The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood


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Sharon Hays

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Working mothers today confront not only conflicting demands on their time and energy but also conflicting ideas about how they are to behave: they must be nurturing and unselfish while engaged in child rearing but competitive and ambitious at work. As more and more women enter the workplace, it would seem reasonable for society to make mothering a simpler and more efficient task. Instead, Sharon Hays points out in this original and provocative book, an ideology of "intensive mothering" has developed that only exacerbates the tensions working mothers face.

Drawing on ideas about mothering since the Middle Ages, on contemporary childrearing manuals, and on in-depth interviews with mothers from a range of social classes, Hays traces the evolution of the ideology of intensive mothering—an ideology that holds the individual mother primarily responsible for child rearing and dictates that the process is to be child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive. Hays argues that these ideas about appropriate mothering stem from a fundamental ambivalence about a system based solely on the competitive pursuit of individual interests. In attempting to deal with our deep uneasiness about self-interest, we have imposed unrealistic and unremunerated obligations and commitments on mothering, making it into an opposing force, a primary field on which this cultural ambivalence is played out.

Sharon Hays is assistant professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of Virginia.

"A lucid, probing examination of our culture's contradictory and troubled relationship to motherhood—and how it affects mothers. . . . A thoughtful analysis of the paradoxes that surround mothering. Hays is sensitive to the emotional issues involved—and equally astute in perceiving their sociopolitical context."—Kirkus Reviews

"A thoughtful and carefully written new book that provides excellent material for family demography or women's studies courses at the graduate level."—Sandra L. Hofferth, American Journal of Sociology

"Hays's book raises important issues about child rearing and family life. No middle-class person can avoid noticing the hold of child-centered ideologies, and Hays is one of the first researchers to analyze systematically the core components of such a belief system. This is a considerable achievement."—Julia Wrigley, Life Course

"Hays takes a close look at the origins and consequences of what she calls the ideology of intensive mothering."—Explorations: Research Highlights from the University of Virginia

"Hays book is simply, clearly and colorfully written. . . .This book demonstrates the power of careful cultural analysis, built upon sensitive interviews and sophisticated readings of advice texts, to elucidate the ways in which maternal actions are grounded in beliefs about social identities. This work is a model of how cultural sociology should be done, and offers a vision of what such work can reveal."—from award citation, Newsletter of the Sociology of Culture Section of the American Sociological Association

"Sharon Hays offers an insightful and well-documented explanation for the emergence of the ideology of intensive motherhood and its function in American society. . . . The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood shows us how deeply ingrained the socially constructed ideology of motherhood has become, among the experts, among the public, and among mothers themselves."—Diane Ehrensaft, Journal of Feminist Family Therapy

"Overall, Cultural Contradictions is an illuminating and thought-provoking study that makes sociological sense out of the vexing problems that many parents grapple with every day."—Population and Development Review

"This is really a creative, compelling and wide-ranging book. I was seriously thinking about writing a book on this topic but I'm glad I didn't—Sharon Hays' is a much better book than I would have done—it's harder to imagine smarter, more insightful coverage of this important topic."—Dr. Pepper Schwartz, University of Washington

"A significant book . . . which explores the disparity between 'intensive mothering' and the work ethic."—Beryl Baigent, Canadian Woman Studies

"Hays's intellectually incendiary Cultural Contradictions could add needed nuance to feminist thought—and perhaps ignite change in mothers' overburdened lives."—Phyllis Eckhaus, The Nation

Winner of the 1997 Distinguished Book Award sponsored by the American Sociological Association Culture Section

Received Honorable Mention for the 1998 Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award given by the
American Sociological Association
ISBN: 9780300076523
Publication Date: September 10, 1998
288 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4