Stigmatised, and on the margins: Understanding Motherhood in the 21st Century

Sunday, March 26, 2017 - 12:15

Mother’s Day invites us to reflect on mothers, mothering and motherhood, and their significance in contemporary society. Researchers at Maynooth University are examining cultural representations of motherhood and the way that mothers are depicted in popular culture, film, literature and the media. In particular, their research explores accounts that depart from the traditional, idealised images of motherhood, shedding light on the experiences of mothers who are marginalised and the pressures on women to conform to ‘normal’ ideas of motherhood.

Questioning the norm surrounding the maternal experience is a central component of the research of Dr Julie Rodgers, Maynooth University French Studies. Her research looks at maternal depictions across a range of genres that subvert and problematise the conventional and dominant script of motherhood.

Discussing her research, Dr Rodgers says: “There is an oppressive and restrictive alignment in contemporary society of motherhood with womanhood. Women are taught from an early age that motherhood is a “natural” and expected stage in the female life-cycle and that they will instinctively love their children. Women who struggle with motherhood are demonised and women who don’t want to become mothers are often scrutinised and seen to be lacking in this context.”

“We need a broader understanding of motherhood. It remains a significant taboo to speak out about the other side of motherhood and to express negativity surrounding the maternal experience. And yet, such articulations are crucial to maternal mental health. Motherhood is incredibly complex and the emphasis on unwavering maternal instinct is not helpful. Popular culture is beginning to reflect this with television shows like Sharon Horgan’s Catastrophe depicting a more fluid experience of motherhood and addressing important issues such as maternal ambivalence and frustration.”

Dr Valerie Heffernan, Maynooth University Department of German Studies, is looking at the #RegrettingMotherhood debate, which first emerged in Germany in 2015 but has now begun to make its way in to the mainstream media in other European countries and the USA. The debate, which arose from Israeli sociologist Orna Donath’s research with women who said they regretted motherhood, has provoked an important discussion about the high expectations we place on mothers and the difficulties that this poses for women who cannot relate to the role of mother.

Discussing the subsequent media furore around Donath’s research, Dr Heffernan says: “Society and culture compel women to see motherhood as the only way to be truly complete, but what happens when they do not experience motherhood as fulfilling or when they experience doubt? The perception that motherhood and love are intertwined makes it very difficult for mothers to express regret about their motherhood without being seen as rejecting their children. We need to create a space where women can express the doubts and anxieties and difficulties they experience without being judged for doing so.”

Dr Heffernan also points to the important role that celebrities and prominent figures can play in influencing public attitudes about motherhood. “At this year’s Grammy Awards, the artist Adele spoke out about how she struggles as a mother and how she felt as though she lost something of herself in becoming a mother. That was a very honest admission, and the fact that it’s coming from someone like Adele, who is such an influential figure, is significant. It contrasts starkly with Beyonce’s glorification of pregnancy and motherhood in her performance on the same night.”

Maynooth University is emerging as one of Europe’s leading centres for Motherhood Studies. Discussing the development of the field of motherhood studies at Maynooth University, Professor Ray O’Neill, Vice President for Research and Innovation, observed: “The research into motherhood currently taking place at Maynooth is truly ground breaking and insightful. These excellent researchers are building their own school of thought around this emerging subject and firmly establishing Maynooth as a recognised centre for motherhood studies not only in Ireland but on the international stage.”