Posts Tagged 'motherhood'

Challenging the politics of early intervention

Nicola Horsley

Ros Edwards

Val Gillies

The past decade has seen a rash of early intervention programmes targeting mothers of young children.

Reports by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, and early years policy and service provision in the UK and internationally, are now characterised by an emphasis on early intervention in the belief that pregnancy and the earliest years of life are most important for development. It has become the orthodoxy in a whole range of professional practice fields.

The idea of being able to intervene in parenting to ensure better life chances for children feels constructive and positive, but there is little evidence to suggest that it works. Moreover, early intervention doctrine ultimately holds mothers accountable for poverty and other social ills.

“…there is little evidence to suggest that it works.”

Pressure on mothers

Early intervention is directed at mothers as the core mediators of their children’s development. The significance of mother-child relationships in the early years often is underlined through reference to the developing brain. For example, the website of the influential Harvard Center on the Developing Child refers to mothers as ‘buffers’ between their children and adversity. As buffers, they are held personally responsible for inculcating what the Harvard Center terms ‘a biological resistance to adversity’ in their children.

The quality of mother-child relationships is posed as a decisive lever in building children’s brains, and is a core principle structuring the everyday work of many early years intervention programmes. In one UK early years intervention initiative that targets young and marginalised first time mothers, the Family Nurse Partnership programme, practitioners provide mothers with a sheet headed ‘How to build your baby’s brain’ featuring a list of activities claimed to enrich neural connectivity, such as reading books, singing rhymes, and playing on the floor.

“The deprivation facing poor working class families is posed as a result of poor mothering.”

The responsibility loaded onto mothers is especially pronounced in relation to low income, working class mothers and Black and minority ethnic mothers, as both cause of and solution to their children’s marginalisation and poverty.

The deprivation facing poor working class families is posed as a result of poor mothering and consequently the stunted brains of their offspring, at the same time as they are positioned as buffers who can mitigate against and overcome the effects of a harsh wider environment for their children. Early intervention programmes such as the UK’s Family Nurse Partnership, the Solihull Approach, and Parent-Infant Partnerships, overwhelmingly are delivered in areas of deprivation to poor mothers.

Ideas about brain science are used to legitimise interventions in the child rearing habits of working class families, protecting children brought up in poverty from any effects of their disadvantage and promote their social mobility. The social and structural causes of hardship and need that are being experienced by these families in the present are effectively masked, placing mothers as hidden buffers against the effects of privation on their children.

The developing world

Globally, UNICEF brings together early years development and parenting to offset children experiencing war and hunger on the basis of the speed of new neural connections formed in the brain in the early years, asserting that good parenting will help children overcome multiple adversities such as violence, disaster, and poverty. Despite the overall paucity of evidence that early years intervention works, initiatives are being rolled out across the developing world, in the belief that improved mothering will surely benefit the state of the nation.

For example, the ‘Fine Brains’ (Family-Inclusive Early Brain Stimulation) programme seeks to promote parental stimulation and interaction to improve children’s brain architecture in sub-Sahara. It asserts that mothers in these countries are ill-equipped to maximise the benefits of interaction, need to be trained, and then to train their husbands to parent properly. The complex and diverse historical, economic, political, social and religious contexts of sub-Saharan Africa are obscured in favour of a focus on individual mothers as able to overcome poverty, conflict and post-conflict, engrained gendered inequalities, and so on, through improving their knowledge of child development and home engagement practices.

“Despite the overall paucity of evidence that early years intervention works, initiatives are being rolled out across the developing world.”


A meritocratic construction

The policy and practice preoccupation with how poor mothers and deprived families bring up and nurture their children relies on a meritocratic construction of the wealthy and privileged as having better developed brains. This is a statement that many of us might find offensive. But within the confluence of brain science and early years intervention, success is naturalised and unproblematically correlated with brain structure and intelligence. From this perspective, the solution to poverty is to make people smarter. Working class mothers, black and minority ethnic mothers, and mothers in the global South can enable their children to think their way out of their predicament.

The idea that hardship and discrimination is to do with how much attention of the right sort that mothers give to their children, and the notion of countering global traumas and inequalities through parenting, is jaw-dropping. It demonstrates why early intervention policy and practice deserves more critical scrutiny.


Challenging the politics of early intervention by Val Gillies, Rosalind Edwards and Nicola Horsley is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website.  Order here for just £18.39.

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Author Interview – Rachel Thomson and Mary Jane Kehily

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.

TPP: Many thanks for your time and the insights into your work. Making modern mothers is now available with a 20% discount. You can order your copy here.

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