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Reflections on Maternal Thinking

Art by Zairunisha: Summer Mother Studies student, India.

Art by Zairunisha: Summer Mother Studies student, India. “The Celebration of Women’s Lives.”

By Jenny N.

In her piece, Maternal Thinking, Sara Ruddick defines what she understands to be the concept by this same name. It should be noted that this definition has a social, historical, and cultural context. The vision of maternal thinking, as she perceives it, has come out of our notions of what type of person mothers should be and what role they play in our society. Ruddick states: “The agents of maternal practice, acting in response to the demands of their children, acquire a conceptual scheme – a vocabulary and logic of connections – through which they order and express the values of their practice” (Ruddick 1989). Maternal thinking, she goes on to say, is guided by a mother’s interest in their child’s preservation, growth, and acceptability. Preservation begins whenever the mother reasonably believes her child to be a viable being and continues on through their first years of life. The mother is consumed with protecting her baby during these vulnerable years. Growth occurs following these first few years, when the mother is still entrusted with the child’s protection, but now wishes to see the child grow physically, emotionally, intellectually, and socially. Acceptability refers to a mother’s desire to mold her child into the type of person that is socially accepted. A reflection no doubt of what we value in our society, I once heard a mother remark on the playground, “Why would they not want their kid to be smart and athletic?”

But, as Ruddick astutely notes, a mother’s quest for fulfilling their child’s preservation, growth, and acceptability can be thwarted by social or physical conditions that create barriers to care. “Some mothers are incapable of interested participation in the practices of mothering because of emotional, intellectual, or physical disability. Severe poverty may make interested maternal practice and therefore interested maternal thinking nearly impossible” (Ruddick 1989). The acceptance and internalization of these three guiding principles surrounding maternal thinking has informed the perception of the child welfare system in recent years. And it is Ruddick’s point about barriers to care that is precisely why their model continues to fail mothers in our society.

As a former domestic violence advocate, my position was funded by a grant designed to facilitate communication between child protective service workers and domestic violence advocates, with the goal of increasing domestic violence victims’ safety and improving their outcomes after working with child protective. Monumental case law in 2004 established that a mother’s inability to protect her child from witnessing abuse could not be the sole reason for removing children from a mother’s custody (NYCLU “Defending parental rights of mothers who are domestic violence victims”). Prior to this decision, ACS, the child protective body for New York City, was in the practice of routinely removing children from non-offending mothers for their inability to protect their kids from exposure to their partner’s violence. Even with the state initiative to carve out positions like mine and the instrumental case law that came out of the 1994 Nicholson vs. Williams decision, child protective workers continue to operate with the mindset that mothers, regardless of health/socioeconomic/housing/domestic violence status, hold the primary responsibility for providing a necessary degree of care to children in the home. Though Nicholson vs. Williams offered a major victory in the corner of domestic violence and feminist advocates, the reality is that the practice of removing children for reasons resulting from domestic violence is ongoing.

The child welfare system continues to fail mothers in our society. As the report, “Charging Battered Mothers with Failure to Protect: Still Blaming the Victim” addresses, victims of domestic violence are less likely to seek out help from social institutions due to fear of losing their children (Ahearn, et. al. 1999). Domestic violence offenders are rarely held accountable by child protective services despite being the party that poses the risk to the child(ren)’s safety. Instead, it is the mothers who are found “indicated” [guilty], receive court summonses due to a finding of neglect, and lose their children to removals by CPS.

Barbara Katz Rothman’s theory on motherhood vis-à-vis the patriarchy may offer a way of understanding the mindset of child protective services. Rothman uses the analogy of a seed to depict the way women’s labor, literally and figuratively, is second rate to the role of men in birthing. She states: “Our bodies may be ours, but given the ideology of patriarchy, the bodies of mothers are not highly valued. The bodies are just the space in which genetic material matures into babies. In a patriarchal system, even if women own their bodies, it may not give them any real control in pregnancy. Women may simply be seen to own the space in which fetuses are housed” (Rothman 1994). She borrows a description from renown childbirth educator Sheila Kitzinger that relates this metaphor to contemporary birthing practices: with the medical interventions and constant prodding and poking that pregnant women endure by doctors, it’s almost as if they make it seem that the entire practice would go much smoother if the woman weren’t there at all and it were just doctor and fetus. A small sense of agency is bestowed back on women as the carriers of children in our society, Rothman proceeds. “Instead, women are said to own their babies, have ‘rights’ to them, just as men do: based on their seeds” (Rothman 1994). Perhaps this sense of “having rights” to their children, rather than placing inherent value in the role women have in bringing forth and nurturing children, is where child protective workers derive their understanding of mothers’ relationships to their children. Just as mothers have rights to their children, they can easily be taken away, if there is lacking the maternal thinking that Ruddick proposes.

Working as one domestic violence advocate among some fifty CPS workers, I would exhaust myself in trying to change the culture of the office. Like Ruddick suggests, the ability for mothers to foster their children’s preservation and growth is hindered by social factors like domestic violence. And they shouldn’t be held accountable for their partners’ violence, anyway.  But I see now that this change couldn’t come from just one voice battling the legacy of an archaic notion of what motherhood should be. Rather, as Ruddick suggests, “Assimilating men into childcare both inside and outside the home would…be conducive to serious social reform” (Ruddick 1989). Until we recognize fathers as equal partners in raising children, mothers will continue to be on trial if children are not being met with a certain degree of care at home. An entire cultural shift is needed to transform the child welfare system as it currently stands.

References:

Maternal Thinking by Sara Ruddick
“Beyond Mothers and Fathers” by Barbara Katz Rothman. Ed. Andrea O’Reilly, Maternal Theory

Jenny N. is the social media intern for the Museum of Motherhood. Her work appears in monthly blogs on the museum site. She is a graduate of Vassar College and has been enrolled in the Introduction to Mother Studies Accelerated Summer Class, 2015.

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