Sociologist Sharon Hays’ 1996 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, developed the theory that ‘intensive mothering’ - that is, mothering that is ‘child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labour-intensive and financially expensive’ (p 8 and throughout) - is the dominant ideology that governs motherhood in the late twentieth (and also early 21st) centuries. Hays argues that this ideology puts mothers and mothering in direct opposition to the dominant ideology of the marketplace, where ‘rational actors’ competitively pursue their own self-interest in order to maximise both efficiency and profit. Working mothers particularly, Hays argues, are therefore caught in a contradictory double-bind as to how best to balance two seemingly irreconcilable sets of pressures.
What this means is that ‘while the contemporary ideal of intensive mothering involves the subordination of women, it also involves their opposition to the logic which subordinates them ... In pursuing a moral concern to establish lasting human connection grounded in unremunerated obligations and commitments, modern-day mothers, to varying degrees, participate in this implicit rejection of the ethos of rationalized market society.’ (p 18) I think this is a really interesting premise: the logic of capitalism creating within itself the ground for its own opposition (and, perhaps, dismantling?). While articulating the opposition in this way, however, Hays falls short of calling for a transformative politics based on the rejection of the logic of the marketplace. Instead, she focusses on how the ideology of intensive mothering developed, and how mothers themselves continue to perpetuate it, whether they are consciously aware of doing so or not.
The book is structured with three main parts: on overview of historical shifts in parenting and mothering, focussing particularly on the split between the private and public sphere in the 19th century, that led to the development of the ideology of intensive mothering; a review and critique of the work of three leading (i.e. best-selling) childcare experts, Dr Benjamin Spock, T. Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach, and their role in further defining intensive mothering; and, finally, an analysis of the responses of 38 mothers from a variety of backgrounds to a semi-structured interview questionnaire prepared by Hays and appended at the back of the book. There were some limitations in each approach, which Hays does acknowledge: an overview can only cover historical generalities (and by focussing on the creation of the domestic sphere, it explicitly privileges the experience of white, middle-class women); not everyone buys or reads childcare manuals, and even those who do might take their advice with a grain of salt; and a sample of 38 mothers no matter how diverse is small and, on some variables, one or two individuals would be representing the experiences of whole groups. The mothers also appear to have come from one particular area of the US (San Diego, California), so there is lack of regional and national diversity. Bearing these caveats in mind, however, there are still enough recurring tropes in what Hays uncovers to lend weight to her theory of ‘intensive mothering’ as a cultural contradiction.
I think Hays is largely right in her description of intensive mothering as a contemporary child-rearing ideal, anecdotally evidenced by the differences contemporary parents and grandparents see in their approaches to child-rearing. I’m not sure, however, that her analysis of the cultural contradiction between motherhood and the marketplace is sophisticated enough: it seems too binary, and doesn’t account for other sites of resistance to dominant capitalist narratives, nor work that is not driven primarily by profit. It also ignores the role of mothers as producers and consumers: even if they are full-time stay-at-home mothers, women are also participating in and upholding the capitalist economy. This role has been articulated in both popular books such as Buy Baby Buy and more academic analysis by Marxist feminist critics such as Maria Mies.
Despite these limitations, some of her analysis of mothers’ responses resonated with me. For example, in analysing the responses of working mothers she found that many of them felt that working was not only financially necessary but also justified in terms of ‘making them better mothers’. I was struck by this because I have also described returning to work in this way, not consciously because I wanted to justify myself nor conform to dominant ideals of motherhood, but because I felt it to be true. I think I have personally benefitted from having spent time with other adults and using my other skills, just as I think my daughter has benefitted from spending time with other children in a caring environment, and we all benefitted from the experience and advice of her various carers.
There’s obviously no knowing whether this is objectively true or not, since we don’t have a parallel experience with which to compare it. Hays in her analysis of this rationale does not judge or criticise the mothers who make this claim. But, interestingly, it does add weight to her theory that even mothers who return to work while their children are young offer reasons for their decision that conform to the ideology of intensive mothering, at least as much as they do to the need to pay the bills. This highlights the point that ideology is not necessarily true or false, or even good or bad; rather it shapes the ways in which we think about things and the ways we describe them and we inhabit them as if they were true. Even those who actively oppose dominant ideologies are still shaping their experience with reference to them, albeit in a negative way.
Particularly in her analysis of the mothers’ interviews, Hays explores how intensive mothering figures in the so-called ‘mommy wars’. She concludes that, no matter which part of this spectrum mothers find themselves on, the ideology of intensive mothering serves the interests of men, the middle-class, and white people (oddly, ‘patriarchy’ or a similar systemic term doesn’t seem to be used much in the book).
Hays is much briefer when it comes to offering solutions to the ways in which the ideology of intensive mothering supports patriarchy and gender inequality. She calls for a second revolution to succeed the ‘stalled revolution’ of second-wave feminism, one which would transform relationships, workplaces, and the wider society. This would not only involve more equal parenting, but also childcare solutions that do not out-source the ‘problem’ to poorly-paid women of colour, further perpetuating social inequalities. Instead, she argues ‘our best hope for easing women’s burden remains increased public power for women, higher public status for those involved in caregiving, and greater paternal participation in child-rearing.’ (pp 176-77) These inter-related steps, she believes, are likely to result in improved child-rearing policies such as subsidized child-care, job-sharing, flexi-time and parental leave. Hays acknowledges that these changes are likely to take a long time, and will not completely resolve the tension between the home and the marketplace. Nonetheless, she believes that they will help share the burden equally between men and women.
The fact that this book is now nearly 20 years old and, in the US in particular, change in these areas has been glacial is somewhat depressing and a sign of how much work there still is to do. But even in countries with generous parental leave and flexible work policies, as well as subsidised childcare, it is still primarily women who do most of the childcare, and suffer the kind of motherhood penalties that writers such as Ann Crittenden have identified, albeit to a lesser extent than women in less enlightened countries. Policy changes, then, are only part of the solution; cultural change remains a much more difficult challenge.