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“Either I do the mother thing or I call the police”: Childhood Mental Illness and Negotiations of Maternal Identity

  • Author(s): Letourneau, Nicole R.
  • Advisor(s): Jenkins, Janis H
  • et al.

Mothers of children diagnosed with chronic and severe mental illnesses in the United States face many challenges outside of typical mothering expectations, such as problems at school, financial burdens of medical treatment, lack of social services, and difficulties at home. This paper examines the additional challenges mothers with children diagnosed with severe mental illnesses face to negotiate their maternal identities amidst contradictions to the cultural narrative of motherhood that emerges from the dominant intensive mothering ideology and the narrow framework of normality produced by discourses of “good mothering.” Intensive mothering ideology perpetuates a set of beliefs about parenting in which mothers are assumed to be disproportionately responsible for childrearing and are expected to prioritize the needs of their children and the mothering role over all else. Based on interviews with mothers in the Southwest Youth Experience of Psychiatric Treatment (SWYEPT) Study, this paper argues that intensive mothering ideology shapes the patterned ways in which these mothers experience caring for children with mental illnesses. These patterns include (1) susceptibility to both internal and external critiques of their parenting based on their children’s symptomatic behavior; (2) contradictions to the primary authority over their child emphasized by intensive mothering discourse, as they must share caretaking responsibility with medical practitioners; (3) constrained parenting choices. As this paper will illustrate, in the context of competing ideologies and confrontations between medical and maternal authority, mothers found ways to defend their maternal identity by utilizing reclassification techniques that modified the boundaries of maternal responsibility.

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