Representing Motherhood: Images of Mothers in Contemporary Young Adult Literature
The role of women in American society has changed tremendously during the last 50 years. Women started to enter the labour force and to free themselves from the restrictions of home. Starting to work outside their domestic realm, they became more independent and self-reliant. With the empowerment of women the role of mothers
started to change as well. No longer did mothers identify themselves only through their husbands and children but increasingly looked for possibilities to fulfill themselves outside the family and to take an active part in society. Expectations on mothers altered and with it the standard assumptions of motherhood were called into question and the vision of a new mother, a person who has her own needs, feelings and interests was emerging. Mothering was no longer regarded as women`s primary and sole mission but as one of many roles women could and did assume. Nevertheless, despite those changes the myth of the all-giving and self-devoting mother
did prevail and can even be found in American present-day society. Especially the media and advertisments still celebrate the ideal mother, whose only source of gratification is her family. Although the image of the mother as a mere child-rearer is out-of-date, those conventional forms of representation still exist and construct people`s understanding of motherhood.
Table of Contents
2. Shifting Concepts of Mother Roles
3. The Representation of Mothers in YAL
3.1. Paul Zindel: The Pigman (1968)
3.2. Cynthia Voigt: A Solitary Blue (1983)
3.3. Paula Danziger: The Divorce Express (1982)
3.4. Margeret P. Haddix: Don`t you dare read this, Mrs. Dunphrey (1996)
4. Images of Mothers in YAL and their Impact on Young Adult Readers
The role of women in American society has changed tremendously during the last 50 years. Women started to enter the labour force and to free themselves from the restrictions of home. Starting to work outside their domestic realm, they became more independent and self-reliant. With the empowerment of women the role of mothers started to change as well. No longer did mothers identify themselves only through their husbands and children but increasingly looked for possibilities to fulfill themselves outside the family and to take an active part in society. Expectations on mothers altered and with it the standard assumptions of motherhood were called into question and the vision of a new mother, a person who has her own needs, feelings and interests was emerging. Mothering was no longer regarded as women`s primary and sole mission but as one of many roles women could and did assume.
Nevertheless, despite those changes the myth of the all-giving and self-devoting mother did prevail and can even be found in American present-day society. Especially the media and advertisments still celebrate the ideal mother, whose only source of gratification is her family. Although the image of the mother as a mere child-rearer is out-of-date, those conventional forms of representation still exist and construct people`s understanding of motherhood.
The question dealt with in this paper is how young adult literature portrays the images of mothers and if and how it responded to the changes of mother roles and the shifting concepts of motherhood. It will be of interest to see if literature for young adults reflects present-day reality and what importance images of mothers in literature have for adolescent readers. Therefore, it is first of all necessary to examine the roles of mothers in American society and their development. Exploring the studys of sociologists and feminists, who dealt with the alterations of motherhood and the representation of mothers in modern culture, it will be striking to see how ideologies of mothering used to lock women into biological reproduction, denying them identities and selfhood outside motherhood and how women struggled to slipp off the role of natural and mere caretakers. Furthermore, it will be examined how the concept of family has changed and how that led to new ways of parenting. That is followed by a review of images of mothers in young adult literature and a close analysis of four books of contemporary young adult literature before a final conclusion will be drawn.
2. Shifting Concepts of Mother Roles
Before it is possible to examine the shifting concepts of mother roles, it is important to point out that motherhood is not only a biological but as well, and in this aspect even more important, a social phenomenon, thus underlying social changes. To provide a common starting point it is first of all necessary to define what motherhood means. At this point a lot of feminists and sociologists, like for example Rhoda J. Maxwell, distinguish between the act of giving birth, that means the biological aspect of motherhood, and the rearing of children, the sociological aspect of motherhood. They argue that while the first is biologically possible to all women, the latter lies in their personal choice. Thus they relate the term motherhood more to the upbringing and care of a child, than to the act of giving birth.
This definition stands in contrast to earlier interpretations, which pointed out that motherhood was determined by instinct rather than by personal or rational choice, implying that once a mother has given birth to a child, she will find all her fulfillment in the upbringing of her offspring. Those interpretations reduced the act of mothering to a biological circumstance.
The changing notion of motherhood comes along with a change in the roles of mothers. Until the 1940`s the position of a mother had been clearly restricted to the home, with the father being the only breadwinner. There was a strict patriarchal order and division of labour in the family, based on the prevailing conviction that mothers following their inevitable biological task, would find all their personal fulfillment and happiness in the rearing of the children. Thus the life and possibilities of women with children were limited to domestic labour, and child rearing was considered women`s primary responsibility.
Over the following years tremendous changes of what was considered a family unit as well as transformations in the work life and the arising feminists movement of the 1960`s caused mother roles to alter. Mothers were no longer isolated in the domestic arena but started to work increasingly outside the home. Concerning the developments in the work life, Maxwell states that “during the 40s and 50s, married women with schoolage children were the largest increase in the labor force for the entire fifty-year period.” The reasons why women started to seek occupations apart from housekeeping and child rearing were, according to Ann Dally, not only “economic or consumer pressures and the need to earn money” but the fact that “women`s horizions have widened”.
But although women became more and more employed outside the home, they did not have less to do in the house. Most of the housework still remained in the responsibility of the women. Maxwell cites Jessie Barnard who states that “[...] mothers usually remain the major caretaker of the families while they coninue their former responsibilities along with their new jobs”.
Nevertheless, the number of mothers in the work force continued to rise until in the early 1980s the majority of mothers was working outside their home.
With the entry of women and especially of mothers into the labour force, traditional conceptions of motherring started to crumble. Mothers, who had formerly been bound to their homes and who had devoted themselves exclusicely to mothering, finally started to take responsibilities outside the home and to become more independent. This personal development not only changed the roles of mothers in general but affected the inner structure of the family, especially the relationship and the roles of mother and father. Mothers started to take more responsibiliy in the family life, not leaving all the decisions to their husbands anymore. Therefore, the independence of mothers came along with changes in parenting. Maxwell describes women`s development as follows:
“Becoming independent does not mean separating oneself from husband
and children, but does mean becoming able to make thoughtful judgments,
to think critically, to achieve independence meant no longer being able
to blame others for their situations. [...] Allowing others, especially the
man in the family, to make the decisions for one is often easy and
As is pointed out here, mother`s roles changed from a once submissive wife, who used to depend on her husband`s decisions, to an independent person, who was now able to take responsibility as well as an active and equal part in the family.
As women started to gain more independence, they also started to marry later or they did not marry at all. In addition, the numer of divorces rose, creating many single heads of households, and the birthrate began to sink. The traditional patriarchal family was no longer the predominant family model but a variety of different family units emerged. Thus the term “family” changed and is nowadays no longer appropriate to the traditional family only, consisting of a mother, a father and one or two children, but refers to all kind of families. Maxwell cites Jean Belovich, who lists twelve different family structures:
“There is the traditional family, where Mom stays home and Dad
goes to work; the Dad-stays-at-home-and Mom-works family;
the both-spouses-work family; the single-parent family; the
remarried family; the homosexual family; the unwed-teenager-with-
child family; the non marital family; the foster care family; the
inter religious family; the interracial family; and the
This extension of the term “family” implies that there is not only one concept of mother role anymore but that due to political, cultural and most of all social developments a variety of mother roles emerged, depending on the kind of family. Thus, it is impossible to speak of a fixed concept of a motherhood, since nowadays mothers find themselves in multiple roles. What becomes more and more important in the life of mothers is to fulfill their own needs and to reach their full potential. Thus, the greatest demand on them is to reconcile their own needs with those of their family, a task which is anything else but easy. Trying to describe the situation of mothers in today`s society, Rhoda J. Maxwell refers to the studies of sociologists, who examined the developments and changes in the roles of mothers.
“Sociologists have described the present-day mother as being in a
time of transition. There are more options available to women now
than there were twenty, even ten, years ago. What is important for
women to have is choice.“
Thus, we come back to the beginning where it is said that motherhood is not only a biological phenomenon but moreover a social one, thus underlying omnipresent change.
As pointed out, since the 1960s a lot of social as well as political changes have occured, helping women to enter the labour force and to get a better understanding of their position in society. Women took more responsibility inside and outside the home and independence became essential so that nowadays mothers seem to have much more self-worth and competence.
3. The Representation of Mothers in Young Adult Literature
The former chapter described the changes and developments of the roles of mother`s in American present-day society. The question dealt with in this chapter is if and how these changes are reflected in contemporary young adult literature.
Going back to the 1950s the predominant image presented was that of a self-sacrificing, loving mother, who is submissive to her husband. Usually those mothers were housewifes, depending on their husbands decisions and not taking much responsibility in or outside the home.
In the book “Representations of Motherhood”, edited by Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, it is said that:
“[...] the predominant picture of the mother in white western society
is of the ever-bountiful, ever-giving, self-sacrificing mother. [...], this
mother is not a subject with her own needs and interests. This
image resonates with a mother who lovingly anticipates and
meets the child`s every need.”
 Glenn, Evelyn Nakano; Chang Grace; Forcey, Linda Rennie. Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency. New York and London: Routledge, 1994, p. 9.
 Maxwell, Rhoda J. Images of Mothers in Literature for Young Adults. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1994, 3.
 Maxwell 15.
 Dally, Ann. Inventing Motherhood: The Consequences of an Ideal. London: Burnett Books, 1982, 294.
 Maxwell 14.
 Maxwell 9.
 Maxwell 2.
 Maxwell 18.
 Bassin, Donna; Honey Margaret; Kaplan, Meryle Mahrer, Representations of Motherhood (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 2.