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Research note:

Women's experience of the mother role

Pat O'Connor

Abstract

Despite the feminist critique of the assumptions implicit in the ideol- ogy of motherhood, relatively little empirical work has been done on women's own experience of this role. This research note uses data from a small scale intensive study of 51 married or cohabiting mothers aged 20-42 years old, whose oldest child was 15 years old, and who were randomly selected from medical records in a lower middle class area of North London. Building on Boulton's (1983) conceptualiza- tion, it differentiates between three aspects of this role (namely their commitment to it; its perceived identity enhancing/ destructive charac- ter and the positive/negative quality of their interaction with their chil- dren). These women's experience of the mother role was then assessed on these dimensions - using rating scales and anchoring examples (which are illustrated here). This research note suggests that even within this relatively homoge- nous lower middle/upper working class sample, the experience of motherhood was extremely varied: with less than half of the sample experiencing it positively at all three levels. An attempt is made to explain this variation.

Introduction

Prior to the 1970s there were few systematic studies of the effect of the parent/child relationship on the mother herself (see eg Rossi, 1968; Jaccoby, 1969). Even at that time, however, there was a good deal of speculation (eg Komarovsky, 1967; Lopata, 1971) about the effect of education on women's evaluation of the personal significance of their role as mothers, and its implications as regards their enjoyment of mothering. However, the main

© The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1993. Published by Blackwell Publishers,

Pat O'Connor

focus of research continued to be either on the general effects of poor parenting or on specific topics such as the effects of the mother's employment on the child. The implicit assumption amongst sociologists, psychologists and the general public was that 'normal' women enjoyed looking after their children and found meaning and identity in that experience: an assumption which Walkerdine and Lucey (1989) suggest continues to be implicit in much of the work in these areas. Boulton's (1983) study explored this issue systematically - albeit only in a small sample of 50 middle and working class London respondents (all with one child under five years). She distinguished between her respondents' feelings about their day- to-day involvement with their children and the pleasures and frustrations involved in that, and the broader meaning and pur- pose attached to motherhood. She found that roughly half of her respondents felt positively about their experiences of motherhood at one or other level - although there was a low association between the two types of feelings. Middle class respondents in her study were slightly less likely than their working class coun- terparts to enjoy the day-to-day tasks, and more likely to see motherhood as giving meaning and significance to their lives, although the differences were not statistically significant. Hence, her study implicitly suggested that the experience of motherhood did not vary significantly between social classes. Nearly one third of Boulton's (1983) total sample neither enjoyed the routine day-to-day tasks nor found meaning and sig- nificance in the role at a more general level. These results are broadly consistent with Gavron's (1966); Mintum and Lambert's (1964); Oakley's (1974) and Crohan's (1970) work, as well as being compatible with the more indirect evidence provided by those who have looked at the factors associated with women's vulnerability to depression. These findings clearly challenge facile assumptions about the inherently rewarding nature of motherhood. The purpose of this research note is methodological and descriptive. Thus, it builds on Boulton's conceptualization of the experience of mothering and attempts to describe and to begin to explain the complexity of the feelings surrounding motherhood.

Sample

The material in this paper is based on intensive interviews with 51 women, with children, from an original sample of 71 women ran-

Women's experience of the mother role

domly selected from the records of five general medical practices serving Walthamstow in North London. In order to be included in the sample, respondents had to be aged 20-42 years old; with an oldest child of no more than 15 years old; to be married or cohab- iting and to have been living in Britain for at least 15 years. This paper excludes those respondents who had no children. (Percentages are also expressed excluding information incomplete). More than half of the respondents had at least one child under 5 years old. The sample was roughly evenly divided between those who had an oldest child aged less than 5 years; 6-10 years; and 11-15 years respectively. Three quarters of the sample had one or two children. The standard of education amongst the women was low, with three fifths of them having left school at 15 years with no examinations or qualifications; the majority of the remainder having done apprenticeships or stayed in Secondary School only until they were 16 years old. The majority of the sample had worked in paid employment before their marriage, and almost three fifths (30/51) were cur- rently in paid employment. Using the twofold Hope-Goldthorpe Schema (Goldthorpe and Hope, 1974) three quarters of those who were currently in paid employment, were in working class occupations ie being employed as canteen workers; Hoffman pressers; hairdressers; mid-day school kitchen helps and home helps. The majority (19/31) worked less than 26 hours a week - and roughly half of these worked fifteen hours or less. Hence although the majority were in paid employment, their participa- tion in the labour force was very much on a part-time basis. The women in this sample were predominantly white, and working class in background. Three fifths of their fathers, and half of their husbands were in occupations classified as working class on the Hope-Goldthorpe Schema (eg being cab-drivers; coalmen; factory operatives; factory storemen). Furthermore, although half of their husbands were currently in middle class occupations, these were typically at the very lowest end of the middle class (eg local authority firemen; transport foreman, rent arrears officers; sales representatives for confectionery firms). Skilled manual workers, such as welders or electricians are placed in the middle class on the Hope-Goldthorpe Schema, whereas on the Registrar General's Schema they are assigned to the working class. In terms of the latter then, the sample was predominantly working class, with 70 per cent of the respondents being married to working class men. Using either classification schema, of those

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Pat O'Connor

women who were currently in paid employment, none were in a higher class position than their husband, although a sizeable minority were in a lower one (ie they were working class where their husband was middle class). The sample does not include single mothers; lesbian mothers or mothers of adopted children. Hence one might expect that there would be little variation in the range of these women's experi- ences of motherhood. In fact however, even within this relatively homogeneous sample, it will be shown that this was not the case.

Methodology

Richardson et aPs (1965) non-schedule standardized interview approach was used to explore the respondents' experiences of motherhood. This was done in the context of a discussion of all aspects of their lives (including marriage, housework and work) - an approach which has been widely used by Brown and his asso- ciates (Oakley, 1974; Brown and Harris, 1978; Boulton, 1983; O'Connor and Brown, 1984; O'Connor, 1990). These interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed, and were then coded (or rated) in the light of a series of indicators and anchoring examples, illustrating scale points. This kind of approach is cumbersome and painstaking but does represent an important attempt to integrate quantitative and qualitative material. Three concepts were used in exploring the respondents' experi- ence of motherhood - concepts which build on Boulton's (1983) work and reflect a growing realization of the variety and com- plexity of women's experience of motherhood. These three dimensions are outlined below. The first two were developed from Boulton's scale dealing with the sense of meaning and pur- pose provided by motherhood; while the third dimension was a modification of her scale dealing with the experience of daily care - taking into account the ages of the children.

(1) Commitment to the mother role

ie the extent to which the position itself and their involvement with their children are an important source of meaning in their lives and/or in their idea of themselves. Indicators (A) Statements that they would not like it and/or would have felt diminished in some way if they had been unable to have children.

Women's experience of the mother role

(B)

Statements that children are an important focus in their current life eg that they would wish to look after them themselves; that they put them before their husband and/or their work.

(C)

Any other statement indicating the importance of the mother role in their daily lives and plans

(2) Enhancing destructive character of the mother role

ie their perception of the position of motherhood and/or of the role itself as having positive or negative implications as regards their identity. Indicators (A) Statements indicating their perception of the sta- tus of the position of mother.

(B)

Statements indicating their perception of the enhancing/destructive character of the work involved in terms of the level of skill required; the challenge or variety in the work etc.

(C)

Statements indicating the identity implications of their own performance of this role ie in terms of their own and/or others' evaluation of the way their children are turning out etc.

(3) Positive/negative quality of their interaction with their children

ie the overall tone of the time they spend on their own with the children (ie without their husband or other people being there). Indicators (A) Statements about the affective tone of the inter- action eg that it is warm, pleasant, lively, neu- tral, relaxed or tense.

(B)

Statements about the feeling component in the interaction ie the intensity and pervasiveness of feelings of enjoyment, distress, amusement or boredom.

(C)

Behavioural indicators of the strength of the positive/negative tone of the interaction - for example animated lively conversation, overt quarrelling or slamming doors.

(D)

Any other relevant statement.

The reliability of these measures was assessed within the pro- ject itself (and has subsequently been re-assessed by Brown and his colleagues). Within the project, twenty interviews were rated

Pat O'Connor

by two people. In only half of these was the second rater present at these interviews, the remainder being rated from the tapes alone. These scales achieved kappa values of between .80 and .83 and so can be regarded as broadly satisfactory. They also appeared to be tapping distinctive aspects of the respondents' experience of motherhood in so far as none of the interrelation- ships between them reached a statistically significant level (gamma values ranging from .34 to .51). In the quality of interaction scale and the scale dealing with the enhancing/destructive character of the mother role, the assess- ment was made initially on two four-point scales (ie dealing with the positive and negative dimensions) - and these were subse- quently combined into a seven point scale. In this paper, for ease of presentation, they are further collapsed into three point scales (at least somewhat positive; equally positive and negative; and at least somewhat negative). Commitment to motherhood was ini- tially rated on a four point scale and is here reduced to two scale points (marked and moderate; and some/little/none). We now turn to a more detailed illustration of these scale points - drawing on illustrative case material (using pseudonyms for the mothers thus described).

Results

When one looks separately at each of the three dimensions of the respondents' experience of motherhood, it is clear that the pro- portion experiencing the role positively varies across these dimen- sions. First, the overwhelming majority of the respondents (79 per cent: 38/48) had a high level of commitment to motherhood. Catherine Howard, a 36 year old woman married to a Section Manager and assessed as middle class on the Hope-Goldthorpe Schema provides an example of this sort of rating. She says of motherhood: 'it's an experience I wouldn't have gone without really. I don't think I would have liked to go through life not being a mother'. She says that if she had been unable to have children 'I think I would be very upset. I think that's basically because - not so much in this generation - but in my generation you were brought up to feel that a woman should have children and that there was some disgrace if a woman couldn't have chil- dren. You know, you were led to believe that if you were mar- ried and you don't have children, there's something wrong with

Women's experience of the mother role

you and it's not a proper marriage and all that sort of thing you know. I suppose basically its just indoctrination but I think also its just a basic instinct in a woman to want children and to have children. I think it's a very exceptional woman, I think, who can literally say that she's not interested'. Being a mother and wife are identified by her as the things that matter most to her. Catherine Howard's first marriage broke down, and between that time and her second marriage, it was her child that gave her the motivation to keep going: 'I had a reason

You've got someone depending

on you, and therefore you can't afford to sit back and say "poor old me" '.

She says that children are not her whole world. She does paid work on a part-time basis, although she fits this in very much around the demands of motherhood, and sees it as very much secondary in importance: 'Children don't ask to be born, they're yours and they're your responsibility: that's my feeling'. Catherine Howard, like the overwhelming majority of the respon- dents in the sample was assessed as having a high level of com- mitment to motherhood. Secondly, the majority (73 per cent:35/48) of the respondents saw motherhood as at least somewhat identity enhancing. Ann Black, a 36 year old woman assessed as working class on the Hope-Goldthorpe Schema because she was married to a lorry driver, saw it in this light. She was herself a qualified hairdresser but was now working part-time as a kitchen assistant. She described it as something that takes a lot of skill: 'I mean you

can't just have kids and that's it, you've got to try

they're all

why I had to pick myself up

different, they've all got different ways and you've got to know how to react with each child'. She feels that it is a lot more skil- ful than her own part-time paid job as kitchen assistant. 'You're dealing with the minds of children, whereas at work, its just food, and that's it. You're like a robot just dishing out the same meals. Still it's a job. But when it comes to dealing with children, it's entirely different'.

She sees looking after her children as more challenging and more interesting than her work. 'Well it is, because you're hoping that you are bringing them up to respect you: to love you, you know, and you just don't know how each one is going to turn out'. She stresses the importance of being with them before they

start school. 'I don't know what you teach a child before it starts

I think if you

school, but what I always say is, be with them

Pat O'Connor

can bring them up to believe in God, that sort of seems to stick, and that gives them the basis to know to do right from wrong. That's what I've gone by and I hope its worked you know'. She ruefully reflects however 'as I say I've come unstuck with the eldest one but it might just be a stage she's going through'. Ann Black feels that there is less to do once the children go to school, but she is aware of the continuing potential of mother- hood to be identity enhancing or destructive: 'they're still your responsibility even when they're away from home'. At the moment they are having problems with their eldest child. 'She's a very bright girl. At her last school, she was the head girl and from there she went on to the High School. Now her work is "could do better" all the time'. As regards this child, her experience of motherhood is far from identity enhancing. Nevertheless, in view of her overall percep- tion of the skills required for the role, and her experiences of par- enting her other three children, whom she describes 'pretty average really', her overall experience of motherhood was assessed as somewhat enhancing. It is worth noting that there was frequently a tension between the experience of the role as such, and the identity experiences derived from actually occupying that role. The trends were not always in the direction experienced by Ann Black. Thus some respondents saw the mother role as requiring very little skill, training or even common sense: but derived considerable identity enhancement from the production of a well-behaved child, who was perceived by them and others as a satisfactory 'product'. Finally, only just over half of the respondents (58 per cent:

28/48) had interaction with their children which was at least somewhat positive. Helen Barker, who was assessed as middle class on the Hope- Goldthorpe Schema since she was married to the manager of a dry cleaning shop, was one of these respon- dents. She says of her interaction with her two daughters aged 6 and 7 years old: 'I come down to their level, and I love it. I enjoy every minute of it'. 'I enjoy just to sit down and talk - just me and them, when they come home from school - the first thing I always say to them is how did you get on today?'. She listens to them 'because I want to be part of them, so that we have some- thing to talk about. We have a laugh over everything'. The chil- dren are very affectionate towards her: 'they say, can I have a cuddle mum'. They are at the stage when as Helen Barker says - 'it is jolly - I like them round me'. Very occasionally the girls

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Women's experience of the mother role

fight and she soon stops this 'I get very upset to think they are trying to hurt each other'. Nevertheless the overall quality of her day-to-day interaction with them appears highly positive and so is rated as such. Less than half (44 per cent:21/48) of the respondents experi- enced the mother role positively on all three dimensions (ie in the sense that they had a high level of commitment to it; found it at least somewhat identity enhancing and had interaction which was at least somewhat positive with their children). Of the seven other patterns, (see Table I: Appendix) the one which was most common, but which was still only characteristic of less than one in five of the respondents, was having a high level of commitment to motherhood, experiencing it as at least somewhat enhancing, but nevertheless having day to day interac- tion with their children which was less than positive. Only a very small group of respondents indeed (2/48) had less than positive feelings on all three dimensions. Hence, in this fairly homoge- neous sample, the sheer diversity of the respondents' experience of the mother role was the most striking feature - a diversity which contrasts markedly with what Walkerdine and Lucey (1989:65) called the 'isolated, romantic snapshot of motherhood'. Walkerdine and Lucey are not specifically concerned with their respondents' experience of their roles as mothers (1989:158). However, they present a very vivid picture of the way in which

mothering is socially and differentially constructed within the mid- dle- and working-class environments of their respondents. As one might expect in the light of their work, there was evidence in this study to suggest that the respondents' current class position (assessed on the basis of the position of their husband's occupation on the Hope-Goldthorpe Schema) was associated with the quality of the respondents' interaction with their children ie respondents who were assessed as middle class, in terms of the location of their husband's current occupation, were more likely than their working class counterparts to have interaction with their children which was

least somewhat positive (71 per cent: 17/24 V 36 per cent:9/25 P

at

< .02, gamma = .62). This is compatible with their view that their middle-class respondents were better able to integrate their domes- tic work with play than their working-class counterparts - partly because they delegated more to it to paid help, and partly because they saw the educational potential of every situation. In the present study, neither the respondents' own education; pre-marital occupational status; current occupational status; their

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Pat O'Connor

fathers occupational status when they were 10 years old; or their husband's current occupational status were associated with the other two dimensions, nor indeed with the overall pattern of their experience of motherhood. The relative unimportance of class as an explanatory variable may well reflect the very much more attenuated class continuum in this study than in Walkerdine and Lucey's. Thus, in contrast to the present study, those who were middle class in their study were all married to men in professional occupations; they them- selves had formal qualifications and most had been trained for a profession; while those who were regarded as working class, for the most part, lacked educational qualifications and were married to men in semi-skilled or unskilled occupations. Walkendine and Lucey do not present details of their respon- dents' family size, nor do they consider its importance as a factor influencing the quality of the respondents' interaction with their children. In this study the number of children was associated with the quality of their interaction with them ie 69 per cent (27/39) of those who had 1 or 2 children having interaction which was at least somewhat positive, as compared with 8 per cent (1/12) of those who had three or more children (P < .001, gamma = .92). Hence one might suggest that a relatively big fam- ily creates a work situation which is not conducive to highly pos- itive interaction. It is possible that the trend involving number of children might be spurious. At any rate, amongst those who had children, work- ing-class respondents were significantly more likely to have three or more children (P < .01, gamma = .88). However alternative measures of class position were not associated with any aspect of their experience of this role. In contrast, the number of children in the family was also statistically significantly associated with commitment to motherhood: 63 per cent (12/19) of those with one child having a high level of commitment, as compared with 90 per cent (28/31) of those with at least two children (P < .02, gamma = .69). This trend arguably reflects the fact that those who saw motherhood as important were likely to have more chil- dren than those who did not do so (within the constraints of the age of the sample). It is thus clear that a variable such as number of children could well reflect a variety of factors. Most obviously perhaps, it might well simply indicate the age of the youngest or oldest child; the respondents own age and/or the duration of their married

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Women's experience of the mother role

life. In fact none of these variables were significantly associated with any of the aspects of the respondents' experience of the mother role. Three of them were statistically significantly associ- ated with number of children (namely the age of the mother: P < .05; gamma = .64; the duration of their marriage; P < .02; gamma = .61; and the age of their oldest child, P < .01, gamma = .76). These trends were at their strongest in differentiating between those who had one child and those who had more than one. Hence one might suggest that these variables refiect the length of their child rearing career, and that this in turn both indicated and reinforced their commitment to motherhood. The number of children respondents had was not associated at all with the third dimension (ie the identity enhancing/destructive character of this role). There was some evidence to suggest that those who were under 21 years old when they met their husband were most likely to see motherhood as identity enhancing ie 86 per cent (30/35) of them seeing it in this light, as compared with 40 per cent (4/10) of those who met him later (P < .01, gamma = .84). This variable seemed to reflect the range of experiences they had prior to marriage, although neither their own educational level, the status of their own occupation before marriage, the duration of their work life before marriage, nor indeed the age at which they married their husband were associated with the iden- tity enhancing/destructive character of motherhood. When one looked at the overall pattern of the respondents' experience of motherhood - juxtaposing those who felt positive on all dimensions against the rest - the number of children respondents had was associated (P < .01) in a curvilinear way with their overall experience of motherhood ie 39 per cent (7/18) of those with one child; 68 per cent (13/19) of those with two children, as compared with 9 per cent (1/11) of those with three children scoring high on all three dimensions - a trend which is interesting at a descriptive level, although it is not easy to inter- pret.

Summary and conclusions

Prior to the 1970s little interest was shown in women's own expe- rience of the mother role. Work such as Boulton's (1983) marked an important stage in attempting to conceptualize and explore variation in women's experience of that role. In this study, build-

Pat O'Connor

ing on her work, three aspects of the mother role were identified, namely, commitment to the mother role, the enhancing/destruc- tive character of that role and the positive/negative quality of interaction with the children. These three aspects were not statis- tically significantly associated.

The trends which emerged were generally more positive than in Boulton's study, insofar as between a half and three quarters of the respondents had a somewhat positive orientation to each of these dimensions considered separately. However, less than half of them had highly positive feelings at all three levels. Seven dif- ferent patterns were identified within this relatively homogeneous sample of young, lower middle/upper working class women. Quite clearly then the experience of the mother role is multifac- eted. This research note argues for exploring the various elements within women's orientation to the mother role. It offers some support for Walkerdine and Lucey's (1989) suggestion that the experience of motherhood is reproduced differentially in the lives of middle and working class women. However at least in this study, the importance of class position seemed to lie only in its influence on the quality of the respondents' interaction with their children. Furthermore at least within this sample, number of chil- dren seemed to be useful as an indicator of the work environ- ment in which mothering occurred. It also appeared to be an indicator of the length of their child rearing career, although its relationship to their overall positive orientation to the mother role was not unambiguous. Further research is obviously needed to test the validity and reliability of this conceptualization and to explore the factors associated with variation in such experiences. This note however highlights the importance of such an attempt, and indicates a possible approach to this task. It thus falls very much within a tradition which has stressed the importance of looking at women's experience of socially defined roles, rather than focusing at the level of the consequences for the family of poor perfor- mance of that role.

University of Limerick

Received 19 February 1990

Finally accepted 9 February 1992

Women's experience of the mother role

References

Boulton, M. G., (1983), On Being a Mother, London: Tavistock. Brown, G. and Harris, T., (1978), The Social Origins of Depression, London:

Tavistock. Brown, G. W., (1987), 'Social Factors and the Development and Course of

Depressive Disorders in Women: A review of a research programme', British Journal of Social Work 17: 615-634. Croghan, R., (1990), 'The experience of stress and support amongst first time mothers' paper presented the International Conference on Personal Relationships, July, Oxford. Gavron, H., (1966), The Captive Wife, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Jaccoby, A., (1969), 'Transition to Parenthood: a Re-assessment', Journal of Marriage and the Family 31: 720-727, Komarovsky, M., (1967), Blue Collar Marriage, New York: Vintage. Lopata, H. Z., (1971), Occupation Housewife, New York: Oxford University Press. Mintum, L. and Lambert, W.L., (1964), Mothers of Six Cultures: Antecedents of Child Rearing, Wiley: New York. Oakley, A., (1974), The Sociology of Housework, London: Martin Robertson. O'Connor, P. and Brown, G.W., (1984), 'Supportive relationships: Fact of Fancy?', Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 1: 159-176. O'Connor, P., (1990), 'The adult mother/daughter relationship: a uniquely and universally close relationship?'. The Sociological Review 38, 2: 293-323. Richardson, S.A., Dohrenwend, B.S. and Klein, D., (1965), Interviewing: Its forms andfindings. New York: Basic Books. Rossi, A., (1968), 'Transition to Parenthood', Journal of Marriage and the Family

Goldthorpe, J.H. and Hope, K

(1974),

The Social Grading of Occupations,

38: 26-39. Walkerdine, V. and Lucey, L., (1989), Democracy in the Kitchen, London: Virago Press.

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Appendix

Table 1: Percentage distribution of respondents on an empirical Typology of women's orientation to the mother role

Characteristics

 

High

At least

At least

% (n)

commit-

somewhat

somewhat

Type

ment

identity

positive

 

enhancing

quality of

 

interaction

I.

Entirely Positive

+

+

+

44% (21)

2.

Valued but not enjoyable

+

+

-

19% (9)

3.

Commited, enjoyable but 'only a mother'

+

-

+

6% (3)

4.

Identity enhancement only group

-

+

8% (4)

5.

Committed only ('my duty')

+

-

10% (5)

6.

Enjoyable only ('Fun mothers')-

-

-

+

4% (2)

7.

Uncommitted but positive ('Free n easy')

+

+

4% (2)

8.

Negative

-

-

4% (2)

Total

 

99% (48)

Excluding three respondents on whom information plete.

was incom-

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