In This Article Motherhood

  • Introduction
  • Historical Approaches
  • Classics and General Overviews
  • Official Statistics
  • Reproduction, Medicine, and Technology
  • Adoptive Motherhood
  • Teenage Motherhood
  • Single Motherhood
  • Lesbian Motherhood
  • Ideologies and Practices
  • Outsourcing Mothering
  • Mothers’ Care Work and Time Use
  • Paid Employment Experiences
  • Work Family Policies
  • The Negative Impact on Women’s Labor Market Outcomes

Sociology Motherhood
Claudia Geist
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0110


Defining the meaning of motherhood is more complex than once thought. Due to technological and legal changes there is more and more variation among mothers with respect to age, marital status, and sexual orientation. Adoption has long shown that social motherhood is not contingent on giving birth, and surrogacy and in vitro fertilization now create a possible distinction between the gestational mother and the genetic mother. As a result, the very definition of who is a mother can be contentious. The very process of becoming a (biological) mother, conception, and birthing has undergone much transition, with much greater involvement of medical professionals. The meanings associated with motherhood and motherhood practices vary across historical, sociocultural, and political contexts. Despite the great variation, even within specific countries at one point in time in the practices of motherhood, discourses about what exactly constitutes “good” mothering and who should and should not mother, among many other topics, continue to exist. For many mothers this means they are caught between cultural expectations on how to mother and the realities of their everyday life: e.g., breastfeeding practices and child-care arrangements. Although rates of mothers’ labor-force participation are high or increasing in many countries, mothers still face the primary burden of arranging, managing, and even financing child-care solutions for their children; work-family conflict remains a problem for mothers much more so than for fathers. Polices designed to ease the conflict between employment and motherhood, both those implemented by governments and those created by employers, vary greatly across countries, which reemphasizes the context dependency of the meaning of motherhood for women’s lives. Many aspects of research on motherhood suggest that motherhood, and especially the link between motherhood and employment continues to be an important component of persistent gender inequality. In addition to contributing to inequalities between men and women, and between women within any given society, motherhood also contributes to global inequality (through the transnational market for care workers) international adoptions, and international surrogacy.

Historical Approaches

To fully appreciate the diversity and complexity of the topic of motherhood, it is useful to examine the “big picture” on motherhood from different perspectives. Hrdy 1999 closely examines the “nature” of motherhood, illustrating the biological but also cultural components of motherhood from an anthropological perspective. This research highlights the diversity across time and place, while also highlighting some of the biological foundations of motherhood. Historical variation, along with cross-cultural variation, is addressed in Allen 2006, which does an excellent job of providing a vivid historical account of motherhood in Western Europe from the late 1800s to the 1970s. Allen’s work illustrates how questions of motherhood have long been linked to the issue of feminism and show how sociopolitical (and historical) context are important forces in shaping the meaning and practice of motherhood. O’Reilly 2010 shows the variation in contemporary across societal groups, reminding readers that even at one point in time motherhood can mean (and feel) differently for different mothers.

  • Allen, A. T. 2006. Feminism and motherhood in Western Europe, 1890–1970: The maternal dilemma. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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    This has a truly international perspective and draws on sources from Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Britain, as well as Scandinavia. It contains a chapter on the history of motherhood that sheds light on the shifting emphasis on just what ideas are associated with motherhood. The concluding chapter allows readers to connect the historical narrative with contemporary challenges. This book is historical, rather than sociological, but it is a good starting point for those seeking to understand societal contexts of motherhood.

  • Hrdy, S. B. 1999. Mother nature: Maternal instincts, and how they shape the human species. New York: Ballantine.

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    An anthropological book that contains many comparisons between humans and other primates. But what makes it useful for sociologists is a larger discussion of what motherhood really means, and the questioning of concepts such as “maternal instincts” from a biological perspective. The discussions of essentialist approaches to motherhood are framed historically and cross many disciplinary boundaries.

  • O’Reilly, A., ed. 2010. Twenty-first-century motherhood: Experience, identity, policy, agency. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    Very comprehensive volume that addresses the subjective experiences of motherhood; examines the policy context while also covers diversity in motherhood experiences (race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexuality, religious beliefs).

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