New research by Dr Carla Pascoe Leahy has provided the first overarching history of mothering in Australia. Drawing on over 60 interviews with a diverse group of Australian mothers, the research explored the ways in which the experience of becoming a mother has changed since the mid-twentieth century.
Dr Pascoe Leahy is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, and a lecturer in Family History at the University of Tasmania. Her research will be documented in a forthcoming book.
She delivered the 2021 Reese Lecture for the ANU. Watch online to hear extracts from interviews with mothers and Dr Pascoe Leahy’s analysis:
Conducting the research
Dr Pascoe Leahy is an oral historian and her work on this subject is based on 60 wide-ranging interviews with a diverse cross-section of Australian mothers. The semi-structured interviews asked the women to describe the emotions and experience of becoming a new mother and considered the changing cultural attitudes towards motherhood, in the context of changing psychological theories of maternal subjectivity.
The interviews explored two main questions of profound social importance: what happens to a woman when she becomes a mother, and has this transition become more challenging over the past 75 years? Notably, Dr Pascoe Leahy delivered this ambitious project over six years which also involved mothering her own children.
Dr Leahy proposes that there is a dissonance between the lived experience of motherhood and the way contemporary Australian culture frames it as problematic, burdensome and hard.
“The approach probably serves to highlight the inadequacy of support for mothers in our society,” she says, “but taken collectively creates an impoverished view of women’s experience of motherhood. Mothers themselves often describe motherhood as transformative – a metamorphosis in which they emerge changed and enriched.”
However she says there are challenges to their identities that contemporary mothers are more willing to articulate than those who entered motherhood in the middle of last century.
Dr Pascoe Leahy draws upon the anthropological concept of matrescence to describe this change in a woman’s identity – the birth of the mother – : a rite of passage that generates shifts in women’s social position, relationships, and many other aspects of her life.
Motherhood then and now
The project explored motherhood in three contexts: postwar mothers (1945 to 1969), second wave mothers (1970s and 80s who came to mother during around the time of the feminist movement and women’s liberation) and millennial mothers (who had babies around the transition from 20th to 21st centuries.)
Based on analysis of the histories taken from Australian mothers Dr Pascoe Leahy concluded that key differences in motherhood over time show a rise in reported perinatal depression (although a rise in expressive culture and popularisation of psychology as well as the de-stigmatisation of mental illness means people are more likely to reflect on and feel comfortable expressing their concerns).
She says it is likely that in the post-war context of prosperity and the young age of mothers, matrescence was felt as less of an identify shift and less of a ‘choice’ than is felt by contemporary mothers
She also says it may never be possible to describe the experience of motherhood and says that many women are not and possibly cannot be not prepared for the overwhelm many experience upon becoming mothers.
“Perhaps it’s an experience that defies human language,” she suggests.
But she says despite this difficulty about describing matrescence, “we should at least try”.
“The stakes are high, and to stay silent may be dangerous and lead to increased and unnecessary pain and anxiety.
“While the research indicates the need for more social as well as practical support for mothers, we can do better to prepare emerging mothers for the profound shift that lies before them.”
- C. Pascoe Leahy, ‘The maternal metamorphosis: Becoming a mother in Australia 1945-2020’, 2021 Reese Memorial Lecture, co-hosted by King’s College London and Australian National University.
- Maternal metamorphosis: how mothering has changed in Australia since the second world war - The Conversation
- C. Pascoe Leahy, Petra Bueskens, Australian Mothering: Historical and Sociological Perspectives, Palgrave Macmillan 2019.
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First published on 26 July 2022.
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