Academic journal article Family Relations

The Construction of Motherhood: Tasks, Relational Connection, and Gender Equality*

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Construction of Motherhood: Tasks, Relational Connection, and Gender Equality*

Article excerpt


This qualitative analysis of 50 couples explored how gender equality is related to the construction of motherhood in their day-to-day interactions. Results identified two models of mothering: (a) mothering as a gendered talent and (b) mothering as conscious collaboration. The first model perpetuated gender inequality through a recursive task-relationship cycle between mothers and children. More equal couples consciously collaborated to create a task-relationship spiral for fathers as well as mothers. Processes involved in each view of mothering were discussed relative to the distribution of parenting tasks. The findings suggest that families would benefit from education and clinical approaches that address gender and power, encourage open discussion regarding how child care choices are made, and develop new skills for both genders.

Key Words: couples, gender equality, marriage and family therapy, motherhood, mothering, parenting.

Mothering is linked with notions of femininity and gender (Arendell, 2000). For this reason, changing notions of gender and equality are necessarily linked to the meaning and practice of motherhood. This study examined how the experiences and meanings of motherhood were constructed and maintained within the context of ongoing interpersonal interactions between mothers, fathers, and children. We focused in particular on motherhood in the context of marriages with varying levels of gender equality.

Motherhood in Context

Early studies on motherhood tended to focus primarily on mothers as instrumental to the development of their children (Gerson, Alpers, & Richardson, 1984). More recent studies focused on mothers' experiences and examined motherhood as a set of social interactions that arise within a gendered set of relationships and social institutions at a particular time and place (Arendell, 2000; Baber & Allen, 1992; Glenn, 1994; Thompson & Walker, 1989). Mothering as a natural activity has been deconstructed to reveal cultural ideologies that hold it in place (Baber & Allen).

Chodorow (1978) and Ruddick (1980) challenged the idea that women were born mothers. Chodorow posited that because women do the child care, girls remain connected to their mothers and develop an orientation toward nurturing through attachment and identification processes. Ruddick believed that mothers take on a nurturing identity as a result of the caregiving work they do, rather than as a result of identification via attachment. As mothers interact with their children, they create deep emotional bonds that influence maternal and connected ways of thinking.

Though interest in the development of maternal attachment and identity continues (e.g., Kretchmar & Jacobvitz, 2002; Smith, 1999), these kinds of studies have been critiqued for emphasizing an essentialist or unitary view of women and mothering (Arendell, 2000; Baber & Allen, 1992). Attachment and identity studies tend not to explain the diversity of motherhood experiences or to consider how motherhood evolves in varying relational and family contexts (Gerson et al., 1984; Glenn, 1994).

Other studies have a more macro focus in terms of the origins of the ideology of motherhood and how it manifests in practice (e.g., Elvin-Nowak & Thomsson, 2001; Glenn, Chang, & Forcey, 1994; Hays, 1996). These studies conceptualize the ideology of motherhood as a potent force in shaping the lives and experiences of women. Such an approach emphasizes how the ideology of motherhood is related to power structures within social contexts and frames mothering in terms of historical time and place, race and social status, and constructions of gender. A recent analysis of the context for mothering outlines unattainable ideals for "moms" that "seem on the surface to celebrate motherhood, but which in reality promulgate standards of perfection that are beyond your reach" (Douglas & Michaels, 2004, p. …

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