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Mothering the Self: Mothers, Daughters, Subjects

Steph Lawler
Routledge: London
2000
0415170842 (pb)
16.99 (pb)
ix + 229

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Front Cover
Steph Lawler unpacks the 'social narratives' and 'authoritative knowledges' woven through the mother daughter relationship. Using the voices of fourteen white women she unravels their self identities as mothers and daughters; two selves which are both 'the same' person, yet radically different positions. Concerned that previous work has centred the daughter at the expense of the (m)other, Lawler is at pains to re-centre the mother and expose the dangers inherent in commonplace and commonsense understandings of motherhood, daughterhood and selfhood. This she sees as particularly apposite in 'Euroamerican' societies where the self has emerged as 'a project to be worked on'.

Lawler begins by exploring how social and political concerns have focused on the rearing of children as key to the welfare of society at large. The result she suggests is the mother's place becomes one of guaranteeing the social order through her mothering. Within this context, she argues, there has been little radical questioning of the discursive construction of childhood, detracting from the social specificity of the mother's role.

Having explored constructions of motherhood and childhood, Lawler introduces the voices of her women, presenting the principal models of self they reveal. Here we find that women draw on a 'curious amalgamation' of nature and culture in defining their own selves and their role in developing the daughter's self.

Lawler then explores these women's accounts of their daughters growing up, and we see a commitment from some to 'do it differently' to their own mothers. Class based knowledges and gendered notions are enmeshed in their definitions of appropriate motherhood. These class based differences emerge more explicitly in later sections where Lawler shows those who experienced upward class mobility were most committed to letting their daughters 'be themselves', and most fearsome of becoming like their mothers (returning to their class roots). This reflects their position as women who 'know' the discursive construction of working class motherhood as 'inadequate', 'insensitive' and 'authoritarian'.

The book then moves on to explore how the needs of the child become the basis to construct notions of mothering upon. Hence daughters' identities are built on 'need', and the mother's identity can only be built on the basis of responding to that need. However, the potential exists for women to subvert these hegemonic understandings. Thus Lawler concludes by looking at how resistance is built into this relationship which is caught up in relations of power and knowledge, and how women themselves can expose the contradictions and tensions inherent in discursive constructions of mother and daughter.

Mothering the Self offers a fascinating insight into social constructions of motherhood and childhood, and begins to tell the story from the point of view of women themselves. However the book is largely structured by pre-existing knowledges, rather than the voices of the women themselves, with their stories being illustrative of the narrative laid down by others before them. This is somewhat disappointing as their stories are lost in the dialogue. Nonetheless, Lawler reflects a general concern within feminist writing to acknowledge the self of the author, and she does therefore offer a rare insight into the relationship the researcher has with her respondents. The appendices, in particular, offer useful material to students of ethnography keen to see first hand accounts of the process of setting up and conducting this style of in-depth, qualitative research.

However, in the main body of the text, I found myself becoming impatient waiting for the voices of the women to appear. Perhaps this impatience is a reflection of part of my self, which I already see clearly emerging in the self of my 11 month old daughter, rather than anything intrinsic to the book itself. Nonetheless in the case of such a complex and interesting subject matter, it would have been nice to indulge us with the women's narratives more and allow them to structure, more explicitly, the story told. In conclusion the book serves as an innovative amalgamation of a range of theoretical understandings across feminism, social theory and the politics of selfhood; and it offers insights into the social construction of the self that have far-reaching implications for the modern Euroamerican obsession with 'the true self', whether as mothers, daughters or others.

Sara MacKian
University of Salford

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