Mothering and Motherhood

It is common sense that all mothers love and care for their children. Or at least it is comforting to believe this is true in all times and places. Yet news broadcasts flash crimes such as teenage mothers abandoning infants in restrooms, mothers burning cigarettes into their children's flesh, mothers starving their children to death, and the like. Although this short entry cannot consider motherhood and mothering (the tasks of caring for children) in all times and places, it offers evidence from several eras and continents to suggest historical and cultural variations in motherhood and mothering. In other words, operating on the premise that both motherhood and mothering are socially constructed, this entry looks at how both ideas about what a mother is and should be and ideas about how mothers should care for their children have varied over time and space. It focuses primarily on agricultural and industrial societies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Some references for continents not covered in the text appear in the bibliography.)


For analytic purposes, it is possible to distinguish several types of motherhood based on social recognition and function–birth motherhood, social motherhood, and care-giving motherhood. First, the birth mother is the person who physically gives birth to the child. Since the development of new reproductive technologies, the concept of birth mother has become more complicated, for if another person donated the egg, the child in the womb may not be the biological offspring of the birth mother. Second, in some societies the social mother, the person who is married to the head of a household or listed on a registration form, is recognized by the people of the community as a child's mother, even though she might not be the birth mother. Third, the aspect of motherhood involving child-rearing tasks such as feeding, bathing, dressing, watching over, TOILET TRAINING, andteaching basic MANNERS to a child may be called care-giving motherhood. Of course persons other than the mother can perform child-rearing tasks. In the United States in the early 2000s, many but not all people expect that the birth mother,

Sistine Madonna (1513), Raphael. In Western art and culture, the Madonna has served as a powerful image of ideal motherhood, one of selfless love and devotion. .

social mother, and care-giving mother be the same person, but this has not necessarily been the case in all times and places.

In some cases, the birth mother is known as a surrogate mother, a woman who carries or gives birth to a child, with society then recognizing the social mother as the child's mother. New procedures allow the implanting of a woman's fertilized egg in the womb of another woman who carries and gives birth to the baby. Surrogate mothers, however, have existed in societies without advanced medical technologies. Set in Korea in a past era when ADOPTION was frowned on and when carrying on the father's lineage was the highest family goal, the film The Surrogate Mother (1986) describes the secretive life of a lower-class birth mother during her hidden pregnancy. After the child is brought to the home of the wealthy but barren social mother, the birth mother is driven out of the community in secret at night, to be forgotten and never to see her child again. And all the while, helped by her servants, the social mother fakes pregnancy by stuffing pillows under the high-waisted native Korean dresses and agonizes that the deception might be uncovered.

In U.S. society today, it is generally expected that the birth mother will serve as the care-giving mother of an infant. In many societies past and present, however, it is thought normal or socially acceptable for persons other than the biological mother to be the primary caregiver for infants and older children. Other possible main caretakers for children, besides the birth or social mother, include grandmothers, SIBLINGS, wet nurses, governesses, foster mothers, live-in or commuting BABY-SITTERS, or even apprentices or grandfathers. In JAPAN from the nineteenth to early twentieth century, live-in baby-sitters (komori) carried tended infants or babies on their backs all day and slept by them at night, freeing farm mothers to participate in agricultural labor. They brought infants to the mother to nurse. Commuting babysitters did the same but did not sleep with their charges at night. Boy apprentices sometimes carried babies on their backs all day.


In examining motherhood, the complexity and cross-cultural variability of the tasks of mothering become visible. Mothering takes many years of labor providing physical care to a growing child. A bare minimum of care includes feeding, clothing, and guarding the safety of infants and children, but beyond these mothering usually includes keeping children clean and healthy and efforts to educate or socialize children to earn a living and to fit into the family, the community, and religious and other institutions as well as the larger society and nation.

Although only the woman who carries a child during pregnancy can give birth and often only the woman who is registered as a child's mother is recognized as the mother by society, as mentioned, the tasks of care-giving motherhood–feeding, bathing, watching over, sleeping by, and training a child–can be and are done by persons other than the birth or social mother. In other words, when broadly defined as carrying out such tasks, "mothering" can be performed by nonmothers.

Ideas about motherhood and mothering do not exist in a vacuum. Ideas about what a mother is, how mothers should think, and what mothers should do are influenced by ideas about attitudes and behavior toward children and expectations concerning other possible caregivers and socializers. Other caregivers may include fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, GRANDPARENTS, GODPARENTS, neighbors, and others in kin or residential groups, communities, and the larger society. They may also include institutions such as boarding schools, ORPHANAGES, day-care centers, KINDERGARTENS, schools, and reformatories. Also, activities besides caring for infants and children can have an impact on notions of motherhood and mothering. In particular, economic activities–farm, handicraft, and service work in agricultural societies, and manufacturing, clerical, technical, research, and service work in industrial societies–may demand large amounts of time that compete with minding children.

When the family is a unit of production and women's labor is crucial to its survival, there may be low expectations for mothers to devote themselves to care-giving motherhood or the tasks of mothering–the physical care, minding, and socialization of children. That is, although proximity of domestic (or reproductive) labor such as child rearing and housekeeping to public or social (or productive) labor such as farming, petty manufacturing, trading, or retailing in household enterprises might seem to ease mothers' participation in both types of labor, in fact the long hours of labor required for farming, secondary employments, cooking, washing, and other necessary tasks can severely limit the time that adult women can spend on CHILD CARE. While the birth mother is indispensable to the continuity of family, community, people, or nation, and while the social or political order generally requires children to have a social mother then and now, neither the state nor society can require a woman to be a care-giving mother if her family circumstances do not allow it. When others assume daily child-care tasks, this frees women from the burdens of care-giving motherhood to perform other vital activities. In this way, in agricultural communities care-giving motherhood or mothering activities might not be central to women's lives or ideals of womanhood, at least for certain classes or social groups.

As the workplace separates from the home in industrial societies, mothers' participation in productive and reproductive labor becomes more problematic. Yet as the work of mothering becomes more difficult for wage-earning women in industrial societies, new ideals of female domesticity can emerge and spread among nonworking, middle-class women, such as expectations of closer mother–child bonds, mothers devoting more time to children and child rearing, and higher standards of children's cleanliness, socialization, nutrition, education, and leisure. The next sections present a few concrete examples of motherhood and mothering in agricultural and industrial societies in varied eras and places.

Motherhood and Mothering in Agricultural Societies

In agricultural societies, much of the labor producing a family's subsistence is expended on the land–whether as unpaid labor on the family's owned or rented fields or as farm labor for wages in someone else's fields. When fields are cultivated primarily by family members, especially when household size is small, a mother's farm work is often indispensable. In this case, however, expectations that a mother will serve as the sole or even the primary caregiver for infants may be absent.

Although trade and manufacturing increased steadily over time, until the late nineteenth century, the United States was predominantly an agricultural nation. According to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of the 1980 book, Good Wives, in northern New England in the colonial period (1650–1750) there was very high regard for birth motherhood as the genesis not only of children but also of grandchildren and more distant descendants in a time of high INFANT MORTALITY. The patriarchal social order, which valued strictness and obedience, tended to frown on women as care-giving mothers, regarding motherly love and indulgence as fostering disrespectful children. Tenderness and affection expressed toward infants gave way to DISCIPLINE, obedience, and religious training as children grew older. Also, Ulrich argued that mothers tended not to "focus intense care and concern" (p. 157) on a single child in their own household, although they were willing to help keep an eye on their neighbors' offspring. In the preindustrial United States, there existed other variations in conceptions of motherhood and mothering that were influenced by regional, religious, ethnic, economic, and other factors.

In stem families, households containing one couple of each generation, in Japanese villages from the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, authority over children, especially over the heir to the headship and property, belonged to the older generation. (This was also the case in urban enterprise households.) In households of poor and average means, so great was the need for mothers' labor at agriculture and handicrafts that child care was generally left to anyone but the biological mother. Therefore, older children, grandmothers, grandfathers, child baby-sitters, or apprentices–that is, household members who could contribute less to the family livelihood–tended babies and children. Care-giving motherhood was less important than advancing the family enterprise, and adoption of kin or nonkin to continue the family line reduced the importance of birth motherhood in early modern and modern Japan.

Interestingly, within one nation or even one community, cultures of rural mothering might diverge. According to a 1991 article by David L. Ransel, two distinct cultures of mothering coexisted side by side in villages in the Volga region of late-nineteenth-century rural Russia, with very different consequences for infant survival. Tatar (Muslim) customs included household and personal cleanliness and breast-feeding on demand for one to three years as well as a peak of births occurring in the winter, and these customs produced far lower infant mortality than Russian customs. For ethnic Russians, despite their custom of breast-feeding, the introduction of solid foods from birth spread germs from foodstuffs and adult bodies to infants, and the peak of births in the summer months coincided with more favorable conditions for the incidence and spread of foodborne and other diseases. Also, Tatar customs seem to have valued motherhood more and allowed women more rest after childbirth, whereas ethnic Russian customs placed greater emphasis on mothers' labor contributions or productivity and their immediate return to agricultural and household labor following childbirth.

People living in highly industrialized societies tend to overlook the fact that many contemporary societies are predominantly agricultural. That is, although industry exists in most countries today, a bare or overwhelming majority of the population may earn a living from farming. In some contemporary societies, expectations of child care are lower because of women's extensive participation in agriculture or handicrafts; in other societies, women are burdened by dual expectations that they will contribute to family livelihood and carry the main burdens of child care and housework.

In late-twentieth-century CHINA, despite regional and ethnic differences in women's economic participation in the north and south, family continuity through birth of a son to carry on the family name remained a cherished goal. In ethnic Chinese households, the senior generation had authority over child rearing, with the birth mother typically caring for the children under her mother-in-law's supervision, or with both women serving as care-giving mothers. For a time, in a rush for economic development, the People's Republic of China developed rural child-care facilities and communal kitchens to aid mothers' domestic and public participation, although these facilities have diminished with the turn to privatized farm and workshop production since the 1980s. Although family reforms have been in place since the 1950s, there is still a tendency for the mother to defer to the authority of coresident in-laws, especially her mother-in-law, in the upbringing of children. Child care also tends to fall on the senior generation for practical reasons, in particular to free mothers to engage in income-earning activities in order to increase family wealth. With a one-child policy in effect to reduce Chinese population growth, mothers, other care-givers, and kin now tend to indulge and to lavish attention on children, collectively nicknamed "Little Emperors." As in China, birth motherhood in INDIA is virtually imperative for family continuity, which is linked to south Asian customs, including religious traditions and the need for a son. Yet emphasis on motherhood as necessary for family continuity may be declining, especially in urban areas, as alternatives to relying on children for support in old age develop and as occupation, status, and wealth rather than maintaining an eternal line of descent become overriding goals for individuals.

Motherhood and Mothering in Industrial Societies

Several changes associated with the rise of industrial societies had a definite impact on the attitudes and practices of motherhood and mothering. First, the low wages, very long working hours, and unhealthy working conditions in early factories had negative effects on poor and working-class mothers' capacity to take care of their children. Second, the separation of home and workplace with the rise of large-scale industries made it more difficult for those engaging in wage work to participate in child rearing and other forms of household labor. Third, besides an impact on mothering, the separation of home and workplace encouraged greater emphasis on female domesticity, especially for the middle class. Middle-class mothers were expected to stay at home rather than engage in wage-earning activities and to devote themselves above all to caring for children and the household. Fourth, middle-class social ideals were often projected onto groups whose economic and cultural conditions did not suit such expectations. Fifth, depressed rural economic conditions or hopes for better employment led peasants to migrate to cities where they entered domestic service, became hawkers or day laborers, or took on other casual, nonindustrial work. In this way, urbanization had a dynamic effect that was partially independent from industrialization (mass production using power-driven machinery). Because urbanization and industrialization tended to occur in urban areas, the examples in this section are mainly drawn from cities. They reveal that despite rising expectations, in the industrial era motherhood and mothering cannot always operate in ways that secure children's survival. The examples illustrate some of the conditions and dynamics shaping motherhood and mothering in early and late industrial societies, but they should not be seen as providing systematic, or even representative, coverage. Similar and divergent examples may be found for other localities, nations, and regions.

For early Russian factory owners, motherhood and the labor of mothering were a low priority. Female factory workers with children therefore made do as best they could. In St. Petersburg in 1912, only one-quarter of working mothers could feed their infants at work, and they breast-fed "in corridors, on stairways, beside the factory buildings" (Glickman, pp. 127–128). Parents working in factories normally could not provide any care for their children. Some busy mothers, however, hired live-in caregivers, usually older women, for their infants. Several families might share a baby-sitter, who provided care in a very small space.

In nineteenth-century France, social stigma and the near impossibility of earning a living led single, especially unwed, mothers to abandon illegitimate children. In the nineteenth century, failure to accommodate motherhood in factories led working-class mothers to place their infants with hired wet nurses. Poor conditions, however, often led to children's deaths. French countermeasures to promote care-giving motherhood included encouraging mothers to breast-feed infants, pregnancy and maternity leaves, and milk depots.

As examples from the United States, France, and Japan reveal, however, the separation of home and workplace and the rise of industrialization also affected middle-class motherhood and mothering. New or altered ideals of womanhood emerged, although regional, class, and ethnic differences led to diversity of ideals and practices. New elements infusing notions of motherhood included expectations of attentive, nurturing, and loving care and the socialization of children from infancy to youth, typically with somewhat reduced emphasis on labor at the household trade, income earning to support the household, or servant or household management. Due to complex interactions of religious or cultural and economic changes, particularly separation of the home and workplace, the measure of womanhood tended to become motherhood or mothering rather than productivity, economic contribution, or industry at the family trade.

The research of Bonnie G. Smith suggests that in northern France, transition to domestic as opposed to productive womanhood took place in the early eighteenth century. In Japan, too, industrious birth motherhood gave way to a more sentimental care-giving motherhood. In the United States, with the decline of multigenerational families and the lessening of fathers' control over land distribution, ideals of motherhood shifted from an emphasis on women as child-bearers (birth motherhood) and anxiety about motherly indulgence to a strong endorsement of women as solicitous care-giving mothers. Tenderness was now permissible not just toward infants but was expected toward older children as well. As workplace was separated from home, the home became defined as women's and children's place. And because children went out to school, the home became above all women's domain. As capitalist competition increased, it became a haven in a heartless world. Society now held that mothers should care for children themselves; it was considered negligent to abandon one's offspring to the care of another, whether servant, grandparent, or other relative.

It can be argued, however, that one or perhaps two more shifts in U.S. motherhood have taken place since the end of the nineteenth century. In her 1975 book, Women's Proper Place, Sheila Rothman indicated that in the Progressive era, mothers' responsibilities expanded from the home to the world. The greedy, cruel world of the marketplace and men needed the gentler, nurturing touch of women, thus the mission of care-giving motherhood reached into the public world to reform society and politics. While it remains to be seen whether these ideals were embraced outside the urban middle classes, they tend to confirm the notion of an earlier shift to care-giving motherhood and female domesticity with a modern twist.

Around the third decade of the twentieth century, another change in the ideals of womanhood also had an impact on notions of motherhood and mothering in the United States. With the rise of a companionate ideal of the husband–wife relationship in the 1920s, women were cautioned against lavishing too much attention on their children and told to transfer their affection to their husbands. Too much fuss over children improperly weakened spousal bonds. In addition, rather than trusting their own instincts, women were encouraged to follow medical, psychological, and educational experts. Nevertheless, these changes should not be over-stated; the expectation of a strong bond of sentiment between mother and child continued through the twentieth century.

In many late or advanced industrial societies, the construction of women's identities around consumption, leisure, and self-fulfillment rather than marriage, domestic life, or productivity may be undermining motherhood as women's highest goal and mothering as women's highest social task. This shift may of course vary by class, region, religion, ethnicity or race, or other factors. In part, this shift can be seen in falling birthrates. According to Emiko Ochiai's 1997 book, The Japanese Family System in Transition, total fertility rates in 1994 were below the 2.1 replacement rate of a married couple: 1.25 in United Kingdom, 1.4 in Germany, 1.5 in Japan, 1.65 in France, and 2.0 in Sweden, and 2.07 in the United States. Other quantitative evidence such as rising ages at first marriage and first birth, falling percentages of women marrying, and increasing female labor force participation rates also suggest a turn away from marriage and motherhood as women's primary or inevitable destiny. Qualitative evidence also suggests a turn away from motherhood as a woman's central reason for existence. Rejection of mothering as confining, unglamorous drudgery or low-status work may replace acceptance of motherhood as a woman's highest calling.

See also: Family Patterns; Fathering and Fatherhood; Madonna, Secular; Parenting; Surrogacy; Wet-Nursing.


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