Sunday, June 12, 2005

Mothering ideology, individualism, and mothers in prison

"I want to hug my kids, tell them good morning or tell them good night, that I love them. My pain is my boys, that's my pain, not being with my boys." - Gail, mother of two

"I'm gonna miss being a mom, I wanted to be a mom, I wanted to be there. I want to see my first grandchild, and I want to watch my daughters grow up, go to school..." - Mary, mother of four

The high standard to which mothers are held exists outside the material reality of our lives

Because mothers are widely believed to play a critical role in the organization of social life, everyone has a stake in how motherhood is defined and evaluated. The American ideology of motherhood is a set of interlocking ideas about what it means to be a mother and to perform mothering. Among these are notions of ideal mothering attitudes and practices, including limitless empathy, complete immersion in the care of children and needy others, and subordination of the mother's own needs and desires to those of others. When we become mothers, we are held (often solely) responsible for the development of our children into healthy, competent, moral citizens and productive workers. When our children do not themselves become ideal members of society, it is assumed that we mothers have failed to live up to our natural responsibilities. Mothers are blamed for everything, from criminal behavior, to mental illness, to father-daughter abuse and incest.

The ideology of motherhood is hegemonic. In other words, those who receive it take it for granted; they understand it as the way things are or should be. The ideal mother is something that women are supposed to naturally become, yet her mothering practices are defined outside the social and material conditions of women's lives. The kind of mother we think we are supposed to be is entirely irrelevant and indifferent to the real world we inhabit. The ideal mother is an arbitrary and oppressive social construction, and its violence is most evident on the bodies and lives of women of color and poor women, and their children.

Individualism creates material conditions that are hostile to good mothering, let alone ideal mothering

Motherhood is but one ideological form among others that work together to shape the context of American women's mothering. The cult of American individualism paradoxically results in social and material conditions that prevent mothering, while at the same time reinforcing the ideology of motherhood. For example, individualism has given rise to the "war on crime" in the past two decades, which has redirected the public discourse away from the correlation between crime rates and social problems like poverty (and the institutions and social policies that cause poverty), and has placed the phenomenon of crime squarely and solely on the shoulders of individuals, leading to a meteoric rise in incarceration rates. This is especially true for women, whose numbers in prison have increased 6.3 times since 1980 (Bureau of Justice, 2002).

Poor women and women of color, and their children are most vulnerable

Poor people are much more likely to go to prison than anyone else, and women are more likely to be poor than men. U.S. public policies, contorted by the interdependent ideologies of individualism and motherhood, perpetuate women's poverty by expecting them to bear most of the costs of child care and social reproduction, and to do so with diminished access to higher education; jobs that pay a living wage; quality daycare; health care; and safe, affordable housing, thanks most recently to so-called welfare reform. Under strict surveillance to successfully meet these hopelessly contradictory ideological expectations, poor women are sanctioned for their failure to become both self-made men and selfless mothers, thus continuing their impoverishment and increasing their risk of incarceration.

Criminal justice brings torturous ideological contradictions into clarity

Women's status as mothers upon whom others are dependent is held irrelevant at almost all stages of the criminal justice process, from arrest to judgment and sentencing to incarceration. This is especially true for women of color, who are more likely to be arrested and indicted than white women, to receive longer sentences than whites, and to serve longer before being paroled. Incarcerated women are physically removed from their children while at the same time, little policy or programming is offered to enable them to care for their vulnerable children left behind. When children of incarcerated women exhibit troublesome behaviors, the most likely causes of their problems -- the collective traumas of a history of poverty, parental substance abuse and mental illness, and family violence and instability; disrupted caregiving; exposure to danger as a result of not having a parent there to protect them; and separation from their primary caregivers -- are not considered. Rather, it is deemed the sole failure of incarcerated women themselves to be good mothers. There is an assumption among practitioners, academics, public policy-makers and in the larger society that incarcerated mothers are simply incompetent to provide adequately for their children. However, in several studies incarcerated women have been found to exhibit appropriate maternal attitudes and behaviors, similar to their non-criminal counterparts.

I did my dissertation research in a women's penitentiary in Texas. Because women comprise a relatively small portion of the total prison population, there are only a few women's prisons in the state. Given that Texas is so large, and that prisons ordinarily are located away from major population centers, it was not uncommon for prisoners to reside four or more hours' drive from their families. For families in poverty--and this was the case for almost every inmate I ever met--these women may have lived on the moon. Many women inmates had never received a visit from their children while in prison; some saw their children once a year. In Texas, prison inmates typically are not allowed to use the telephone so women's only opportunity to communicate with their kids was through the mail. Most inmates are school dropouts, and the average educational achievement level is about 8 - meaning that on average, inmates test as if they have an 8th grade education. Twenty-eight percent are reading below 6th grade level. Their ability to build a meaningful connection with their children by exchanging letters is limited not only by their children's literacy levels, but also their own.

These ideological contradictions are as good as violent attacks on women

In the U.S., we expect mothers to have limitless capacity to care for their children while withholding the material means for them to provide even minimal care. This has grave effects for mothers and children in poverty, especially those who commit crimes and become acquainted with criminal justice. Incarceration brings the problem into stark relief, by simultaneously placing the full responsibility for childrens' upbringing on their mothers, while preventing those mothers from interacting with their children on any kind of regular basis.

The correspondences and contradictions of the ideologies of individualism and motherhood conspire to bring about the separation of mothers in poverty from their children (and the traumas associated with it) while providing rationale for this separation. Only in the realm of ideas do perpetual motion machines exist, to carry out the work of preserving social immobility. This immobility is torture, plain and simple, not only for the women who are separated from their children by time and space, but also for the 1.5 million children in the U.S. who have a parent in prison.

"I didn't get no time with her at all. It was, it was like a void. It was like a gap there, an emptiness." - Grace, who gave birth to her daughter in prison

Some further reading.


Blogger Boudicca said...

Comment cross-posted from BMT

This is a subject close to my heart. For the last 4 years I have been going into a women's prison to run group work with juveniles and young offenders (that is under 18s and 18-21s).

I can only say what it is like here, in England.
There have been a number of reports showing that prison is not the best solution for most women offenders: they have a different mindset to male offenders and have usually offended for different reasons; yet the number of women in prison is climbing rapidly. They also, as you point out, get punished twice - by the loss of their children as well as by the sentence. Here, over 60% of women prisoners have small children and at any one time there will be 1,000 women prisoners who are pregnant.

I don't know if you have mother and baby units there, but we do here. The existence of mother and baby units is often used by judges as in 'you needn't think I will be soft on you because you are pregnant - there are mother and baby units'. Yet there are only 84 mother and baby spaces(that is individual places) in the whole country. Whether a woman gets a place is largely a lottery, depending on how many other women are giving birth at the time. The granting of places also depends on a woman's offence.

Of the girls I work with, around 20% will be pregnant at any time and a substantial further number will have babies 'outside'. These kids break my heart on a regular basis, but the hardest thing I saw was a girl due to be induced on the saturday of that week: the next Tuesday (i.e. third day after giving birth), I was in again and she walked into the group having just been brought back to the wing. All she had was a polaroid photo of her son and he had been taken out to foster care. As a woman and mother my breasts physically ached in sympathy with her.

The vast majority of women and girls in prison are victims in some way:
>Over half of women in prison report that they have suffered domestic violence and one in three has experienced sexual abuse.
>One in four women in prison have spent time in local authority care as a child.
>Nearly 40 per cent of women in prison leave school before the age of 16 years, almost one in ten were aged 13 or younger.
>Two thirds of women in prison show symptoms of at least one neurotic disorder such as depression, anxiety and phobias. More than half are suffering from a personality disorder. Among the general population less than a fifth of women suffer from these disorders.
> Out of all the women who are sent to prison forty per cent say they have attempted suicide at some time in their life.

I can honestly say that in all the time I have been working with them (running groups twice a week for 4 years), I only ever met 3 girls who were from 'good' homes.

Because most of the women offenders come from poor backgrounds and have low educational achievement they are much more likely to have babies early and 12% of the juveniles in custody are pregnant. Many have had babies at 14/15/16 who are left with relatives or in care when the girls are convicted.

Just about every authority agrees that custodial sentencing is not appropriate for most female offenders yet the numbers of women in custody has trebled in ten years - with the resultant break up of families and damage to children. Around one-third of women prisoners lose their homes, and often their possessions, whilst in prison.

My own view is that it is a terrible waste - a waste of lives and a waste of opportunity to do something about the cycle of poverty/abuse/drugs. If the government were really as forward looking as Blair tries to pretend, use could be made of a woman's time within the criminal justice system to give parenting support, family support and a real chance to break into hopeless lives.

Sexism rears its ugly head here too: girls, especially pretty young girls, are much more likely to get heavier sentences that boys. Societal attitudes are that 'lads will be lads' but girls should be 'nice'. A girl that steps out of that expectation is likely to be punished more for who she is than for the crime she has committed. Around half the girls I have worked with have never had a community sentence nor probation - its custodial for first offences. I could tell some heart breaking stories that would make you weep and rage - but I won't because of the confidentiality and respect I have with them. To give you an idea though, of what these girls are like - just a small example: I was working with a group on self-esteem and self-respect and one of them (17 yo) said "I got self-respect; whenever a bloke hits me I never stay on the floor - I always gets up and faces them"

Please don't think I am a fluffy bleeding-heart do-gooder: I work for a charity, but don't think these girls are helped by sympathy alone. Some of them are very tough indeed, and I have to be very clear about boundaries and about the behaviour I expect. However, I can honestly say I have never met a girl in there I couldn't see some good in, I treat them with respect and they bloom. Many of them have never, in their whole short lives, had someone think them of value.

4:27 PM  
Blogger TeresaInPa said...


This is a subject I am very interested in. At one time I had thought I would get into prison ministries. (I know I know, religion is bad and all that) But I found that prisons and jails in this area are cutting off access to prisoners with the idea that they are there to be punished not comforted or entertained.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Tomato said...

boudicca, women inmates have similar backgrounds of mental illness, drug abuse, domestic violence, previous institutionalization, etc. here in the U.S. Most significant to me for some reason, is the utter poverty from which most women came. I mean, poverty like a middle class American would not imagine. No running water, broken down mobile home, isolated rural areas, or broken down inner city projects. Their real lives were very different from what we might fantasize. For example, the "welfare queen" is a cartoon-like racist, sexist fantasy. African American women I spoke with did not live in conditions of leisure. The women I spoke with were subject to abuse as children and then as adults, worked at jobs that did not pay a living wage, and then succumbed to drugs. The power of drug addiction is incredible! People talk as if you can just walk away from them, but the women I met simply could not. There was no way they chose the lives they had, being in a violent degrading prison while their children were being damaged by foster care or unhealthy extended family situations.

boudicca, I admire you for continuing. I ran a group discussion for a year with women (adults), and conducted other research around that time adding up to a total of 18 months visiting the prison. Frankly, I felt traumatized by the experience, and although I completed the dissertation, it was very difficult to write about the experience since that time, and impossible to return. I am hoping to write some on this blog and hopefully continue to form my thinking around this subject.

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