What Makes A Good Mother?
The answer to this question often comes wrapped in layers of societal expectations and stereotypes that don’t represent the reality of motherhood, but the ideal. Is there a better, more human narrative that can be told here to gain more awareness of the struggles our mothers go through?
Let’s start, for example, with the idea that mothers must be nurturing, caring, and a source of emotional support – which are all true to some extent! However, I can’t help but question this narrative for the reason that it seems a bit romanticized. Sure, framing mothers in this way is positive and uplifts them for the wonderful things they do, but should that be the main lens through which we understand motherhood? The reality that working mothers face seems to receive much less attention than the overarching vision of motherhood that is portrayed. The context of relationships outside of the immediate nuclear family, and the mental and physical health struggles that follow along are all parts of being human but aren’t widely spoken of at all. Could the absence of these topics be harmful? Let’s try to unpack this.
The Moral Spectrum of Motherhood
To be a mother is more than just birthing a child; in contemporary society, ‘motherhood’ often comes along with a fundamental shift in identity and therefore morality on what is the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ thing to do as a parent. With the changes experienced in gendered roles over the last decades, the way we have understood this shift is mainly filtered through the lens of work. A big part of this context lies in how central job opportunities and social progression have been in the feminist movement since World War Two and the civil rights movement, especially as issues like the gender pay gap are still prevalent. An interview with a panel of mothers highlighted a common trend of viewing motherhood as “the greatest job in the world”, involving “sacrificing body, finances, and career prospects.” This is interesting because it shows what Professor Duncan and Edwards call “gendered moral rationalities” – states which define expectations of what being a good mother means in Western society.
The identity of the mother exists on a spectrum ranging from the primarily-mother identity who stays at home physically caring for her child, to the primarily-worker identity where career and motherly duties are completely separated – the idea of the ‘good’ mother is one who can completely balance these two states and therefore remain morally in line with societal expectations. From this, we see that what is considered ‘right’ for a mother places her needs as secondary to her children's (which is understandably partially a responsibility of a parent), but also forms a cultural contradiction of where a woman should allocate their labor. Should a mother not work to spend more time with her kids or form a stricter boundary between home and employment to meet society’s expectations of a working professional mum?
We also have to remember that the ability of a mother to choose where she fits on that moral spectrum is a luxury that comes from access to better education, wealth, and class. Studies have been done on how female executives or higher-income mothers can outsource domestic tasks to focus on careers or have greater authority to restructure work around children, although motherhood expectations were still considered to be contradictory. From interviews with 95 married women, the link with socioeconomic standing is further highlighted; higher-income mothers who would fit in the primarily-work-mother bracket were shown to view just emotional availability as good child-rearing, while primarily-mother-mothers (often lower-income mothers without the same agency in their careers) valued that as well as physical presence. So, in the context of a patriarchal society, this leaves mothers and women as a whole stuck. On one hand, there is the traditional expectation to be a stay-at-home mother; on the other hand, the pressure to be a working mother fighting for career progression is an expectation that can only be met by the minority of mothers within the current system. This narrative holds two extremes as the moral standard, limited to either a traditional or progressive idea of what a good mother is without much context.
Motherhood Beyond The Nuclear Family?
Not only are these expectations unrealistic, but they can also have negative consequences. Take the example of postnatal depression, where a study of Vietnamese mothers showed most common causes were relational problems with the core family and parents/in-laws, involving lack of support, feeling like a burden, and having to endure expectations from all sides; this then led to physical health deterioration, unstable family environments and neglected care for children. But what if we looked at motherhood and overall parenting more holistically?
Through recentring family roles around human needs rather than overarching narratives, we can then begin to ask better questions to improve the experience of mothers. For example, a study of Polish mothers with disabilities highlighted how support networks can be built through family and friends allowing them to take an active role in raising children while accounting for things they are physically unable to do. This challenges the idea that mothers must meet specific expectations themselves. Where the mother-worker contradiction stresses the responsibilities of mothers as individuals, when including the context of relationships outside the nuclear family we see that this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Another example can be seen in extended families or cooperative communities commonly found in Chinese or Vietnamese cultures where the pressures of motherhood may be distributed between elderly relatives in return for being financially or socially responsible for their well-being. Of course, many extended family practices remain tied up in patriarchal customs, upheld by socioeconomic conditions like rural poverty that favour male employment over women who are restricted to being stay-at-home wives.
Trends like this possibly make extended families even worse for mothers in this situation who become restricted to the home to dedicate all time to child-rearing. Despite this, we can learn here that the emotional and physical needs of motherhood can be met by a wider range of sources, not just within the nuclear family.
So, What Questions Should We Be Asking?
How we talk about the role of the mother has been argued by academics to be a social buffer, upheld by institutions and organizations to distract from the need for systemic change. While this might be a bit of an extreme take, by not placing what the mother needs at the heart of the story, we end up with the all-or-nothing approach that the mainstream narrative offers limiting what good mothering looks like to a single and simplistic spectrum. Instead, we can ask better questions by looking at motherhood in context.
Perhaps a more holistic way of defining a ‘good’ mother could be in terms of her satisfaction and happiness. In the same way that measurements like Gross National Happiness are being considered as alternatives to GDP, a mother’s wellbeing is central to being able to raise children or advance their careers - both of which are resulting outcomes, not the goals themselves. By reframing the narrative in a way that asks “is the mother truly happy?”, that opens up the defining standards of success that currently exist, taking more time to truly understand community vitality, resilience, and other important factors in creating supportive environments.
All in all, human-centric thinking is a trend which has been taking off in the last decade, particularly in the worlds of business and innovation. Why should the same not be applied to rethink how our families and societal expectations are designed? By placing human needs first, particularly in the context of motherhood, we can understand that there is no one-size-fits-all narrative that defines what makes a good mother. Instead, we can take the pressure away from mothers by providing better contexts for them to raise their children in - ones that take into account socioeconomic conditions and wider relationships.
Melvyn Tang is a student at the University of Warwick (UK) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (China), with a background in History, Politics and Sustainable Development. Growing up throughout a unique time in West-China relations, Melvyn is passionate about cultural diversity and the intersections between inequality and global development.
This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 03 — September 2022