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The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood

 
 
 
 
The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood
Author: Sharon Hays
ISBN 13: 9780300076523
ISBN 10: 300076525
Edition: N/A
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: 1998-09-10
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 288
List Price: $29.00
 
 

Working mothers today confront not only conflicting demands on their time and energy but also conflicting ideas about how they are to behave: they must be nurturing and unselfish while engaged in child rearing but competitive and ambitious at work. As more and more women enter the workplace, it would seem reasonable for society to make mothering a simpler and more efficient task. Instead, Sharon Hays points out in this original and provocative book, an ideology of "intensive mothering" has developed that only exacerbates the tensions working mothers face. Drawing on ideas about mothering since the Middle Ages, on contemporary child-rearing manuals, and on in-depth interviews with mothers from a range of social classes, Hays traces the evolution of the ideology of intensive mothering - an ideology that holds the individual mother primarily responsible for child rearing and dictates that the process is to be child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive. Hays argues that these ideas about appropriate mothering stem from a fundamental ambivalence about a system based solely on the competitive pursuit of individual interests. In attempting to deal with our deep uneasiness about self-interest, we have imposed unrealistic and unremunerated obligations and commitments on mothering, making it into an opposing force, a primary field on which this cultural ambivalence is played out.

Kirkus Reviews

A lucid, probing examination of our culture's contradictory and troubled relationship to motherhood—and how it affects mothers.

Hays (Sociology and Women's Studies/Univ. of Virginia) interviewed 38 mothers from various class backgrounds. Some stayed at home, some worked; all had young children. She found that all, despite their differences, subscribed to what Hays calls the "ideology of intensive mothering"—the belief that mothers (not fathers) should spend an enormous amount of time, physical and emotional energy, and money raising children. She critically examines the advice of three best-selling authors of books on child-rearing—T. Berry Brazelton, Benjamin Spock, and Penelope Leach—and finds that they have adopted the ideology as well. Hays provides some helpful social context, convincingly demonstrating that no one idea about mothers and children is inherently "natural." In the past, she points out, children have been expendable or even demonized as bearers of original sin, not worthy of much time or emotional energy, while even today, in many cultures, raising children is the responsibility of several women and older children, not just the birth mother. Hays points out that the ideology is problematic because it perpetuates a "double shift" life for working women, as well as the assumption that men are incompetent at parenting and superior in the professional world—which encourages the subordination of women. It also places mothers in constant conflict with the rest of society's ostensible priorities—wealth and individual fulfillment. But she also argues perceptively that part of the reason the ideology is successful and necessary is that in placing a high value on love and self- sacrifice, it offers an alternative to selfish, materialistic market values.

A thoughtful analysis of the paradoxes that surround mothering. Hays is sensitive to the emotional issues involved—and equally astute in perceiving their sociopolitical context.