Featherstone, Brid, “Taking mothers seriously: The implications for child protection”, Child and Family Social Work, Vol. 4, 1999, p. 43-53.
This is an interesting article by Brid Featherstone on how a feminist approach to social work can help in understanding the implications of working with mothers and children. The article starts with a note about the case of Ruth Neave, who was accused of killing her six-year-old son in 1996. The case resembles other, more recent ones in the UK such as that of Baby P., in which the media exploited and recreated the emotional and dramatic aspects of the story. By bringing this case to our attention Featherstone challenges the ideal picture of mothering based on endless love for their children.
Her point is that mothers change in the course of bring up their children. Motherhood changes women, and this change also affects their parenting. In her article Featherstone seems very concerned about the growing body of literature that holds that children are sacred creatures in need of all types of attention (something similar to the concept of “intensive mothering” developed by Douglas ). For this reason she tries to disentangle some feminist social workers’ ideas that children’s and women’s needs are always on the same side and that the main problem that social workers come up against is abusive behaviour by men.
The consequence of this literature’s approach is that the relationship between mothers and children is never explored. As Featherstone reminds us, feminism has been ambivalent about motherhood, characterising it in some cases as a place of oppression. Although she clearly disagrees with this approach, she sees something positive in it: “The importance of seeing mothers as people in their own right rather than just as wives, mothers and carers” (p. 45).
During the ’60s feminist literature opened up to a different approach which distinguishes motherhood was from mothering. Adrienne Rich was a pioneer in this field with her seminal work “Of Woman Born – Motherhood as Experience & Institution” . She associates motherhood with the institutional and patriarchal ways of organizing the mother experience, and mothering with the personal and experimental field of being a mother. For Featherstone, Rich exemplifies the above-mentioned tendency of perceiving mothers and children as on the same side, as merged identities, enhancing the fantasy of the perfect and loving mother. This tendency was followed by others such as Ruddick , who examines the maternal role “in the context of what children need to grow and develop” (p. 46).
To Featherstone, Ruddick’s work contributes to romanticizing motherhood, setting aside feelings and emotions such as rage, frustration and hatred that are not considered appropriate in the realm of mothering. In the ’80s, with postmodernism, mothers’ stories come to the fore. Disabled mothers, non-white mothers and working class mothers, among others, appeared to show their distinctness, but according to Featherstone these approaches were too personal to provide a complete picture of mothering. In her view, two important authors were able to capture the complexity of mothering: Jessica Benjamin and Rozsika Parker.
Benjamin highlights how a mother’s recognition of her own needs is very important for the child. She does not try to reconcile the mother’s and the child’s needs because they can be different. Instead, she points out the hidden tension between autonomy and dependence that characterises the mother-child relationship. Parker, for her part, works with the concept of ambivalence. She recognises the need to give space to all the feelings that mothering involves, from love to hate, as part of a journey that both the child and the mother experience. By allowing all these feelings to come into play it is more likely that different solutions and perspectives might arise in social work.
Turning to the case of Ruth Neaves again, Featherstone refers to the fact that Neaves explicitly asked that her child be removed from her, and wonders why this didn’t happen. She concludes that there was a combination of factors: Ruth was perceived as a difficult woman, but also the social workers were overburdened by their work. More to the point, many social workers are mothers themselves, and they might have found it difficult to believe that a woman wouldn’t want to mother her child.
To conclude her analysis, Featherstone depicts three concepts that support social work with mothers and children: diversity, autonomy and ambivalence. Diversity helps us to understand that mothers are different: what is good for one mother or child might not good for another. Secondly, she stresses the importance of autonomy. It’s good for a mother to be able to recognise her own needs. taken into consideration Mothers who struggle to love their children, or mothers who think that mothering implies an “unacceptable loss of the self” need to be heard (p. 51).
Featherstone’s analysis is important and interesting, not only for social workers but also for those interested in issues related to mothering. It reminds us that mothers relate to their children in different ways. There are no rules about it. Suppressing bad experiences and feelings about mothering does not help those struggling in difficult situations. More than anything, there is no perfect mothering; but most of all, the feelings of not being able to mother a child, or of not wanting to, need to be addressed and properly recognised in order to find the best solutions for the child and for the mother.