Motherload: Making It All Better in Insecure Times

Motherload: Making It All Better in Insecure Times

by Ana Villalobos

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In a time of economic anxiety, fear of terrorism, and marital uncertainty, insecurity has become a big part of life for many American mothers. With bases of security far from guaranteed, mothers are often seeking something they can count on. In this beautifully written and accessible book, Ana Villalobos shows how mothers frequently rely on the one thing that seems… See more details below


In a time of economic anxiety, fear of terrorism, and marital uncertainty, insecurity has become a big part of life for many American mothers. With bases of security far from guaranteed, mothers are often seeking something they can count on. In this beautifully written and accessible book, Ana Villalobos shows how mothers frequently rely on the one thing that seems sure to them: the mother-child relationship. Based on over one hundred interviews with and observations of mothers—single or married, but all experiencing varying forms of insecurity in their lives—Villalobos finds that mothers overwhelmingly expect the mothering relationship to "make it all better" for themselves and their children.

But there is a price to pay for loading this single relationship with such high expectations. Using detailed case studies, Villalobos shows how women's Herculean attempts to create various kinds of security through mothering often backfire, thereby exhausting mothers, deflecting their focus from other possible sources of security, and creating more stress. That stress is further exacerbated by dominant ideals about "good" mothering—ideals that are fraught with societal pressures and expectations that reach well beyond what mothers can actually do for their children. Pointing to hopeful alternatives, Villalobos shows how more realistic expectations about motherhood lead remarkably to greater security in families by prompting mothers to cast broader security nets, making conditions less stressful and—just as significantly—bringing greater joy in mothering.

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Making It All Better In Insecure Times

By Ana Villalobos


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95972-9



Like so many Americans, Myra Rossi is feeling insecure. Unable to find a suitable job for a year, she has been living off her savings, which are now nearly gone. She worries a lot—about drive-by shootings, nuclear terrorism, and road rage. She thinks it is only a matter of time before the planet will become uninhabitable due to global warming. She doubts she and her boyfriend will make it as a couple. Myra has just had a baby.

With five-pound Giovanna now wriggling in her arms, where does all that insecurity go? Myra has heard again and again—from experts, from friends, and from her own stay-at-home mother—that a baby's security ultimately depends on its early relationship with its mother. She is now that mother, wondering how to fulfill her maternal job description given this is the world her child has been born into. If she struggles to "make it all better" and turn the tide of turbulent social forces for this one particular child, a quiet question may go unheard under the gale: What if trying too hard, with such high expectations that the mother-child relationship can indeed make it all better, brings its own set of consequences? Or spoken louder: What if placing a whole society's worth of security needs onto the shoulders of individual mothers backfires and ultimately undermines security?

Meanwhile, this moment, she is this baby's mother and needs to figure out how to proceed. Rather than fight the world on multiple security fronts, Myra engages in a simple yet creative act. She pulls out a Lysol wipe to sanitize the counters. It makes her feel a little bit better. She carefully places a clean paper towel under Giovanna's pacifier. She is protecting her daughter. Though Giovanna has never had any health problems, Myra finds her thoughts drawn to all that could go wrong medically, fixating on one particular illness after another, which she calls the problem du jour. Myra's growing obsession with simply keeping Giovanna alive becomes so all-consuming that it appears to absorb her previous economic, social, and environmental insecurities. Perhaps she fixates on this one issue because it seems fairly manageable, given Giovanna's good health so far. In any case, as she engages in all-out warfare against her enemy, the germ, she finds herself worrying less about the other things that once seemed so threatening.

Unfortunately, some of those problems are made worse by being ignored. Myra stops worrying about paid work and all but ceases her job search, thus launching herself into a multiyear period of unemployment. She stops worrying about her boyfriend, and three years later, at the time of my final check-in with her, the relationship's long-term prospects remain dubious. She has solved the insecurity puzzle through a laser focus on her baby's health—providing a psychic solution to unmanageable demands—but it exacerbates the real insecurities in her life.

Heather Dover sobs the moment I show up at her door. She is underemployed and living with her two young children and life partner in a subsidized apartment complex that is about to be closed down. Yet that's not what Heather is crying about. She's crying because motherhood has worn her down. Her Herculean efforts to create a sense of safety for her children, to give herself to them day and night as a living security blanket, have left her drained. Heather held her children nearly continuously during their infancies, has slept with them every night since birth, breast-fed each of them for three years, and always tries to "follow their lead," as she puts it, playing whatever they are interested in even when it becomes mind-numbingly tedious.

Like Myra, Heather is using a security strategy—a set of mothering practices intended to create security, or at least a sense of security, forone's children or oneself. While Myra focuses on physical security—germs, health, and safety—Heather focuses on emotional security and hopes that lavishing love and comfort on her children will give them a secure inner core no matter what ultimately befalls them. But Heather's security strategy, like Myra's, comes at a cost. For her, motherhood feels like a supreme sacrifice. As she denies her own needs, she finds herself battling feelings of resentment and even rage. "It's just so hard sometimes," she tells me, once her crying has calmed enough for her to speak. "I feel like I'm carrying this whole thing and I'm just fried." As this book will show, it is not Heather's mothering practices, per se, but her single-minded intensity regarding the security she believes those practices will bring about that can undo the good she is trying so hard to do.

Stepping back from these individual mothers and taking a long-distance view, we see women's use of security strategies in their mothering is an entirely reasonable response to the current social situation. Within the context of an unpredictable economy, uncertainty about marriage, and fraying government safety nets, the last refuge of security upon which society at large projects almost mythical powers to make it all better is the mother-child relationship. Not that the mothering relationship typically is a source of ultimate security, but due to a lack of alternatives, we hold out hopes that it will be. Because of this, many mothers today try to shoulder almost impossible burdens. They want so badly to do what is necessary to keep their families safe, but they do not know how to change the economy or to make marriage into a reliably soul-nurturing institution, so they do what they think they can do for their families. They can focus their protective energies on insecurity in the emotional realm, like Heather, or on germs, like Myra, and make those the battleground issues upon which the struggle for security is fought. If they can at least right those wrongs, they can feel they are fulfilling their maternal responsibilities and standing between their families and the surrounding perils.

The unfortunate finding of this research, however, and what Motherload will repeatedly show, is that heaping mothers with unrealistic security expectations causes them to engage in struggles that actually cause security repercussions within the family. The fierceness of a woman's efforts, the vastness of her skills, or her willingness to shoulder such burdens aside, a one-relationship solution to society-sized insecurities simply doesn't work. Furthermore, the contortions required for this type of individualistic solution put great strains upon families that set in motion a cascade of ill-effects. This research documents those ill-effects, born of our hopes for redemptive security projected onto the mother-child relationship, and also documents the much greater ease in families that manage against the odds to take alternative approaches, such as more evenly distributing the responsibility for security among a greater number of players than just the mother.


Motherload is based on 168 interviews with fifty-one mothers in the United States, thirty-four of whom partook in a longitudinal study during the first three years of their children's lives, beginning in late pregnancy. To capture some of the diversity in American mothers, I interviewed women of various races and ethnicities, wealthy and poor, married and unmarried, lesbian and heterosexual, native-born and immigrant, and who ranged in age from teens to women in their forties. For a full listing of the study participants and a discussion of the research methodology, see appendices A and B.

When I began this research, I intended to examine the effects of various social forces on how women juggle independence and connection in their roles as mothers. I wasn't focusing on security, but the women I interviewed certainly were. In discussing why they chose to mother in the particular ways they did, security came up with such resounding frequency that I simply could not ignore it. For example, mothers such as Heather Dover—who keep their children close, hold them frequently, and attend to their every whimper—typically do so for the sake of security. Likewise, mothers who seem to have just the opposite in mind—who purposefully let their children cry it out in separate rooms, do not gate the stairs, or handle children roughly to toughen them up—also explain these choices as necessary measures for survival in today's challenging world—in other words, as security.

Framing their mothering as a security project makes sense when we recognize these twenty-first-century women almost universally discuss rampant insecurity in the world or in their own lives. They have financial worries or see the United States as economically insecure and are concerned for their children's place in it. They see how undependable relationships can be, both their own and those they anticipate for their children. They are concerned about crime, sickness, and accidents. And as mothers, they often feel a level of personal responsibility to remedy all of this for their children. Even before their children are born, many mothers have a how-to in mind—how they hope their particular manner of mothering will, indeed, create some measure of security.

Common as the expressed concern with security is in contemporary mothering, however, there is great variety in what women actually mean by the word. Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines "security" both as "freedom from danger: safety"—which is an objective experience—and as "freedom from fear or anxiety"—a subjective experience. Mothers, too, speak of both objective and subjective experiences of security. They talk about security as protection from accidents, child abduction, or germs. They talk about it as solid paychecks serving as an insurance against men who might abandon them. They talk about it as a feeling of emotional safety with dearly loved ones. They talk about the sense of security when something can be counted on to remain in their lives forever and not just as a matter of whim.

Through these discussions, I came to understand that security does not have a fixed, commonly agreed-upon meaning, but rather it is an umbrella concept, similar to "God" or "love." Such concepts are so foundational that almost all people use them to explain their actions and motives, despite having vastly different meanings to different people. All of those widely varying meanings converge and become concentrated in a single potent container symbol—the word—the usage of which is culturally mandated and the substance of which powerfully influences people's choices and how they interpret their lives. As rhetorical theorist Michael McGee argues, human beings are conditioned "not directly to belief and behavior, but to a vocabulary of concepts that function as guides, warrants, reasons, or excuses for behavior and belief." Security has certainly become such a concept in American society today.

It is worth notice and study that security has become a must-invoke concept in the vocabularies of mothers of young children—during the so-called critical years of children's development. But equally worth notice and study is the fact that most of these women see the mother-child relationship not merely as one means through which security (however defined) can be brought to their families but as the primary means. This assumption brings its own set of consequences for families.

While psychologists have been focusing for decades on attachment and emotional security in the mother-child relationship, sociologists have largely failed to delve into their own dimensions of security as they relate to this first and arguably most important social relationship that humans experience. This is a great oversight in the twenty-first-century United States. National security issues, terrorism, economic volatility, job insecurity, psychotherapeutic framings pinning insecurity to early childhood experiences, divorce anxiety, and worries about health and safety all loom large in the national consciousness, yet we know little about the effect of these widely shared forms of insecurity on how parents bring up their children, particularly on how parents attempt to make themselves and their children feel more secure. This book addresses that issue. It shows how mothers manage the threats they see all around them—threats once collectively managed but now frequently viewed as within the purview of individual families—by using a variety of highly patterned security strategies in their mothering. As our collective burdens fall upon mothers and compel them to utilize such strategies, it is an extreme disservice to then dismiss their behavior as "mommy madness" or to fail to recognize the load they are shouldering and the reasonableness of the quest for security underlying their actions.

This research shows how incredibly common it is for mothers within the current social climate to try to carry enormous weight. It also shows how displacing economic, physical, social, and existential fears onto the project of child rearing generally does not make it all better. In fact, despite women's best efforts, it often does just the opposite.


There is broad consensus that mothering has intensified during the last four or five decades. Although women's paid work hours have also increased during precisely the same decades, mothers paradoxically spend more time with their children now than they did in 1965. Working mothers today (whose numbers have dramatically increased since the 1960s and who now make up the vast majority of American mothers) spend a higher proportion of that time actively engaged with their children than their stay-at-home counterparts in the past or present. The subjective difficulty of mothering has increased since a generation ago. And both the financial outlay on behalf of children and the emotional absorption in those children are at levels that may be unprecedented in human history. The strength of these trends has stimulated a flood of research and commentary, bringing to light what has been alternately called the "ideology of intensive mothering," "parenting out of control," "hyper-parenting," the ethic of "total motherhood," and "mommy madness."

To date, the most convincing arguments regarding the causes of this sort of extreme mothering are found in the research on class differences. Social class—an amalgam of financial, social, and cultural resources including one's educational background, income, and wealth—has clear ties to security. Those with greater resources can better protect themselves from various social and economic dangers. Yet despite that, the "haves" of our society are anything but relaxed about their social position, and the effects of social class on parenting reveal an unexpected pattern. In fact, the most well-established contributor to mothering intensity is economic anxiety—among the privileged. Well-off parents fear that their children may lose their class status without the boost of intense parental involvement, and sociologist Annette Lareau shows how these parents therefore frequently take a managerial approach to motherhood: hiring tutors, scheduling enrichment activities, and pouring ever greater resources into their progeny to increase the likelihood they will succeed. Likewise, sociologist Margaret Nelson documents how a fear of downward mobility can drive professional parents into "out of control" child surveillance and micromanagement. Both Lareau and Nelson thus offer explanations of why parents on the upper end of the social-class spectrum, with everything to lose, engage in such high-intensity practices.

Sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas show how, at the other end of the class spectrum, poor single women with nothing to lose have everything to gain from motherhood and thus frequently seek their own emotional security, life grounding, and even salvation in their relationships with their children. These women, like their middle-class sisters, dream of good jobs and stably employed partners, but for them, that dream is unreachable. Well-paying and meaningful career options are not available in their neighborhoods, particularly to people with their educational backgrounds, and their social networks do not offer them solid prospective partners. With dependable work and partnership foreclosed as avenues to security, they take the route that remains: having a baby and centering their lives on motherhood.


Excerpted from Motherload by Ana Villalobos. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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