Defining Social Mothering

The great maternal theorist Sara Ruddick argues that the practice of mothering “is to take upon oneself the responsibility of child care, making its work a regular and substantial part of one’s working life” (1995: 17).  The work to which Ruddick refers revolves around what she sees as three major demands, which involve preserving a child’s life by looking after his/her/zer health, nurturing a child’s emotional and intellectual growth, and raising a child in a manner that is acceptable to the “social groups of which the mother is a member” (19-21). When we think critically about these duties, however, it soon becomes obvious that there is no need for this mother work to be carried out by a biological or legally adoptive mother. Indeed, as Ruddick points out, there is no “reason why mothering work should be distinctly female” either, as “Anyone who commits her or himself to responding to children’s demands…is a mother” (XIII).  These tasks involved in raising a child from infancy are crucial work, but they need not be – nor are they always – performed by the mother identified on official documents.

Because custodial mothers cannot always be present, a great many of us will have experienced those moments when we were mothered by day care workers, nannies, neighbours, aunts and uncles, or family friends. We could refer to such work as “babysitting” but the truth is, there are moments when the interactions transcend that term and its casual connotations. Terms such as “babysitting” trivialize the work that can happen in such contexts, making it seem as though no real parenting is being done during these sometimes day-long sessions of care. Of course, anyone who has ever spent time with care-givers besides one’s legal guardians knows that is not the case.

For example, you may recall the neighbour, Mr Peterson, who looked after you when your mom had to work late. He ended up comforting you and rushing you to the hospital when you accidentally fell on the front steps and needed stitches. That neighbour was there for one of your most traumatic childhood memories. He held your hand before your mom could get there. He assured you that you were in no danger of bleeding to death and may even have fetched you a lollypop to distract you at the ER.

You may also remember Kate the camp counsellor who was there when you got your first period. She taught you how to use a tampon because you were unsure. You were scared but Kate helped you through it. You will always remember Kate. She has a special place in your heart because she helped raise you to adulthood.

Of course, we cannot forget Ms Oh, the teacher who looked after you on a school trip when you unexpectedly became ill. She also helped do the essential mother work of preserving your life.  She was not acting as your teacher when she checked your temperature and brought you tea. There was nothing educational about such activities, and yet they were necessary. The teacher in question was transcending her capacity as educator, just as you began to trust this adult on a new level, as something more than a provider of history or math lessons – as a protector and caregiver. Whether planned or not, such intimacies happen.  They may be remembered for a lifetime and often are. In such acts, the caregiver in question is not replacing a child’s legal mother as such, but collaborating with her, helping out by doing the work of mothering that needs to be done in that moment.

Perhaps you yourself have even loved a child who is not legally or biologically your own. Perhaps, while you know you are not their mother and do not wish to supplant her, you have worried for them when they faltered and taken pride in their successes. Perhaps you have experienced the joy of attending their school concerts, tearing up with joy when they get their solo just right. Perhaps you’ve had a child call you when scared, asking advice about school dances or bullies. Perhaps you’ve been there and been happy to be. Perhaps this makes you feel like the title of family friend, or baseball coach or piano instructor does not describe the truth – that you know what it is to love and help raise a child that is not your own.

The venerable Patricia Hill-Collins uses the term “othermothers” to refer to women in the African American community whose “feelings of responsibility for nurturing the children in their own extended family networks have stimulated a more generalized ethnic of care where Black women feel accountable to all the Black community’s children” (1997: 331).  She goes on to contend, “The notion of Black women as community othermothers for all Black children traditionally allowed Black women to treat biologically unrelated children as if they were members of their own families” (331).  There is much history and literature surrounding the concept of othermothering. It is however, a term that is culturally specific to African American experiences of mothering. I do not wish to participate in a process of cultural appropriation that ignores the history and context of this term in a particular community. It is for this reason that I believe we must develop the term “social mothering” further within the field of Motherhood Studies.

I first heard the term “social mothering” in Year 1 of My PhD. I took a fabulous and eye-opening course called Motherhood and Mothering with the famous Dr Andrea O’Reilly. It was she who began casually referring to “social mothering” as an umbrella term for mother work performed by community members outside of an African American context. As O’Reilly uses it, it is can also inclusive of all genders. It is a term that I find useful. It avoids cultural appropriation while describing care work that meaningfully contributes to the raising and shaping of a child.

Ultimately, the term social mothering is needed not just for descriptive purposes, but because we must end the assumption that legal mothers alone are the ones who can and should be responsible for raising children. Without the term social mothering at our disposal, we normalize a discourse that suggests it is a mother’s job to sacrifice everything to raise children without outside help from the community.

No legal mother can be there for all of a child’s needs. Nor should she feel guilty about this. Naming social mothering is a way of showcasing its importance as well as denaturalizing the privatization of motherhood that makes many parents feel overwhelmed and alone.  The sooner we admit the truth that no one – no matter how committed to their child – mothers in isolation, the sooner we can resist the discourse that suggests mothers should be able to go it alone.

Works Cited:

  • Collins, Patricia Hill. (1997). The meaning of motherhood in black culture and black mother/daughter relationships . In Mary M. Gergen and Sara N. Davis (Eds.), Toward a new psychology of gender. (pp. 325-340). New York: Routledge.
  • Ruddick, Sara. (1995). Maternal thinking (2nd Ed.)Boston, Beacon Press.

Sarah Sahagian is currently a PhD candidate in Gender, Feminist and Women’s studies at Toronto’s York University, where she is writing her dissertation on the mothering of inter-ethnic children. She holds an undergraduate degree from Queen’s University and a master’s in Gender Studies from the London School of Economics. At the LSE she was the recipient of the 2008 LSE Merit Scholarship, a prize reserved for the 30 top entering master’s students at the university. Her writing has appeared in such publications as Chasing Rainbows, a popular anthology on gender fluid parenting, as well as The Journal of the Motherhood Initiative, The Huffington PostGender Focus, Bitch Media and The Beaverton. Sarah is the co-editor of the Demeter Press anthology Mother of Invention: How Our Mothers Influenced Us as Feminist Academics and Activists. You can follow her on Twitter here: @sarahsahagian.