GRAAT On-Line - Book Reviews

Charlotte Faircloth, Diane M. Hoffman, and Linda L. Layne, eds., Parenting in Global Perspective—Negotiating Ideologies of Kinship, Self and Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 2013). $160, 255 pages, ISBN 978-0-415-62487-9—Cécile Coquet-Mokoko, Université François-Rabelais, Tours.

The concept of parenting, which dates back to the mid-1950s, is of particular import to scholars of social and political sciences, insofar as it considers normative discourses and practices around child-bearing and rearing as historically, socially and ideologically situated, and therefore subject to moral tensions, revaluations, and evolutions.

The contributions to this volume build on two cornerstone studies on British and US societies. The first is Sharon Hays’ The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996) which shed light on the ideology of ”intensive motherhood” as enjoining mothers to spend maximum amounts of time, energy, and material resources on the child’s wellbeing, prioritizing the latter’s needs at all times, while dutifully following the theories of ”parenting experts” on child development. The other key text is Frank Furedi’s Paranoid Parenting (2002) which focused on parents’ increasing awareness that their behaviors entail risks for their young children’s physical and/or emotional development. This led Furedi to describe the uneasy dyad between ”infant determinism” and ”parent causality” as significantly conditioning the ”identity work” in which men and women engage as they become parents. 21st century parents embrace a seemingly empowering ideology of individual responsibility for raising their children, while constantly under pressure to learn and adopt parenting ”good practices” designed by state-sanctioned experts, in hopes to keep their families from being stigmatized as walking social problems.

This book puts these concepts to the test of other social strata and situations, by expanding the field to include migrant communities in developed countries, and otherwise marginalized or non-traditional groups and individuals in Western or non-Western countries. The tensions between capitalist injunctions and traditional values around child-bearing and rearing are brought to light, particularly where gender roles and generational-based expectations of obligation and responsibility are concerned.

The book is organized around four themes. The first one—”the moral context for parenting”—offers three contributions discussing recent evolutions of British society. First, Edwards and Gillies bring into historical perspective the recurrent political rhetoric around ”neglectful” parenting as a recent evolution of British society and the main cause behind contemporary social ills. Their research on sociological studies from the 1960s demonstrates that in this oft-celebrated ”golden age,” unsupervised activities for children were considered normal and adults were not blamed as irresponsible or disengaged parents: ”Particularly noticeable is the absence of moralized discussions of parental liability that are so central to contemporary social commentary” [33]. Dow’s chapter, building on recent fieldwork among environmentalist professionals living in rural Scotland, articulates ethical notions around the perceived need to be less ”selfish” and well ”prepared” for parenting with conceptions about sustainability, showing how ideological representations of nature, goodness and responsibility are translated into altruistic aspirations, especially among middle-class, educated female respondents. Jensen’s participant observation of White British middle-class mothers viewing the parent-pedagogy program Supernanny ”discusse[s] the importance of approaching parent pedagogy in its popular representational forms as part of a broader parenting culture which is often treated as a supermarket of advice” [66]. She demonstrates how, while distancing themselves from the “real” (i.e., uneducated, voyeuristic) audience targeted by the program, these critical viewers reproduce class distinction, but ambiguously feel just as exposed to permanent scrutiny and criticism as the inevitably failing parents of the program, as a consequence of the same judgmental, expert-led parenting culture: ”Parenting, and particularly, mothering always involves comparisons, judgements and self-accounting in reference to other parents” [65].

The second theme discusses the structural constraints to ”good” parenting, assessing the agency of both parents and children in negotiating their appropriation of dominant models. Hinton, Laverty and Robinson focus on the tension between public-health messages or broader societal expectations on healthy lifestyles in the UK (e.g. preserving children from second-hand smoke) and the compromises resulting from unequal power relations between the adults in the families: ”The evidence suggests that families do not simply accept ”expert” opinion but negotiate parenting practice in relation to their own beliefs, values, experiences and normative ideals, and that this is an ongoing and complex process…. While some families interpret health ”risks” as self-evident and assimilate public health advice into their daily routines with little disruption, other families may find that members oppose changes to their lifestyles and adjustments may only be brought about via the enforcement of rules to control or prevent ”deviant behaviours” [74]. They also mention the pressure to conform exerted by the children themselves on the parents—a phenomenon known as ”socialization-in-reverse”, whereby children actively make their parents accountable for their parenting, so that ”the child-adult relationship is something to be constantly negotiated” [80], which ”may have detrimental consequences for parent-child-relationships and individual well-being if parents consider themselves to be failing in their ”duty” to protect their children” [81]. Both Berry’s fieldwork among undocumented Hispanic migrants in the area of Durham, North Carolina, and Jaysanne-Darr’s among South Sudanese refugees enrolled in an educational program in Massachusetts, show the disconnect between the mainstream model of intensive parenting, the constraints of migrants’ lives (marked by institutional racism and insecurity in the first case,) and the parents’ own models of socialization and kinship obligations—often dismissed as inadequate in an individualistic society, even though in both cases, the migrant parents value education highly for their children. Both contributions show how lack of in-depth understanding of migrant families’ cultural values can lead to marginalization of their children within the US educational system: ”The decontextualized vision of expert-led, skills-based parenting creates an easy atmosphere to consider low-income and immigrant parents [as] deficient in parenting skills and requir[ing] training to support their children’s success” [96].

The third theme, ”negotiating parenting culture” examines middle-class ideals of mothering in four different contexts. Faircloth’s comparative study of ”full-term” breastfeeding mothers in London and Paris addresses the intersection between this attachment-mothering practice (which consists in continuing breastfeeding beyond six months) and feminist models. She finds a greater feeling of marginalization among her French respondents, due to cultural norms that stigmatize child-centered, embodied care as a morally degrading form of enslavement to nature and emphasize the necessity to control the body from infancy. ”Where in the UK, attachment mothering might be said to be an intensification of the prevailing climate of ”intensive motherhood” (a prevailing climate for the middle-classes, at least), in France, attachment mothering goes against this grain.

Indeed, in a culture where maternal-infant separation and autonomy is lauded as ideal, intensive, embodied care on the part of the mother is perceived as an impingement on female liberty, rather than as a valid outlet for her identity work” [132-3]. Intensive-mothering orthodoxy is also discussed in De Graeve and Longman’s analysis of the attitudes of adoptive parents of Ethiopian children in Belgium. Adoptive parents tend to dramatize the bonding process in their effort to replicate the supposedly ”natural” attachment to primary caregivers, sometimes negating their children’s earlier experiences; yet, many engage in race-conscious, culture-oriented ”identity work” to provide their children with ties to their biological background: ”Engaging in Ethiopian culture and fascination with the imagined ”birth culture”’… seems to be a part of the parenting work that attempts to remediate potential identity problems” [144]. Murray’s fieldwork among upwardly-mobile Chilean mothers questions the combination of a traditional model of sacrificial motherhood—marianismo, defined as ”a cult to feminine spiritual and moral superiority… which, in turn, leads to abnegation or the infinite capacity of sacrifice and humility” [160]—reinforced by public policies encouraging intensive mothering, with a neoliberal model implying that mothers work to afford middle-class comfort for their baby.

Part Four addresses ”parenting and/as identity”. Jiménez Sedano’s chapter analyzes the resistance of working-class Dominican women to the Spanish model of intensive mothering, which they see as excessively individualistic and child-centered, as opposed to the ”idealized… model of collective socialization of children,… called… the Dominican way, based on solidarity and trust” [175]. O’Dougherty’s fieldwork with Brazilian mothers suffering from postpartum depression ties this ”embodied distress” to the ideologies of intensive mothering and sacrificial motherhood, showing how self-diagnosis is a form of agency and resistance to such orthodoxies. She calls for ”a larger effort to confront the socially reproduced gender norms that make objections to the normative motherhood script… appear pathological (…) [O]ur theories need to include an expectation of women’s agency as active, discerning and critical, and our approaches need to be attentive to how they represent and evaluate their experiences” [196-7]. Göknar also identifies sacrificial motherhood as central to the attitudes of IVF-pursuing mothers in Turkey, who also seek to achieve recognition as full-fledged adults: ”Childless women are left to the periphery of womanhood when they are viewed as lacking the capacity to understand mothering or make sacrifices for a child” [210]. Layne’s contribution shows how high-income single mothers by choice in the US can combine attachment parenting and discipline-oriented ”Tiger mothering” while feeling guilty for not being up to gendered standards of self-care and housework. She concludes that intensive mothering does not serve only the interests of those in power, but also ”the interests of those women privileged enough to engage in it… a category of persons who enjoy power, enjoying an unprecedented level of freedom” [225]. Finally, Hoffman explores the culturally-situated nature of the management of power struggles between parents and children in upper-middle-class America, showing that Euro-American contemporary parenting orthodoxy actually prioritizes controlling the child’s emotions over seeking harmony, often to the point of denying what is clearly expressed by non-conforming children, in order to construct an image of child-centered parents which will gain approval from other parents: ”For the mothers in my study, who felt vulnerable to the criticisms of others in their efforts to carve identities for themselves as good mothers, struggles were not only with their children, but with the larger community, and even, one might speculate, with the larger culture and its pressures to get the job of childrearing right” [241].

The valuable, highly consistent insights provided by these contributions are an invitation to further expand the field of family and parenting studies, to include a wider sample of cultures, social strata, and intersections.

© 2015 Cécile Coquet-Mokoko & GRAAT On-Line