Academic journal article Family Relations

"I Fell off [the Mothering] Track": Barriers to "Effective Mothering" among Prostituted Women

Academic journal article Family Relations

"I Fell off [the Mothering] Track": Barriers to "Effective Mothering" among Prostituted Women

Article excerpt

Ecological theory and basic assumptions for the promotion of effective mothering among low-income and working-poor women are applied in relation to a particularly vulnerable population: street-level prostitution-involved women. Qualitative data from 38 street-level prostituted women shows barriers to effective mothering at the individual, community, and societal levels. Suggestions for enhancing the lives and long-term well-being of prostituted women with children are included.

Key Words: at-risk populations, mothering, prostitution, social policy.

(Family Relations, 2004, 53, 190-200)

National scholars with a diverse array of expertise on issues central to low-income families, one of which includes "effective mothering," have recently convened to debate, inform, and advance the scholarly literature. Results of this effort were summarized in the NCFR Policy Brief (2002) and include: (a) a theoretical model (ecological theory) for framing the context of discussion, (b) basic assumptions for understanding the complexity of issues inherent in the examination of mothering among at-risk populations, and (c) policy recommendations for promoting effective mothering among low-income and working-poor women. The purpose of this manuscript is to further the scholarly literature by applying the theoretical model, basic assumptions, and policy recommendations to one group of women frequently overlooked as "mothers": street-level prostituted women.

Literature Review

According to Arendell (2000), mothering involves the social practices of nurturing and caring for dependent children in dynamic, ever-evolving relationships. Intensive mothering, the prevailing North American ideology (Arendell), declares that mothering is an all-encompassing female activity that necessitates a child-centered frame of reference involving maternal devotion and self-sacrifice (Hays, 1996). Moreover, "Motherhood ideology is entwined with idealized notions of the family, presuming the institution and image of the White, middle-class, heterosexual couple with its children in a self-contained family unit" (Arendell, p. 1194).

Fortunately, recent scholarship, largely based in feminist traditions, provides a new context within which to view mothering: that of particularism (Arendell, 2000). Simply stated, cultural, racial, economic, and historical contexts directly and indirectly shape mothering activities (e.g., Baca Zinn, 1990; Collins, 1994; Dill, 1994a, 1994b; Glenn, 1994; Stack & Burton, 1993) and the extent to which women are able to engage in child-centered activities (Woollett & Phoenix, 1991). However, some popular psychological theories (e.g., psychoanalytic theory) continue to underplay the variety of women's experiences; feelings of anger and hostility, depression, helplessness, and potential coping strategies such as substance use are viewed as indicators of individual pathology, not as consequences of environmental contexts (Boulton, 1983; Woollett & Phoenix).

Recognition of unique environmental contexts and the particularistic nature by which individuals respond to those formed the foundation for the NCFR Effective Mothering family policy recommendations (NCFR Policy Brief, 2002). Application of the resultant principles and policies to populations of low-income or at-risk maternal populations, such as prostituted women, is the necessary next step in achieving visible outcomes from this intellectual work.

An Ecological Approach for Examining Effective Mothering

Beginning with birth, individuals are embedded within multifaceted and multilayered contextual systems that guide, mold, and largely dictate personal life experiences, setting developmental processes in motion. Looking beyond an individual's present circumstances to understand the processes that resulted in particular developmental trajectories is important. Bronfenbrenner (1989) argued that development results from the interaction between person (including all of her personal characteristics) and environment through time; the theory is synergistic. …

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