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date: 18 September 2021

Motherhood and Educationfree

Motherhood and Educationfree

  • Koeli GoelKoeli GoelDharitree Ecosphere


Motherhood is the institution on which state and society have traditionally depended for preparing a well-socialized populace even before formal educational systems begin to have an effect. Mothering has taken a new urgency in a 21st-century globalized, neoliberal, and intricately connected world in which the social contract between the state and the individual has been in profound revision. Mothers are being expected to adapt to rapidly changing educational environments with on-site school systems disrupted in response to global health crises and homeschooling assuming spectacularly new meanings. New blended roles for tutoring, mentoring, and counseling while also nurturing the child are now the newest normal for mothers. Considering the pivotal role played by mothers in a human being’s birth, socialization, and education, perhaps educational research can progressively encourage a more nuanced incorporation of motherhood studies. It might be useful to examine the relationship between motherhood and education within a framework of familial power relations combined with a global studies in education perspective. The different facets of motherhood as well as the entangling of care and power are critical to the project of education. Motherhood as institution, motherhood as identity, and motherhood as experience thus become crucial coordinates for an interdisciplinary engagement with motherhood’s relationship with education. While educational technologies and online communication platforms have incrementally transformed the field of education, the mothers role has evolved and mothers often need to be educated so they may best guide their digital native wards. Parents jointly take many decisions regarding children’s education and future, but it is most often the mother who follows through with the agenda. This close personal involvement brings additional responsibilities, authority, and power—all of which have epistemological consequences, highlighting areas that might help establish nuanced connections between motherhood and education.


  • Alternative and Non-formal Education 
  • Globalization, Economics, and Education
  • Technology and Education


Woman in the traditional social situation produces more than she is getting in terms of her subsistence, and therefore is a continual source of the production of surpluses.

—Spivak (1998, p. 105).

In light of the well-documented importance of parental education and the fact that mothers are still commonly the primary caregivers for children, scholars need to explicate the “black box” of the effects of maternal education.

—Harding et al. (2015).

There are very few words across linguistic landscapes that are more polysemous and universally potent with positive affect than “mother.” It is often the first word rolling off the human tongue. It represents a confluence of meanings, identified by the Encyclopedia of Motherhood as articulated through three interconnected modalities—motherhood as institution, motherhood as experience, and motherhood as identity (Mack, 2018; Rose, 2019). Motherhood’s epistemological development through these three pathways underscores its dynamic nature and highlights its potential for evolving far beyond current social anchoring. Research on human development cannot really afford to bypass it, and I adopt these to organize the current discussion: ‘

(M)otherhood’ is considered, according to critical and cultural scholars and theorists, to be both a complex set of experiences individuals embody and a symbolic social institution that has been used to regulate human behavior through cultural norms and social scripts that are discursively struggled over across history” (Mack, 2018).

Needs of socialization and development transform with time, evolving with maturations in society. Disruptions in social, political, or cultural order; economic or health crises and their recovery; and human society transforming in response to such disruptions all affect and reconstruct the fundamental assumptions about the institution of motherhood.

In making a case for mother studies, Rose (2019) suggests that the identity of the mother is well captured in the figure of an all-embracing feminine model. However, the feminine figure is by no means the only personification of a mother, and the term may equally be applied to a man or any other category of the gender spectrum. In challenging traditional ideas about gender, sexuality, race, and motherhood, Berg (2002) opined that motherhood literature must arrive from intertextual, interracial discourse that has the potential to rewrite dominant ideologies of motherhood that have been systematically reconstructing motherhood, mothering efforts, and the maternal sphere as a political and racially determined social institution. Here, simply and solely due to space and range limitations, this discussion will visualize and build on different perspectives focusing mainly on the feminine “mother figure” acting within societal, familial, and educational structures, and correspondingly use the term “child” to address infant to K–12 children, in keeping with the period of the mother’s hands-on engagement with her offspring.

“Mother” itself is polysemous and deeply embedded in dichotomies of power, devotion, engagement, and control. It summons an immediate emotional, spiritual, and reverential response but has a distinctly active political connotation in public and private spheres. The biological, emotional and spiritual aspects of mothering entangle an individual in undertrained work, while also obscuring it from being “work” and pushing it forward to being articulated as a privilege. As Golden and Erdreich (2014) noted, a mother’s “work,” while it takes time, resources, and labor, does not really fit into rational economic definitions of work, nor any capitalist definition of labor: “although care work involves the expenditure of effort, energy, and resources and produces a commodity, it is unique” (p. 264). In India’s British codicil–based Hindu family law, this commodity has been considered the “property” of the father.1

There is an emotional, non-rational, virtue, and value-oriented aspect that distinguishes mothering work. Labels of “love-labour,” “caring-for,” “caring-about” (Golden & Erdreich, 2014, p. 264) are all deployed variously to affectively qualify mothering work. While it can be intensely strenuous labor, this emotional aspect not only obfuscates mothering as hard work but it complexly engages the mother in creating lifelong emotional, mental, social, and physical bonds with the child, which often encumbers her own life and occasionally her offspring’s. In deeply patriarchal settings, children and their upbringing are articulated as the sole responsibility of mothers, which in turn gets snared in an ever-perpetuating cycle of devotion—to the child and to their legal parent, most often the father—and finally emerges as a social apparatus to rein in the woman. Deshpande (2019) talks of India’s “patriarchal mindset which extols the virtues of the ideal woman—the ever-sacrificing mother, daughter, wife and sister—the archetypal sati-savitri, adarsh Hindu nari2 . . . fiercely loyal to her husband above anything else” (Deshpande, 2019, p. 2). In developing societies of South Asia, these socially produced norms and cultural diktats converge with the brutal demands of a neoliberal society in which the state has increasingly withdrawn from its social contract with its citizens and new developmental endeavors are embedded in political contestations.

Mothering as care work operates deeply and ceaselessly for the well-being of the child and for preparing the industrious citizen of the future. Discussions of mothers, mothering, and motherhood must incorporate political-economic perspectives and also be incorporated within the coordinates of socio-psychological parameters and socially-defined norms. The concept of mothering as care work may be studied as anthropological work on child-rearing in different cultural settings and their implications on social and cultural production. Class negotiations, navigation of home-school boundaries, and access to educational goods and services in late capitalism’s neoliberal, post-developmental, consumption society are all entangled in such discussions. “Bringing together ideas of care, culture, class, and consumption into one analytical framework is crucial for attending to, in holistic fashion, the complex ways in which mothering, in different social–cultural contexts, is perceived and practiced” (Golden & Erdreich, 2014, p. 263).

In the 21st century’s capitalist neoliberal, consumption-oriented society, a good mother/parent is deemed to be someone who manages to secure the child’s future by securing all kinds of desirable goods and learning material that the school and society marks as pedagogically productive. Therefore, the market becomes the guide - and cultural models of good mothering draw from the market because the demands of child-rearing now are too rigorous, intensive, and competitive for any one person: “being a good parent means bringing in expertise above and beyond what a parent can provide alone. In other words, parents are thrown back into the market to find educational supplements in order to fulfil parental responsibility” (Golden & Erdreich, 2014, p. 271).

Past scholarship has also drawn attention to nationalistic agendas when hegemonic deployment of motherhood and political power have intertwined and generated a sense of one nation of people born from the same mother: “Blood and race are invariably involved in this underlying ideology, and preoccupations with national identity and authenticity are invariably tied up with ideas of national purity” (Appadurai, 2013, p. 86). Nationhood arriving from a mother figure vested with potential to unify disparate publics has made for compelling political logic within nationalist sentiments in postcolonial India: “One of the dominating ideas that circulated in nationalist discourses of colonial India was the sacredness of the nation or the motherland, frequently referred to as ‘Mother India’ or ‘Bharat Mata’” (Goel, 2018, p. 7). Edwards and Ramamurthy (2016) explained that in India, the creation of a Hindu Motherland narrative contributed to discursive violence inherent in nation-branding, promoting political hegemonic agendas and social exclusion of minorities. In discussing identity formation within nationalist discourses in African nations, Nnaemeka (1997) and colleagues discuss the deployment of mother terminology like “merré-terre/Mother Africa, Motherland/Mother Tongue” while also critically analyzing how nationalist struggles depoliticize women’s politics and force “repoliticization of women’s politics back on the national agenda only as an aftermath of nationalist struggles” (Nnaemeka, 1997, p. 2).

There is a need for critical analysis not merely of public agendas but also of how patriarchal systems articulate state power to flow through the mother figure—invariably aiming to socialize and educate the child within a predetermined sphere—but that critique must also take into account the fluid identity of the maternal within the rhetorical construction of the mother figure, which assumes political potential on crucial occasions and wields power in differently-changing faces. Conversely, her experiential circumstances, frequently marginalized by “external forces: physical, social, emotional and scientific that act around and upon the mother” (Rose, 2019) also call for a push to motherhood studies into a central space within epistemological explorations of human development and education, family and society, and relationships between mother, child, and society.

Brave New World

The logic of the foundational relationship between society and its human actors—organized into family as its basic unit—has changed drastically in the 21st century. Motherhood as an institution and the cornerstone of the family has had to navigate these changed circumstances, negotiating on behalf of the family for the child’s welfare and continuing to lift heavier weight in the enterprise of preparing citizens of a globalized world organized according to neoliberal principles. The contemporary society-individual relationship is best examined through rapid transformation of the social contract (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) between society and citizen, or in this case, the mother. Given the global scope of these new challenges, there is need for transnational analysis on how established educational systems in developed societies like the United States and the United Kingdom, and emerging ones in developing or post-developmental societies of South America, Asia (McCarthy et al., 2020), and Africa have increasingly withdrawn from the social contract of providing structural support to enable the mother adequately. Authors evaluating globalization have identified disruptive global trends, including slow GDP growth, extended period of retirement, and decreasing institutional and private household savings contributing to a shifting social contract; “changing roles of public and private sector institutions, and interventions that shape individual or institutional responsibility for economic outcomes” (Manyika et al., 2020, p. 17) are some such rollbacks.

Major shifts transmitted across an incessantly connected global society and the need for educating a malleable, docile workforce led by an elite corps of entrepreneurs spell a brave new world that goes beyond existing educational systems and necessitates research to re-evaluate the family’s role, especially the mother’s, and more importantly analyze “the active role of women’s agency,” (Sen, 1999, p. 189). Mother power needs to be investigated as an active, agentic force when e-learning and school shutdowns take the classroom out of the school and place it in one corner of the family home. In the digital age, the cultural norms and even the cultural politics of education are in profound revision, with greater expectations of technological knowledge, progressive engagement with online educational platforms, and distance education. “The cultural perspective on mothering and education directs us to consider the different ways in which mothers’ engagement in children’s education is informed by cultural notions of children and of mothering” (Golden & Erdreich, 2014, p. 267).

Around the world, decisions on the child’s education are invariably taken by both parents, but it is the mother who is expected to stay on course with these agendas. Mothers lift the heavier burden in performing ‘“complimentary educational work’” (Griffith & Smith, 2005, cited in Golden & Erdreich, 2014, p. 267) like preparing children for school in the morning, arranging school commutes, helping with homework, developing and training them in mathematical skills, purchasing supplies for school projects, communicating with teachers, and many such duties on a daily basis. More recently, expertise in the technologies of education, surveillance, as well as monitoring online recreation have all become part of the mother’s work. “In an individualized, and increasingly neo-liberal society, with welfare safety nets being rolled back or privatized, . . . parents are newly ‘responsibilized’ for their actions and the consequences that flow from them, engendering an increasing sense of insecurity and anxiety” (Livingstone & Blum-Ross, 2020, p. 18).

Based on research conducted over 4 years, Livingstone and Blum-Ross of the London School of Economics explored how British families are negotiating the challenges of digital technologies. They deployed a gendered lens to highlight how a mother gave up her career and supported her children’s pathway to the digital future but herself fell behind in digital progress: “I’ve slipped back down to the status of peasant, in terms of modern technologies” (Livingstone & Blum-Ross, 2020, p. 15). Across the Global North, as states navigate challenges presented by neoliberal educational restructuring, more interdisciplinary attention is being given to the processes deployed in the development of a skilled population for a digital, global society. Closely connected to this, over the past few years, demands are being raised for parenting education across many Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Holloway and Pimlott-Wilson (2014) revealed the importance of class-based customs in different cultures where mothering influenced both the attitudes of individual mothers to parenting classes, and the success of neoliberal policy enactment in diverse socioeconomic neighborhoods. The authors emphasized the importance of geographical research into newly emerging forms of education.

If educational research is to connect the child’s early-year competencies (most often received from the mother) with the child’s educational acumen, academic achievement, long-term educational attainment and performance as a productive member of society, then research should promote motherhood studies and also advance earlier work that has connected family Socio-economic status to academic performance and found “an overall positive association between SES and academic outcomes” (Kim et al., 2019, p. 901). The nature of the SES composite (constituted of various indicators like parental education, income, occupation, and eligibility for free or reduced-cost food programs) makes it a relative measurement and though SES is consistently taken as a measure of support the child receives from family, disparities across the geographical spectrum demand more nuanced, qualitative work on mother power in education. Clearer appraisal of associations and contrasts across geographically distant but digitally connected societies of a world economy necessitates much more interdisciplinary work connecting global studies in education (GSE) and motherhood studies. What may be considered high SES in a developing society like India might be a lower SES in a developed country like the United States. Yet, in current globalized circumstances, pathways of upward mobility, starting with competition for admission into higher-education programs and job challenges in the labor markets, are often directly between candidates across the world (McCarthy et al., 2020)—from any combination of these countries—creating disadvantages for students from developing societies and often false advantages for those of developed societies, if they are from marginalized, minoritized communities. Within this neoliberal world economy, social, cultural, and educational policies have been geared up more on competition between people from all over the globe, resulting in “political economic developments and cultural forces as imbricated in neoliberal globalization that now extend[ed] forms of colonization of space and aggravated inequality” (McCarthy et al., 2020, p. 1). Often the few safeguards left for nurturing the young child in an aggressively capitalistic neoliberal society arise from the family—mainly from powers traditionally vested in the mother. Marginalized on many fronts, and working at the grassroots, the mother, across societies, lifts the weight of challenges emerging from shifts in the educational world.

Changing technologies impact how mothers socialize and educate children. Appadurai suggested that principal shifts in the global cultural order were created by various media technologies and the ways in which they framed and energized older media (1996). Talking of the exponentially changing role of the imagination in social life, he said: “More persons throughout the world see their lives through the prisms of the possible lives offered by mass media in all their forms” (Appadurai, 1996, p. 54). Expansive networks of knowledge and innovation are also being created by what scholars call the “nexus between dynamic educative practices and prolific digital production” (Goel & McCarthy, 2020). A prolific generation of aspirational youth culture has competently leveraged these to connect communities across the world, thereby moving forward from, and challenging conventional systems of, tutoring, teaching, and learning as well as educational policymaking, and curricular instructions. While new circumstances have progressively influenced educational flows, they have also created the need to stimulate discussions on the active parent’s role as the principal supervisory authority coordinating educational practices, collaborating on pedagogic principles, and sometimes collaborating with or contesting school systems. Again, many of these technologies have now been repurposed to exponentially transform institutionalized education with mixed results.

According to Social Reproduction theory, SES is transmitted over generations when advantaged elite classes monopolize limited resources and empower their children by using their stronger and more familiar access to schooling, and schools become stable pathways for establishing their strongholds on societal leads. In their macro-analytical study, Kim et al. (2019) examined the SES-achievement connection to see if it is increasing or decreasing over temporal and spatial spectrums. If the classic modernization theory is to be followed, then expansion of mass education and merit-based logic dominating the market economy should be contributing factors to reducing the effect of SES on educational outcomes. However, large-scale international studies pulled data sets to show that decentralization and deregulation of schooling over the past decades have increased inequalities and strengthened the association between SES and educational achievement due to diversification in school choices and inequalities in standards between schools following the privatization model in the United States or the United Kingdom (Chmielewski, 2017, cited in Kim et al., 2019, p. 879). Indeed, development studies show that “although neoliberal ideas such as school choice reform policies can deliver outcomes in some circumstances, it does not apply to all situations,” and the effect on student achievement is hotly contested (Ghoshal, 2016, p. 83). Educational policy scholars have drawn attention to the effect of neoliberal restructuring and the violent stripping of the public school system in impoverished neighborhoods in the United States:

In 2012, after several years of disinvestment and destabilization, Chicago Public Schools voted to phase out Dyett, the only remaining neighborhood public high school in Bronzeville, a historic Black community on the South Side of Chicago, that is rapidly being gentrified. . . . the intersecting logics of race and capital at the center of neoliberal restructuring of cities in the U.S., and school closings have been very much integral to this project. In Bronzeville, as in other areas with high concentrations of public housing and low-income African Americans, closing schools contributed to pushing Black people out of the neighborhood and cleared the way to rebrand schools for new-middle and upper-middle class homebuyers. This is a violent process of accumulation by dispossession. The Board of Education’s decision to close Dyett High School, against the protests of parents and students, was part of this process. (Interview with Pauline Lipman, Goel et al., 2020)

In returning to the mother’s role, Social Reproduction theory becomes an efficient entry point and it may be reviewed with help from Bourdieu’s articulation of various “Forms of Capital” (1986)—financial, cultural, human, social—throwing light on parents’ increasing deployment of these resources for empowering their children. In establishing relationships between SES and educational achievement, scholars concluded that “higher SES families are better able to mobilize scarce resources to facilitate their children’s learning compared to lower SES families” (Kim et al., 2019, p. 879). However, intergenerational transmission of SES can foreground theorizing on socially just and affirmative effects of social and cultural capital when they are reviewed with special attention to recent flows of online social networking—which are not necessarily based on members’ socioeconomic status but transmitted from one group of similar interest to another, thereby reproducing value in informational cycles. The avenues of social reproduction like human capital, social capital, or cultural capital may also become mechanisms for creating alternative futures that substitute lower SES capabilities. Such empowerment might be too recent to trace generation-to-generation transmission but they might yield insights into capabilities with the potential of breaking the vicious cycle of social reproduction where rich grow richer and poor poorer. Closer to the ground, the Dyett school experience in Chicago (Lipman, cited in Goel et al., 2020) explored family resistance to neoliberal push and the agentic positions adopted by mothers and real-life social networks. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, and activists combined forces to resist school closure. While neoliberal mechanisms prevented them from succeeding, it did show how mothers deployed unconventional means like “hunger strikes” to defend their children’s right to education and demonstrated how to pool resources and social capital, and leverage them.

Such networks are strengthened by digital communication. Online groups for connecting mothers and supporting mothering activities in local perspectives are now frequent in many areas. One such group, “Chambanamoms” in the author’s campus hometown in the American Midwest, calls itself “the top online resource for families in the Champaign-Urbana area.” The website packs a treasure trove of information and resources, encompassing “After-School Program” guides, “Counseling and Mental Health Help for Children in Champaign-Urbana,” “All things Baby: Fertility, Pregnancy, Childbirth and Breastfeeding in Champaign-Urbana,” and “A Mother’s Day Gift that Gives Back to Champaign-Urbana” and goes further to address regional issues with time-specific significance, like health advisories related to COVID-19 pandemic control: “Illinois Stay-At-Home Order Extended Through May with Modifications” and “Grocery Roundup: Where to Shop Local, Updated Hours, Delivery, and Shopping Tips” (for avoiding at-risk grocery hours and contagious contact). Such online resources empower mothers from all SES backgrounds.

At the other end of the globe, in India’s industrial township of Durgapur, mothers of middle-school children attending a prestigious national chain leveraged their recently acquired expertise of handling smartphones and connecting through social networks like WhatsApp and Facebook to link up with other parents of their children’s class. In school-site shutdowns post-COVID-19, as classrooms moved into family homes, such innovative linkages added increasing value to the learning environments, as various technologies were used to create assemblages. In a brief encounter with this author, a sixth-grader’s parents spoke on this. While such data is merely anecdotal and very recent for scholarship to gain academic hold, it still throws light on an emerging world and underscores the necessity of further work in this area. The mother drew from miscellaneous resources like her husband’s official Zoom platform, her own WhatsApp knowledge, Google search, and YouTube guide videos to move forward with her daughter’s schooling from home. The online classes brought together 98 students and their families, and mothers stepped into their new roles of teachers as well as learners—receiving novel instruction from the sixth grade’s three teachers, aided by an IT team. Instruction was conducted on Zoom and Google Meet (following information on Zoom being hacked); class notes were distributed on the school’s official WhatsApp group as PowerPoint files and Word documents; examinations were administered with time-sensitive “MCQ” (multiple choice questionnaires) and completed by students and submitted online after converting them into PDFs. The mother remembered that she never had access to cellphones during her college years but confidently talked about this transformational educational environment and also confided that she assimilated into this new digital ecosystem of online schooling in large part with help from her 11-year-old daughter, a White Hat coding student who even taught her how to make PDFs: “What she and her friends know, we do not. There’s a lot to learn from her.”3

As the field of education becomes more complex, more global, and endowed with innovations in educational technologies, distant parts of the world get connected, leading to their diverse cultures being enmeshed. Digital tools, “applications” or “apps,” and knowledge platforms are also influenced by, and in turn influence, learning needs of various societies. Learning Management Systems (LMS) and platforms like Adobe Captivate, Blackboard, Byju, Coursera, Collaborate, Edmodo Social Learning, Google Classroom, Khan Academy, Moodle, Schoology, Skillshare, Treehouse, Udemy, White Hat, White Label, and indeed the various MOOCs (massive open online courses) continue to revolutionize the implementation, administration, documentation, delivery, and reporting of educational courses, thus reorienting, to a large degree, education from classroom-based instruction to online programs, inviting children into novel e-learning environments. The children, being digital natives, easily adapt, adopt, and integrate into these environments. They assimilate into a global community of digital learning and embrace the progressive global diversity in their peer groups, leading to inculcation of social justice, global equity, and critical democratic perspectives as described by the Global Studies in Education website, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. One such environment has been discussed—when many of India’s schools went online—with tutoring, evaluation, curriculum, pedagogical tools, and student-teacher dynamics all changing and evolving radically during the COVID-19 period in the country. Many of these environments have their own advantages in today’s multiply connected world of various flows—where mothers themselves learn and boost their knowledge-base in their eagerness to improve their children’s education.

While LMS and e-learning had earlier been incorporated in large-scale training maneuvers in the corporate world, children’s education has also undergone no less of a transformation. There’s not much change, however, in mothers’ knowledge of this new world, the new platforms, their pedagogical implications, the connected world in which their children are expected to perform; and neither have mothers received any formal instruction either from the state or corporation on how to deal with this quantum shift in their world. As Livingstone and Ross’s research (2020) showed, the mother has been left behind. As more children get drawn into the world of online learning in response to the needs of the time, researchers engage “child-centered LMS to enhance learning and creativity” (Mosharraf et al., 2013) for elementary school students, and they recognize that there are some factors that stand out within early learning needs even though they vary across age groups, generations, and cultures.

Nowadays, most things designed and created in the world still have not been designed for children as a user group. eLearning systems, as an important human achievement in the age of technology, exhibit a similar situation to other experiences. Much research and many innovations in these systems are accomplished for young people in higher educational environments. . . . we design and implement a learning management system (LMS) for students in elementary school, which leads to their meaningful learning enhancement. Decreasing competitive pressures and fear of failure through changing assessment process and improving motivation of learning through sending some informative and positive feedback are the other features of our LMS. (Mosharraf et al., 2013, p. 10)

Such research has been paying more attention to soft-skills like children’s curiosity, imagination and fantasy-preferences—making those the foundations of learning systems. And this brings the focus back to the “human factor” in the form of the mother or caring teacher who often hold keys to introducing the power of imagination and creativity into young minds.

As student needs evolve and become more complex from novel learning exposures, researchers claim that human actors count more, not less, in the students’ edification. In fact, Bryant et al. (2020) refute some suggestions that human-to-human learning might be interrupted or discontinued by computer learning or robot teachers. They propose that new technologies will save time and labor that teachers often have to invest in administrative needs and paperwork: “20 to 40% of current teacher hours are spent on activities that could be automated using existing technology” (Bryant et al., 2020). This would help teachers redirect their efforts to many other high-value classroom engagements that lead to better student outcomes. In acknowledging that artificial intelligence could enable teachers to reallocate time to high-value activities, one must also realize that there are no technological substitutes for attributes that make for great teachers, attributes that are derived from human value systems—like inspiring students, building positive class or school climate, creating connection and belonging, resolving conflicts, and nurturing individual perspectives in the students to view the ever-expanding world cultures (Bryant et al., 2020). This again takes the focus back to the child’s first relationship—with the mother—and underscores the relational significance of that connection in imbuing a positive value-system in the child. The mother’s success in nurturing such positive values contributes heavily to students entering the school system with minds that are prepared to accept the collaboration a classroom atmosphere requires, personalities that can hold their structure, and perform under the pressure and competition of a classroom.

Motherhood as Identity: A Head Start

“Motherhood” is a loaded term, implying the potential of all things good for the child, society, and the universe in general. The ontological, axiological, and epistemological exploration of motherhood and the mother as the central figure in the child’s development is long overdue. Considering the pivotal role played by the mother in a human being’s birth, rearing, socialization, education, and relation to the world around, mother studies has somehow never acquired the centrality it deserves due to myriad interruptions (Rose, 2019) and despite the progression of women and gender studies across various university campuses since the 1970s. Mother studies is defined as “a field of interdisciplinary study devoted to the issues, experiences, topics, history, and culture of mothers, mothering and motherhood” (Rose, 2019) and it proposes that embedded within the experience of motherhood, is the mother’s experience of being connected or disconnected to one who was a “part of you” and that being intrinsically linked to this Other or child informs the being of both. Additionally, there is always a relational aspect of mothering that impacts the identity of a person—quintessentially changing the order of thinking from being focused on “me” to focus on the “other” (Rose, 2019) thus leading to the “mother” who identifies with the child. The mother’s life, evolution, and personhood all become the repository from which that child draws their selfhood, from which the receptacle of the child’s mind draws. Insight into this heavily invested sphere has the potential of opening up discussions on maternal rights, novel educational advantages, power struggles with the entrenched hegemonic agenda, and future research into entanglements within these.

Academic inquiry into education and its subsidiaries in educational policy studies, global studies in education, and education and curriculum studies among many others has progressed and gathered much-needed momentum, especially when introduction of educational technologies and platforms have incrementally transformed the discipline with research on various aspects of it. To examine education in the 21st century is to engage in the interactive and complex nature of today’s mothering. Also keeping in mind the internationalization of education, it is best to adopt a global perspective and theorize from the perspective of global studies in education (GSE)—connecting mother studies to GSE and merging resources from these disciplines. By examining various aspects of GSE—globalization of educational policy, pedagogy in different contexts, intersections of race-gender-class, educational impoverishment of racially marginalized communities, online environments, internationalization of schools and universities, poverty alleviation, nontraditional family structures, and children and youth in global context—this multidisciplinary project might become an avenue to bring in discussions on several neglected topics. Academic attention may be brought to marginalized populations laboring under intersectional identities, queer and transgender parent families, racially minoritized single mothers, women from patriarchal strongholds, or underrepresented subgroups from different parts of the world—thus smoothing over the voids left by the paucity of scholarship on knowledge deserts across societies. Wozolek (2019) writes about how motherhood and the mother’s identity is articulated differently across different sociocultural contexts: “although mothering is often an inherently joyful act, the sociocultural construction of it is in constant relation with capitals of shame. . . . [and] shaming is most often used by the cis-hetero patriarchy, and can possibly be used against any person or groups” (Wozolek, 2019, p. 5) Within many cultures, patriarchy is largely responsible for using motherhood to activate hegemonic control over the female mind by associating shame with “inadequate” child-rearing—to be perpetually renewed in the mother’s mind through different modes of “failures.”

This can be seen in the Japanese cultural dialogue surrounding virtue and honour (Benedict, 1946; Lebra & Lebra, 1986), the Chinese ideals of respect (Bedford & Hwang, 2003), Asian Indian cultural norms around child-rearing (Farver, Xu, Bhadha, Narang, & Lieber, 2007), and Eastern European notions regarding ‘good’ mothering (Keough, 2006) to name but a few examples. Shame, as it is argued here, is often central to upholding systemic oppression and, in case of mothering, oppression that is maintained within patriarchal structures. (Wozolek, 2019, p. 5)

Motherhood, in all its embodiments and facets, might defy exact definition, but its conceptualization matures within coordinates that are held in the highest priority in society. “Mother” symbolizes everything that society depends on for its self-modulated, evolved, well-socialized populace, even before society’s formal educational systems take over. Academic attention must be funneled toward challenges coming from market-oriented neoliberal schooling and demands of the growing knowledge economy—voids that the family and the mother have to fill. Even as newer models of distance education and e-learning emerge, the immediacy and proximity of reflexive motherhood has actually gained weight within the family’s role in enhancing the educational experience of the child. As social support is scaled back, motherhood adds unique value in the socialization and educational processes of the child. Especially if the mother herself is educated and trained in infant and child care, and all aspects of the mother’s well-being are ensured—including mental health enhanced by pre- and postpartum training (Baskale et al., 2019)—her child care activities are positively affected. The mother acts as a dynamic and active/positive resource by being a moderator, facilitator, and coordinator within the process of education– adding to the viability, credibility, and legitimization of epistemological developments in the area.

In claiming that “the value of a good education starts early and lasts a lifetime,” Bryant et al. (2020) have emphasized the value of the human factor in successful educational practices, and also highlighted the benefits of a head start. Thus, attention is naturally drawn to the role that the mother’s identity plays in this early start. Cultivating a learning environment early in the child’s life involves promoting positive social behavior “targeting skills such as cooperation, self-control, responsibility, assertion and empathy” (Hart et al., 2020, p. 7); inculcating an imaginative spirit; and advancing the child toward an active meaning-making experience of their environment through cognitive resonance with the mother. As the child develops a sense of the world around, their shared world, or shared situational models, activities, and experiences germinate because of the “networks of associations that resonate” between them (Gardner, 2008). The model of the parent’s or mother’s world becomes the exemplar of the child’s world.

Women have to adapt to many new experiences during and after pregnancy, but according to previous research, if they do so with antenatal infant care education, it adds to their motherhood experience, which in turn positively affects the guidance and direction that they can give their wards. Antenatal education on childrearing helps mothers set realistic goals for themselves and get empowered with tools for problem-solving and decision-making, something mothers have to do on a daily basis. Mothers who successfully adapt to the role of motherhood ensure the physical, emotional, and social development of the infant. Mothers’ understanding and response to the infant’s needs play an important role in initiation of the mother-infant relationship and establish a secure attachment (Cooper et al., 2009, cited in Baskale et al., 2019) as well as a stable terrain for the child. This can become a lifetime asset. A prepared parent is a better parent, and for the mother this preparation makes a big difference not only in her own physical and mental health, level of satisfaction from parenting, and postpartum well-being but also in enabling her child with a head start in the learning environment.

Education sessions on infant care increase mothers’ confidence in caring for the infant and perception of knowing how to solve the infant’s problems. In this sense, it is important that health staff provide expectant mothers with infant care education and support starting during pregnancy and continuing during the postpartum period. (Baskale et al., 2019, p. 12)

Racially diverse and immigrant communities need special attention in negotiating their identities (Williams & Labonte, 2007), determining their actual motherhood experiences as women try to bring up children and prepare them for an education system that is unfamiliar and novel to them. Being unaware of host-country school practices and systems, for example, the value of PTAs4 or parental engagement with school programs and curriculum, the immigrant mother’s understanding of how the family and the mother function as part of the state’s ideological apparatus (Ideological State Apparatuses; Althusser, 1970)—whether educational ISA (the system of the different public and private “schools”), or “family ISA” is largely diminished. Negative perceptions and stereotypes of mothers from minority groups, especially African American single mothers laboring under damaging misrepresentations of their lives and lifestyles, have far-reaching effects on lives of their children: “the manifold and simultaneous oppressions (race, gender, class) that all women of color face . . . the negative effects of misrepresentations are felt that much more and have further reach into the lives of children of color (from childhood to adulthood)” (Hartley, 2019, p. 306). Writing about the obstacles that “young Black women encounter within public schooling contexts given their marginalized racial and gender identities” Neal-Jackson (2018, p. 508) emphasized that academic conversation often focused on the plight of Black men rather than women and “Black female students’ experiences have remained in the shadows of the Black male crises” (p. 509). Very often such constrained circumstances led to “dangerous homogenization” of Black women’s school experiences with “the proliferation of a false assumption that resiliency is an innate trait available to all Black women at all times” (Neal-Jackson, 2018, p. 509).

Mothers often have to find employment with difficulty and under wide-ranging circumstances. Frequently their work conditions affect their mothering efforts. Deshpande (2019) recorded how domestic chores and care activities form the cultural norms that act as barriers to women’s economic empowerment. In India, the woman’s employment possibilities are always dependent on whether her professional engagement is adaptive to her domestic duties. “Women are getting educated rapidly and they want to work. But, one, there aren’t sufficient suitable opportunities (the demand side). Two, the notion of suitability rests on compatibility of work with their “primary” responsibility of domestic chores. This, not religion or veiling, is the real cultural norm that constrains women’s labour supply” (p. 7).

Different jobs arrive with variances in intersections of professional norms, power, or race relations, cultural expectations, and household resources. These combine to create active and problematic fields that mothers have to navigate. Fuller and Hirsh (2019) argue that workplace conditions matter, but differently for women of different social positions. Certain professions demand the “ideal worker” who follows standards of professionalism, which can clash with upper-middle-class norms of dedicated, intensive mothering practices.

As we argue in this article, the familiar theoretical frameworks marshaled to understand the motherhood pay gap, including work-life conflict, work effort, compensating differentials, and discrimination, all imply that workplace conditions should matter but differently for women of varying social positions. (Fuller & Hirsh, 2019, p. 5)

Simply put, women with higher education are able to secure jobs with better flexibility (Herr & Wolfram, 2012) and remuneration, which in turn allows them access to better childcare. Conversely, underprivileged mothers with lesser social and educational capital have fewer choices and therefore their constrained work obligations clash with their mothering duties despite their best intentions.

Mother Power and Experience Deficit

Motherhood, the mother’s position in society, and her ability to enable and empower the child through suitable response to educational directions all play out within a power system of the state’s educational policies (Goel et al., 2020). The state lays a claim over the child, which must be scrutinized in terms of the mother’s experience and ability to balance between this disciplinary power and supportive care. Institutional power changes shape and face and is frequently deployed to legitimize neoliberal rollbacks in societies often struggling with social and racial justice, and often to find footing after colonial exploitation in various societies. Foucault proposed that mechanisms of power are not disparate but, rather, blend, infiltrate, and integrate into each other:

power is exercised, rather than possessed; it is not the “privilege,” acquired or preserved, of the dominant class, but the overall effect of its strategic positions—an effect that is manifested and sometimes extended by the position of those who are dominated. (Foucault, 1977, pp. 26–27)

Discipline and Punish (DP) from Foucault’s early group of work presents the functional coherence of different kinds and levels of power. Whereas Foucault’s formulations in DP have laid the foundations for much of later scholarship on power, his position was largely epochal (Collier, 2009), especially in its diagnoses on how there are different characteristic forms of power qualifying different epochs—for instance a classical age of sovereignty and a modern age of normalization. However, “global diagnoses of power relations in a given age as stemming from a single logic (of sovereignty, discipline or normalization)” (Collier, 2009, p. 80) are increasingly inadequate in times of quantum sociopolitical shifts. Yet, Foucault’s theoretical proposals for examining the macro-political framework of the state and its functionaries have helped advance understanding of various interfaces of different kinds of power—disciplinary, regulatory, and normalizing. Foucault’s initial position on techniques of power acting on the individual body may be used to explore the “mother-with-child” figure caught in the web of discipline. The state machinery deploys what Foucault called the “biopolitics of population,”—its power flowing through parents who, in turn, have to enforce it in the developmental journey of their children. Some pertinent questions at this point are: How is the child affected by familial power acting as an extension of the state’s power and ISA? What happens when the family, the mother, or the father refuses to become a compliant accomplice of the state’s ideology? In China, recent media reports examining home schooling or “study at home” showed that some parents prefer homeschooling despite official disapproval because of their “dislike of the ‘ideology’” and “teaching methods.” Official resistance to this is obvious, because state discourse normalizes a narrative where “schools play a vital role in turning children into ‘builders of socialism’” (Well read vs. well red, 2019, p. 41).

Foucault thought of power in a technical way, articulating it as used in everyday techniques of power, to focus on micro mechanisms of discipline: a cellular vision of power through concepts like the “table.” In such evaluation of micro-innovations like the “table” or the “timetable” it is possible to understand the educational transitions of the 21st-century digital age.5 With online circulation of “late-breaking” information, ed-tech, and new media, communication technologies have become driving forces and the “table” has morphed into the ubiquitous digital tablet. Within the family, mothers often engage children in educational and recreational cycles by handing them a tablet. What the “table” started a few centuries back—of educating in social norms, of organizing workforces, training the mind, and preparing citizens—is being accomplished or subverted by the tablet “screen”—with the iPad or Samsung Galaxy—playing a major role within the attention economy and more recently in educational environments across the global spectrum. In studying these media technologies, habitual media use and “routinized screen engagements,” scholars have found that human minds are drawn to the content but also the material conditions that constitute tablet use:

The engagement with the tablet is gestural in nature, it is a bodily movement that becomes endowed with significance. The act of pointing and touching gives the finger the ability to interact in directed ways with the screen. . . . The screen here acts as a “surface,” a site of organization. (Hassoun & Gilmore, 2017, p. 113)

The engagement and time investment in the screen may be placed within a broader neoliberal social organization, promoting “formations that prioritize tenets of self-productivity, where individuals must remain tethered to social events and work emails throughout the day” and social networking is articulated as a “semi-mandatory social mandate—a modulation of unceasing neoliberal self-responsibility” (Hassoun & Gilmore, 2017, p. 113). Current “work from home” protocols, following Covid-19 restrictions, represent unwavering evolution of such mandates across the global educational and professional spectrum.

How does the new table transform/augment/detract from the mother as an educational conduit? The mother’s updated knowledge of the world is crucial, to ensure she is not left behind in “digital generation” gaps (Livingstone, 2020). Rapid changes affecting the field of education as it is transforming itself with demands for more e-learning, social-network knowledge-pools, artificial intelligence, digital restructuring, data science surges, and many other developments often leave the homebound mother behind. Children who now grow up as digital natives board the platform easily and expertly. New online regulations are emerging currently—even at the time of this discussion, fake news and alternative social-network platforms are developing as severe threats to democratic practices. Whereas many authoritarian governments are restricting information dissemination online, and tech firms like Facebook and Twitter are facing an onslaught of new laws controlling what content they can or cannot host on their platforms, they are meanwhile also moving into positions of censors of information dissemination. That mothering exercises best serve children’s needs when geared up for the digital world cannot be over-emphasized. Time investment in inducting young children into the new conditions of a digitally- propelled world economy is currently being studied by scholars across the globe:

The MakEY project which researches the role of maker culture in the development of creative and digital skills . . . examined the different roles that parents played within makerspaces, from babysitters to collaborators, and the impact this has on children’s learning. We then explored how the physical and symbolic set up of makerspaces, and the attitudes of educators, influenced parents’ interaction with their children. Finally we asked why tech-resistant Silicon Valley parents have encouraged their children to take part in these tech-focused spaces. (Livingstone, 2020)

Constant online engagement of children within the e-learning environment—where distant authorities upload assignments through educational platforms, emails, and online classrooms (often Zoom or Skype)—also engages the mother, as I noted in a real-life situation in India currently. The mother is vested both with the privilege and the heightened responsibility of overseeing the schoolwork, online safety, security, and privacy of her child. While all children do not progress “up the ladder” similarly (Livingstone, 2020), generally children’s agility on the ladder of participation in online-learning makes the mother’s job more arduous—she is faced with a digital environment she was not born into. This is exacerbated in the case of lower SES mothers. According to researchers, “children care a lot about their privacy online, and are often outraged when we explain how their data is monetized by big business” (Nandagiri et al., 2019, pp. 6–7). Children occasionally accept but also resist and react to the mother’s supervision, especially when they realize that her knowledge base is much more fragile than theirs. Children opine that it’s “none of their business” for digital companies to know and keep so much personal information about them. However, it is within the purview of companies’ business to save data and deal in it. “Children often trust their parents and turn to them when they face difficulties online, being an increasingly risk-averse generation” (Nandagiri et al., 2019, pp. 6–7). This is encouraging, but it implies that there is an urgent need for mothers to be attentive, trained, and adept at interpreting data-flow and privacy. While parents studied by Nandagiri et al. (2019) felt fairly well-informed about Internet safety, most said they felt powerless in protecting their children’s personal data from digital companies.

The mother’s role in the era of globalization—in producing “docile workers” for a neoliberal world economy—is complex when children are more empowered as digital natives, increasingly resistant to dominant discourses, and largely swimming against currents that disciplined previous generations. This intricate shift in power relations, accelerated by digital communications, social networking, and internationalization of education, has been increasingly feeding into but also sometimes resisting the modern state’s effort to control its population through surveillance cultures, data mining, geotagging, and more. “Neoliberal discourses of accountability and control have so permeated public discussion about education in Chicago and the USA, especially in urban schools, that other discourses have been largely silenced in the public conversation about education” (Lipman, 2003, p. 337). As all these influences act upon the child’s environment, the mother labors to work with but very often against the tide of state power as it configures current transactional public life through incessant cycles of social control and power strategies.

The ways in which people live, think, work, love, socialize, connect to the world around them, talk, travel, make friends or enemies, and take care of health and household have been substantially transformed, most recently through bio-hazards, epidemics, terrorism, environmental imbalances, or political upheavals. These factors agitate normal rhythms of societies and get transmitted across a globalized world at supersonic speed. The catastrophic global pandemic of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, infecting and killing people worldwide in 2020 brings us back to the home truth that the mother herself needs continuing education to be able to ensure that her children are ready and informed with all skills necessary to navigate swiftly evolving circumstances.

Discussion: “Mother Capital” in Social Contract Rollbacks

Amid all this change, motherhood and mothering responsibilities have changed drastically but continue to face the same high expectations as was customary in past centuries. While many studies have unambiguously connected and established a positive correlation between the mother’s well-being and educational status and the child’s achievement (Harding et al., 2015), very often academic focus has veered into highlighting the family as the unit that contributes to this enhancement—thereby using terms like “significant caregivers” or “parents” (Sheridan et al., 2019) and blurring out the unique position the mother plays in the child’s nurturing. Nonetheless, some studies have advanced the value-added position of the mother and the selfless choices made, which this article terms “mother capital,” borrowing from Bourdieu’s terminology. It implies that a strong and positive maternal presence improves a child’s chances in life and multiplies advantages the mother had. A longitudinal study of Harvard University alumnae in their 30s yielded rich, nuanced information on the female labor supply, workplace flexibility, and motherhood decisions to confirm that many highly educated women made deliberate choices of delaying motherhood as they completed advanced schooling and established themselves in their careers (Herr & Wolfram, 2012). Authors noted that “despite the large opportunity cost of doing so, . . . a substantial portion leave the labor force, at least temporarily, at the transition of motherhood” (p. 949). The authors’ conclusion that women’s career decisions are often closely connected to how they perceive their responsibility as mothers and “the inflexibility of a woman’s work environment plays a causal role in ‘pushing’ her out of the labor force at Motherhood” (Herr & Wolfram, 2012, p. 949) affirms that, in general, mothers act selflessly, take well-calculated decisions, and overwhelmingly shoulder the responsibility of a child’s early years’ upbringing and education even if it means forgoing career advancements. The Harvard mothers are at the opposite end of the spectrum from mothers in suburban India, who have much less agency, economic stability, educational eligibility, or social comport. Therefore, such motherhood decisions may also be viewed as luxuries that only a privileged few can exercise. In impoverished communities of color and immigrant populations, mothers do not have lucrative “paid maternity leave” options, and they are invariably twisted up by Hobson’s choices of either putting food on the table or tending to their infants.

Acknowledging that motherhood operates within the coordinates of a potent, positive, affective field that contributes to the child’s relational and intellectual development, research on this very crucial factor in child development and education has been scarce and often biased (Tichenor et al., 2017):

Much of the discussion of “motherhood” is generic, with the experiences of white, middle-class women as the presumed norm and the standard against which all mothering is judged. Mother-work in the United States is shaped by cultural schemas about what it means to be a “good mother,” and dominant ideologies and social policies often support some mothers. . . . (Tichenor et al., 2017, p. 1)

According to Tichenor et al. (2017), not only are there differences in social value placed on different kinds of mothers, but intersecting social classifications like race or ethnicity and class or education lead to differences in attitudes toward being a mother. “Motherhood stands as an organizing principle in society,” and this organization—which is simultaneously generic and specific—depends upon the context, as well as the value placed on the women enacting it (Tichenor et al., 2017).

Scholarship exploring intersectionality and race differentials in mothering experience must be self-reflexive and careful to avoid biases arriving from a focus on certain dominant and easily available population samples. Attitudes toward being a mother are dependent on the distinct histories and experiences of various racial, ethnic, and class groups. Contemporary discourse about motherhood in the United States is shaped by the white middle-class ideology of “intensive mothering” (Hays, 1996, cited in Tichenor et al., 2017), which is a hegemonic form of mothering without considerations to racial and cultural diversities. It paves over cultural understandings of motherhood and obscures subcultural differences and inequities of mother work within the material conditions of diverse communities. It proposes that “good” mothering should follow expert guidance, be labor-intensive, and be emotionally absorbing. Not all have the same resources to measure up to those standards, and this hegemonic view has risks of setting up unrealistic expectations and goals from certain mothers.

The combination of racialized stereotypes and class stigmatization is a potent negative for poor women of color in the United States. Research into minority or immigrant communities must take into account the fact that mothering practices that are being measured against standards set by a white-dominant class might not yield reliable or sufficient data to make meaningful impact. For instance, Tichenor et al. (2017) found that “less educated Hispanic women have lower attitudes toward motherhood scores compared with other groups like White, Asian or African American” (p. 13). They surmised that the absence of expected “networks of care” that facilitate the mother’s tasks and are available in their native culture’s extended family system made motherhood more difficult, less manageable, and less desirable to contemporary Hispanic women in the United States. Immigrant mothers need special education themselves so that they can become familiar with and navigate in the host country’s complex educational system.

Since the mother is the model of choice for the child, the child’s cognitive development, creative/intellectual/logical powers, and thinking, reasoning, and memory capabilities all develop in close resonance with the mother’s. This article has reviewed “Motherhood” and tried to explain that it represents not merely institution, identity, or experience but also an invaluable capital, which physically produces and then socially reproduces another individual—her closest reproduction, the child.


Intergenerational transmission of educational achievement has been validated by previous research (Harding et al., 2015), and “feminism cannot possibly hope to remain relevant without acknowledging motherhood in all its contradictions and complexities” (Kawash, 2011, cited in Rose, 2019). These are foundational ideas about the examination of educational advantages derived from mothers as key figures, which this article depended on and drew from. Further empirical research on motherhood and mothering is necessary for understanding grounded issues of how best the mother and motherhood act on education, thereby contributing toward an epistemological base within educational research. Whereas ample data has arrived from interdisciplinary research, many of these studies also introduce biases because of their focus on developed societies. Developing societies still trail behind and need to be made part of the scholarly conversation on the mother’s role in educational achievement and attainment of the child. As Ruddick (1995) states in Maternal Thinking: mothers “are people who see children as demanding protection, nurturing and training. They attempt to respond to children’s demands with care and respect rather than indifference or assault” (p. ix). As a mother takes on responsibility for children’s lives and for society, a mother’s care becomes one of the strongest forces in shaping its populace. Global change endowed with social justice, universal cooperation, and equity, as well as progressive, critical democracy are all possible when seeds can be made to germinate from stable, well-endowed sources of familial and maternal nurturing.

Further Reading

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  • 1 Personal legal experience during child-custody proceedings.

  • 2 Socially normalized religious terms for a sexually pure, martially committed ideal woman.

  • 3 Personal communication.

  • 4 Parent Teacher Associations—usually key agencies in U.S. schools for collaboration between parents and schools.

  • 5 Also called the information age, computer age, or new media age.