What is a mother?

If I were to write a letter to myself pre-motherhood I’d tell that younger, more naive, version of myself to forget what she thinks it’s going to be like, to let go of expectations of herself and others, and banish the word ‘should’ from her vocabulary. But if she’d listened, or even understood, she might not have had the experiences that shaped her, me, as a mother.

There was this sentiment frequently expressed in some of the mother’s groups I was involved in, that if you were worried about how your child was eating, sleeping, growing etc. then you were a ‘good’ mother. Conversely implying that if you weren’t worrying about what ‘should’ be happening you were not a good mother, maybe even a bad mother. What you ‘should’ be doing is an omnipotent yardstick for most mothers, it’s a good beating stick too. The most contentious of the ‘shoulds’ concerning childbirth and breastfeeding.

Motherhood ‘should’ be natural. As if somewhere along the way we develop this innate ability to grow a human (knowing exactly what to eat and do to keep it safe), pop it out our vagina (without pain relief or medical intervention), suckle it on our breast (exclusively for the next 2-years) and selflessly devote our lives to these small humans (foregoing care and concern for ourselves). All whilst feeling 100% fulfilled with our lives. Engagement with this ‘natural’, ‘good’, conceptual understanding of motherhood is problematic.

A ‘good’ mother is supposed to ‘become’ through the pain and self-sacrifice of a vaginal birth, and yet do so responsibly; surrounded by medical experts and technology. This dichotomy is illustrated by mothers who have emergency c-sections and describe their rite of passage into motherhood as incomplete because they had not given birth ‘naturally’ (Malacrida & Boulton, 2012).

Women are supposed to ‘know’ who they are as mothers through some eureka moment of insight. But for new mothers this looks more like confusion, as the romantic image of motherhood looks different from reality (Miller, 2007; Oakley, 1986). The strength of relationship between mother and baby doesn’t happen straight away but emerges progressively through learned experience (Oakley, 1986).

Breastfeeding educational materials reteach women the naturalness and essentialness of this practice through scientifically based professional intervention (Wall, 2007), as if women are very ignorant of their own instincts. It downplays the challenges of breastfeeding and positions women who don’t as deviants, as unnatural.

Mothers fall short of these ‘natural’ expectations, as if the biology of being a women isn’t enough to make mothers. Yet a mother is undoubtedly a ‘she’ in the default positions that women hold as primary caregivers. And the physical embodiment of motherhood is enough to uncomfortably contrast with the proper, clean, contained and rational; the masculine business/organisational norms. The place where original, pre-mother, identities come from. But a mother doesn’t fit anymore. A mother is ‘leaky; hormonal tears, discharge, blood, and breastmilk. She represents lack of control, uncertainty and non-conformity.

In her tensioned world a mother is no longer able to comply with the ‘ideal’ worker, the ‘best’ worker. But she doesn’t stop trying. She comports her physical self to avoid being marginalised; hiding discomfort, fear, pain, and self-regulating milk supplies to undertake paid work (Gattrell, 2019). Yet, “not being able to achieve consistency in ‘who you are’, or who you are beginning to perceive yourself to be, is the start of a process of leaving that culminates in actually leaving” (Kanji & Cahusac, 2015; pg. 1431).

The real mother and the imagined are not the same. The real mother and the ‘best’ worker don’t exist in the same space. There is no ‘choice’ in this (Ograd, 2019). There is a reconciliation of loss, sense-making and construction of a new identity, but no choice. (Kanji & Cahusac, 2015). Current work practices designed to facilitate greater participation in work (eg. flexible work) don’t address the identity dissonances that mothers face. Maternity is still the failure of the working girl (McRobbie, 2009), and motherhood is one of the main barriers to equality that women face (Bradley, 2013).

So, who are you as a mother? If I were to finish that letter to myself, pre-motherhood, I still don’t know how I’d explain it to her, or even if I’d want to. Motherhood is as varied, complex, and tensioned as mothers are. Yet it in this ‘inbetween’ space that mothers inhabit that we carve out our own space and do one of the most undervalued, yet valuable, jobs there is.


Bradley, H. (2013). Gender (Second edition, 2nd edition revised and updated). Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity.

Gatrell, C. (2019). Boundary Creatures? Employed, Breastfeeding Mothers and ‘Abjection as Practice.’ Organization Studies, 40(3), 421–442. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840617736932

Kanji, S., & Cahusac, E. (2015). Who am I? Mothers’ shifting identities, loss and sensemaking after workplace exit. Human Relations, 68(9), 1415–1436. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726714557336

Malacrida, C., & Boulton, T. (2012). Women’s Perceptions of Childbirth “Choices”: Competing Discourses of Motherhood, Sexuality, and Selflessness. Gender & Society, 26(5), 748–772. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243212452630

Mavin, S., & Grandy, G. (2016). A theory of Abject Appearance: Women elite leaders’ intra-gender ‘management’ of bodies and appearance. Human Relations, 69(5), 1095–1120. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726715609107

McRobbie, A. (2009). The aftermath of feminism: gender, culture and social change. Los Angeles ; London: SAGE.

Miller, T. (2007). “Is This What Motherhood is All About?”: Weaving Experiences and Discourse through Transition to First-Time Motherhood. Gender & Society, 21(3), 337–358. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243207300561

Oakley, A. (1986). From Here to Maternity: Becoming a Mother. Penguin.

Orgad, S. (2019). Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality. Columbia University Press.

Wall, G. (2001). Moral Constructions of Motherhood in Breastfeeding Discourse. Gender and Society, 15(4), 592–610. Retrieved from JSTOR.


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