Purdue News

May 11, 2006

Women nurture ideas of what makes a 'good working mother'

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Women who work outside the home often use different terms than their stay-at-home counterparts in defining themselves as good mothers, says a Purdue University communication and gender expert.

Patrice Buzzanell, a professor of communication, says middle-class women who choose to work outside the home often use criteria such as their skill at finding quality childcare and making daily arrangements for their children as ways to measure their motherly abilities.

"Mothers are traditionally thought of as nurturers and are expected to stay home to care for their young children," says Buzzanell, who has six children of her own, ages 12-26. "But many women choose to continue working on their careers full time, and others are the sole breadwinners, or they need to supplement the family income."

To compensate, Buzzanell says these women are creating an alternate definition of motherhood that may be creating a rift between them and mothers who stay at home.

"In an effort to construct the image that pursuing a career outside of the home is worthwhile, it seems as though these women focus on the differences of the working mother and the stay-at-home mother," Buzzanell says. "Even if they don't say it explicitly, they are implying 'Look at me, I am doing this so much better because I have the best of both worlds.'

"There are multiple ways of being a good mother, and how one mothers or says she is a good mother should not be at the expense of other women who are also doing their best at mothering. Women need to locate some common ground rather than emphasizing differences."

Buzzanell, who specializes in feminist theory and gender issues in the workplace, has studied the issue of working mothers since the 1990s, when she realized there is little public or academic information on what defines a good working mother. Her most recent article, "The Good Working Mother: Managerial Women's Sensemaking and Feelings About Work-Family Issues," was published in the September 2005 Communication Studies journal. In this research, she and her graduate students analyzed in-depth interviews with 11 women in managerial positions about issues relating to their ideas about good working mothers, maternity leave and pregnancy.

"There is so much out there about what a good mother is or is not, as in the case of fairy tales about evil stepmothers," Buzzanell says. "And there is relatively little about how women explain and define what makes a good working mother."

Buzzanell says the important thing for all mothers is to find fulfillment, no matter what they do and to respect the decisions that others make.

"We need to watch our language because how we say things can set up divisions between mothers," she says.

For example, using the term "working mother" can imply that stay-at-home moms are not working. Buzzanell suggests that the "working mothers" should include all mothers in order to emphasize how hard all women work.

"Motherhood is already difficult today because the expectations are so high for everything," Buzzanell says. "Women can drive themselves crazy with making sure their children have the right set of language skills before going to preschool, are able to develop a talent or even be set up for lifelong employment.

"There is so much focus on making sure you get things right. How can any woman relax and enjoy her children?"

Buzzanell and her graduate students are now looking at how men define what makes a good father in the context of work-family issues and concerns. In her mothering research, Buzzanell found that women did not talk about how they included or could have included the father in decision-making about such issues in childcare.

"We did not specifically ask women in our study about the role men play, but it is curious that they did not talk about it," she says.

Buzzanell's research is supported by Purdue's Department of Communication.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Patrice Buzzanell, (765) 494-2429, pbuzzanell@cla.purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


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