Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Engendering Motherhood: Identity and Self-Transformation in Women's Lives

Martha McMahon
New York: The Guildford Press
1 57230 002 7
25.00 (hb)
x + 324 pp.

Order this book

The paradox of contemporary motherhood as both socially devaluing and morally enhancing has been critically reclaimed by contemporary feminism. However, it can be difficult to adopt an analytically neutral position in relation to contemporary motherhood and there are dangers for feminism in appearing to either validate women's experience of motherhood or the oppression with which it is associated. Martha McMahon avoids both in her own reflexive account of contemporary motherhood through disciplinary rigour, and the arguments presented here regarding motherhood have both coherence and validity.

Drawing on interviews with a sample of 59 mothers living and working in the Toronto area, the author operates within a resolutely symbolic interactionist framework in order to capture the diverse experiences, processes and actions which contribute to the collective identity understood as motherhood. One of the strengths of this book is the way in which the data are used to display the ways in which the experiences of motherhood can be understood as constitutive of gender rather than as an expression of pre-maternal gendered identities. The meanings of motherhood to the respondents themselves are central to analysis, and the interview data are treated as reflections on those meanings. Hence the author gains interpretive access to the relationships between the social organization of motherhood and its diverse lived experience. Social class, too, is central to McMahon's analysis in order to adequately capture different worlds of experience. Whilst much of the ensuing discussion is organized around broad categorizations of middle and working class, the author also provides detailed information about occupational categories, income and the educational level attained by the women in her sample.

The book focuses on a distinction between how women become mothers and the impact of motherhood on their sense of self. The women in this study describe a variety of ways of becoming mothers, in terms of avoiding childlessness rather than embracing motherhood; the idealization of 'having a baby'; being unable to avoid motherhood; as a strategic negotiation; rejection of permanent childlessness. Broadly, middle class women appeal to individual achievement as the basis from which to enter into motherhood, where their perceived readiness for motherhood is expressed in terms of biographical time. McMahon argues whether middle class women enter motherhood is more of an issue than when they will do so. Hence reflections on biographical time are seen to be indicative of the wider circumstances in which women might be prepared to enter motherhood, such as occupation or relationship status. Timing is also significant for working class women, although here the issue is when they will enter motherhood. Indeed, working class women in this study talk about adult maturity as something which might be achieved through motherhood.

The second significant argument which the book makes is that motherhood can be seen in terms of moral transformation and reform, and again, social class is critical here. 'Moral' here is used not only to refer to issues of ethics but, in its interactionist sense, refers to a basis for self. Moral transformation for middle class women is expressed through statements about personal growth, whilst for working class women, motherhood is understood as moral reform, expressed through statements about 'responsibility' and 'settling down'.

The author uses this data to argue, convincingly, not that women internalize the roles and character associated with motherhood, but that when women take on the everyday caring associated with having a child, this leads to a perceived character change which approximates the cultural imagery of what mothers ought to be. Thus, whilst women do not set out to achieve motherhood, nevertheless that is what women often claim as an identity for themselves.

The author's extensive discussion of her methodological approach makes this book valuable for students thinking about qualitative design. The interactionist framework is pushed to its limits and provides detailed description and analysis which goes well beyond socialization and the internalization of roles. The work raises questions, first, concerning the theorizing of identity and offers a sound approach to notions of multiple identity negotiation, particularly in relation to class and gender. Second, the book provides a rich source of empirical material with which to analyze feminist arguments regarding more general issues of social bonding and responsibility, and the relationship between mothering and connectedness.

Alexandra Howson
Department of Sociology
University of Edinburgh

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996