Rhetorical Visions of Motherhood: A Feminist Analysis of the What to Expect Series

By Dobris, Catherine A.; White-Mills, Kim | Women and Language, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Rhetorical Visions of Motherhood: A Feminist Analysis of the What to Expect Series


Dobris, Catherine A., White-Mills, Kim, Women and Language


Abstract: In this paper, fantasy theme analysis is used to illuminate themes implicit in the construction of motherhood by authors Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi Murkoff, and Sandee Hathaway in their What to Expect series on childbirth and childrearing. Whether the messages originate from the dominant culture, from men or women, or are produced by marginalized groups for the consumption of their own membership, stereotypical assumptions may be used to promulgate idealizations of motherhood and childrearing. The purpose of this project is to identify themes in the What to Expect series to understand their contributions to the patriarchal vision of motherhood.

Introduction

The past half a century has seen a virtual explosion in the genre of self-help with pregnancy and childcare advice infiltrating cable television programming, and self-help texts occupying entire walls in national bookstore chains. As Douglas and Michaels (2004) point out, media in general has been "the major dispenser of the ideals and norms surrounding motherhood" and "millions ... [have] preferred media advice" to advice from their own mothers (p. 11). Moreover, Douglas and Michaels (2004) note that between 1970 and 2000, more than eight hundred books were published on motherhood alone. Further, although Dr. Spock is still likely the most familiar name in childcare, many contemporary texts are written by women physicians, nurses and laypeople (e.g., Leach, P., 1997; Nechas, E., & Foley, D., 1992; Samuels, M., & Samuels, N., 1986; Shapiro, H., 1988; and Willis, K., & Bucknum, M., 1998).

The purpose of this paper is to identify themes in the popular What to Expect childbirth and childrearing series to understand their contributions to the patriarchal vision of motherhood. First, Bormann's fantasy theme analysis is used to illuminate themes implicit in the construction of "motherhood" by authors Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi Murkoff, and Sandee Hathaway in the What to Expect series. Second, and based on the thematic categories that emerged from Bormann's (1972) fantasy theme analysis, a chi square analysis was run to assess the differences in the frequency of occurrence of each theme and of the themes across the texts.

Background on Self-Help Genre

Since most women who bear or adopt children, and some men who raise children, utilize one or more texts as they embark on the process of childrearing, the rhetorical significance of these texts cannot be underestimated in shaping the destinies of our children, thus ultimately shaping our society. As White-Mills and Dobris (2004) note:

 
   Margolis (2000) offers valuable insight toward 
   understanding the historical patriarchal 
   hegemony throughout the history of childbearing 
   texts and treatises when she confirms three 
   important trends. First, early childrearing advice 
   in the form of sermons during the colonial 
   period, did not assume that mothers were the 
   primary childcare givers. Second, it was not until 
   the late 18th century that rhetors begin to 
   emphasize childrearing as a primary 
   responsibility of the mother. Third, and most 
   importantly, even before the emergence of a 
   "cult of motherhood" women had little voice in 
   shaping how and what should be the process of 
   childrearing (p. 11). 

Childcare manuals were originally written by men for men and, later, written by men for women. Although women bore children and were historically responsible for part if not all of the childcare duties, women were systematically excluded from the discourse on childbearing. Women's voices were silenced, or at best minimized in the literature on childrearing. Although during the late 1800's and early 1900's ideologies about the nature of children and childrearing began to shift, the voice of the patriarch still reigned as the preeminent voice in publicly consumable literature.

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