The impossibility of ideal motherhood : the psychological experiences and discourse on motherhood amongst South African low-income coloured mothers specifically in the Kylemore community

Youngleson, Annemarie (2007-03)

Thesis (MA (Psychology))--University of Stellenbosch, 2007.


This study aimed to determine whether there is a dominant discourse on motherhood in one semi-rural, low-income, Coloured community. It investigated the personal and individual meanings that this group of mothers attach to motherhood, and what they regard to be “good” or “bad” mothering practices. In exploring discourses the study also aimed at describing the prevailing values, assumptions, ideas, rules, fantasies and dreams concerning motherhood that prevail in the Kylemore community. The present study used data from a research project entitled the “Maternal Mental Health Project” (MMHP). The MMHP focuses on the psychological distress and resilience of low-income mothers residing in the community of Kylemore. The main focus of this larger study was extensive open-ended interviews with the women concerning their pregnancies, birth and motherhood experiences. All women reporting at the Kylemore clinic for prenatal and antenatal visits were recruited. These women were interviewed at four different points in time by the same interviewer, focusing on women’s experience of pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood. Approximately 90 women were interviewed (360 one-hour interviews) over a period of four years. Based on feminist social constructionist ideas, the current study utilised qualitative methodologies. The interviews were transcribed and then analysed according to social constructionist grounded theory. The main categories that emerged during coding revolved around what participants considered to be “good” or “bad” mothering practices. The findings clearly indicated that mothers in this community are able to both recognise and define desirable and undesirable practices of motherhood. The themes pertaining to “good” mothering focused around two central concepts: the contextual factors which determine good motherhood; and the qualities evident in a good mother. A “bad” mother was seen to be someone who was unconcerned about taking responsibility for her child, leaving this responsibility for others to fulfil. It is suggested that for many of these women, their aspirations of ideal motherhood are unrealistic and unattainable due to the social and economic circumstances in which they live. Women are thus effectively set up for failure, due to a discourse of “perfect” motherhood that seems impossible to achieve in these circumstances. This is exacerbated by the fact that “good” mothering and “bad” mothering are considered to be discrete and dichotomous categories, with no possible overlap between the two categories. It is suggested that psychologists working with low-income mothers should be involved in discussions about more realistic and less rigid discourses of motherhood, discourses that take contextual factors into account.

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