Friday, 1 February 2013

Report on Workshop 3: Changing Models of Motherhood, by Alice Podkolinski

Workshop 3: Changing Models of Motherhood

Workshop 3 on Changing Models of Motherhood covered a diverse range of disciplines and nationalities. Throughout these varying perspectives it was evident that since 1968 the medical, legislative, and social changes had had considerable impact on experiences of mothering, and were continuing to do so.  One principal change that could be traced through all the discussions and papers in the workshop was the increasing number of choices made available to women. These choices primarily seemed liberating. Whether because of developing reproductive technologies or legislative changes, women could choose when to conceive, they could choose when not to conceive, they could choose with whom they wanted to conceive, irrespective of sex, and how; following the birth they could choose whether they went back to work, when and how often. And yet throughout the workshop, the overriding ambivalence towards and questions surrounding changing models of mothering arose from the implications, responsibilities, and guilt these opportunities to choose catalysed. These experiences became particularly conflicted when the “mothering” didn't conform to the oppressively omnipresent, and yet distinctly absent, hetero-normative model of parenting that haunted most of the characters and subjects discussed during the workshop. Claire Williams succinctly concluded the day by observing that our discussions had thrown up many more questions than answers. Following Victoria Browne’s resistance of patrilineal modes of thinking, I am not going to present my report on the workshop chronologically. Instead by way of framing the day, I am going to present just some of the many questions our discussions provoked and the contexts in which they arose:

At the opening of the workshop in Katarina Carlshamre’s paper on “New Father, New Mother?” we were introduced to the conflict between the legislatively supported ideal of ‘gender-equal parenting’ in Sweden and the reality that 75% of parental leave is taken by mothers. Katarina explored literature which portrayed women struggling with their role as mother; they are women who constantly feel they are failing to embrace their “natural instinct” as carers. It is precisely the notion of this instinct, Katarina argued, that altered the father and mother’s involvement in parenting and the feelings of guilt and desperation that the mothers experienced. Questions following Katarina’s paper revealed that many of the issues British academics were coming across were a result of linguistic categories. Problems surrounding the very definition of “mothering”, “fathering”, and “parenting” varied considerably between cultures and languages.

Is part of our issue symptomatic of the English language and its gender defining semantics of mothering and fathering? Or is the lack of vocabulary to conceptualise beyond the normative model of mothering universal?

Abigail Lee Six’s paper “Changing Models of Motherhood and Mother-Blame: Plus ça change....” similarly explored these issues of mother guilt, shame and blame. Since motherhood is now considered a choice, the child must be deemed “worth it”. The mother is then considered responsible for how the child turns out. This is a feeling of blame also encountered in Chrissie Rogers’ “Sociological Story about intellectual Disability, mothering and Care Work”. Through her interviews with mothers of intellectually disabled children, Chrissie encounters countless examples of “exclusion narratives” towards mothers. She summarises it as the inhumanity of how we deal with “difficult” differences and uses it to reveal the deficiencies in current educational and health care support for parents with intellectually disabled children. Chrissie suggests we have a system of “Other-ing”, which she defines by its inability to embrace and include “difficult” differences, and so excludes them. Blaming the normative “narrative of mothering”, she identifies a conflict between our expectations and the reality of mothering. This clash appears in multiple discussions throughout the day; the gap between the expectations and the reality of mothering is the location for negative experiences of “non-normative” models of motherhood, but also the space in which we can and should develop new models of mothering and modes of thinking which coincide with these.

Is there such a thing as normative and non-normative mothering?  Or is this the result of normative discourses on reproduction and parenting? How can we then discuss so-called “non-normative” models of motherhood without marginalising them? And are changes in models of mothering a result of legislative changes or vice versa?

Signe Howell’s paper “The Kinning of the Transnationally Adopted Child in Contemporary Norway” illustrated to us the psychic processes of bringing a child into a family and building familial relationships with them. She describes a transformative process for not just the adoptive parents, but for their immediate family and friends. Using the analogy of a particular midwife who provides pre-adoption courses and uses a discourse acutely similar to that of giving birth when describing the emotional journey of adoption, Signe draws into question the very definitions of kinship and parenting.

What does it mean to mother? Who can mother – is it limited by sex or relation? What about the father? Is it actually a psychic structure rather than biological right? To what extent is parenting an act? Can we create a new act?

Jill Armstrong’s summary of the discussion on Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath suggested that public spaces such as parks have become stages for families to perform the parenting skills. This is a performance which becomes further compounded, and necessary, when the parents are divorced. The process of divorce seems to highlight the sense that this performance is an attempt to create “normality”.  Jill suggested that this concept of “the family” is a relatively new one, and yet its normative model is a highly constricting one. Roberta Guerrina similarly identified the issue of the “norm” in Éliane Girard’s Mais qui va garder le chat? The lesbian parenting discussed in the fiction allows a thorough exploration of the experience of “non- normative” models of parenting. The dialogue in the extract discussed revealed the “norm” to be a rigid stone against which all other models of parenting are measured. The characters’ confusions and frustrations arise from the fact that vocabulary and models for conceptualisation don’t exist for the more fluid models of mothering/parenting presented in these texts.

What is this “tyranny of the norm” that all guilt and success is measured against? How are the choices available implicated by this? Or even despite the possibilities provided with reproductive technologies are we doomed to keep replicating old hetero-normative models of parenting?

And how does literature contribute to this discussion?

The literature discussed provided a forum to explore the issues beyond the normative and limited discourses surrounding mothering and gender.  Our conclusions regarding the use of literature in these discussions resonated strongly with Deleuze’s consideration of literature in Essays Critical and Clinical:
To those who ask what literature is, Virginia Woolf responds: To whom are you speaking of writing? The writer does not speak about it, but is concerned with something else.[1]

It is precisely this “something else” we encountered in the literature. These encounters sparked discussions which transgressed the borders of the literary, philosophical, political and personal. These transgressions were evident throughout the workshop, but also spilled out into the coffee breaks, and will most certainly continue beyond.

[1] Gilles Deleuze, , Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco, (London: Verso, 1998), p. 6

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