On my last research trip to Tanzania in 2006, one of my first stops was to see Mama Nyakatugu. We spent a good deal of time together renewing our ties and sharing news. Indeed, we had much to talk about. It was the first trip back that I had made since becoming a mother myself, and that made all the difference in the world to her and the other women with whom I worked. As a mother, I brought new and, in some ways, more nuanced perspectives to my research. More importantly, as a mother I achieved a new status in Tanzania. I was now considered fully adult and, I was told, could better understand and relate to their experiences. During my earlier field research, I was interested in mothering, but primarily as it related to household economics and women’s labor in the underground economy of Dar es Salaam. As an unmarried woman with no children, I had fallen into some of the same intellectual traps as earlier anthropologists. I had failed to comprehend the complexity and salience of mothering. Now, however, Tanzanian mothers were willing to share more of their concerns, experiences, and ideas with me; one mother to another. So, as Mama Nyakatugu and I walked the dirt roads and sandy pathways of the squatter settlement where we lived, she felt it important to pass on some crucial advice to me. “Wifi (sister-in-law), when are you going to have more children? As soon as you return to America, you have to get another child. You have to have at least one more child. Think, what will you do if he dies? You don’t want to end up alone and childless. One is not enough. Who will care for you in your old age? One is not enough!” Her words, spoken in such earnest, we disconcerting, to say the least. Moreover, it became the refrain that I heard everywhere I went. Everyone I met told me the same thing “What if he dies. One is not enough.” Every day, I was repeatedly confronted with my son’s mortality. (And this was, I might add, the first time I had ever been apart from him for more than a few days!) Part of me was taken aback at how frequently and matter-of-factly the prospect of his death was raised. Initially, I was also a bit resentful. I had enough issues of mother guilt and didn’t really want to add that to my list of worries.
As my anthropological training kicked in, however, I saw that this was clearly an important issue that begged for further research. This topic, like no other, drove home some of the key cross-cultural differences in the practice of mothering, most notably the fact that this is the reality that most Tanzanian mothers live with. While I had the luxury to concern myself with such things as whether the Boy Scouts would foster my son’s sense of civic engagement, or simply teach him homophobia; the Tanzanian mothers I work with are occupied with issues of basic survival on a daily basis. Clearly, the practice of mothering varies tremendously. In researching this issue further, I engaged in my own “difficult dialogues” as I stepped outside of my discipline. In my examination of this topic, Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking, became especially valuable.
Earlier anthropologists assumed that motherhood was biologically determined and, therefore, distinct from those social relationships (e.g. lineage and clan relations) requiring explanation and analysis. The relations and activities that went on within households were viewed as private, based in “blood,” and dominated by altruism and sentiment. Relations between mothers and their children were often seen as natural, bounded within the domestic domain, and undifferentiated (Hrdy, 1999). The act of mothering was considered instinctual and therefore did not require close or careful study. Because mothering was assumed to be a natural category, it was also assumed to be universal. As Barlow states, “western cultural biases in psychological theorizing have obscured the extent to which the idea and practice of mothering are culturally informed” (514).
In her groundbreaking text, Ruddick illustrated the tremendous complexity of the work that mothers do. Rather than treating “Mother” as a purely idealized figure, or mothering as a natural activity defined by biological imperatives, Ruddick argued that maternal practice is a conscious and thoughtful endeavor requiring training, regular reflection, and careful judgment. The significance and usefulness of presenting an analysis of mothering removed from the realm of biological determinism, and the obfuscating effects of sentiment cannot be overstated. “It is,” according to Ruddick, “ hard to speak precisely about mothering. Overwhelmed with greeting card sentiment, we have no realistic language in which to capture the ordinary/extraordinary pleasures and pains of maternal work.” (29) She pushed her readers to consider a definition of motherhood grounded in agency and human activities.
Ruddick drew from anthropological theory and methods in her analysis of maternal thinking. She referred to herself as an “anthropologist” utilizing participant-observation in order to study maternal practice. Her knowledge of maternal practice was founded upon her own observations of and, more importantly, participation in mothering. Ruddick also clearly identified her own biases based on her position as a heterosexual white woman socialized in a particular western Euro-American tradition. Despite her attention to variation and her own possible biases however, Ruddick did make several claims of universality. One such area was her depiction of maternal responses to the demands of children. “I make claims about all children and I believe them.” (54-55) These universalist claims caused some to label her a “cultural feminist” and dismiss her work as ethnocentric. I, however, found her paradigm both enlightening and effective when applied cross-culturally.
Ruddick stated that the common demands of preservation, growth and social acceptability constitute maternal work and, ultimately, practice. (17) Preservative love is the first task of maternal practice. “Maternal practice begins in a response to the reality of a biological child in a particular social world.” (17) The provision of care is optional rather than a biological imperative or instinctual drive. Contrary to popular beliefs, maternal commitment is not automatic. “There is an enormous amount of evidence that not all women do anything like commit unconditionally to each baby they bear” (Hrdy, 182). In fact, there are far more instances of abandonment, neglect and infanticide among humans than any other primate. However, once the demand to preserve the life of the child has been accepted, it becomes a mother’s task to protect the child and work for his or her survival. Mothering requires a far-reaching and pragmatic knowledge of the material world. Maternal thinking and practice also represent a way of understanding and interpreting the world.
Anthropological studies have dramatically underscored the fact that women almost never devote their attention and energy solely to mothering, and that mothering needs to be understood in the context of other roles, relationships, and activities. And finally, critiques from within Western cultures point to variations in mothering related to race, class, and ethnicity that also necessitate revising understandings about mothering. (Barlow, 515)
Different environments and times, therefore, produce different understandings of mothering and motherhood. By framing the activities, expectations and behaviors of mothering as practice, its assumed naturalness can be challenged and new avenues of investigation may be revealed. Maternal scholarship in anthropology has begun to explore these new territories.