Measuring mothering

Rebecca Kukla “Measuring Mothering” The International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, Vol. 1, No 1, 2008, pp. 68-90.

In this article  Rebecca Kukla examines how mothering is measured according to certain standard points in time at which mothering is considered to be of paramount importance: for instance, at the first ultrasound test and when making choices about the birth and about feeding the baby. Kukla argues that mothering is a lifelong process and that mothers cannot be judged according to how they behave at certain moments that are culturally and socially constructed to measure their emotions and reactions to their babies. As Kukla points out, measuring mothers’ behaviour at certain given moments can hardly evaluate their behaviour as future mothers.

Although I agree with Kukla’s analysis up to a point , I feel that certain matters need to be disentangled. First, the question of measuring in relation to judging; second, the question of bounding v. controlling; and third, the cultural construction of the ‘good mother’.

Concerning the first point, Kukla rightly uses the term measuring rather than judging when she refers to mothers. According to the Oxford Dictionary, measuring means assessing the importance, effect or value of something, whereas judging refers to forming an opinion or a conclusion. Although I sympathise with the effort to remove judgement from the debate, the fact is that women are judged rather than measured when it comes to their mothering. 

When talking about mothering performance, the issue is still much around forming an opinion rather than giving a value, as Kukla shows when referring to “good mothers”. For this reason I believe that the whole discussion would more appropriate if it considered why mothers should be measured or judged at all rather than whether good mothers can be measured by their behaviour at certain given moments. The problem is that mothers are measured/judged by social and cultural constructions that are later endorsed not to empower women but to make them feel insecure and dependent.

Second, the question of bonding v. controlling: according to Kukla, the first ultrasound in pregnancy has moved from a being required medical protocol to being a social and cultural activity where future mothers’ reactions to this first picture of their baby are observed and measured. Although I agree with this statement, I also think that the first ultrasound event is very much the result of paranoid Western control of every single aspect of nature and birth. As Douglas and Michaels shown in The Mommy Myth, the industry of controlling, protecting and providing all types of safety gadget for babies and toddlers grew dramatically in the 1980s, forcing parents to endlessly evaluate their children’s activities, almost exclusively according to safety criteria. This paranoia places mothers as the only experts responsible for the health and safety of their children. Admittedly, the first ultrasound screening poses a question of measuring v. bounding, but also one of control, increased paranoia and fear of life.

Finally, I must confess that I was surprised to see how Kukla refers to good mothers as mothers who give birth naturally without any sort of pain relief. This is definitely a cultural and class construction belonging to the Anglo-American middle class experience. In Spain, the country I come from, people considered my option to have a natural birth “stupid” (really!) and “masochist”, and I was not in the least considered a better mother than my friends and family members who had epidurals and bottle-fed their babies. In fact in Spain natural birth options (especially home births) are seen as dangerous, and those who choose them, freaks. In sum, the narrative of a good mother is a social and cultural one in which women are subject to fashion and dominant opinions at a given place and time.

This brings me back to the question of why mothers should be measured/judged at all, and most of all to how and when the battle to make the personal political turned into a blaming and scrutinizing game in which my personal becomes public. I feel that there is a need to go back to basics and revise the feminist slogan that the personal is political, because somewhere and somehow our beliefs that were stolen,. Bringing problems and issues that were considered private (reproduction, mothering) into the public arena suddenly became bringing public judgement on our private lives. In my view, the question remains very much why there is so much measuring and judgement of mothering.


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