In Context: Mama and Me

The issue of motherhood and identity is a symptom of modernity; for much of history (with a few “radical” exceptions), women became mothers and took care of the children—that’s just the way it was.

The past century has brought more abundant choices for many of the world’s women—freedom to delay motherhood, work outside the home, adopt a child as a single woman, or co-mother a child with a same sex partner. But these choices, where they exist, often come fraught with caveats and conundrums, as well as with questions and judgments about what is the “right” way to mother.

Sometimes it can seem as if judgment, controversyand discriminationshadow a mother’s every move. Pulled one way by society, another by her family, and still another by the need for her own unique identity, mothers around the world are questioning the role of mother, and what it means to them, like never before.

Questions like “What makes a good mother?” and “Can mothers ‘have it all’?” resound in the popular media, and in the minds of many women around the world. For example, in China, OgilvyChinafound that while the GDP of China ranked first amongst developing countries, the happiness index of Chinese mothers ranked only 18th. A Chinese mom’s biggest stressor? The pressure of being a “good mother” who is always there for her children while balancing work outside the home.

The “good versus bad mother” debate continues to intrigue, shock[1]  and provoke in vastly different settings, amplified by social media. Debates around co-sleeping, breastfeeding, attachment parenting, and working versus “staying at home” are highly emotionally charged—and, of course, there is rarely a cut-and-dry “right” answer.

Indeed, few magazine stories have incited more debate than two recent articles about motherhood: Time magazine’s “Are you Mom Enough?” story about attachment parenting (complete with an incendiary cover photo of a young mom breastfeeding her toddler), and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Moms still can’t Have it All.” While the articles themselves are not in and of themselves prescriptive of how to be “the perfect mother,” the larger cultural conversation quickly devolved into accusations, judgment, and critiques of mothering.

In fact, this conversation is taking place in cultures and countries around the world. Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, Amy Chua’s manifesto on hardline childrearing in the “Chinese mother” style, generated over 370,000 Facebook likes and 8,000 comments online.[2] In Europe, young French working mothers are being lured back into a “regressive” movement of “perfect” stay-at home-moms, according to Elizabeth Badinter, a feminist author who has sparked a national controversy on the topic.[3]

Indeed, for women of a certain age, it seems the cultural commentary is focused on nothing but motherhood. But for those still worrying, “there are no standards for what makes ‘a good mother’” says author and parenting coach Gail Kauranen Jones.[4] Instead, maintaining an independent identity outside of caring for children is critical for women. “Don’t get so consumed with the needs of others that you forget who you are,” Jones advises new mothers.

Across the world, the controversy and conversation about what makes a mother and her child happy continues.  In the process, mothers are defining and refining their voices as mothers and as women, with the noble intention of loving and caring for their children in the best way they can.

In our Mama and Me gallery:

  • HEAR FROM Hafstat Abiola as she reflects on the charged question: "What Makes a Good Mother?"
  • LISTEN to Mama’s Voices, where women around the world discuss motherhood and identity
  • READ an interview with Shira Richter, an Israeli artist and activist
  • AND MORE >>

[1]Book review, Bad Mother - A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace byAyelet Waldman, New York Times, May 7 2009, Accessed 1 December 2011

 [2]  Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior by Amy Chua, Wall Street Journal, January 8 2011, Accessed 29 November 2011

[3] French philosopher says feminism under threat from 'good motherhood', The Guardian, February 10, 2011

[4] Gail Kauranen Jones, author and coach, quoted in Finding Your Personal Identity as a Mom, Blog Post by Tina Games-Evans, Babyzone, Accessed 30 November 2011