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Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood

Catherine Bodendorfer Garner Book Review: Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood
edited by Ennis, Linda Rose
Studies in the Maternal, 7(1), 2015,
Catherine Bodendorfer Garner
Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood, edited
by Linda Rose Ennis (Toronto: Demeter Press, 2014), 343pp., ISBN:
1927335906, $25.82 Paperback.
The Myth of Choice in Intensive Mothering
Few mothers have ever thought of the labor associated with mothering as easy work, but
mothers have been challenged in different ways according to their position in time and place.
Wars, famine, colonization, the power of political parties, the economy, technology, and
culture are but a few of the forces that shape the ways that women care for children. In 1976,
Adrienne Rich opened the door for much of the current research and criticism within the
field of maternal studies when she differentiated between the womanly acts of mothering and
the patriarchal institution of motherhood in Of Woman Born. Linda Rose Ennis’ anthology
Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood builds on Rich’s
differentiation and many essays within it trouble the ways that mothers are encouraged to
devote an unnecessary degree of labor and an unrealistic (for many) amount of money to
mothering while simultaneously being subjected to increased scrutiny and the feeling that they
are competing against women who could be a source of support rather than judgment.
Nearly every essay in this collection specifically quotes Sharon Hays’ The Cultural
Contradictions of Motherhood, which was published in 1996 and is often credited with identifying
and defining the term ‘intensive mothering’ while this shift itself was still in its infancy. In
broad strokes, this term addresses the amplifying cultural demands that prod mothers to
dedicate inordinate amounts of time, money, and labor into their child[ren] in order to not
only guarantee that they thrive but also outperform peers. While the continual citing of her
definition seems unnecessary at times, this permits each article to stand independently and
further accentuates the ways in which intensive mothering has become even more intense, for
lack of a better word, while also highlighting the ways in which some aspects of this trend
have deviated from where it was two decades ago.
Catherine Bodendorfer Garner Book Review: Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood
edited by Ennis, Linda Rose
Studies in the Maternal, 7(1), 2015,
Ennis, who edited Intensive Mothering, claims her goal for the anthology is to explore
whether the ‘unselfish nurturance of intensive mothering is a form of self-interested gain and
how it is related to the economic needs of a patriarchal society’ (p. 2). Ennis has succeeded in
acquiring essays that highlight the ways in which culture shapes the experience of mothering
while analyzing the ways in which this experience has dovetailed with political and economic
shifts in the global North, namely neoliberalism. The essays, however, never take the shape of
the occasionally dry prose of political science and instead showcase the authors’ passion for
their personally informed, thoughtful research. While Ennis claims that her effort is led
primarily by a desire to understand women’s motivations -- an effort to which she stays true -
- it should be noted that like many feminist tomes on this subject, the authors within this
anthology are generally critical of the demands intensive mothering places on women in the
global North as well as the ways in which this cultural phenomenon goes largely unchecked.
Comprised of three sections, the anthology’s first section, which consumes just over
half of the book, presents several essays that specifically address the fallout neoliberalism has
had on the practice of mothering. Authors draw attention to the cultural marketing of
hyperindividuality (i.e., little government or community support for mothers) as well as the
ways in which children are increasingly viewed as social capital in which to both invest and
garner dividends. The second section of the anthology assesses current aspects of intensive
mothering; capitalism and the rampant consumerism associated with baby paraphernalia,
education, and childcare; increasing mother/child bond via baby sign language, attachment
mothering, and the practice of elimination communication; and the resistance poor mothers
face by state agencies to perform intensive mothering. The third and final section examines
the future viability of this philosophy and the drawbacks of this method of mothering.
Beyond the sectional headings that Ennis uses to demarcate the themes of the essays, an
additional motif that runs through this collection concerns the issue of choice, or as Ennis
states: ‘the myth of choice’ (p. 2). In contemporary politics the word ‘choice’ is often a
polemical one that is conflated with reproductive rights; however, there are many other
choices that women, and more specifically mothers, make in regard paid labor, pregnancy and
delivery, nursing, discipline, nutrition, and a plethora of other acts, most of which, according
to this anthology, are landmines women transgress with varying degrees of awareness to the
stigma associated with the ‘wrong’ performance of mothering. Ennis and the authors in
Intensive Mothering rightly question the degree of choice that is involved in these decisions since
Catherine Bodendorfer Garner Book Review: Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood
edited by Ennis, Linda Rose
Studies in the Maternal, 7(1), 2015,
one’s class, race, community, access to education, religion, physical ability, and so on are all
part of the landscape. Many of the anthology’s authors struggle with the degree to which
women have the opportunity to reject the underlying philosophy of intensive mothering
without being subject to personal and social shaming. Indeed, as Ennis correctly points out,
for most women who subscribe to the arduous demands of intensive mothering there must
be some internal payoff. In the introduction, Ennis suggests one motivation women have to
participate in intensive mothering may be to experience relief from the guilt of being a bad
mother. Authors throughout the anthology offer additional insight, much of which does not
contradict this assertion but likely works in tandem with it to create formidable pressure on
modern mothers.
On a related point, one of the many strengths of this collection is the consistent
incorporation of intersectionality as a framework for understanding the multiple forces that
shape motherhood. While intensive mothering is often associated with white women of
material means who do not participate in the formal labor market, the authors challenge the
relatively subtle ways that intensive mothering can shape the philosophy and performance of
mothering of those who can and do participate in this form of mothering; those who
conscientiously work against these practices; as well as those women who, for various
reasons, are unable to forfeit the primary output, namely time and money, that this type of
mothering demands. Ennis’ collection, with its focus on neoliberalism, asserts that class is at
the heart of intensive mothering, and for most individuals, race can and does intersect with
class in complex ways. It is a credit to the collection that essays that are not designed to
specifically focus on issues of class or race still frequently highlight the ways that these
markers may influence the theory that is being asserted.
The essays in Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood, which
are strongly grounded in feminist and cultural theory as well as sociology and psychology (but
do not incorporate literary studies, art criticism, or historical analysis), would be a useful
addition to any university library, and that is likely its intended placement. However, I would
argue while all the authors are academics, the breadth, tone, and relevance of most of the
works in this anthology allows it to extend beyond the academy and remain accessible to
those who may not be formally trained in this area of scholarship. Pulling authors from
several countries (albeit all in the global North), the voices Ennis has curated confirm that
intensive mothering is not a phenomenon exclusive to the U.S., but that its reach, due in part
Catherine Bodendorfer Garner Book Review: Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood
edited by Ennis, Linda Rose
Studies in the Maternal, 7(1), 2015,
to the adoption of neoliberalism throughout the global North, transgresses geographic
boundaries, class, race, age, and even gender.
Effects of “solo parenting” on the exercise of parental roles and the frontiers of childhood From a qualitative survey among “solo parents”, this article describes commonalty in the exercise of parental roles and the definitions of childhood in these families. Becoming a “solo parent” induces different ways of taking on parental roles according to the resources available to the parent. For the parents with the most educational capital and with high employability (“marketable” qualifications, occupation compatible with home life, etc.), this experience can offer an opportunity to diversify their social roles and reinvest in areas that had been neglected owing to an unbalanced division of parental work. By contrast, among mothers with less educational capital and lower employability, a greater emphasis on their maternal role was observed. To prove their parental abilities, solo fathers invested in their role more than in the past, without renouncing their career. Besides these differences, a blurring of the parent and child spheres was observed. In particular, when a family’s economic resources were low, care practices in the parent-child pair were found to be diluted, or even reversed.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.