cover image The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood

The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood

Sharon Hays. Yale University Press, $50 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-300-06682-1

Hays, a professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of Virginia, examines the differing views of mothers about their parenting roles and how these views have been shaped by society's view of working women. Her thesis is that society's concept of ""socially appropriate mothering"" revolves around ""intensity,"" which translates into mothers who ""expend a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money in raising their children."" To support this thesis, Hays used a three-pronged approach: analyzing historic writings on parenting, examining the popular child-rearing books and, most importantly, interviewing 38 mothers from different backgrounds in the San Diego area. The frustrations of the mothers is evident as they discuss having to be ""perfect"" at home and at the office. Mothers seem constantly to have to juggle their dual responsibilities even when there is a supportive spouse. Mothers are most often the ones who come home from work to handle emergencies, escort their kids to after-school activities and do most of the household chores. According to Hays, this behavior and outlook continues to affect the family and serves to perpetuate the myth of ""superhuman women."" For the benefit of families, society must change so the responsibility of parenting is more evenly split among the sexes. But her argument extends beyond the needs of women to that of society at large. ""It is dangerous to emphasize women's unselfish nurturing, as many feminists have made clear, since this is the very same analysis used to portray women as passive caregivers,"" she says, ""This same argument can also be used to imply that nurturing and altruism are appropriately accomplished solely in the family, by women, and therefore need not apply to the political and economic realms or to the lives of men."" (Oct.)