Learning how to be a “good mother” at an Early Years Centre.

Neoliberal Pedagogies of Motherhood:  This blog entry is adapted from a paper that Kinga Pozniak recently presented at a conference on motherhood organized by The Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement. Kinga’s thoughts are universally applicable to mothers who frequent and utilise state run drop in centres for mothers and children. 

Kinga Pozniak is an anthropologist based at The University of Western Ontario in Canada. She has conducted research in Poland that looked at the changes that have taken place there since the collapse of the country’s socialist government in 1989 and the subsequent neoliberal reforms that were adopted. Based on that research she published several articles and a book titled “Nowa Huta: Generations of Memory in Model Socialist Town”. After having children she started to think anthropologically about her experiences as a mother. As a result, she is now starting a new research project that asks how ideas about what makes a “good mother” have changed over the past few decades in relation to the neoliberal turn in the organization of political, economic and social life.

Where do mothers learn how to be mothers and what it means to be a “good” mother? 

We learn this from all kinds of sources: media, our own parents, friends, teachers, pediatricians… But today I want to zoom in on one additional source: Early Years Centres. 

In Canada where I live, Early Years Centres are sort of one-stop shops, or umbrella spaces, that offer a whole array of services for caregivers (mostly mothers) and young children. They are funded by the Ministry of Education in each province. And for me, as well as for many other mothers that I know, they are one of the first encounters with “official” government ideologies about what it means to be a mother. 

In the town where I live, many if not most public health initiatives directed at mothers with small kids are housed in an Early Years Centres. If you take a breastfeeding class or prenatal class through public health, chances are these will be held in an Early Years Centre. These classes are often run by a public health nurse along with an employee of the Centre (and all of the employees I’ve met come from an early childhood education or a counseling background). Many centres loan resources on topics like breastfeeding or sleeping. They also offer drop-in sessions where caregivers can come and talk to a public health nurse or an infant development specialist about any aspect of their child’s development. So, in a nutshell, they’re places that bring together official government discourses in the areas of early childhood education and healthcare, along with the related domains that inform these – for example neuroscience, psychology, etc. 

And lastly (and importantly) Early Years Centres are also places where caregivers can bring their kids to play. They are like free indoor playgrounds with lots of age-appropriate toys. 

Sounds pretty good right? Yes, Early Years Centres definitely do offer a lot of tools for caregivers. And this is exactly what their mandate is: to support families. But they do this in a particular way that conveys particular ideas about what it means to be a mother. So let me now dig a little deeper and look at the ideas about mothering and motherhood that they disseminate through their activities. 

Since my first son JD was born over three years ago, I’ve attended all sorts of workshops held in the Early Years Centres: prenatal classes, breastfeeding classes, baby massage, and numerous workshops on positive relationships and attachments. I’ve also brought my kid there just to play and I went on playdates there with other parents and their kids. 

So what did I learn about being a mother from all these activities? 

1) The mother is responsible for herself and her children 
Early Years Centres are places that provide resources to mothers so that they can be better mothers. But here’s the catch: information is NOT the same as HELP. They do not provide any concrete help (like childcare). In fact, I find that they actually create more work for mothers. The workshops teach mothers all the different things they SHOULD be doing with their babies, and then the onus is on the mother to go and do all these things. Even if you bring your kids there just to play, you still have to be there and watch them the entire time – and of course clean up whatever mess they make. 

2. The mother listens to expert advice 
The idea behind these workshops it that mothers need expert guidance to teach them how to do things: how to massage their baby; how to breastfeed; how to develop a positive relationship with her baby. The mothers are not forced to do anything – everything is presented as a choice, but the experts are there to sort of steer the mother to make the “right choices”. 

3) The mother is always trying to be a better mother 
The purpose of all these workshop is to teach women how to be better mothers: to know the right songs and the right activities to stimulate their babies’ brains in age-appropriate ways. The mothers are doing all of this, of course, to ensure their children’s development. But this work of always doing more and being better is not just about learning the right developmental activities: the mother is actually supposed to be working on her own personality so that she can be a good role model for her children. 

Let me give you an example of how this works. I once attended a workshop dealing with separation anxiety – a huge issue in my household. One of the things the facilitator (a public health nurse) told us is that children often pick up on your emotions, so if your child cries when you leave – well maybe the problem is YOU. So what you need to do is work on yourself and your own feelings about separation. 

I’m sure there is something to be said for that advice. But do we always have to start with the assumption that everything is the mother’s fault? Could it conceivably be the case that maybe, just maybe, no matter how cheerful and optimistic I act and feel, the kid is still going to bawl his head off when I leave him with a stranger? Is it at all possible that maybe it’s not me that’s the problem? 

Which perfectly leads into my next point… 

4. The mother is responsible for her own (and her child’s!) failures
If you can always do more and be better, that means you’re never good enough. At every workshop that I’ve ever attended it’s been emphasized that the first five years of life are a “critical time of development” and if the mother misses the boat (i.e. doesn’t engage appropriately with her kids, doesn’t provide the right stimuli), she will never get this time back.  

I once attended a workshop called “Healthy Baby Healthy Brain”, and the facilitator (who was a public health nurse) made the point that in the first few years of life the brain makes millions of new connections (which is true) and if you don’t engage your child in the appropriate activities to stimulate these connections, then these connections will DIE. Talk about a guilt trip! I mean, what sort of mother would want her child’s brain to DIE? 
* * * 
My point in spelling out these “big messages” about mothering (as I see them) is not to say that they are right or wrong, good or bad. Rather, as an anthropologist, I am interested in what they can tell us about our society. 

So what can they tell us? Well, one of the premises of this paper is that political and economic processes aren’t just “out there”  – rather, they have implications for all aspects of people’s lives, including the experience of having and raising kids. And in the past twenty-thirty years (so roughly a generation), we have seen the emergence of a new way of thinking that shapes all aspects of life, including politics, economic, and social life. A catch-all phrase for this is neoliberalism, and what it basically means is that ideas from the sphere of the market (like efficiency, competition, flexibility, independence, private property) are being applied to all other areas of life.  This means that people, too, are expected to manage themselves according to market-oriented principles. So, for example, it is assumed that: 
–  People are independent and responsible for their own well-being (meaning, they should not rely on others – like the state — for support) 
– People should always be trying to improve themselves and become better versions of themselves 
– People should listen to expert advice and use it to improve their lives. Because people are free and independent individuals no one can MAKE them do anything – rather, they are sort of steered to make the right choices, and one of the ways in which this happens is through expert advice. 

These values are disseminated through various agents and institutions in society: from mass media to schools to doctors’ offices to Early Years Centres, where they shape ideas about what makes a good mother. So, in a nutshell, our ideas about what makes a good mother cannot be separated from the bigger political, economic and social processes in which we live our lives. 

So far I have focused on the messages that women receive about mothering. I have yet to address the messengers (that is, the “experts”: the Early Years staff, public health nurses, lactation consultants, etc), and of course the recipients: that is, the mothers themselves. To what extent do they internalize and ascribe to these norms of mothering and motherhood? Do they resist them? Do they propose alternatives? Are there ways in which these neoliberal projects or techniques can be put to work to serve goals that are NOT neoliberal?

As I do more research I hope that I will be able to attend to these questions in my future talks. For the time being, let me say that even if the ideas about mothering that I elucidated above are seen as “common sense”, it is worth remembering that what is “common sense” is never set in stone; rather, it is always has to be defended and reinforced – and this, in turn, means that it can also be resisted and changed. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *