer Noel Keane arranged the first formal agreement between a couple and a surrogate mother in the United States. The marketing of "surrogacy" developed as a solution to female infertility. Brokers entered the scene, hiring women to become pregnant via artificial insemination with the sperm of the husband of the infertile woman. In 1986 surrogacy came to national attention with the case of "Baby M." In this case, the woman hired as a surrogate, Mary Beth Whitehead, later refused to relinquish the child. After a protracted court battle, in which Whitehead's parental rights were stripped and then replaced, the hiring couple won custody of the baby, but Whitehead remained the legal mother with visitation rights.

Since the 1980s, advances in technology have increased the use of gestational surrogacy. As it has become more common, there has been an increase in the number of Latin American, Asian American, and African American surrogates.

The Center for Surrogate Parenting (CSP) estimates a cost of $56,525 for traditional surrogacy, in which artificial insemination is used, and a cost of $69,325 if another woman's egg is used. Approximately $15,000 of these fees are paid to the surrogate herself for the time and sacrifice of the pregnancy. When surrogacy agreements first surfaced in the mid-1970s, there was no payment for surrogate motherhood, and it tended to involve middle-class and blue-collar couples, with friends and sisters helping each other. Once payment became the norm, the demographic changed: "the majority of the couples remain largely upper-middle-class people, whereas the majority of the surrogates are working class women" (Ragoné, Surrogate Motherhood, p. 194).

In 2002, most states had no specific laws regarding surrogate motherhood. While many states do not uphold surrogacy contracts, all states recognize birth certificates and adoption certificates from other states, making surrogate services available to anyone with the money to hire them.

That surrogacy has become a business has not meant that contracting couples do not value the surrogate or that the surrogate does not care about the child or the couple. Very careful screening—approximately 95 percent of potential surrogates are rejected—ensures that situations similar to that of Mary Beth Whitehead do not happen. Surrogates are chosen for their commitment. In the only ethnographic study of surrogacy, Helena Ragoné found that couples adopted one of two strategies in dealing with their surrogate. "Egalitarians" wanted to maintain a relationship with the surrogate mother and did not see her as a means to an end. Since in all of Ragoné's cases the children were still quite young, it is difficult to know how this would play out. "Pragmatists" simply dropped the relationship with the surrogate, taking the child as theirs, and considering the payment sufficient acknowledgement of the role of the surrogate.


Ragoné, Helena. Surrogate Motherhood: Conception in the Heart. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994.

Rothman, Barbara Katz. Recreating Motherhood: Ideology and Technology in a Patriarchal Society. New York, Norton, 1989.

See alsoAdoption ; Childbirth and Reproduction ; Children's Bureau ; Family ; Foster Care .


views updated May 23 2018


Children born to slave mothers were slaves, regardless of the father's status, whether black or white, free or slave. Laws regarding the status of slave children—called the "increase" or "issuance" of the mother—varied from state to state, though all revolved around the fact that, as spelled out by Jacob Wheeler in his 1837 treatise on slavery, "the child before born is part of the mother, and its condition the same; the birth does not alter its rights" (p. 323). In some states even if the mother was freed soon after the birth of a child, the child was required to be in servitude for the same number of years as she was before her emancipation.

Slave mothers faced the constant worry that they or their children could be sold at any time. Women used as breeders of slaves were forced into pregnancy again and again; both they and their offspring were prized commodities at the slave markets, crushing any development of the natural attachment between mother and child. Families were routinely separated; husbands and wives had no true status as a couple, and mothers were rarely allowed to stay with their children. A slave mother's worth was tied to her productivity in the fields or as a servant: if her skills waned or someone was willing to pay a good price, she was sold at the annual auction regardless of whether she had young children.

Many small children fended for themselves. Once they reached the age of three or four and could complete simple tasks, they were considered valuable enough to warrant some attention. George Taylor Burns, a former slave from Vanderburgh County in Arkansas, related to an interviewer a memory from his second or third year:

Nothing impressed the boy with such unforgettable imagery as the cold which descended … one winter. Motherless, hungry, desolate and unloved, he often cried himself to sleep while each day he was compelled to carry wood. One morning he failed to come when the horn was sounded to call the slaves to breakfast. 'Old Missus went to the negro quarters to see what was wrong,' and 'she was horrified when she found I was frozen to the bed.'" (Born in Slavery, Indiana Narratives, vol. 5, p. 37)

For slave mothers who were allowed to raise their children, care was a constant worry. Many lost children within the first year of life to croup, fever, or other ailments. Conditions varied from homestead to homestead, but most new mothers were allowed to nurse their babies three or four times daily. At larger plantations, babies and young children were cared for in nurseries within the slave quarters or a shack close to the fields. At smaller plantations where there were few infants, the small children were usually left alone in their parents' cabins. Kate E. R. Pickard, a teacher in the Female Seminary of Tuscumbra, Alabama, wrote about slave mothers at a Lawrence County plantation:

At that time there was no old woman on the place to take care of the children; and every mother, when she went to the field in the morning, locked her little ones in her cabin, leaving some bread where they could get it when they became hungry. Or, if there was one too small to help itself to the bread, the thoughtful mother tied a little mush in a rag upon its finger, so that when, as babies will, it thrust its finger in its mouth, it could suck the mush through the rag, and that would keep it quiet (1856, p. 163).

As slave children usually had little or no clothing, their mothers often made shifts from flour or grain sacks or pieced together tiny swatches of cloth. All sewing and laundry took place at night or on the weekends.

Slave mothers provided their children with chunks of bread and soup or gruel made from flour, wheat, water, or milk, sometimes sweetened with molasses. The family of Alice Wright, an Alabama-born slave, lived in the yard of their slaveholders; children were fed by a "trough on the floor with wooden spoons and as many children as could get around that trough got there and ate" (Arkansas Narratives, vol. 2, part 7, p. 245).

Although motherhood for slaves was a wrenching situation, children were celebrated as a gift from God. Pickard wrote of Vina's joy over her firstborn son: "She knew her babe was born to slavery—and sorrow; but oh! so dearly did she love it!" (p. 191).


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938 Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Arkansas Narratives, vol. 2, part 7. Indiana Narratives, vol. 5. Available from

Pickard, Kate E. R. The Kidnapped and the Ransomed: Being the Personal Recollections of Peter Still and His Wife "Vina," After Forty Years of Slavery. 3rd ed. Syracuse, NY, 1856. (Repr., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.)

Wheeler, Jacob D. Practical Treatise on the Law of Slavery. New York: A. Pollock, 1837.

                                          Nelson Rhodes


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motherhood A term encompassing the practical realities and social significance of being a mother. The nature of sociological interest in mothering (the process) and motherhood (the condition) has varied over time. Prior to the 1970s, the focus was either on having children as a demographic event (where women rather than men were typically the unit of analysis), or on child-rearing. In both cases the child was the centre of attention, whether as a numerical addition to the population, or as a potential adult member of society. On the one hand, patterns of fertility were examined: the age of childbearing, the spacing of births, family size, contraceptive use, illegitimacy, and so forth. On the other hand, the concern was with the impact of the mother's (and to a lesser extent the father's) behaviour on the child, and hence on the subsequent adult. Sociological analyses drew on anthropologists' influential cross-cultural studies of child-training and psychologists' analyses of child development (in both cases the Freudian legacy was strong). Sociological work located child-rearing within the broader framework of the process of socialization—a process occurring at all stages of life and involving a range of agents, not just parents, in which individuals are trained to accept the prevailing social norms. Given the marked empirical differences in maternal and paternal roles, research on childhood socialization inevitably showed some awareness of gender differences, but tended simply to take them for granted. Indeed, macro-theoretical analyses, like that of Talcott Parsons, asserted the functional necessity in advanced industrial societies of women's role in child-care within the home.

The feminist movements of the 1970s had a marked impact on the sociological study of motherhood, critically questioning the parental division of labour, although empirical studies showed and continue to show that the bulk of parenting is carried out by women. One consequence of this attention to gender differentiation was an interest in fatherhood. Feminism also equally importantly shifted the attention from the mother as a producer and creator of children to the mother herself. In the first place, the experience of being a mother has been placed centre-stage. Second, the impact and significance of motherhood on women's position in society and on the gender division of labour has been addressed by a range of feminist theorists. Women's experience of both having and rearing children, the significance of motherhood to women's identity, and the cultural pressures to have children have all been explored in a range of empirical studies, most notably those of Ann Oakley. Many of these studies have challenged the common assumption that women have some instinctive desire to have children and to care for them, and have also examined the dissatisfactions and frustrations of being a mother, especially if one is confined to the home. Not surprisingly, some feminist theorists have suggested that it is the biological fact of childbearing that is the key source of women's oppression, a view developed most fully in Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering (1978). However, such claims have been hotly contested, and feminists' views on the significance and value of motherhood in women's lives are a matter of vigorous debate. See also MATERNAL DEPRIVATION.