Maternal Responsibility and the 'Stranger Child'

Year: 2013

Author: Halse, Christine, Wright, Jan

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper attends to a key concern in contemporary sociology of the family by tracing the archaeology of responsibilities/responsibilisation in the mother/child relationship. At the beginning of the 21st century, the ideologies of the ‘good' mother/mothering and the ideal ‘child' work together to shape the cultural norms of contemporary mother/child relations. These foundational, interdependent ideologies propose a historical logic, namely that intensive, continuous ‘good' mothering will enable and is necessary to mould the not-yet-fully formed child into an independent adult and productive citizen.
In this paper, we sketch out a set of circumstances and conditions that rupture and displace these ideologies, and propose an alternate theory of the ‘child' and mother/child relations under these conditions. Drawing on interviews conducted as part of a current ARC Discovery grant, we examine the accounts of mothers of pre-teen boys and girls (7-12 years) diagnosed with an emaciating eating disorder as the mothers talk about their relationships with their children.
Their accounts suggest that the presence of an eating disorder forestalls the possibility of the desired/desirable ‘child' described in popular ideology. We theorise this phenomenon by extending Bauman's (1993/1995) theory of ‘strangerhood' to propose the notion of the ‘stranger child' as an instance ‘of rupture, of discontinuity' (Foucault, 1972: 4) in mother/child relations: the child who becomes a ‘stranger child' because she/he does not/cannot fit the ‘cognitive, moral aesthetic map' (Bauman, 1995: 1) of the normative child.
The presence of the ‘stranger child' reconfigures/redefines how mothers conceive of and enact their responsibilities. Drawing on the interviews in our study, we trace the mothers' situated, embodied and affective responses to their ‘stranger child'. The mothers mourned the loss of their child and a ‘normal' childhood; they wrestled with the uncertainty of their responsibilities to/for the ‘stranger child', and became ir-responsibilised by a growing web of medical expertise and intervention.
The reshaping of these responsibilities by the ‘stranger child' emerges as a narrative of anguish: an account of a deeply disturbing and distressing emotional experience. An integral part of this anguish, we propose, is the experience of displacement, uncertainty and unknowability arising from mothers' dislocation from the culturally familiar framing ideologies of the ‘good' mother, the ideal ‘child' and maternal responsibility. Our analysis points to the important work done by normative ideologies in constituting the responsibilities of mothers to their children but also to the illusionary stability of such ideologies as a foundation for social life and relations.
References:Bauman, Z. (1995) ‘Making and Unmaking of Strangers', Thesis Eleven, 43: 1-15.Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge, New York: Pantheon Books.