Friday, 25 July 2008

Bring back mothers?

By Emma Head

Sociologists have long been interested in the transition to motherhood. Perhaps the best known study of this important time in a woman’s life was Anne Oakley’s work Becoming a Mother (1981), based on in-depth interviews she conducted with women in the 1970s. Earlier this month (July 2008) the Modern Motherhood conference in London focused on first-time motherhood and reported the findings of two research projects, The Making of Modern Motherhoods project led by Professor Rachel Thomson and Dr Mary Jane Kehily (Open University) and Becoming a Mother project led by Professors Wendy Hollway (Open University) and Ann Phoenix (Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Institute of Education). Throughout the day various contributors made the point that while politicians and policy documents now tend to refer to the gender-neutral ‘parenting’, this doesn’t reflect the social reality as the bulk of caring for children continues to be carried out by mothers.

This is a point taken up in a new report from the National Families and Parenting Institute (NFPI) titled Listening to Mother: Making Britain Mother-friendly. The report states that “The language of parenting has not always equalised the relationship between men and women: it has sometimes masked inequalities which have not been properly thought through or tackled”. The NFPI report goes on to argue that talking about ‘parenting’ in such a generalised way obscures the particular needs of mother, such as the needs for support services in the period immediately after childbirth. Britain has a shortage of midwives and a review of NHS maternity services has identified “serious flaws” in care, including a lack of support for mothers who have given birth. The numbers of health visitors, a group who provide support and advice to new mothers, are also in decline. The report identifies the way that the transition to motherhood has a far greater effect on the lives of women, than becoming a father has on men.

So how important is language? Is it time to stop talking about ‘parents’ and to give fuller recognition to the ways that the roles of mothers and fathers do differ in contemporary Britain. Or would an emphasis on mothers serve to perpetuate the difficulties women are facing in getting men to take on more caring tasks and also be exclusionary to those fathers who are increasingly involved in the care of small children?

At Keele, the motherhood and parenthood agenda is a hot topic: modules on the changing nature of the family and parenting relationships are on offer at levels 2 and 3 on the undergraduate programme, as well as modules on parenting and consumer culture. We also offer advanced Sociology of the Family as part of our Masters' in Research in Sociology.

In our research, there are a number of activites relating to the shaping of modern motherhood and parenting: Lydia Martens has an ongoing interest in this field, with specific reference to the ways consumer cultures shape motherhood, babyhood and children; Emma Head is also working on parenting styles and motherhood; the two of them, with Rebecca Leach, are developing a new project in this field. Lydia has recently been awarded (with Pauline Maclaran in Marketing at Keele) an ESRC seminar series on Mothers, Markets and Consumption.

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