Passionate mothering and its discontents

Julie Stephens, Victoria University

Bernie D. Jones (ed) Women Who Opt Out: The Debate over Working Mothers and Work-Family Balance, New York, New York University Press, 2012 (216 pp). ISBN 9-78081474-313-3 (paperback) RRP $46.95.

Lisa Smyth The Demands of Motherhood: Agents, Roles and Recognition, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012 (192 pp). ISBN 9-78023057-930-9 (hard cover) RRP $138.00.

The 2011 Australian television adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap resulted in viewers actively despising one character more than the others. It was the ‘stay-at-home’ mother, Rosie who was seen as somehow more unsettling than the violent, abusive Harry, or the other characters who, unlike Rosie, all were involved in acts of deception toward those closest to them. These deceptions included sexual infidelities, a false accusation of rape, concealing domestic violence, a hidden illegitimate child, a secret abortion behind a partner’s back and sending anonymous, abusive texts. The mistakes, contradictions and frailties of other characters were forgiven, while Rosie’s were not (Australian Broadcasting Corporation n.d.).

In on-line opinion about the character of Rosie, she is variously described as ‘John Howard’s idyllic stay-at-home Mum’, as ‘over-the top’, as breastfeeding for too long, as ‘disgraceful’ and as raising a sociopath (see McIntosh 2011 and associated comments). For some, her passionate nurturing of her child is pathological, indicating post-natal depression, co-dependency or a history of childhood neglect. Rosie’s lack of paid employment is also cause for comment. Significantly, she is described as a ‘too-good mother’, echoing Winnicott’s more comforting notion of a ‘good enough mother’ (1953), one who gradually fails to be entirely empathetic in order to help her child adapt to external reality. If Rosie had a ‘real’ job, perhaps she would not have the time to be so involved. These debates resonate with the key points of contestation in the contemporary literature on mothering, in particular the notion of ‘intensive mothering’, mothers who try to be ‘too-good’. The discomfort around Rosie also suggests an emerging cultural anxiety about women who choose a full-time caring role over paid employment.

Is it possible that the social meaning of a woman deliberately ‘not working’ has changed to such an extent that it is seen as bordering on the abnormal? While The Slap fictionalises these dilemmas, responses to the drama remain intriguing. Apparently unproblematic are the representations of Aisha, who is portrayed as taking little pleasure in her own children or Anouk, who is childless and career-focused. Yet, a woman whose life revolves around care and domesticity looks dangerously and ‘excessively maternal’. This idea of motherhood and care as a ‘problem’ at a policy and personal level is encountered in popular debate and reproduced in research and scholarship on the work/family divide. The notion of ‘intensive mothering’ is a relatively recent addition to this literature. According to Sharon Hays, this kind of mothering is ‘child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labour-intensive and financially expensive’ (1996, p. 69). However, Hays does not use this term in a wholly pejorative sense and is ever attentive to the contradictory demands on contemporary mothers. The term appears to have taken a more negative turn since Hays’ work in the 1990s. It surfaces in various guises in two very different, but complementary, books: Women Who Opt Out: The Debate Over Working Mothers and Work-Family Balance, edited by Bernie Jones, and Lisa Smyth’s study of The Demands of Motherhood: Agents, Roles and Recognition. These books are linked by their sharp critique of many issues in the dominant debates about work and care, both inside and outside the home.

The notion of ‘intensive mothering’ is a relatively recent addition to this literature.

The contributors to Jones’ collection offer a wide-ranging critical analysis of the gap between purportedly family-friendly laws and policies in the United States and ‘workplace norms’ which are unsuitable for those with families. The main target of each essay is an evaluation of the notion that women are deliberately ‘opting-out’ of the paid workforce because career interests are no longer considered to be as important as mothering. This notion is traced back to an influential article that appeared in The New York Times in 2003 by Lisa Belkin, who argued that we were witnessing an ‘opt-out revolution’. Belkin concluded that the numbers of high-achieving, middle class professional women leaving employment to return to caring for children and family indicated that once women had children, they often questioned or rejected ‘equal treatment feminism’ and the idea that to be equal to their male counterparts, they would have to sacrifice their children’s and their own wellbeing. According to Brenda Cossman:

The ‘opt out’ revolution became the media’s darling. The CBS Early Show did a feature on ‘More Stay at Home Moms’ featuring Belkin’s ‘opt out’ story. Within a few months, the story had appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, with ‘The Case for Staying Home: Why Some Young Moms are Opting Out of the Rat Race.’ Within the year, the CBS Sunday Morning Show declared women were ‘Staying Home with the Kids,’ the CBS Early Show featured a story declaring that mothers were ‘Trading Career for Home,’ and the New York Times continued to follow the story, keeping it alive in September 2005 with a front page story, ‘Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood’ (2009, pp. 407–408).

The authors in Jones’ collection begin with the premise that the very idea of ‘opting-out’ is a ‘media-fuelled’ and hence problematic notion. Their aim is to move beyond the headlines and explore the proposition that women are being pushed out of the workplace by a range of economic, legal, policy and ideological factors. All acknowledge that the desire to balance both work and family remains ‘an unresolved concern for families and employers alike’ (p. 18). Different reasons are advanced to explain what is identified as ‘labour force/career interruption’. Some argue that women’s career trajectories rarely display a linear progression. Others attempt to compare the rhetoric about women’s decision-making processes with the reality that women are eventually ‘shut out’ of high level, white collar, professions because of inflexible working hours and employment conditions hostile to families.

All authors demonstrate the highest standards of scholarship and critique.

Each essay provides rich data on patterns of women’s employment in the United States and/or insight into the impact on women and families of various economic, industrial, legal and policy decisions, as well as the impact of the global financial crisis. All authors demonstrate the highest standards of scholarship and critique and highlight the limitations of relying on a discourse of choice to explain the ‘opting-out’ phenomenon. Belkin’s narrow focus on ‘white, college educated’ women is rejected and instead the authors address significant inequalities in employment of African American and Hispanic women, and the limited legal rights, low wages and lack of benefits for care workers in the United States (p. 138). In the words of Pamela Stone and Lisa Hernandez, ‘opting-out plays into class and race divisions, generational disputes and gender wars’ (p. 55). They argue with great conviction that the media coverage of this phenomenon positions ‘elite women as arbiters of gender norms and of associating motherhood with race and class privilege’. In the US context, good mothering, defined as stay-at-home mothering is identified with whiteness and working (or bad) mothering becomes associated with women of colour (p. 54).

This selection of essays concludes by restating the important fact that work-family conflict cannot be reduced to a media message about ‘privileged women leaving fast-tracked careers’ (p. 170). Indeed, the analysis in this book of the whole complex set of factors shaping the debate over work and family is subtle and thoughtful. However, the same kind of critical attention is not given to another ‘media fuelled’ concept, that of ‘the new momism’ or ‘intensive mothering’. I will discuss this point in more detail below. Disappointingly, this notion, which is just as problematic and ideological as that of ‘opting-out’ is taken as a given in this edited collection. Similarly, despite the strengths and breadth of Women Who Opt Out, the book fails to discuss the emergent social movement of feminist women who are leaving the workforce for conscious environmental reasons, in order to transform domesticity into a community activity devoted to sustainability. Shannon Hayes discusses these developments in Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture (2010). This shift away from paid work is not a retreat to home and family, as in the Belkin narrative, but an attempt to reconfigure ‘home’ as a site of labour, green food production and community resistance to environmentally damaging patterns of consumption. This is a different and significant kind of opting-out, which is more like ‘opting-in’ to something. Whereas the paradigm used in Bernie Jones’ collection of essays is based on a familiar public/private distinction, with home positioned as ‘outside’ the public realm and workforce, Hayes and many eco-feminists challenge this distinction. Home and the private sphere are given a public dimension as a site of production, rather than consumption, and as the locus for a form of political action on climate change. Such challenges to dominant representations of motherhood, career and home deserve a place in the debate on work and family.

Smyth examines motherhood as a form of modern selfhood: fraught and contested.

In The Demands of Motherhood: Agents, Roles and Recognition, Lisa Smyth (2012) advances a distinctively sociological perspective on motherhood. Less concerned with broad data on the ‘work and care’ dilemma, Smyth examines motherhood as a form of modern selfhood, fraught, contested and at the nexus of social order and change. Her study is based on interviews with 40 mothers: 22 from Belfast in Northern Ireland and eighteen from Southern California. Interview responses are woven deftly through her chapters and form a key source of interest for the reader. Unnecessarily abstract but in keeping with sociological conventions, Smyth organises these responses into a rather clumsy typology around mothers who are expressive individualists, expressive maternalists, instrumental rational planners or maternal pragmatists. Any flaw here lies with the sociological framework Smyth has adopted, not her own analysis which remains sensitive to internal contradictions in the interviews. A more penetrating question may have been to ask whether these established sociological categories of ‘norms’, ‘agency’, ‘recognitive actions’ and ‘structure’ can contain or illuminate what others have called the experience of the ‘new capitalist mother’ (Manne 2005; Quiney 2007).

The reflective interview responses in The Demands of Motherhood seem to me to already spill out of the classifications Smyth imposes on them. The typology itself is in danger of blunting these responses. Take, for example, the many interviews that record contradictory answers, usually revolving around a struggle to identify what it means to be a good mother. Interviewee ‘Andrea’ asks whether it is absolutely necessary to make your own organic baby puree for every meal and then goes on to say how reassured she feels if she has her own home-made baby puree with her when meeting other mums. She then comments that it doesn’t really make any difference (p. 134). Smyth is locked into a framework that defines these comments as ‘goal revision’. This may well be an adequate explanation. Yet, it risks ignoring the way every detail of motherhood has become a worrisome burden to be managed efficiently. As Ruth Quiney observes, motherhood has become ‘a curious and urgent mixture of career (with its own regimes of training, information and on-the-job surveillance) and sacrificial moral vocation’ (2007, p. 20). It is treated as a discipline, a ‘brutally detailed regime of self-surveillance and professional advice’ (2007, p. 31).

In a sharp observation early in the book, Smyth comments that ‘the role of mother is not immediately intelligible to those who find themselves inhabiting it’ (p. 4). This is certainly borne out in the confessional writing and memoirs of young (feminist) women, who try to make sense of their experiences as a new mother. They write of a crisis of selfhood, feeling undifferentiated in ‘a primordial soup of femaleness’ (Wolf 2001) and of experiencing a gendered, embodied and relational self for the first time (Stephens 2012). The sociological categories of ‘role conflict’ or the demands of ‘normativity’ don’t really appear adequate and fail to capture the texture of these experiences or their extremes.

Increasingly, the ideology of ‘intensive mothering’ has been mobilised as a form of ‘mother-blaming’.

Smyth premises her study on the view that mothering is becoming more intensive in advanced capitalist societies. As I have indicated, this perspective is also accepted as a given in Women Who Opt Out. Sharon Hays’ book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996) is referred to in both books under review. Yet, Hays also analysed intensive mothering as an ideology reflecting our cultural ambivalence, particularly the tension between a self-sufficient individualism and the desire to selflessly care for others. Increasingly, this ideology has been mobilised as a form of ‘mother-blaming’. As feminist and maternal philosopher Sara Ruddick pointed out in one of the last interviews before her recent death, intensive mothering or the ‘new momism’ is related to an earlier conception of ‘momism’:

But I can’t forget the first misogynists who called mothers ‘Momists.’ These mothers were not so unlike intensive mothers as you have described them. They spent too much time with their children, loved them too much, paid them too much attention, and made them unfit for killing (Ruddick in O’Reilly 2009, p. 33).

Ruddick strongly contested the way ‘momism’ as an insult had resurfaced in a contemporary form as ‘intensive mothering’. It is discouraging then to find this slur resurface, perhaps unwittingly, in otherwise fine books so attuned to the impact certain ideologies have on actual mothers. It is interesting to note that Smyth herself implicitly departs from the concept of intensive mothering when discussing the experiences of ‘Karen’, one of her interviewees. ‘Karen’ described the many difficulties she had with the medical profession over her very ill baby, who failed to thrive. Her untiring effort at keeping him alive was interpreted by others as an excessive or extreme form of mothering. Smyth comments that ‘maternal competence is constantly under scrutiny’ and that currently ‘over-performance’ is viewed with as much suspicion as under-performance (p.148). Even though Smyth does not use this evidence of a widespread and destructive suspicion of the ‘too-good’ mother to then criticise the concept of ‘intensive mothering’, her interviews do illuminate the limited value of these categories.

In a culture anxious about care and dependency, it is no wonder that it is so easy to dismiss maternal attentiveness and nurture as excessive. In fact, the contempt towards the character of Rosie in The Slap attests to something akin to an abhorrence of visible displays of the maternal. In a negative correlation, Rosie’s competence as a mother is perceived to decrease with the increased intensity she devotes to this role. While in our working lives, no amount of energy and effort expended at work ever seems enough, for mothers, any passionate display of maternal care that displaces the centrality of paid work appears to be ‘too much’. This poses a problem for those writing in this area. Any discussion of either ‘opting-out’ or the conflicting demands of motherhood is already fraught and framed by dominant and contradictory ideas of work and care. It is a huge commitment to try to challenge these taken-for granted notions.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation n.d., ‘Whose side are you on?’, The Slap: Your poll results [Online], Available: [2013, Feb 7].

Cossman, B. 2009, ‘The “Opt Out Revolution” and the changing narratives of motherhood: Self governing the work/family conflict’, Journal of Law & Family Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, pp.407–426.

Hayes, S. 2010, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, Left to Write Press, New York.

Hays, S. 1996, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Quiney, R. 2007, ‘Confessions of the new capitalist mother: Twenty-first century writing on motherhood as trauma’, Women: A Cultural Review, vol.18, no. 1, pp.19–40.

Manne A. 2005, ‘Motherhood and the spirit of the new capitalism’, Arena Journal, no. 24, pp. 37–67.

Manne A. 2005, Motherhood: How Should We Care for Our Children?, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards.

McIntosh, I. 2011, ‘We’re all Rosie’, The Drum – Opinion, Australian Broadcasting Corporation [Online], Available: [2013, Feb 7].

O’Reilly, A. & Ruddick, S. 2009, ‘A conversation about maternal thinking’, in Maternal Thinking: Philosophy, Politics, Practice, ed. Andrea O’Reilly, Demeter Press, Toronto, pp. 14–38.

Stephens, J. 2012, Confronting Postmaternal Thinking: Feminism, Memory and Care, Columbia University Press, New York.

Winnicott D. 1953, ‘Transitional objects and transitional phenomena’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 89–97.

Wolf N. 2001, Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood, Chatto and Windus, London.

Julie Stephens is an associate professor in the School of Social Sciences at Victoria University where she teaches sociology. Her research interests include political dimensions of mothering, social movements and cultural memory. Her recent book is Confronting Postmaternal Thinking: Feminism, Memory and Care (Columbia University Press 2012).

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