Engendering Motherhood: Identity and Self-Transformation in Women's Lives

Article excerpt

Engendering Motherhood: Identity and SelfTransformation in Women's Lives. Martha McMahon. New York: Guilford Press. 1995. 324 pp. Hardcover ISBN 1-57230-002-7. $32.50 cloth.

In Engendering Motherhood, Martha McMahon presents a sociological analysis of the meaning of motherhood and the identity transformation that occurred for 31 middle-class and 28 workingclass, Canadian-educated, White women who worked full-time outside the home and had primary responsibility for parenting at least one preschool child. Based on in-depth, semistructured interviews and informed by a symbolic interactionist theoretical perspective, McMahon's book makes a unique contribution to the literature on motherhood. McMahon attempts to examine not how these mothers shaped the lives of their children, but rather how caring for young children and the experience of mothering within a patriarchal culture profoundly shaped the gendered identities of these women-how motherhood was both a gendered and an engendering experience.

The book is organized to reflect what McMahon identifies as the two phases of the process by which these middle-class and working-class women became pregnant and sustained their pregnancies through to motherhood (Phase One in chapters 3 and 4) and subsequently developed conceptions of themselves as mothers (Phase Two in chapters 5 through 8). In these chapters she addresses the similarities and differences in the meanings and experiences of these two groups of mothers.

McMahon's cogent analysis is liberally supplemented throughout with rich and descriptive quotes from the women. Particularly noteworthy is the way in which McMahon portrays the complexity of the decision-making process engaged in by the women in their "recuitment to motherhood." For example, she identifies the significance of the middle-class women's lack of investment in the socially stigmatized identity of childless women as salient in their decisions to become mothers. For many of the working-class women, motherhood, even if it was unplanned, was embraced as a way of establishing adult status and maturity. Less useful, however, are McMahon's attempt to explain the women's passionate expressions of maternal love for their children as partially constituted by the intense personal and social changes they experienced during their transitions to motherhood and McMahon's discussion of the women's projections regarding how they "might" feel if they had never had children. …