Saturday, September 27, 2008

Measuring mothering

Rebecca Kukla, a feminist scholar, has written a brilliant article in the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics entitled Measuring Motherhood. I have quoted Prof. Kukla before in a post discussing the way that attachment parenting advocates fetishize physical proximity of mothers to babies (See Proximity).

Now Kukla has turned her attention to the middle class penchant of evaluating other women's mothering by signal moments, and her insights are quite penetrating.
Our cultural insistence that women make "proper" birth choices and maintain control over their birth narratives is not about minimizing real risks; rather, it supports our desire to measure mothering in terms of women’s personal choices and of self-discipline exercised during signal moments. What is at stake is not the health of babies but an image of proper motherhood, combined with the idea that birth should function as a symbolic spectacle of such motherhood.
This is what I have been arguing all along. Homebirth and "natural" childbirth advocacy are not about birth, and they are not about what is good for babies. They are culturally constructed, purely subjective, efforts to elevate the preferences of a subgroup of women over the preferences of all other women.
As a culture, we have a tendency to measure motherhood in terms of a set of signal moments that have become the focus of special social attention and anxiety; we interpret these as emblematic summations of women’s mothering abilities. Women’s performances during these moments can seem to exhaust the story of mothering, and mothers often internalize these measures and evaluate their own mothering in terms of them. "Good"” mothers are those who pass a series of tests — they bond properly during their routine ultrasound screening, they do not let a sip of alcohol cross their lips during pregnancy, they give birth vaginally without pain medication, they do not offer their child an artificial nipple during the first six months, they feed their children maximally nutritious meals with every bite, and so on. This reductive understanding of mothering has had counterproductive effects upon health care practice and policy, encouraging measures that penalize mothers who do not live up to cultural norms during signal moments, while failing to promote extended narratives of healthy mothering.
Kukla situates "natural" childbirth within a larger pattern of judging women by their "performance" at key moments:
The rhetoric surrounding these moments suggests, on the one hand, that they will determine the success of the future mothering narrative (whether the mother will bond properly with her baby; whether the baby will develop a lifetime of secure relationships and healthy eating habits) and on the other hand, that they reveal the truth about a woman’s fitness to mother (whether she is sufficiently engaged, self sacrificing,risk-adverse, disciplined, etc.).
My primary purpose in exploring these issues has been exposing them as purely social standards without basis in scientific facts. Kukla is more concerned about the ways in which these purely social standards implicitly disadvantage and demean women who are not privileged culturally and economically.
Thus to the extent that we take "proper" maternal performance during these key moments as a measure of mothering as a whole, we will re-inscribe social privilege. We will read a deficient maternal character into the bodies and actions of underprivileged and socially marginalized women, whereas privileged women with socially normative home and work lives will tend to serve as our models of proper maternal character.
The bottom line is that a small group of privileged women hold their own choices up as standards to which all women should aspire. This is wrong on several levels: there is no objective evidence that the claims of "natural" childbirth advocates are true; there is no objective evidence that single moments of motherhood determine the long term well being of a child or determine the strength of the mother-child bond; and insisting that the cultural rituals of a privileged group of women are the standards to which all other women should aspire reinforces existing cultural and economic prejudices.


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