“Mothers of Nowadays Are Independent”: Work, Money, and Motherhood in Rural South Africa

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 09:30
Location: Hörsaal 41 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Christie SENNOTT, Purdue University, USA
The past two decades have witnessed rapid globalization in South Africa, providing access to an array of new material goods and reshaping desires, norms, and practices related to gender and consumption. The new ethos – supported by the rainbow nation discourse, which emphasizes freedom, equality, and opportunity – is built on aspirations of upward mobility. As such, educational achievement is highly valued and viewed as the primary route through which individuals can improve their family’s economic circumstances.

This study examines how these evolving “modern” desires, norms, and practices have influenced constructions of “good motherhood” in a rural area of South Africa. Drawing on interview and focus group data collected from 85 Black South African women (aged 18-79) in 2010, I ask how the ethos of achievement intersects with the ways in which womanhood and motherhood have been constructed. In a context wherein single motherhood is common due to high rates of premarital births and the fact that men are often absent due to seeking work in faraway cities, mothers are held responsible for the social and economic costs of raising children. Historical constructions of “good motherhood” emphasized having many children, caring for husbands and in-laws, and providing food from the family plot. Mothers today, however, face competition to provide the newest, nicest, and most expensive goods, foods, clothing, and education for children. These expectations require money and thus many women strive to fulfill them through working outside of the home. These findings suggest a pivotal shift in the social construction of good motherhood, which now relies heavily on women’s ability to provide economic support to children. Given the limited infrastructure and job availability in rural South Africa, this construction of motherhood increases the strain on women trying to fulfill multiple roles in their households and struggling to make ends meet.