Parenting in Global Perspective: Negotiating Ideologies of Kinship, Self and Politics, ed. Charlotte Faircloth, Diane M. Hoffman and Linda L. Layne (London and New York: Routledge, 2013)
This is not so much a critical review of what is a cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural volume on motherhood (and parenthood more widely) as a comparative reflection on a project which would seem to have some similarity, in terms of themes and aims, with the work of the Motherhood in post-1968 European Literature Network. My reflections on this volume also lead to reflections on our own network project and forthcoming publications.
First, though, a brief description of the Parenting in Global Perspective collection of essays. The book’s fourteen chapters are divided into four parts – The moral context for parenting; The structural constraints to ‘good’ parenting; Negotiating parenting culture; and Parenting and/as identity – and there is a substantial editors’ introduction, plus a Foreword (Frank Furedi) and an Afterword (Ellie Lee). The contributors took part in a workshop at the University of Kent, where contributions to the volume and associated methodologies were presented and discussed. The academic field for the publication is identified as ‘parenting culture studies’ and the project’s overall aim is to ‘foreground the experience of parents as agents, recognising the important but neglected transformations that affect them as situated within networks of kinship, material culture, ideology and beyond’ (xviii). It involves researchers from both anthropology and sociology, and takes in parenting situations from a wide range of national and cultural contexts, from the UK and Europe to the US and South America, including migrant, refugee and other transnational issues. Although the declared focus is on parenting, and the volume includes some discussion of fathers, here, as elsewhere, ‘the topic of “parenting” […] [often] euphemises what is really “mothering”’ (54), and the majority of chapters are devoted to the experiences of mothers.
The editors’ introduction sets out a series of research questions for the volume, relating to the ways in which parenting in the contemporary era is constructed through the discourses of various child-development experts, what kinds of cultural assumptions and authoritative claims are made by them and what kinds of parents they produce, as well as how parents themselves negotiate and experience expectations about their parenting. These questions are also linked into constructions of the self, kinship and political relations, and how they affect the construction of gender, race, social class, and nation. The individual essays are linked by means of the theoretical concept of intensive parenting, largely drawn from sociologist Sharon Hays’s work on the ideology of ‘intensive mothering’ in The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996), a concept and practice which, it is argued, is permeating internationally, and all the essays make explicit reference to this text, albeit sometimes somewhat tangentially. Another key concept (and text) for the collection is Frank Furedi’s Paranoid Parenting (2001), in relation to parents’ sensitivity to discourses of risk and to political trends ‘where parenting is increasingly understood as both the source of, and solution to, a whole host of social problems’ (1-2). The volume demonstrates a tension between commonalities in discourse, structure and experience, and a range of cultural, regional and individual specificities. Indeed, rather than being part of ‘the new “parenting” culture’ in global terms (1; my emphasis), the concept of intensive mothering actually seems to grow out of and be in dialogue with specific historical and cultural ideologies: for example, in Chile, intensive mothering is seen in policy discourse as a path to upward mobility for families, but also fits in with traditional Chilean notions of mothering; in Spain, the child-centred values of contemporary intensive mothering echo the self-sacrificing notions of motherhood from Catholicism and Francoism; likewise, the notion of motherhood as sacrifice is a traditional ideal in Turkey. Plenty of examples of resistance to and creative negotiations with the concept are evident: such as Dominican migrants in Madrid defining themselves against the traditional Spanish model; Sudanese refugees in the US modifying American concepts of child-centred parenting to maintain links with their traditional culture and ethnic identity; and many of the parents in the case studies seem to identify themselves against the mainstream.
Successful interdisciplinary work is stimulating but always challenging; even more so when it also crosses cultures. Notions of methodology and evidence, as well as cultural specificities, can disrupt discussion and limit outcomes. As in our own work in the Motherhood in post-1968 European Literature Network, which works across disciplines and cultures, the variables here are immense. The concept of intensive parenting is, therefore, used as a cohering principle for the broad-based set of contexts discussed in the Parenting in a Global Perspective collection. In our own network, the focus on Europe is designed to fulfil a similar function, especially since – within the EU at least – so many policy decisions affecting families and parents are made at European level. And our emphasis on European literature is designed to demonstrate that literary texts can offer valid and valuable insights within multi-discipline studies on motherhood. In both projects, a rich comparative forum has been produced, although, in the book, there is a certain sense of ‘randomness’ about what contexts, situations and case studies are included. Projects such as this are, however, dependent on, and grow out of, what scholars are working on – and, importantly, on what they can get funding to work on – at any one time.
My thoughts as I read through this book turned to how to produce useful publications from the discussions we have had at our five workshops held in 2012 and 2013, and will have at the forthcoming conference in October 2013. In this book, Lee concludes in her Afterword that the project has produced a series of alternatives rather than counter-narratives on parenting and has probably raised more questions than it has answered, while opening up new areas for research. This in itself is a highly successful and valuable contribution of course but, even while we plan a series of journal special issues and sections drawn from our workshops, we must not forget that, as Furedi suggests in his Foreword to the Parenting in Global Perspectives volume, the cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural conversations we have had at our events are extremely valuable in themselves.
Podcasts from the workshops are available on the Network website at http://modernlanguages.sas.ac.uk/research-fellowships/ahrc-motherhood-post-1968-european-literature-network/podcasts . Please continue these conversations on this blog.
We are always open to suggestions for ways in which the Network can continue to contribute to debates on motherhood in Europe.