Reconceiving Women: Separating Motherhood from Female Identity

Reconceiving Women: Separating Motherhood from Female Identity

by Mardy S. Ireland

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According to recent surveys, approximately 40% of American women between the ages of 18 and 44 do not have children. Yet these women are virtually missing from accounts of women's lives. In this important new work, Mardy Ireland defines a place for women outside the parameters of motherhood and gives voice to the significant number of women who are not mothers.… See more details below


According to recent surveys, approximately 40% of American women between the ages of 18 and 44 do not have children. Yet these women are virtually missing from accounts of women's lives. In this important new work, Mardy Ireland defines a place for women outside the parameters of motherhood and gives voice to the significant number of women who are not mothers. She draws extensively from interviews with over 100 childless women from various ethnic and educational backgrounds, demonstrating the myriad ways they came to view themselves as complete adults without recourse to the traditional defining criteria of motherhood. Her work offers all women--mothers and nonmothers alike--a vision of self-defined adulthood and a recognition that every woman is the subject of her own life.

Challenging the assumption of deprivation or deviance that is traditionally applied to childless women in psychological theory and popular culture, Dr. Ireland reframes childlessness as a concept and lays a groundwork for an expanded view of women's identity and psychic development. Using contemporary psychoanalytic theory, she reexamines female identity development and presents a positive interpretation of women who--for whatever reason--are not mothers.

To contrast and compare the experiences of her interview subjects, she places them within the changing psychosocial context of the last few decades and categorizes them according to their reasons for childlessness. Included are: 'traditional' women, who are childless by reasons of infertility or health complications; 'transitional' women, who are not mothers because of delaying circumstances; and 'transformative' women, who have actively chosen not to bear children in order to develop lives beyond the field of motherhood. The legend of Lilith, a creation story of the first woman, described in the last chapter, places both female desire and female power in a longstanding historical and mythic context.

Animated by excerpts, quotes, and stories from the many interviews, RECONCEIVING WOMEN: SEPARATING MOTHERHOOD FROM FEMALE IDENTITY is illuminating for general readers and professionals alike. It provides valuable insights for anyone interested in women's studies and the psychology of women, and serves as an excellent textbook for courses in these fields.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Finally, a book about women who are not mothers--normal women who by choice or happenstance remain childless. If you want to understand who these women are, what they think and feel, how deeply the ideology of motherhood has infected our thinking about women and femininity, read Mardy Ireland's insightful and sensitive analysis of women who, even today, remain an anomaly, seen as less than 'woman' simply because they are not mothers." --Lillian Rubin, Ph.D., author of Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family and Intimate Strangers: Men and Women Together

"Dr. Ireland has written an outstanding, pathbreaking book that gives a long-absent and much-needed voice and place to the 'other' women in our culture. By sharing the stories of childless women she has interviewed, Dr. Ireland holds up a mirror in which the diverse group of women who are not mothers can finally see their reflection. Beyond this significant contribution, she artfully considers their stories in the context of clearly presented psychoanalytic theory and feminist thought. In an evenhanded manner she broadens our conception of female identity, until now too-narrowly defined by our culture, apart from the social and psychic reality of women. By reconceiving women so that the concrete fact of childlessness is not the same as its meaning in the context of women's lives, Ireland succeeds in separating motherhood from female identity. In the psychological space she creates, she transforms the loss or absence of children into the presence of new potential. Dr. Ireland thus gives all contemporary women psychological room and permission to find new metaphors for female identity and innovative pathways for their intrinsic creative and generative energy." --Sue N. Elkind, Ph.D.

"Mardy Ireland's RECONCEIVING WOMEN: SEPARATING MOTHERHOOD FROM FEMALE IDENTITY is a necessary book for anyone interested in contemporary feminism and psychoanalytic theory. In the first half of this book, Ireland delineates a cultural problem new to contemporary history: the child-less woman. In three categories (traditional women/child-less; transitional women/child-free & child-less; transformative women: child-free) she examines the psychoanalytic views of well-known female psychologists.

"In the second half of the book, Ireland breaks new ground for the American psychoanalytic clinic, particularly in making an opening for working with particular female problems. Her innovate work here makes of this clear and well-written book required reading for feminists and clinical psychologists.

"Mardy Ireland's book opens a clear path for object-relations clinicians to follow in their desire to begin working with Lacan: especially in the all crucial areas of gender politics and sexual difference." --Ellie Ragland Sullivan, Ph.D., Department of English, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO

The New York Times Book Review

"[A] smart, challenging book....Accessible and necessary."--The New York Times Book Review
Contemporary Psychology

"Reconceiving Women will be of interest to clinicians, especially those who work with women who are struggling with decisions about childbearing or who are confronting the impossibility of conceiving."--Contemporary Psychology
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
``It is practically impossible to think of the woman who is not a mother without thinking of something absent, lacking, or missing,'' says Ireland, a California-based psychologist with a heavily Freudian bias. Such a blanket statement is highly questionable, particularly since the 100 women (ages 38-50) whom Ireland interviewed in 1988 all hail from Northern California and don't represent a cross section of middle American attitudes. Whether discussing women who are childless due to infertility, those who delayed pregnancy until past their childbearing years, or women who consciously decided against motherhood, Ireland too facilely pigeonholes these baby boomers as representatives of 1970s feminism. One senses a strong traditional bias behind what findings she chooses to report, limiting her examples to women who started out with strong desires for motherhood, despite casual references to women who ``told me that they had never enjoyed playing with dolls as a child.'' Moreover, readers who don't have some grounding in psychoanalytic theory will be confounded by Ireland's discussions. There is a lot of dry verbiage here, but little insight. (June)
Library Journal
Although surveys suggest that some 40 percent of American women between the ages of 18 and 44 do not have children, most scholarly and popular literature continues to assume that motherhood is the defining role in women's lives. Here a Berkeley psychologist shares data from her survey of 100 such women, revealing significant differences, depending on whether they are childless by choice, by chance, or because of infertility. Rejecting conventional interpretations, which emphasize the childless woman's infertility, Ireland offers new, more positive interpretations, drawn from Lacanian and object-relations theory, for all three categories and ends by summoning the legendary first woman Lilith to represent the nonmaternal creative energies that exist in every woman and by which childless women can define themselves and their experience. Recommended for specialized collections.-- Beverly Miller, Boise State Univ. Lib., Id .
Based on in-depth interviews with over 100 women, explores the lives of women who are not mothers, and their self-identity in a society that generally equates femininity with motherhood. Examines primary relationships and creative endeavors, and some of the psychological theories about the development of women's identity. Paper edition (016-3), $16.95. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Product Details

Guilford Publications, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.48(d)

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