Talking of Mothers: Maternity Is Returning as a Central Subject of Discussion: What Effects Does This Have on Our Wider Thinking?

By Baraitser, Lisa; Tyler, Imogen | Soundings, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Talking of Mothers: Maternity Is Returning as a Central Subject of Discussion: What Effects Does This Have on Our Wider Thinking?


Baraitser, Lisa, Tyler, Imogen, Soundings


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I come here as wife, I also come here as a mother; that is my primary title, mom in chief. My girls are the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to bed. When people ask me how I'm doing, I say, 'I'm only as good as my most sad child'.

Michelle Obama, 2008

The last three decades have witnessed an extraordinary proliferation of public representations of maternity. The new popular culture of pregnancy and motherhood, and the accompanying political and public debate which circulates around maternal bodies, is fraught and contradictory. Acres of pages are dedicated to documenting celebrity mothers' lives, bookshop shelves groan under the weight of 'mommy lit', and millions of women swap tips and commiserate with each other on internet sites such as Mumsnet. The 25 per cent of women who choose not to have children are, as childless women have always been, pitied, feared and criticised, and a spectre of infertility has taken root within the imaginary life of young middle-class women. The visual backdrop to this array of 'maternal femininities' is a seemingly unending parade of images of beautiful, young, white, tight, pregnant and post-partum celebrity bodies. The palpable shock and global headlines which greeted Annie Leibovitz's 1991 Vanity Fair front cover photograph of the heavily pregnant actress Demi Moore must seem bizarre to those reaching adulthood now, for whom the sexualisation of maternal bodies is routine to the point of banality.

Maternity, like femininity, has been thoroughly capitalised-international 'maternal markets' trade not only in clothes and beauty products, but in fertility treatments, eggs, foetuses and children. Motherhood has even taken centrestage in mainstream politics. A global media storm surrounded the French Justice Minister Rachida Dati when she made a glamorous return to work five days after a Caesarean section in January 2009. Dati, who allegedly described maternity leave as 'for wimps', was sacked by President Sarkozy shortly after her spectacularly early return to work. In the United States the 2009 presidential election produced some extraordinary maternal imagery: pro-life Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin went on the election trail brandishing a four-month-old son and a pregnant teenage daughter, whilst pro-choice Ivy-League educated attorney Michelle Obama declared herself the nation's rightful 'mom in chief'. It seems that the maternal has never been so talked about, so very public. But what does all this maternal publicity mean? What happens when we encounter the maternal not in the enclosed, private, secluded spaces where we (nostalgically) imagine mothering to take place, but in arenas as spectacularly public as that of international politics? What is the relationship between this maternal publicity and ordinary maternal lives?

Writing on reality TV programmes such as Super Nanny and Wife Swap, Tracey Jensen argues that the new popular culture of the maternal exposes the ways in which motherhood has become a 'site for the performance of social distinction'. (1) Whilst the genre might be novel, in a more fundamental sense women's relationship to the maternal has always been at the heart of class and gender based inequalities. The discrimination and accompanying material disadvantages which shape women's everyday experiences have always impacted acutely on pregnant women, mothers and carers. As the British government report Fairness and Freedom: The Final Report of the Equalities Review states, 'there is one factor that above all leads to women's inequality in the labour market-becoming mothers'. (2) In Britain an estimated 30,000 women a year lose their jobs as a result of pregnancy, and many predict that this will rise sharply in the context of the current economic downturn. Discrimination in the workplace is still shockingly prevalent for women who are mothers, or indeed those who are viewed as having the potential to become mothers, and there is compelling research to show that professional women who continue their careers whilst child-rearing go out of their way to actively conceal traces of their maternal lives in the places they work, for fear of discrimination. …

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