Motherhood in the 21st century

Susan Goodwin, The University of Sydney

Kate Huppatz, University of Western Sydney

Andrea O’Reilly (ed) 21st Century Motherhood: Experience, Identity, Policy, Agency, New York, Columbia University Press, 2010 (408 pp). ISBN 9-78023114-967-9 (paperback) RRP $69.95.

Andrea O’Reilly’s edited collection 21st Century Motherhood: Experience, Identity, Policy, Agency and our own edited collection The Good Mother: Contemporary Motherhoods in Australia came out last year at almost the same time. Both books share similar aims: to present multidisciplinary perspectives on motherhood and to engage with contemporary developments in maternal practices and politics. These include quite distinctively 21st century practices such as interracial surrogacy, raising transgender children, queer parenting, mothers’ chatrooms on the Internet, ‘tradie’ mothers, executive mothers, yummy mummies, and mothers subjected to mutual obligation. As O’Reilly points out, some of these developments ‘were unimaginable even a decade ago’ (p. 4).

Yet even in the 21st century, with its new ways of being a mother and doing motherhood, motherhood continues to be an arena of conflict for women. For instance, the contemporary ideological battle between mothers over mothering, dubbed ‘The Mommy Wars’, suggests that questions around mothers’ workforce participation are still unresolved. For instance, the way paid and unpaid work is organised continues to produce irreconcilable tensions between motherhood and career for many women. In our case, we were struck by the extent to which women continue to be highly regulated by ‘good mother’ ideals, despite having unprecedented options about when, and how, and indeed if, to mother.

The gap between women’s expectations of equality, autonomy and financial independence and their experience of motherhood may be exacerbating contemporary anxieties. While the pattern of higher education and the establishment of a career have become normative for both women and men, motherhood continues to interrupt this trajectory in ways that fatherhood does not. In Australia, it is mothers rather than fathers who withdraw from the labour market or reduce their hours of work when they have young children. Mothers are also, in aggregate, responsible for most of the unpaid work associated with childrearing and undertake the majority of other household tasks, regardless of employment status (Baxter et al. 2007). Becoming a mother can involve a number of ‘shocks’ for contemporary women, including loss of status, time, choice and income.

Becoming a mother can involve a number of ‘shocks’ for contemporary women.

The inexorable creep of neoliberalism and consumer capitalism into mothers’ lives has also produced new dilemmas. Mothers in rich democracies are being firmly positioned as subjects whose identities are formed predominantly through interactions with the market, as paid workers but also as consumers of maternity and baby products (and even of children via adoption, surrogacy and new reproductive technologies) and as shoppers for beauty products, fashion, childcare and, more latterly, schools. New production and consumption imperatives that are self-focused rather than just family-focused fit uneasily with old ideals of motherhood, and these new demands bite hard, particularly for women with low incomes or extensive caring responsibilities.

The contemporary contradiction between, on the one hand, the proliferation of diverse family forms and the emergence of new avenues to ‘biological parenthood’ adds to the complexity. It is unsettling that just as a much broader range of family forms have been legitimated there is an increasing emphasis on genetic links between parents and children.

These types of contradictions and tensions inspire discussion and debate over mothering practices and maternal and paternal identities, raising questions such as ‘how does motherhood fit with paid work?’, ‘why is motherhood so undervalued?’, ‘are mothers just a new market for the fitness/beauty/baby product industries?’ and ‘what are the rights of surrogates / gestational carriers / egg donors / non-biological parents?’.

The focus on what is new and different in the 21st century also operates as a call to revisit conventional approaches to motherhood, or to theorise motherhood anew. Feminists have been engaged in analysis of motherhood for many decades, including the important work of Simone de Beauvoir, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Adrienne Rich, Nancy Chodorow, Betsy Wearing, Sarah Ruddick and Sharon Hays. This work has informed the way we ‘think and talk’ (O’Reilly 2004) about motherhood. Speaking of motherhood as an ‘institution’, of ‘ideologies of motherhood’, including ‘ ideologies of intensive mothering’, and of ‘hegemonic motherhood’ are all consequences of feminist work on the relationship between motherhood and the status of women. Yet much of this work circulated around a fairly stable figure of the white, heterosexual, economically dependent, and often middle class mother. As a result, there has been little acknowledgment of diversity and change.

Motherhood is emerging as a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry in the 21st century.

Acknowledging diversity in motherhood has enabled further exploration of the relationships between motherhood and class, heteronormativity, and race, as well as gender relations. In her contribution to 21st Century Motherhood, for example, Camille Wilson Cooper describes how African American mothers’ values, heritage and resistance are deeply linked to their racially conscious meaning-making. In her contribution, called ‘Brown Bodies, White Eggs’, Laura Harrison argues that new reproductive technologies increasingly rely on the bodies of poor women and women of colour and that ideas of racial difference in surrogacy discourse in the United States privilege the white consumer and reinforce racialised gender hierarchies. In The Good Mother, Jane Moore and Lynette Riley describe contemporary Aboriginal mothering practices, such as giving children traditional names and re-instating Indigenous ways of birthing, as important to cultural (re)building, and Margot Rawsthorne describes how dominant ideas about mothers and motherhood leave lesbian parents struggling to find a language that encompasses their experiences. These kinds of perspectives break open fixed ideas about the cultural specificity, singularity and biologism attached to the category ‘mother’. Acknowledging diversity thus provides new ways of ‘thinking and talking’ about motherhood.

How mothering practices change is also an important new theoretical concern. In 21st Century Motherhood chapters examine the distinctive yet changing experiences of immigrant mothers in the United States. For example, Jessica Vasquez looks at how Chicana mothers have altered their parenting in response to shifting racial ideologies and new class mobility and Gail Murphy-Geiss argues that in the 21st century Muslim mothers, particularly those who have migrated to the West, are increasingly seeking a ‘middle way’ between Islamic traditions and Western modernisation. In The Good Mother Helen Proctor charts the emergence of the ‘busy, strategic, neoliberal mother’ of the 21st century by looking at changes in the organisation of public education. Our own chapter charts the historical emergence of the ‘yummy mummy’ to explore how changing maternal styles are producing new distinctions between women. In each of these cases, the aim is to show how mothers are made and remade, as well as how they make and remake themselves.

In Australia, there has been little collective mobilisation of women as mothers.

Motherhood is emerging as a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry in the 21st century, and sits alongside important social changes including an increase in childcare services, the provision of state-funded maternity leave and changes in public attitudes to things like breastfeeding and the role of fathers, grandparents and social parenthood. Within academia there are new motherhood research networks, motherhood journals such as MaMsie (Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics—an excellent, highly theoretical intervention based at the University of London), regular international conferences on motherhood, and panels on motherhood at mainstream social sciences and humanities conferences (for example, at the American Popular Culture Association Conference). These developments do not, however, guarantee that motherhood research will move from the margins to the mainstream. For example, there are no ‘high impact’ maternal journals, the dominant Canadian research centre, the Association for Research on Mothering (ARM), has been recently disbanded and in the mainstream press motherhood issues are life and style fodder rather than matters of national interest. Indeed, there are likely many readers of this journal who read the title of the piece and flipped the virtual page.

In terms of moving forward, O’Reilly champions a two-pronged approach which involves developing ‘motherhood studies’ and supporting an international ‘motherhood movement’ or movements. It is here that we see some key differences between North American and Australian approaches. O’Reilly positions her book firmly in the domain of motherhood studies, a term she coined herself in 2006 to ‘acknowledge and demarcate this new scholarship on motherhood as a distinctive discipline grounded in the theoretical tradition of maternal theory’ (p. 1). She compares motherhood studies to the development of women’s studies in the 1970s, suggesting that in the last decade motherhood studies has emerged as an autonomous and independent discipline, at least in North America.

No similar development has occurred in Australia. The contributors to The Good Mother identify and produced their work through other disciplines: sociology, history, work and organisational studies, Indigenous Studies and so forth. In addition, the ‘maternal theory’ of writers such as Sarah Ruddick (1989), has not had the impact on Australian frameworks for analysis as in the case of North America. Without a theoretical consensus about motherhood as distinctive (in Ruddick’s case, as a set of specific maternal practices that are tied to maternal ways of thinking), Australian researchers tend to apply a gender, class or race lens, rather than a motherhood lens, to the issues they are researching.

Elevating mothering over other roles may reproduce stereotypes or produce new ones.

Nor is there an easily identifiable motherhood movement in Australia. The ‘vibrant and vast motherhood movement’ that O’Reilly suggests exists in the United States does not appear to have a parallel here. The final section of 21st Century Motherhood is concerned with motherhood activism, referring to organisations such as Moms Rising, MOTHERS (Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights), MADD (Mothers Against Drink Driving), the Million Moms March and web-based motherhood activism. Organisations and initiatives such as these are not part of the Australian landscape, although examples of nascent movements in this direction might be found on the Internet, with the popularity of websites such as Blue Milk and Mamamia. (Mamamia, for example, produced a mothers’ guide to political party policy platforms prior to the 2010 Federal election, reminiscent of the analyses of the policy impact analyses on women that have been produced by the Women’s Electoral Lobby for over four decades). In short, while Australian women have collectively sought governmental, organisational, cultural and political changes for mothers, there has been little collective mobilisation of women as mothers.

Given it is early days in this wave of scholarship, organising and activism on motherhood in Australia, it would be unwise to dismiss either the formation of motherhood studies or a motherhood movement as unlikely future developments. But we would like to suggest that this kind of research and activism on motherhood is not necessarily a risk free activity. For example, developing policies for mothers or on the basis of motherhood may in fact cement women into gendered roles and responsibilities. Ann Orloff’s (2010) work contrasting social policies based on women’s claims as mothers with claims based on women as citizens, workers or caregivers, suggests that ‘bidding farewell to maternalism’, if well thought through, may provide new opportunities for achieving gender equality. It is also possible that the elevation of mothering over other roles may reproduce stereotypes or produce new ones, and may in fact contribute to the ideological wars over what is, and isn’t, properly ‘maternal’. Finally, organising political action around a ‘mother’ identity may exclude other actors in this political space—non-mothers, men, and children. While work on mothers and motherhood is vital for bringing issues of care, the division of labour, race and class divisions, and gender inequality to the centre, the championing of mothers and motherhood should be engaged with strategically and reflexively.

Research and activism are important ways of interpreting, politicising, and addressing the conflicts faced by 21st century mothers. The accounts of diversity and change that are emerging provide a window not only into contemporary experiences of motherhood, but also into the ways in which gender, class and race are organised and intersect.


Baxter, J., Gray, M., Alexander, M., Strazdins, L. & Bittman, M. 2007, Mothers and fathers with young children: Paid employment, caring and wellbeing, Social Policy Research Paper No. 30, Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Canberra [Online], Available: [2011, Sep 8].

Goodwin, S. & Huppatz, K. (eds) 2010, The Good Mother: Contemporary Motherhoods in Australia, Sydney University Press, Sydney.

O’Reilly, A. 2004, From Motherhood to Mothering: The Legacy of Adrienne Rich’s of Woman Born, SUNY Press, New York.

Orloff, A. 2010, Farewell to maternalism? State policies and mothers’ employment, Working Paper No. 5, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University [Online], Available: [2011, Sep 8].

Ruddick S. 1989, Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace, Beacon Press, Boston.

Susan Goodwin is Senior Lecturer in Policy Studies at The University of Sydney. Her most recent book is Schools, Communities and Social Inclusion (2011) co-edited with Dorothy Bottrell.

Kate Huppatz is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Western Sydney. Kate’s research focuses on gender, class and work.

Kate and Sue are currently completing a new book on gender and class, called Gender Capital: The Intersections of Class, Gender and Occupations.

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