It is, perhaps, because of such high child mortality rates that the intensive, child-centered approach to mothering often promoted in western cultures is absent in Tanzania. It is expected that mothers will love and provide for their children, but it is with the understanding that mothers have many competing obligations. For example, a mother is not disparaged for fostering her children for a limited amount of time if she needs to work or go to school. More importantly, it is understood that the care parents provide to their young children must eventually be reciprocated. “You westerners/whites (wazungu),” one woman explained, “you have insurance. We have children. Our children are our insurance.” Similarly, another single mother explained, “It is true. Even though it is very hard to take care of babies these days, even to be satisfied by yourself, but we still believe when the babies will grow up, they will take care of us. That is why we keep having babies and raising them.” While mothering may certainly entail self-sacrifice in Tanzania, it has never been considered entirely selfless. This is markedly dissimilar from the western ideal wherein the “ideology of motherhood is oppressive to women. It defines maternal work as a consuming identity requiring sacrifices of health, pleasure, and ambitions unnecessary for the well-being of children.” (Ruddick, 29) Good mothering in Tanzania does not necessarily require overt affection, extended time in close contact with a child after weaning (at about twenty-four months), or unconditional love. (fn. 2) Women work hard and make tremendous sacrifices, but they do not do it in an entirely altruistic way. They have clear expectations that their children will one day reciprocate.
Mothers strive to provide for their children, meet culturally constructed expectations, and to approximate their culture’s ideal of the “Good Mother.” Mothers are not creatures conditioned wholly by biological imperatives and instincts. Nor do mothers exist outside of a system of cultural constraints. They are shaped by the physical, social, economic, and political milieu in which they live. In Maternal Thinking, Ruddick directs our attention to the complexity of mothering. It is imperative to explore how societies, as well as mothers themselves, construct and evaluate motherhood. As this brief case study illustrates, applying Ruddick’s theory of practice cross-culturally can reveal important new avenues of investigation that enable researchers to understand mothering and motherhood in more nuanced ways. Examining mothering as practice allows researchers to move beyond static notions of statuses and roles by removing it from the realm of the “natural” and into the realm of culturally constructed human action.
1. Although, in some societies were motherhood is stipulated, such a refusal could come at a very high price.
2. Outright neglect and abandonment are condemned however. In such cases, mothers generally lose their rights and access to their children.
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