Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Using Skype to Mother: Bodies, Emotions, Visuality, and Screens

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Using Skype to Mother: Bodies, Emotions, Visuality, and Screens

Article excerpt


The aim of this paper is to examine how women are currently using the information communication technology (ICT) Skype with video to mother. There now exists a broad field of research that describes various performative relationships that exist between technologies, spaces, screens, and bodies; however, I am interested in just one specific aspect of this field: whether there is something qualitatively different about the real-time video communication offered by Skype, as opposed to just written, text, and phone communication, that is changing mothers' relationships with their children.

Skype is a software application that since 2003 has been enabling millions of businesses and individuals, including mothers and children, to make video and voice calls, send instant messages, and share files with other Skype users over the Internet (Anon, 2010; Wikipedia, 2010). Calls to other users within the Skype service are free, while calls to both traditional landline telephones and mobile phones can be made for a fee. In the first half of 2010 Skype users made 88.4 billion minutes of Skype-to-Skype calls, and approximately 40% of these were video calls (Anon, 2010). At peak times there are 30 million users online.

This research examines how a group of mothers in Hamilton, New Zealand are using Skype to mother their children of a variety of ages. When referring to mothering I am not meaning to imply that there is some stable foundation, or essence, to being a mother or to the practices surrounding motherhood. Rather I will look at traits such as love, nurturing, and affection, which have long 'stuck to' mothering in a variety of different contexts; that is, "what it means to be a mother shifts across time and space" [Longhurst (2008, page 4); see also Friedman and Calixte (2009); Longhurst (2009); Madge and O'Connor (2002; 2005; 2006);(1) Madge et al (2004); Mahon-Daly and Andrews (2002); Valentine and Holloway (2001a; 2001b; 2002); and on transnational mothering Lim and Soon (2010); Madianou and Miller (2011)]. As I have argued elsewhere, "Entangling and reconfiguring maternities as in-between and multiple ... offers a productive way of thinking about the complexities of maternal relationships and de-essentialising 'the mother's body'" (Longhurst, 2008, page 8). Claire Madge and Henrietta O'Connor (2005, page 94) explain:

"There is no preconstituted 'body' on to which motherhood is inscribed; what it means to be a mother is constantly produced and reproduced through varying and competing discourses and practices from a variety of different people and places. The construction of mother as a category is not a pre-given, coherent and stable subject position."

Sarah Holloway (1999, page 91) reiterates the point: "Far from being a simply natural experience, motherhood is a complex social phenomenon: it varies over time and space, and is intimately bound up with normative ideas about femininity." So, while not denying the 'real' fleshy materiality of maternal bodies (for example, as pregnant, birthing, and lactating) we need to understand mothering as socially, historically, and spatially constituted. It includes a range of 'maternal work' (Ruddick, 1989, page 48) including pregnancy, birthing, and lactating but also practices such as looking after a toddler, helping children search for information online, guiding a teenager through a complex ethical dilemma, and Skyping adult children about important decisions they are making in their lives, or what they might be having for dinner!

Skype with video is just one ICT that mothers are increasingly using to conduct the performative work of mothering. It is for me, however, one of the most interesting, because unlike other technologies such as phoning (see Horst and Miller, 2006), e-mailing (see Madianou, 2005), Facebooking (see Miller, 2011), or texting (see Thompson and Cupples, 2008) it involves the transmission of a real-time visual image. …

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