University of Surrey Institute of Advanced Studies

University of Surrey

The Mother War: Current Trends and Critical Discources

26 June 2009 - 27 June 2009

Workshop Report


The main aim of the workshop was to explore scholarly debates and policy discourses on mothering. The focus on the “mother war” was to draw attention to a particular gender paradigm which identifies mothers as the linchpin in maintaining social cohesion, the well being of children and the family, and informal provision of welfare. Within this paradigm, the mother is defined by her role as carer and is responsible for creating a nurturing environment that supports the traditional family. The objective of the workshop was therefore to unpack the values/norms that underpin this paradigm, thus drawing attention to the power hierarchies upon which it is based.

Perhaps one of the most interesting trends to emerge from the discussions and exchanges that took place during the two day workshop was the merging of theoretical and empirical research. Abstracts of the papers given are here. The highly interdisciplinary nature of the topic allowed the papers to explore the multiplicity of sites in which mothering is constructed. In so doing, the workshop created a number of opportunities for cross fertilisation between psychology, sociology, policy analysis, health studies and politics.


The paper presented at the workshop explored four main themes:

  1. Employment –The papers contributing to this strand explored a range of issues including: work-life balance, social policy approaches, individual choices, and access to support services such as childcare. The aim of these papers was to assess the relationship between social policy approaches to employment and women’s choices about formal/paid employment, thus unpacking the relationship between public and private discourses. Issues of class, ethnicity, age and culture were identified as particularly important to understand the impact on policies on individual actions/choices.
  2. Social construction of mothering – Papers coming under this theme explore the role of social norms and institutions in shaping women’s understanding of mothering. Papers presented under this theme looked at how women’s identity is mediated through the values entrenched within the social function of mothering. Particularly important for the debate that permeated the whole of the workshop were papers looking at the role of performance in the construction of mothering.
  3. Mother-child relations – The nature of this relationship goes to the heart of current debates about women’s role in the social function of reproduction. The impact of the role of the mother on the physical and psychological well being of the child has been the source of much controversy and debate in recent years. Paper under this stream evaluated the values that are entrenched within this construct.
  4. Heath and well being – This stream sought to unpack issues relating to women's/mothers' responsibilities towards disabled children, learning difficulties as well as the impact of environmental factors on women’s psychological health and ability to cope.

Keynote Speakers

The keynote speakers provided a springboard for the debate that was to take place within the parallel panels. Prof. Carol Bacchi opened the proceedings with discussion of the impact of policy approaches to the normalisation of mothering as practice. Her critique of the impact of social and economic structures on women's (and men's) ability to choose between work and family set the tone for the debate that was going to unfold in the keynote roundtable.

The roundtable brought together three scholars of international standing working on the issue of work-life balance. Dr. Catherine Hakim's controversial work on "Preference Theory" focused on the impact of individual choices on the equality agenda. Dr. Millward-Purvis' and Dr. James' contributions unpacked some of the core assumptions that underpin Preference Theory and engaged Dr. Hakim in a debate about the role of agency and structure in shaping individual decision making processes.

Prof. Scott presented some of the findings from her recent study on social attitudes towards working mothers. Prof. Scott is currently coordinating the ESRC funded Ge-Net network. The aim of the projects currently funded by the network is to evaluate the changing nature of gender discourses in the context of the "demise" of the traditional male breadwinner model.

The conference was finally brought to a close by Prof. O'Reilly's presentation on theories of mothering. This keynote address brought together the various themes that unfolded during the course of the workshop.

Next steps

  • Dr. Roberta Guerrina is currently working with Dr. Catherine Hakim to submit a proposal to Oxford University Press for an edited collection on preference theory. This book would consolidate work on preference theory (supporters and critics) in five distinct disciplines: Politics/Policy Studies; Sociology; Psychology; Law; Economic and Policy Studies. In so doing, it will set out a new research agenda for the analysis of reconciliation policies and the alleged paradigm shift in gender relations and politics. Given the nature of Dr. Hakim’s contribution to the field and the controversy generated by her work, this edited collection sets out to be a significant contribution to the field. It is felt that such a collection will also have high impact on future academic and policy debates.
  • Special Issue: Dr. Allan has approached the editor of the Journal of Health (Sage) to discuss the possibility of a special issue on "Gender, Motherhood and Health". Dr. Guerrina and Dr. Allan will be guest editors for the special issue.

Organisers: Dr Roberta Guerrina (Department of Politics), Dr Helen Allen (Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences), and Dr Lynne Millward Purvis (Department of Psychology)

Dr Roberta Guerrina

14 November 2009