Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1997-1998 index

Distributed April 27, 1998
Contact: Kristen Lans

Mothering Against the Odds

New book attempts to expand the definition of the "good mother"

Brown professor Cynthia García Coll is one of the editors and authors of Mothering Against the Odds, Diverse Voices of Contemporary Mothers. The book challenges the dominant cultural stereotype of the "good mother" by presenting the stories of women who do not conform. It is scheduled for release in early May.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Real mothers are single. Real mothers are raising their children in homeless shelters. Real mothers are phoning their children from prison to read them bedtime stories. Real mothers know they will never see their children marry because they are dying of AIDS. Real mothers are lesbians. Real mothers are all these women, and their experiences are portrayed in the new book Mothering Against the Odds, Diverse Voices of Contemporary Women.

The book is a collection of stories about women whose diverse life circumstances put them outside the realm of the traditional "good mother." Each chapter focuses on different groups of women, exploring the ways they resist the stereotypes about motherhood and in doing so are expanding the scope of what is considered capable parenting.

"We are really trying to deconstruct the myth that there is one way to be a good mother," said Cynthia García Coll, professor of education, psychology and pediatrics at Brown University and a contributing editor and author of Mothering Against the Odds, Diverse Voices of Contemporary Women (Guilford Press), due out in early May.

The myth dictates that the "good mother" is heterosexual and over the age of 20, say the authors. She has only one or two children, and they do not have any handicaps or behavioral problems; she conceived them and she and her spouse are of the same ethnic background. She works, but her job does not take her away "too much" from her parenting responsibilities.

That stereotype has not always been popular. Historical and cultural forces crafted the job description for motherhood, say the authors. In colonial America, mothers did not devote themselves to their children. Instead, in the American context of hardship, the mother was a necessary member of the production team and could not be spared to care for children. Older siblings, servants or extended family were assigned that task. It wasn't until the late 1700s, when the home and workplace became separated for the first time in American history and the man of the family left the home each day, that child care was left exclusively to the mother.

During the 20th century, women increasingly are asked to fulfill "impossible ideas about motherhood." They have full-time work outside the home but are still expected to perform the bulk of child care, say the authors.

As long as a stereotype of the good mother persists, women who do not meet those standards will be marginalized and their actions will be diminished and devalued, say the authors. Clinicians, researchers, politicians and social commentators will blame mothers for their children's problems and through them for larger societal problems.

"What does the teen mother have in common with the lesbian mother? All the women are receiving the message that they are not good mothers," said García Coll. "In spite of not fitting the norm, most of these mothers are just crazy about their kids."

The book is the collaborative effort of 18 women who first met as a study group in 1993 at the Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies at Wellesley College, to talk about motherhood. They are academics, researchers, writers and practitioners who felt that the people they worked with professionally were misrepresented in both the media and scholarly work.

The chapters are written in different styles. Some are first-person narratives and others focus on research and clinical interviewing. García Coll edited the volume along with psychologist colleagues Janet L. Surrey and Kathy Weingarten. Surrey is an attending psychologist at McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Weingarten is an assistant professor of psychology atHarvard Medical School.

"This is our gift to the women we met and with whom we work," said García Coll.