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Attitudes to motherhood and working mothers in South Africa : insights from quantitative attitudinal data.

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Motherhood ideologies are rooted in cultural and historical contexts, and encapsulate attitudes towards the roles and expectations of mothers. In South Africa, with many languages and deep racial and socio-economic divisions, it is likely that these attitudes are informed by a number of motherhood ideologies. This study explores the extent to which ‘intensive’ mothering ideology – intrinsic to the nuclear family ideal and predominant in Western literature – informs attitudes to mothering practice in South Africa. Within intensive mothering ideology the ‘good’ mother is positioned as exclusively responsible for the emotional and physical nurture of her child; and the centrality of the child supersedes her needs. This creates an inherent conflict for mothers who interpret their mothering role through this schema and undertake paid work, thus seemingly compromising on fulfilling their caring duty. However, research suggests that the ambivalence experienced by many Western women regarding engaging in paid work, may not have the same salience in societies whose cultural conception of motherhood embraces collective mothering, where responsibility for childcare is shared among family and community members. This is a hallmark often of extended, as opposed to nuclear, families. Thus it might be expected, in South Africa, that where African society has traditionally been characterised by extended family formation, intensive mothering ideology would not hold the same sway among Africans as qualitative South African research suggests it does for the White, middle-class. Furthermore, it might be expected that this would be balanced, among Africans, by extant support for collective mothering. In this analysis of quantitative attitudinal data, agreement with the statements ‘A child under five years suffers if his/her mother works’ and, ‘All in all, family life suffers when the woman works’, are used as indicators of intensive mothering ideology. The choice of a grant, paid to a friend or relative to care for the preschool child of a working single mother, as the best care option, is used as an indicator of support for collective mothering ideology. The findings of this study suggest that in South Africa, there is a higher prevalence of intensive mothering ideology among White women, and to a lesser extent men, than among Africans. The low level of support for a grant, paid to family members or friends for the care of a working single-mother’s pre-school child, suggests that a disjuncture might exist between the preference among Africans for collective mothering, and its assumed prevalence.


M.A. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 2014.


Working mothers--South Africa., Children of working mothers--South Africa., Working mothers--South Africa--Attitudes., Working mothers--South Africa--Social conditions., Working mothers--South Africa--Economic conditions., Theses--Population studies.