A Strong Children Experience
Greece, Peloponesse, Ioanian sea. Summer 2004. I visited with my family a place near to Olympia.
It was early in the afternoon and we decided to go for swimming, in a beautiful sea beach. Our daughters stayed at home, so we took with us our young son. We reached the beach and I took my son for a sort walk on the sand across the sea. The sea was too calm and peaceful like a mirror. The sun had decided to leave his position to moon. My wife stayed back. We walked for 15 minutes and returned to my wife. Then I saw my wife laying down, too upset, and breathing very fast. Her body was all of the treble! An old woman was in front of her kissing her hands!
I was surprised. I asked her what happened but she couldn't speak! After some minutes she recovered partly and described me what happened minutes ago. While I was walking with our son she followed us with her eyes some seconds. After, she turned towards the sea. She observed two too little children, a girl and a boy, around 3 or 4 years old, playing in the water. Their grant mothers were sitting few meters away, speaking each other. My wife was watching the children which were walking in the water, deeper and deeper. She turned her eyes to us and then back to children. Then she saw the little boy's head only the girl had disappeared. The boy was trying to keep his head of the water moving vastly his hands.
My wife run and swam immediately towards the children, screaming. "Help" , "Help". She reached the little boy and cached his arm. Look around for the girl, without result. She was alone. She left the boy and dived to the button where she and saw the little girl in the bottom of the sea and the boy standing on her shoulders. The girl was getting unconscious. My wife should decide what to do. She cached the girl from her hair picking her up to the surface. But the boy was sinking. She cached the boy with her other hand trying to pick up both children to the surface. She was too tired. She managed to bring the children up and felt too weak. A man, who had heart her voices, swam fast and reaches them. He took the boy. My wife the girl and both brought them safe to the shore. They offered first aids to girl to recover. Both children were saved but they were too freighted. The two grant mothers were in panic. Both thanked my wife and the man. My wife was so stressed that took an hour to recover.
DEAR PARENTS, PLEASE CARE OF YOUR CHILDREN. DO NOT TAKE YOUR EYES AWAY FROM THEM GIVE THEM YOUR ATTENTION.
Troubling "Mother Reproduction" in the Family
The psychoanalytic story of the stable "mother" subject fails to acknowledge the normative requirements of the position and masks relations of domination (patriarchy, heterosexism) and exclusion (racial/ethnic, dual-earner, gay and lesbian, and single-parent families) that are the foundations for the story. To see mothers as relationally-bound-up with other women or engaged in paid work is not a view psychoanalytic theory promotes. Women are not viewed as desirous of anything outside of the nuclear family because that troubles the gender reproduction process. Children in non-nuclear, dual-earner, and queer families, from the logic of psychoanalytic discourse, cannot objectify mothers as only desired by men and children. What is being reproduced in these families, utilizing the logic of Freudian psychodynamics, is not sexed-mothering, rather, I argue, it is a blurring of binaries and a troubling of masculine hegemony, sexed mothering, and heterosexist power. In contemporary families, the increased diversity of childhood living arrangements suggests there will be a variety of long-term outcomes for children that trouble the reproduction of mothering.
Key Words: mothering, contemporary family forms, postmodern feminist theory.
Simone de Beauvoir’s (1953) provocative question, «Are there women?» has generated considerable debate. The category «women» is central to feminist theory and yet it is problematic: it signifies that which is Other than the category men. So too the category «mother» signifies that which is Other than the category father. Many prominent «first wave» feminist theorists advanced implicitly or explicitly biological theories of motherhood (see Beauvoir 1970; Chodorow 1978; Dinnerstein 1976; Firestone 1970; Mitchel 1974). Dinnerstein (1976), for example, argued that the cultural universal dependence of young children on their mothers (or female mother substitutes) was responsible for the equally universal male hatred of the female and the male-dominant practices that both reflect and reinforce that hatred.
One of the most prominent first wave theoretical contributions to mothering is Nancy Chodorow’s (1978) The Reproduction of Mothering. Chodorow draws from post-Freudian psychology, grounded in biological foundationalism, and sociology in order to examine and explain women’s maternal role. She argues that because the primary caretaker for both sexes in the first three years of life is typically female, the interpersonal dynamics of gender identity formation are different for boys and girls. Chodorow’s claim is that the psychoanalytic account of male and female development provides a theory of the reproduction of women’s mothering and the stable subject and this differs from men’s fathering. Women's mothering reproduces itself through differing object-relational experiences with differing psychic outcomes in women and men.
On this view, women are compelled in a deeply psychological way to «mother,» and men are compelled in a deeply psychological way not to «mother.» Women’s mothering thus produces asymmetries in the relational experiences of girls and boys as they grow up, which accounts for differences in feminine and masculine personality. Girls experience themselves as less separate than boys and come to define themselves more in relation to others. Mothers experience their sons as a «male opposite» who gets pushed out of the preoedipal relationship which causes them to loose a sense of connectedness and gain a sense of isolation from others. Chodorow discusses «fathers» mostly in terms of their lack of relationship to other family members: «They are not present as much and are not primary caretakers, and their own training for masculinity may have led them to deny emotionality» (193). «Masculine personality» is defined more in terms of denial of relation and connection and «feminine personality» is defined in terms of self in relationship. The lesson that the boy, and not the girl, learns from primary female mothering is that he must not identify with his mother and must repudiate intimacy in order to become a man.
Problems with «The Reproduction of Mothering» Argument
A number of criticisms have been directed at Chodorow’s (1978) «fixed» notion of gender difference, her focus on «normal situations,» her lack of interest in the history of family formation, and her assumption of heterosexual, nuclear, middle class, white, family structures (see Duran-Aydingtug & Caulsey 1996; Tronto 1987; Nicholson 1983; Stack 1986). What is problematic with Chodorow’s insights about «men» and «women» is that these concepts are understood to have an essential meaning. Johnson (1988: 109) contests Chodorow’s claim of significant, gender-based differences in the maternal care of young children with an impressive array of empirical studies which reveal that «the degree of early attachment to the mother appears to be remarkably the same for both genders.»
The postmodern critique of feminist mothering theory questions the primacy of sex difference as a field of inquiry and critiques the validity of the categories male/female. Many feminists have drawn on the work of Michel Foucault, for example, who in The History of Sexuality (1978) argues that juridical systems of power produce the subjects they subsequently come to represent. on this view, psychoanalysis produces an account of mothering and the structures that perpetuate the reproduction of mothering. By being subject to the requirements of the «normal situations» described by Chodorow, women are limited, regulated, controlled, and prohibited in their behaviors. The story of psychoanalysis produces then conceals the production of the «mothering» subject in the family. The depictions of «men» and «women» in psychoanalytic accounts of the family reinforce stereotypes, such as, for example, women are nurturers defined in relationship, and men are abstract thinkers defined by individual achievement, and that children «become» uniquely «male» or «female» due to child socialization patterns found in particular family forms.
On this view, the substantive grammar of sex imposes an artificial binary relation between the sexes, as well as an artificial internal coherence within each term of the binary, for example «mother/father». Foucault suggests that the binary categorization of sex conceals «sex» as «a cause» of sexual experience, behavior, and desire. Foucault exposes the «cause» as «an effect», the production of a given regime of sexuality that seeks to regulate sexual experience by instating the discrete categories of sex as foundational and causal functions within any discursive account of sexuality.
Denise Riley (1988) in Am I That Name? suggests that an understanding of subjectivity must be multiple in nature and recognize the positionality of subjectivity in history. Thus, while Chodorow’s explanation for the reproduction of mothering is compelling, a more «fluid» view of subjectivity frees up notions of gender, parenting, and identity. Unitary, fixed, accounts of «mother reproduction» do not address how "caring" or «socialization» can be an effect of discourses that impact groups differently over time.
In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler (1990) subverts the genealogy of gender categories and reveals the oppression of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality. Her critique of the category women suggests that the category mother does not exist except as it is located in repeated acts within a rigid framework that appears to be fixed overtime. These «mothering» acts (often «performed» by women) congeal in our collective consciousness and create an appearance of substance, of a natural gendered mother. Butler calls for subverting and displacing gendered performances that naturalize and reify notions of gender that support masculine hegemony, sexed mothering, and heterosexist power. The substantive effect of mothering is performatively produced and compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence in heterosexual, male-dominated, white, middle-class families. Mothering is a performance by the less powerful.
When Chodorow describes the «normal situation» in the family, it is heterosexual, white, nuclear, and male-dominated. The one adult women with biological children located in this family is essentialized as a «mother» engaged in «mothering». In psychoanalytic terms, children see her as claimed by the father and as always tending to their needs; mothers are seen by children and men as an object of their desire, and not desiring herself. This Chodorowian mother has no desires but to care for her children and husband. She does not seek adult companionship outside of the nuclear family; she is not woman-identified; she does not assume economic responsibility for herself or her family; her husband is deeply engaged in full-time paid labor outside of the home; she does not understand herself to be oppressed sexually; her family is not oppressed racially, ethnically, or by homophobia; she is not drug or alcohol dependant; the family is not homeless; and, she is uncritical of the situation and stays. To see mothers as relationally-bound-up with other women or engaged in paid work is not a view psychoanalytic theory promotes. Women are not viewed as desirous of anything outside of the nuclear family because that troubles the gender reproduction process.
Contemporary Families and the Troubling of «Mother» Reproduction:
Children in non-nuclear, dual-earner, and queer families, from a psychoanalytic point of view, cannot objectify mothers as only desired by men and children. on this view, mothers who work, and, mothers with significant relationships with same-sexed adults, must be seen by children as desirous subjects with responsibilities outside of the nuclear family. What is being reproduced in these families, utilizing the logic of Freudian psychodynamics, is not sexed-mothering; it is a blurring of categories that subverts and displaces gendered performances that trouble masculine hegemony, sexed mothering, and heterosexist power. Children learn that desire for love and work has nothing to do with a rigid sex/gender dichotomy. The increased diversity of childhood living arrangements suggests there will be a variety of long-term outcomes for children and not the blind reproduction of mothering.
Recent cohorts of children have experienced considerable change in their living arrangements (Bumpass & Lu, 1999). Divorce, nonmarital cohabitation, and remarriage, have all contributed to the increased fluidity of the living arrangements of children. For example, more than half of all children in the U.S. will spend some time in an alternative family form, defined as not living with married biological parents (Bumpus & Lu, 1999; Bumpass & Raley, 1995). Other family forms that do not fit neatly into a psychoanalytic account of «the monolithic family» include non-white, single-parent, dual-earner, and GBLT (gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender) families.
Contemporary family structures differ, especially with respect to the role of the mother. Currently, less than 10 percent of households in the United States resemble the families described by Chodorow. Since 1998, less than 10 percent of U.S. families are composed of a father who is in the labor force, a mother who is a housewife, and their natural or adopted children (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998). A significant change in contemporary families is the number of women with children who work. The proportion of married women with children under age 6 who worked in the labor market (either full-time or part-time) increased from 44% in 1970 to almost 71% in 1998 (Casper and Bianchi, 2001; Spain & Bianchi, 1996). Additionally, the number of children who receive carework from people other than their mothers has changed. In 1995, 68 percent of children under age six had mothers in the paid labor force and 60 percent of these children received care from a nonrelative (U.S. National Center for Educational Statistics, 1995).
Racial domination and economic exploitation, not discussed in reproduction theories of motherhood, have always shaped the social context of mothering for all women. Patricia Hill Collins (1994) highlights the archetypal white middle-class nuclear family that divides family into two oppositional spheres—the «male» sphere of economic providing and the «female» sphere of nurturing, mainly mothering. She describes this normative family as being made up of a wage-earning father who works outside the home and earns enough to support an unpaid spouse and dependent children. Placing working class families and families of color at the center of feminist theorizing about the family challenges social construction of work and family as separate spheres and encourages reformulating «mothering» as mother work. Collins describes the motherwork of racial and ethnic women in the United States as inseparable from the institution of slavery; the tenant farm system; the political conquest of Native American women during the European acquisition of land; contemporary Latino migrant farm families and the commodification of their children’s labor; and, the large numbers of women who have worked in domestic service.
Mother-only, single parent families disrupt the meaning of «mother» and affective relationship in the family. In the psychoanalytic account of family ideology, fathers are important and considered the head of the household. But, in mother-only, single parent families (currently over 25% of families in the United States with live-at-home children are single parent families, and women head the overwhelming majority of them, mother-only families among Blacks and Latinos is especially high--49% for Blacks and 29% for Latinos (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991)) father-power is dislodged. This troubles the psychoanalytic account of the monolithic family where fathers are distant but present. A psychoanalytic account of the family positions fathers outside of it and describes them as unavailable physically and emotionally compared to mothers. In the mother-only, single parent families, fathers are further outside of a realm of influence.
The father’s behavior and family role, according to Chodorow (1978), and a girl's relationship to him, «are crucial to the development of a heterosexual orientation in her» (193). But, what kind of «heterosexual» development? Is «heterosexual» development that is founded on unequal care giving in the family the kind of «heterosexual» development anyone wants? Chodorow suggests that families need fathers so that girls can develop heterosexually because «fathers, given the normal situation of parenting and masculine and feminine personality, do not become the same kind of emotionally exclusive oedipal object for girls that mothers do for boys» (129). The discourse of the psychodynamics of the family produces ideological and psychological explanations of gendered patterns of behavior and beliefs about sex roles and reproduces orientations to and structures of male dominance in individual men and boys.
Fathers in «Chodorowian families» actively construct gender inequality and the idea that «heterosexual» development is predicated on a distant, authoritarian father suggests that nuclear families where children are socialized by Chodorowian mothers are a bad place for children to grow up. Following the logic of the psychodynamics of the Chodorowian family, children in single-parent families are socialized differently during the oedipal period. A single-working parent who has the dual responsibility of caring for children and supporting them economically does not become the «emotionally exclusive object» during the oedipal period for either girls or boys. This same logic suggests GBLT families also disrupt the dynamics of female mothering reproduction in similar ways.
Currently, there are about 3 million gay and lesbian parents in the U.S. raising between 5 and 10 million children in their homes (Allen, 1998). When children are socialized in households with parents of the same sex the psychodynamics shift. In Chodorow’s (1978) description of the psychodynamics of the family, feminine personality comes to be based less on repression of inner objects, and fixed and firm splits in the ego, and more on retention and continuity of external relationships. Girls retain their preoedipal attachments to their mother and come to define and experience themselves as continuous with others; their experience of self contains more flexible or permeable ego boundaries. Boys come to define themselves as more separate and distinct, with a greater sense of rigid ego boundaries and differentiation. Boys, in order to feel masculine, must repress internal and external object-relations, relation and connection, and differentiate themselves from others. The basic feminine sense of self is connected to the world, the basic masculine sense of self is separate. This psychodynamic story about child gender development does not occur in gay and lesbian families.
Children in lesbian and gay families learn that working outside of the home, loving another adult, and «mothering» is not contingent on «biological» sex. Children are freed from developing rigid ego boundaries, and repressing internal and external object-relations in lesbian and gay households. Children raised in gay and lesbian families, according to the logic of psychoanalytic theory, cannot link a love object with a particular sex. This means that seeking to be «feminine» or «masculine» is not the dichotomy for boys and girls in gay and lesbian families that it is for boys and girls in the monolithic family described by Chodorow. It also suggests that children socialized in families where sex/gender is not rigidly linked to mothering and paid work necessarily entertain visions for their own adult life choices that open up the possibility for both connecting to and caring for others and engaging in independent competitive paid work.
Egalitarian parenting, in heterosexual families, according to a psychoanalytic account, also disrupts «gender» socialization and exclusive gendered mothering reproduction. The «reproduction of mothering» depends on who does the mothering. If a boy experiences an intense early identification with a father we can expect this boy to be more «relationally oriented» than conventionally raised boys. And, if a girl experiences an opposite-sex love object early on she is less likely to feel threatened by separation than conventionally raised girls. If the subordination of women is rooted in and reproduced by men not being responsible for early childcare, it follows that sharing these responsibilities equally with men will liberate women and allow children to be equally dependent on both parents and the hostility that accompanies the enforced dependence would no longer be directed at «women» generally.
Balbus (1998) suggests that strongly mother-identified men might be far more emotionally open to egalitarian co-parenting. The description of the «reproduction of mothering» in heterosexual nuclear families highlights the need for gender-neutral family policy reform that encourages egalitarian parenting, such as equal legal and physical child custody post-divorce/separation. Mothering, as a gendered activity, is divisive; it creates and perpetuates gender roles in the family. Mothering, as a sexed behavior, is disrupted in non-nuclear, mother-only, GBLT, and dual-earner egalitarian families.
«Other Reproduction» not «Mother Reproduction» in Contemporary Families
Chodorow’s heterosexual, white, nuclear, and male-dominated household, describes few families historically. If mothering, for women, is created out of an unequal relationship to her husband, financial dependence, and rigid expectations about gender roles, it can only be disrupted by changing the power imbalance in adult relationships and encouraging parents to seek financial independence from one another. Asymmetric relational experiences between girls and boys in the family as they grow up can account for differences in feminine and masculine personality, but in families where parents share parenting responsibilities these differences are troubled. If full-time female mothering nurtures girls and boys to grow up with personalities affected by different boundary experiences and differently constructed and experienced inner object-worlds, full-time female mothering reinforces power inequality between the sexes and ensures girls and boys will be preoccupied with different relational issues.
The monolithic family, described by Chodorow, makes the subject position «mother» appear as an historical inevitability and masks how the discourse of psychoanalysis produces gender roles and characterizes alternative family forms as abnormal. The reproduction of mothering naturalizes and universalizes the subordination of women to care work and keeps men from engaging in it. A feminist genealogy of the category mother reveals that the psychoanalytic story of the stable subject fails to acknowledge the normative requirements of the position and masks relations of domination (patriarchy, heterosexism) and exclusion (racial/ethnic, dual-earner, gay and lesbian, and single-parent families) that are the foundations for the story.
Today most scholars believe that gender is a social construction and that there is little factual support for natural gender differences. Young children may be socialized differently because they are female or male, but there is nothing about their bodies or brains that prevents them from engaging in «motherhood» or wires them for the job. If women are overrepresented in caring occupations, like unpaid mothering and paid child care, it is because girls and women have been taught to aspire to this kind of work or have been denied the opportunity to do other kinds of work. The boundaries of an analysis of gendered/sexed motherhood reveal the limits of a discursively conditioned experience.
In Chodorow’s description of the psychodynamics of «the family,» the limits are always set within the terms of a hegemonic cultural discourse predicated on the binary structures of mother/father that are taken for granted to be true, universal, and rational. Universalistic claims, such as the ones forwarded by the psychoanalytic description of the family, are based on a common or shared epistemological standpoint that insists on a coherence and unity of the category «mother» and refuses to address the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political factors in which the category «mother» is constructed. The «coherence» and «continuity» of the subject position «mother» is socially instituted, intelligible, and logical inside of the discourse of psychoanalysis.
The notion that there might be a «truth» of sex, as Foucault ironically put it, is produced through the regulatory practices that generate coherent identities such as «mother» and «mother reproduction.» on this view, women’s «mothering» is an effect of discursive and regulatory practices. The discourse of psychoanalysis maintains a set of assumptions about the foundations of identity that work in favor of the heterosexual, hierarchical family. Exposing the foundational categories of sexed-mothering in the psychoanalytic story of the monolithic family identifies the reproduction of mothering as an effect of the discourse of psychoanalysis. If the meaning of «female» and «male» are understood to be unstable and contested and the meaning of «mothering» and «fathering» are understood to be effects of institutions and multiple practices, the «reproduction of mothering» is meaningless outside of Chodorow’s description of «normal» families.
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Lynn Comerford, PhD
California State University, East Bay
3069 Meiklejohn Hall
Hayward, CA 94542