In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mothers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History
  • Social Meanings
  • Early Attachment
  • Early Attunement
  • Mothers and their Mothers
  • Mothers, Mothering, and Economics
  • Infertility
  • Mothers before Birth
  • Mothers after Birth
  • Maternal Ambivalence
  • Mothers after Childhood
  • Loss of Mother
  • The Diversity of Mothers
  • Mothers’ Rights

Childhood Studies Mothers
Terri Apter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0009


“Mother” is a female parent. The term has powerful associations, and its meanings extend far beyond this specific designation. Normally, it encompasses the biological relationship of giving birth, but it is also associated with the activities of caring for a child (sometimes called “mothering”), and therefore “mother” can refer to a woman who undertakes care of a child, whether or not she is the biological mother. There is no other topic in which social norms and ideals are so powerfully interconnected, and discussions of these form an essential part of the subject. The topic “mothers” cannot be considered without looking at social norms of “good mother,” the quality of the care she provides, and the impact on a child’s well-being. These, in turn, are shaped by psychological theories about a child’s need for a mother, and theories are shaped sometimes by research, sometimes by social, economic, and political forces. The breadth of this topic, the ever-changing meanings of “mother,” and the passion of the continuing discourses about “mother” make it impossible to compile a bibliography solely with textbooks and reference works.

General Overviews

A key issue in the topic of mothers is whether being a mother in the broad sense of caring for a child is instinctive or learned. The biological fact that a female gives birth is sometimes taken as proof that mothering is also instinctive and that there is a biological basis for social expectations that the child’s primary carer should be the female parent. The work of Harry Harlow on monkeys (Harlow 1962, cited under Early Attunement) undercuts the view that a female parent’s ability to care for her infant is instinctive. Instead, the author’s disturbing studies suggest that the experience of being cared for as an infant is crucial in learning how to care for one’s own infants. From a very different theoretical perspective, Chodorow 1978 showed how the psychology of mothering may be reproduced by common family structures: girls and boys are generally raised by mothers, and this affects their self-development in different ways, so that girls grow into adults who are likely to “mother” and boys grow into adults who are likely not to “mother.” Gilligan 1982 developed the concept of an “ethic of care”: the finding that women were more likely than men to put consideration of others’ needs at the center of their decision making was interpreted by some to show that women were naturally carers of others. Parallel debates about the quality of a mother’s care and the child’s requirements for a certain kind of mother’s love continue, and Cozolino 2006 brings together new neurological findings showing the impact of a caregiver’s empathy and responsiveness on a baby’s developing brain. The powerful experiences of a caregiver’s empathic absorption in an infant are described by Winnicott 1975, and the impact of maternal focus on politics is developed by Ruddick 1989, whose exploration of the links between ethics and maternal experience and identity is developed by Baraitser 2008, while the economic costs and the lack of economic value given to caring labor are exposed by Folbre 2001. These issues are brought together by Rich 1976, whose account of motherhood as experience and social institution highlights continuing paradoxes and tensions in the topic of mothers. The online journal Studies in the Maternal contains articles that extend and develop these critical debates.

  • Baraitser, Lisa. Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

    Elegantly combines individual experiences and theoretical analysis of the subjectivity of mothering. The impact and disruption to a woman’s identity of love and care present new possibilities for understanding the ethics of relationship. Winner of the 2009 Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (United Kingdom and Ireland) Book Award.

  • Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

    Seminal, fascinating book outlining the argument that mother as primary carer is not a biological essential but a product of social practices. The different ways boys and girls develop a gender identity means that girls raised by mothers are psychologically primed to mother, and boys raised as mothers are less likely to find mothering roles “natural.”

  • Cozolino, Louis. The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. New York: Norton, 2006.

    Excellent overview of recent findings on the neural impacts of that early “foundational relationship” between mother and infant. Whereas many discussions of “bonding” focus on smell or touch, Cozolino emphasizes the learning powers and pleasures of visual interaction.

  • Folbre, Nancy. The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values. New York: New Press, 2001.

    An economist takes an original view of the discrepancy between social and economic value in the context of caring labor. As a result of this discrepancy, mothers’ ability to provide personal and loving care is being eroded.

  • Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

    This culture-shaping study of the different ways people consider moral dilemmas may not directly discuss mothers, but it has enormous impact on society’s view of women as particularly fit for mothers. Or so it seems, until a careful reading shows that Gilligan does not assert that one style is necessarily male and the other female.

  • Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. London: Virago, 1976.

    This classic memoir offers an original and provocative examination of motherhood. Containing extracts from her journal, Rich exposes personal doubts about wanting to be a mother, along with some negative feelings toward her children. An important and courageous critique of the socially enforced concept of mother-love as perfect and constant.

  • Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace. New York: Ballantine, 1989.

    The “private” virtues of mothering are brought into the public sphere in this important contribution to moral philosophy. The practice of mothering—preserving the life of a child, promoting the growth of a child, training the child for social participation—is explored as a model for a peaceful society.

  • Studies in the Maternal.

    Edited by Lisa Baraitser and Sigal Spigel and published twice a year since 2009, this journal contains interdisciplinary articles, essays, and reviews on cultural representations of maternity, subjective experiences of pregnancy and motherhood, and the political and social constraints and possibilities that arise from these. A useful source for continuing debates and discussions on mothers, mothering, and maternal images.

  • Winnicott, Donald W. “Primary Maternal Preoccupation.” In Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis: Collected Papers. By Donald W. Winnicott, 300–305. New York: Basic Books, 1975.

    Winnicott’s work emphasizes the need for maternal sensitivity. His statement “There is no such thing as a baby” highlights the significant unit as a symbiotic relationship, mother-and-baby. In this short and very dense paper, he argues speculatively that the mother’s psychology after birth adapts to the infant’s psychological needs. Original work published in 1956.

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