Good Enough Mothering? Feminist Perspectives on Lone Motherhood

By Elizabeth Bortolaia Silva | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Deconstructing motherhood

Carol Smart

Motherhood is not a natural condition. It is an institution that presents itself as a natural outcome of biologically given gender differences, as a natural consequence of (hetero) sexual activity, and as a natural manifestation of an innate female characteristic, namely the maternal instinct. The existence of an institution of motherhood, as opposed to an acknowledgement that there are simply mothers, is rarely questioned even though the proper qualities of motherhood are often the subject of debate. Motherhood is still largely treated as a given and as a self-evident fact rather than as the possible outcome of specific social processes that have a historical and cultural location which can be mapped. It is interesting that, in a comparable area, historians and, more recently, sociologists have problematized the concept of childhood (James and Prout 1990). While recognizing that there have always been immature adults, the new sociology of childhood now generally understands that childhood is the product of a number of cultural processes and modernist ideas, which have come to define a specific life stage as different from others and as in need of special treatment, education and moral guidance. It is also assumed (at least in recent British culture) that children should behave differently from adults, that children should be protected from the adult world, and that they should exist in a state of considerable dependence upon their parents or immediate family. As a consequence, childhood has a history; it is not a timeless, transcultural phenomenon but something that has changed and is capable of further change and redefinition.

Revisionist histories of childhood have allowed us to loosen the grip of naturalistic assumptions about the capacities and incapacities of children and the relationship between children and adults, and to become aware of the extent to which modern childhood is of our

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