The Meaning of Motherhood

A very obvious area of research that would help inform demographers in their work on gender, particularly as it relates to fertility, is research on the meaning of motherhood. While demographers have already done research on the ''value of children,'' there is an extensive and growing literature on what motherhood means, how it is shaped by the culture and by gendered social, political, and economic institutions, and how individuals interact with those meanings in their own lives. This literature spans many disciplines, from economics (Folbre 2001), to sociology (Hays 1996), to anthropology (Lewin 1994). These and other works (Jetter, Orleck, and Taylor 1997; O'Barr, Pope, and Wyer 1990; Glenn, Chang, and Forcey 1994) often fill out the ways that women and men negotiate through the tensions and expectations about children and parenting and the ways that daily lives reveal these tensions and expectations. Particularly interesting is recent work on childlessness and the new reproductive technologies. Both areas reveal the ways that reproduction is at the center of a society's values.

Inhorn's insights (1994, 1996) about childless women in urban Egypt is an example of research that is not part of mainstream demography but can inform demographic research. In this society, particularly among poor migrants who have moved from rural to urban centers, women's status and power are so powerfully tied to the bearing and raising of children that to be childless is a disaster. When these women moved to the city, they lost other sources of power, income, and even identity, and those losses made children even more important. Inhorn lived and talked with women who were searching for cures to their infertility and came to understand the cultural necessity of bearing children for women in this part of the world. She notes that ''indeed, it is from the study of infertility that issues of pronatalism, or child desire, are perhaps best understood. Namely, those who are missing children and who therefore have had much cause to reflect on their object of desire are often in the best position to articulate why children are so very important on a number of levels, ranging from the personal to the political'' (Inhorn 1996: 234).

She connects the attitudes of infertile women with the (often negative) responses to the government's family planning program, arguing that ''such programs as state-sponsored population control in Egypt, which 'target' women, have literally operated in the dark with regard to the real knowledge, attitudes and practices of their female constituencies. Given this inattention to women's lives and desires (let alone the almost complete neglect of men in population discourse), it should come as no surprise that Egypt's population control efforts have been judged to be weak and ineffective'' (Inhorn 1996: 236-237). Here, then, we have clues about the underlying reasons that women want children and how those reasons, and the social context generally, might derail or slow down the government's family planning efforts.

Another angle on the meaning of motherhood and the ways that it is written into policies, practices, and technologies comes from research on the new reproductive technologies. This research (Rapp 1990,1998; Hartouni 1997; Franklin 1995) suggests how ''new technologies fall onto older cultural terrains, where women interpret their options in light of prior and contradictory meanings of pregnancy and childbearing'' (Rapp 1990: 41). Hartouni (1997) argued that these technologies—with their different roles for biological mother, gestational mother, and social mother, for example— challenge definitions once thought stable. Called into question by this ''radical transformation of reproductive practices and processes'' (Hartouni 1997: 83) are ''the social relations and practices that constitute what are called mother, father, and family'' (Hartouni 1997: 83). This work on motherhood, pregnancy, childlessness, and families suggests ways of approaching questions of motherhood, fertility, and pregnancy from new angles in order to illuminate the ways that fertility and reproduction are negotiated and mediated by individuals, families, communities, and states.

All of these areas, and many more that have not been mentioned, suggest the possible contributions from this rich literature. Much of this research takes a step back from the usual goals of demography—of finding the way a particular behavior or status influences a particular demographic outcome. The focus, then, is often not on demographic processes but rather encompasses work that lies outside of demography's traditional scope. In that richness and scope—with its strong connections to demographic processes—lie its strong potential for enriching and enlarging our understandings of gender and demographic processes.

Pregnancy Guide

Pregnancy Guide

A Beginner's Guide to Healthy Pregnancy. If you suspect, or know, that you are pregnant, we ho pe you have already visited your doctor. Presuming that you have confirmed your suspicions and that this is your first child, or that you wish to take better care of yourself d uring pregnancy than you did during your other pregnancies; you have come to the right place.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment