Julie Stephens — The Contradictions of Mother's Day

This coming Sunday, May 13, is Mother’s Day. In honor of the occasion, we are featuring two guest posts this week discussing popular conceptions of motherhood. Today’s article is written by Julie Stephens, an associate professor in sociology and politics at the School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Victoria University, Australia, and author of Confronting Postmaternal Thinking: Feminism, Memory, and Care.

Confronting Postmaternal ThinkingThe gift-exchange that is Mother’s Day can provide insight into cultural meanings around the maternal, particularly at a time when there is so much anxiety around human dependency and care. It is easy to identify the obvious commercialism and sentimentality surrounding the day when public and private attention is supposed to be focused on mothers. Uneasy contradictions nonetheless emerge when the work of nurture, care, preservation and sacrifice is marketized and made visible in ways difficult to reconcile with the actual work of mothering. In this respect, both the giving and receiving of gifts that so clumsily attempt to symbolize a non-market relationship, can feel somewhat tainted.

Sara Ruddick, the feminist philosopher and author of Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, viewed mothering as ‘a work with ideals’. While depicting it as a strange mix of play, organization, attentiveness, panic, boredom, lack of attentiveness, infatuation and emotion, she also recognized mothering as a social process, involving moral and ethical thinking and decision-making. Accordingly, the practice of maternal care produces a form of moral reasoning and a different way of seeing, knowing and acting in the world. Such conceptions have little to do with the market, and indeed serve to complicate standard political divisions between public and private.

By contrast, Mother’s Day reinforces these divisions by bringing so-called ‘private’ caring relations into public view. The fact that it is celebrated as one ‘special’ day in the year also reproduces the fiction that on the other days, home is somehow separate from and uncontaminated by the ‘unfeeling’ market. This way of imagining home can be traced back to early capitalism. Yet such understandings of home, or of the maternal as situated in a pure and private affective domain, can only be sustained through cultural representations based on nostalgia and longing. Mother’s Day is a perfect vehicle for such representations.

In reality, there is an ever-increasing consumption of paid emotional services in the home. Arlie Hochschild outlines some of these (and the tensions they produce) in her essay ‘Rent a Mom’. The more familiar outsourcing of cooking, shopping, laundering, gardening, and caring for children and the elderly is being extended to include valets, vegan chefs, household managers and even the purchasing of people to organize family photo albums, holiday décor, selecting, writing and posting your greeting cards or spreading the ashes of a deceased loved one. In the burgeoning list of domestic services on-line, ‘wet nurses’ are perhaps the most recent addition. Breast milk, one of the most potent symbols of maternal love and care is now promoted as a commodity to be purchased via web-based Milk Banks, or provided in person by certified staff described as ‘lactating women who will breast feed (nurse) someone else’s baby’. The infant is therefore positioned as a consumer in this relationship. Like Mother’s Day, the language portraying these arrangements is one that signals selflessness and love and often refers to breast milk as a donation. Like other forms of emotional outsourcing, this too is depicted in terms of a gift exchange, not a commercial transaction.

The apprehension around recognizing the way emotional life is being commercialized, not only serves an ideological function in disguising real relationships of exploitation, but also indicates the deep discomfort many of us feel about the values of the market being so close to home. It is interesting to see how some groups are attempting to re-symbolize Mother’s Day in order to avoid this discomfort. Advocacy groups now use the day to draw attention to the plight of mothers and children in war zones or to link the day with causes affecting women and families such as the fight against breast cancer. Others want to day to include recognition that globally, every 90 seconds, a woman dies becoming a mother. In a more benign vein, many mothering blogs promote home-made cards, days at the zoo or yoga classes, as alternative gifts. Yet, the fact remains that this day is a day where contradictions are writ large, embossed in the flowers and chocolates, white goods or massage coupons, ensuring that the giving and receiving will remain complicated and uncomfortable. Like mothering itself, what the day means and how the maternal comes to be defined is constantly being reconfigured both at the cultural and personal level. Very few current reconfigurations move us beyond the marketplace and enable us to think differently about motherhood.

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