Becoming a mother is a profound moment of identity change for women and also a point of socio-economic difference that shapes women’s lives. Making modern mothers was published in June and documents the transition to motherhood over generations and time. It explores, amongst other things, the trend to later motherhood and the experience of teenage pregnancy and a compelling picture emerges. We asked two of its authors, Rachel Thomson and Mary Jane Kehily to tell us more about the book and their research.
TPP: What did you hope to discover through your work in Making modern mothers?
Where there any surprises?
RT & MJK: One thing that motivated us from the start was to get a sense of how social change is actually lived in families – how mothers and daughters manage changing expectations and values. We know something about this from our own families but doing a study like this gave us the opportunity to explore these questions on a much broader canvas. We also wanted to update the feminist account of motherhood, feeling that the picture of motherhood in the social sciences was forged by the baby boomer generation. We felt that some important things had changed and wanted to know what motherhood looked like through a different generational location. Empirical research always produces surprises – the world is always more complex and rich than we expect. The diversity of mothering that we discovered was surprising, partly because it is so seldom shown. Simply representing this is important, revealing the poverty of the popular ‘figures’ that we tend to rely on and think with.
TPP: Which came first in your research: childhood or motherhood?
RT & MJH: For both of us research on childhood and youth came first. But when you study youth you also study young people’s understandings and imaginings of adulthood which always involves the markers of ‘settling down’ and parenthood. We have also both researched young people’s sexuality and the cultural controversies that surround teenage pregnancy and parenthood. Extending our analysis of the life course from youth to maternity and back to childhood made perfect sense.
TPP: Have you felt through this research that the traditional heteronormative, late 20s/early 30s married parental system has fallen by the wayside? Many of the women you focus on in the book certainly do not fall into this ideal. What do you make of the changes? Do you see any patterns? Are they simply the adaptations of a world of more options and opportunity?
RT & MJK: We deliberately sought to represent diversity in our study – however there are still patterns in the timing of motherhood. The middle age group of women aged between 25 and 36 reflects the majority experience of women becoming mothers for the first time, and establishes a cultural norm that means that those having babies earlier and later are seen to be young and old mothers respectively. In many ways the timing of motherhood is more culturally loaded than other aspects of difference such as marital status and sexuality which would have been much more important in a previous generation. So yes, in a way the normative model of married, heterosexual, stay at home motherhood is increasingly anachronistic – and ‘timely’ motherhood that synchronises career, relationship and economic independence is the cultural ideal.
TPP: Has the process of researching and becoming involved in the lives of these women changed your perspective on motherhood?
RT & MJK: Inevitably. There is not such thing as a neutral position with motherhood. We are all daughters and sons, and we all have a position in relation to mothering, whether that is as someone for whom mothering is no longer a possibility, through the experience of reflecting back on it, being in the thick of it and seeing it on the horizon. The research team paid attention to their own personal investments as part of the research, and this enriched the research process, the data and our interpretations.
TPP: Which of the stories in the book or aspects of a story affected you most? Why?
RT & MJK: That is hard to answer. In one way it was the case study families that had greatest impact on me – simply because we met so many family members and witnessed change over time. When we wrote about these families we sometimes felt that we had become part of the family ourselves. But some of the most powerful connections may have been those that were relatively transient – like the young mother who we met in a special residential unit and who we lost contact with after she lost her much wanted baby.