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Blog post Part of special issue: BERA Blog Special Issues: BERA/TACTYC

Giving a Voice to Mothers

Pam Jarvis

My work on the Parenting chapter of the BERA/ TACTYC Review of the Early Years Literature triggered some questions that I felt compelled to further investigate. The literature that I accessed indicated that issues arising from the current culture of parenting in the UK are causing distress to families with young children, mothers in particular.

Much has changed since standard practice in caring for infants meant home-based care within the family, moving on to part-time attendance at nursery school following the third birthday. The literature contains a strong thread indicating that many contemporary mothers feel torn between parenting and paid work, experiencing an overwhelming guilt that they are failing in both roles due to lack of time and money (e.g., Vincent et al 2010; Hoffman 2013; Burman 2012; Hey and Bradford 2006). McRobbie (2013, p.128) reflected: ‘previous historical affiliations between social democracy and feminism which aimed to support women as mothers [have been] dismantled and discredited’.

The advent of social media and its role in the public demonisation of mothers who appear to ‘fail’ in some way (for example Kate McCann and Karen Matthews) emerged as another factor negatively affecting the well-being of mothers as a demographic group. Simplified moralistic messages carried by relentless public and social media feeds condition individuals to judge and condemn themselves and others, ‘creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it… in which all become ‘prisoners of experts [whose power is] everywhere and also inside us’ (Henderson et al 2010, p.236). This is a process that Michel Foucault (1979) first illustrated in his interpretation of concept of a ‘Panopticon’ in which prisoners are held in an area where they are aware that they are constantly under surveillance. In the contemporary ‘socially mediated’ world, however: ‘there are no guards and no prisoners in Facebook’s virtual Panopticon. We are both guards and prisoners, watching and implicitly judging one another’ (Rayner 2011, online). Leite (2010, p.10) proposed that, consequently ‘contemporary hegemonic discourses… intensify the external surveillance over parents’, a process that Smith (2010) claimed ultimately constitutes ‘soft totalitarianism’.

McRobbie (2009) alleged that liberal feminism has recently morphed into ‘a gendered dimension to the mantra of individualism, the market and competition’ (p.121). Such a process can be detected in the tabloid stereotypes of the ‘yummy’ (prosperous, well groomed, hard-working, successful) “mummy” and her antithesis, the ‘slummy’ (poor, shabby, work-shy, failing) “mummy” (Bradford 2013). McRobbie (2009) proposes that the setting up of such cultural icons has brought about a ‘mediated maternalism’ (p.120) in which prosperous middle class ‘yummy’ mummies are marshalled through a range of media to voice disapproval of the perceived lack of enterprise shown by socio-economically deprived, apparently shiftless ‘slummy’ mummies, the opprobrium heaped upon Karen Matthews being a high profile example of such a process. In Nelson (2017), Matthews strikes back at her tormentors, claiming that Kate McCann, who on the surface might appear to be a standard ‘yummy’ is in fact ‘a dreadful mother’ (Nelson 2017, online). Hoffman (2013, p.239) reflected ‘what is so ironic is that in the end the power struggles are… between parents themselves’, while McRobbie (2009) proposed that great damage is done to feminism through such a process.

I was consequently motivated to design an in-depth, qualitative research project to elicit the reflections of mothers and grandmothers upon mothering and grandmothering in contemporary British society, and to subsequently make a creative film using the resulting data. We are currently hoping to create a website that will showcase our findings and provide a resource for researchers and other mothers and grandmothers who wish to contribute their own ‘products’, and, in the future, become a historical resource.



Bradford (2013) Yummy, Slummy, WAGs And Suck-Ups… Which Mum Are You? The Huffington Post. Available at:

Burman, E. (2012) Deconstructing neoliberal childhood: Towards a feminist antipsychological approach. Childhood 2012 19, pp.423-430 DOI: 10.1177/0907568211430767

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Henderson, A., Harmon, S. and Houser, J. 2010. A new State of Surveillance? An Application of Michel Foucault to Modern Motherhood. Surveillance & Society 7(3/4): 231-247

Hey, V. and Bradford, S. (2006) Re-engineering motherhood? Sure Start in the community. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood vol 7, no.1, pp.68-79

Hoffman, D. (2013) Power Struggles: the paradoxes of emotion and control among child-centred mothers in privileged America. In Charlotte Faircloth, Diane Hoffman and Linda Layne, Parenting in Global Perspective. Abingdon, Routledge, pp.229-243.

Leite, M. (2013) (M)Othering: Feminist Motherhood, Neoliberal Discourses and the ‘Other’. Studies in the Maternal 5 (2). Available at: Accessed 14th April 2017.

McRobbie, A. (2013) Feminism, The Family And The New ‘Mediated’ Maternalism. New Formations 80 (80) pp.119-137.

Nelson, S. (2017) Karen Matthews Blasts Madeleine McCann’s Mother: ‘At Least Shannon Wasn’t Left Alone!’ The Huffington Post. Available at: Accessed on 19th May 2017.

Rayner, T. (2012). Foucault and social media: life in a virtual panopticon. Philosophy For Change Online Edition, available at:

Smith, R. (2010) Total Parenting. Educational Theory Volume 60, Issue 3, pp. 357–369

Vincent, C., Ball, S. and Brown, A. (2010) Between the Estate and the State: struggling to be a good mother. British Journal of Sociology of Education 31:2 pp.123-138