The case of the pregnant CEO and the disappearing body

Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer (Photo credit: ifindkarma)

When it was announced last month that Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, a Fortune 500 company, was six months’ pregnant at the time of her appointment, many commentators in online and traditional news media forums were approving. It was noted that Yahoo’s decision to appoint her was a sign that women had come a long way and were no longer as disadvantaged by their reproductive choices. When Mayer further announced that she would only be taking few weeks off on maternity leave following the birth of her baby son, and that she would work from home even during this brief period of leave, again the reaction of many commentators was positive. It was argued that a good example was being set and that women even at the very top of their professions could both reproduce and continue in their successful careers.

The issue of the successful woman ‘having it all’  resurfaced for debate. Some commentators were concerned that Mayer’s decision to work through an extremely brief maternity leave would raise the expectations of employers in relation to their own female employees. Several ‘mummy bloggers’ pointed out that Mayer may not realise how having a baby may affect her priorities. Interestingly enough, little mention was made of the huge attention given only weeks before to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, in which she identified the difficulties she and others had experienced in juggling motherhood with an extremely high-profile and demanding job.

To make it clear, I do not doubt that Mayer will be able to perform at the level expected of her during her pregnancy and following the birth of her son. I agree that it is salutary that she was promoted to the top job by recruiters who knew of her pregnancy. I imagine that Mayer will not display the projectile vomiting and uncontrolled emotional volatility evidenced in the pregnant women in the recent film What to Expect When You’re Expecting, an exaggerated portrayal of pregnant embodiment played for laughs (see here for my previous post on this). What I do want to do in contributing to this debate is bring the body back in (rather more subtly than this film did) and suggest that these bodily experiences may make Mayer’s first year in the job more challenging than if she had not gone through them.

All the noises of approval emerging in the traditional and social media, and the comments of Mayer herself, failed to acknowledge that pregnancy, childbirth, the post-partum period and the care of infants are supremely embodied experiences. The classic Cartesian mind/body split is evidenced in these discussions, assuming that one’s disembodied mind or will can and should take precedence over and control one’s fleshly body.

On one level the acceptance that a pregnant woman soon to give birth will be able to manage a top-level job is a feminist dream. It counters the common ideas in circulation for centuries that women are inferior to men because they are less able to exert rational control over their bodies and are therefore less capable of jobs involving high-level cognitive functioning. Such assumptions position the pregnant, menstruating or menopausal woman in particular as emotionally volatile, a slave to her hormones.

On the other hand, however, the discourse celebrating Mayer’s choice to work through her brief maternity leave loses sight of the fleshly body altogether. This attempt to make the body disappear bears with it its own limitations. Even those women who experience few health problems and feel very well during pregnancy cannot avoid the sheer physical reality of moving through space with their expanding and much heavier bodies, as the feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young (1990) has noted.

So too, childbirth, however it is experienced, demands much of women’s bodies, and it takes some time for women to recover in the postpartum period. This is especially the case if they have had the major abdominal surgery of caesarean section, extensive damage to the perineum or other physical trauma from a vaginal birth. Mayer will be dealing with these embodied experiences at the same time as she is learning to interact with and care for her new infant. Her baby son will himself be taking some time to adjust to life outside of the womb and making his own embodied needs powerfully apparent.

Although no doubt Mayer will have plenty of help from paid and unpaid carers, unless she employs a night-nanny or her partner rises to deal with bottle-feeds, nappy changes and infant soothing during the night, she will experience major sleep deprivation. Even if she does not breastfeed, she will have to deal with leakages and physical sensations as her breasts adjust to hormonal changes following the birth.

Mayer is in a rare top position as CEO of a major company. Yet this exalted position means that she, even more than other women, will be expected to conform to what philosopher Drew Leder (1990) has termed the ideal of the ‘absent body’: the body of which we and others are unaware because it is so fully under our rational control. The culture of the professional world in particular seeks to ignore the demands of the fleshly body. Cultural geographer Robyn Longhurst’s (2001) research with New Zealand and Scottish people in managerial work positions, both men and women, found that the interviewees strongly emphasised the importance of presenting a corporate body image at work. This involved being well-groomed, wearing a standard ‘corporate uniform’ of business suit and having a body that was physically fit and not overweight. Even cosmetic surgery is now becoming part of the techniques of the presentation of the professional self for some people in their quest to present the most perfect image possible.

All these practices of the self combined to present a corporate identity that was considered tightly controlled of its body boundaries, impervious to outside penetration and therefore powerful and rational. In such a context, the body, in effect disappears: its demands, its privations, its leakages, are all covered over in the interests of presenting a self that is rational, of the mind, competent and controlled. It is for this reason, as Longhurst (2001, 2005) points out, that women in such workplaces often find it difficult when they are pregnant and experiencing nausea, fatigue, the frequent need to urinate or crippling back-ache, all common bodily experiences in pregnancy, as they feel that they must not let their bodies betray them.

In pointing out these issues, I want to avoid any suggestion that women are any more at the mercy of their bodies than are men and that they therefore cannot perform successfully in top-level jobs. John Coates (2012) showed in his recent book on male traders at the New York Stock Exchange that much of their behaviour is influenced by fluctuations in hormones such as testosterone, adrenaline and cortisol. This leads in some cases to excessive exuberance bordering on mania or conversely pessimism that can then affect their decision-making and have major repercussions for the economy. As Longhurst’s research showed, both men and women in the professional workplace are expected to conform to a certain body demeanour and presentation. Those individuals who are overweight, perspire heavily, have a drinking problem, have a disability or chronic illness, are emotionally volatile and so on are viewed as not conforming to the desired norm, regardless of their gender.

I certainly do not wish to support contentions that pregnant women and new mothers should withdraw from the public sphere, as was common in previous eras. But a continuing corporate culture in which the demands and needs of the living, fleshly body are ignored or discounted potentially disadvantages all workers

References

Coates, J. (2012) The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom or Bust. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Leder, D. (1990) The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Longhurst, R. (2001) Bodies: Exploring Fluid Boundaries. London: Routledge.

Longhurst, R. (2005) Maternities: Gender, Bodies and Space. London: Routledge.

Young, I.M. (1990) Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

The ‘milkmother’: an intriguing way of conceptualising motherhood

National Museum

National Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other day I came across a new term in the feminist journal Hecate – ‘milkmother’, a term invented and used by Pamela Douglas (2010). Douglas uses ‘milkmother’ to ‘denote the pregnant, birthing, and physiologically, or metaphorically lactating woman’. She argues that ‘lactating’ not only incorporates its literal meaning — secreting breast milk for the consumption of an infant — but also a metaphorical meaning  — ‘offering the particular minute-by-minute physical nurturance that very young children require, regardless of feeding method’. Lactating in this metaphorical meaning, therefore, involves the giving of the self to one’s child in the myriad of ways that is demanded of mothers: touching, cleaning, holding, cuddling, stroking, feeding, dealing with illness, rocking to sleep, constantly thinking about and meeting the child’s needs.

The concept of the milkmother for me encapsulates the blurring of the boundaries of the body/self a woman experiences during pregnancy, childbirth and caring for infants and young children (Lupton 2012). As I noted in an earlier post ‘Pregnancy and loss of control’, pregnant bodies are considered permeable and uncontained. So too, for women engaging in caring for their infants and young children, their bodies/selves become intertwined with those of their children. This involves what sociologists of the body describe as ‘intercorporeality’, or the blurring of boundaries between bodies. Milkmothers find themselves as embodied subjects, thinking through and with their bodies as they interact with their children. Their sense of self becomes intersubjective, or linked to that of another/s. No longer autonomous and individuated, milkmothers respond to their children in relational and interdependent ways.

This blurring of subjectivity and bodies, however, can be confronting. Some women experience pregnant embodiment as confronting in its two-bodies-in-one state, and feel as if their own body is being ‘taken over’ by the preborn body. They even describe pregnancy as like being occupied by an alien Other. Many women feel challenged by the demands made upon them by their infants and young children. These feelings are articulated when women discuss their embodied relationship with the breastfeeding infant. Many find the intercorporeality of the experience highly pleasurable and contributing to strong feelings of intimacy and tenderness with the infant. Others find this intercorporeality confronting and engulfing of their own sense of body/self. In one of my articles (Lupton, 2000) I referred to the ‘love-hate’ relationship some women talked about in interviews about their early mothering experiences. They had invested in the ideal of the ‘good mother’ as always ‘being there’ for her children, but also found this to be difficult to live up to.

My research suggests that the experience of motherhood, at least during the period of infancy and early childhood, may never fully include a strong sense of individuation from one’s child’s body (see Lupton 2012). Nor does this process necessarily follow a clear trajectory: mothers may move between states of interconnectedness, at times feeling very close and ‘at one’ with their foetus/infant, at other times experiencing their bodies/selves as very separate from, and even in conflict with, the infant body/self.

Being a milkmother clashes with the independent, autonomous self that is so valued in post-femininist western societies. It also conflicts with the ‘Yummy Mummy’ persona that Douglas discusses in her article. The ‘Yummy Mummy’ appears to be supremely untroubled by any bodily or emotional effects of caring for her children and expresses the same autonomous self of those without children. Her body is slim, fit and attractive, not leaking fluids such as breast milk or rendered flabby from excess weight put on during pregnancy. Unlike the ‘milkmother’, therefore, this maternal archetype appears to be able to contain and discipline her body, and to individuate her sense of self and embodiment from her children. She appears serenely unchanged by the enormous physical and emotional alterations caused by pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood.

Douglas calls for more positive representations of the milkmother that goes beyond the unrealistic ‘Yummy Mummy’ persona. The emotional and bodily experiences of mothers of infants and young children, she asserts, need to be recognised and celebrated but not airbrushed. The blurring of bodily boundaries, the heightened emotions of the caring experience (including the frustration, anger and even hate that women may feel at times towards their children) and the physical changes, both reversible and irreversible, wrought by motherhood — all these should be acknowledged and accepted as integral to the experience of early motherhood.

References

Douglas, P. (2010) Yummy mummy and the medicalised milkmother. Hecate, 36(1/2), 119–35.

Lupton, D. (2000) ‘A love/hate relationship’: the ideals and experiences of first-time mothers. Journal of Sociology, 36(1), 50–63.

Lupton, D. (2012) Configuring Maternal, Preborn and Infant Embodiment. Sydney Health & Society Group Working Paper No. 2. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group. Available here.

Can a ‘good mother’ have a ‘fat child’?

Chrissie Swan with her sons

This week an Australian television and radio personality, Chrissie Swan, appeared in a cover story of a well-known national women’s magazine talking about her family. Swan has two sons, one a baby and other aged three. The story included photos of Swan and her sons, which demonstrated to readers that her elder boy, Leo, was rather chubby. Following publication of the story, social media forums erupted with a debate about whether Swan should have ‘allowed’ Leo to become fat and proffering advice about what she should be doing about it, including comments highly critical of Swan.

This criticism received much attention in other parts of the internet and on mainstream Australian news media. Swan was forced to appear on television and radio programs to defend herself. She noted that she herself had struggled with her weight throughout her life and had recently become aware that Leo was ‘a bit heavy’ and was working to do something about it. Swan also commented on the unkind nature of the comments and that she had been reduced to tears in response.

It is not surprising that this debate received so much attention. It brings together two extremely potent and value-laden cultural concepts: that of the ‘good mother’ and that of the ‘fat child’. Dominant concepts of the ‘good mother’ contend that mothers should closely monitor and regulate their children’s bodies, paying careful attention to their health and wellbeing and acting upon any problems that may arise. They should consult expert advice as part of their efforts to promote their children’s health.

The figure of the ‘fat child’ has received a high level of public health and mass media attention since the late 1990s. A moral panic has developed around the issue of ‘childhood obesity’ and it has been argued that children are now more overweight than at any other time in human history. Fatness in general is surrounded with moral meanings concerning lack of self-control, greed and laziness. When small children are considered to be overweight, these moral judgements are transferred to their mothers. As in the case of Swan, such women become positioned as ‘bad mothers’ who have neglected their children’s health.

What is also evident from the criticism of Swan is that mothers, particularly those in public life but also ordinary women, are constantly placed in a position in which their parenting and the way in which they care for their children are open to judgement from others. This begins when pregnant women in public spaces may be castigated by strangers for smoking or consuming alcohol. Judgement of mothers follows into early infancy, when women who do not breastfeed, or those who breastfeed in public, may be reprimanded and called to account by others. Throughout their children’s early years, problems or health conditions experienced by their children are frequently positioned as the result of a mother’s failings to heed expert or lay advice about how best to care for her children.

I have found in my own research with mothers about their beliefs and experiences of promoting their infants’ and young children’s health that they are highly aware of conforming to the ‘good mother’ ideal in taking responsibility for their children’s health, development and wellbeing. They are also aware of the judgements that other people made of their actions, including other mothers. Most mothers in my study were concerned about the ‘obesity problem’ and attempted to ensure that their children ate a healthy diet and exercised. They even tried to act as role models for their children in relation to these behaviours by disciplining and regulating their own bodies. But the women were also confronted with the fact that they do not have full control over their children’s health, development and wellbeing. Despite their mothers’ best efforts, children sometimes become ill or have an allergy, developmental or behavioural problem, or may refuse to eat the ‘right’ kinds of foods.

Concepts of health risks have become privatised to the sphere of the home and to the figure of the ‘good mother’. Notions of fate as causing ill-health or disease have given way to the idea that these conditions are the result of the individual failing to take up medical or public health advice to engage in health-promoting behaviour. As a result, women blame themselves for their children’s health problems, or are blamed by others. And the role of the fathers of these children in caring for them and protecting their health are barely mentioned.

References

Bell, K., McNaughton, D. and Salmon, A. (2009) Medicine, morality and mothering: public health discourses on foetal alcohol exposure, smoking around children and childhood overnutrition. Critical Public Health, 19(2), 155—70.

Lupton, D. (2011) ‘The best thing for the baby’: mothers’ concepts and experiences related to promoting their infants’ health and development. Health, Risk and Society, 13(7/8), 637—51.

Lupton, D. (2012) ‘I’m Always on the Lookout for What Could be Going Wrong’: Mothers’ Concepts and Experiences of Health and Illness in their Young Children. Sydney Health & Society Group Working Paper No. 1. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/21238351.

Attachment parenting or extreme parenting?

Last week I wrote a piece for ‘The Conversation’ discussion website (http://theconversation.edu.au) about the US edition of Time magazine, 21 May 2012, that featured a cover image of young, attractive woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son (http://theconversation.edu.au/time-2-extreme-parenting-time-magazine-style-7055). I looked at the various responses to this cover image on the internet. Many of these were from mothers themselves or from professional female commentators and bloggers.

What I found was interesting.  Some people were horrified at the idea that a boy who could be old enough to remember suckling from his mother’s breast will still be doing so. There were many claims that he would be humiliated when he grew older at being featured in such a controversial and public image. The notion that a child as old as three was still breastfeeding seemed abhorrent to some. Breastfeeding here becomes sexualised and bestowed with incestuous meanings, simply because the child is old enough ‘to remember’ gaining comfort and pleasure from his mother’s breast. The fact that his mother was slim, attractive, young, dressed in a hip manner in tight black jeans, and blonde, simply added to the sexualisation of the image.

Other commentators were relatively accepting of the breastfeeding, but took offence at the headline of the cover, which read ‘Are you Mom enough?’. These are fighting words, suggesting that women who do not engage in practices such as breastfeeding for years are not ‘good enough’ mothers. The words ‘Mom enough’ imply that there are gradations of ‘Momness’ (to use a rather clumsy neologism) and that ‘real Moms’ are those who engage in ‘extreme parenting’ . ‘Extreme parenting’ was a term also used on the front cover and in the detailed article published within about attachment parenting and one of its most prominent advocates, American paediatrician Dr Bill Sears.

In contrast to the deliberate provocation of the cover imagery and wording, I found the article quite well-balanced, looking at both the pros and cons of engaging in attachment parenting, which involves baby-wearing in slings and co-sleeping as well as extended breastfeeding and breastfeeding on demand. Sears argues that these practices, based on age-old customs still found in non-western societies, contribute to infants’ physical and psychological wellbeing. According to the article, more and more mothers are taking up his advice and engaging in attachment parenting practices.

Nonetheless, as case studies used in the article attest, attachment parenting (also ‘extreme parenting’ according to Time) can be extremely hard work for the mothers who adopt it. In fact, it clashes with the contemporary notion that both women and men are autonomous individuals, freely making choices about their lives and engaging actively in the workforce without constraint. Attachment parenting directly challenges these assumptions, because it counters the notion of the mother and the infant or child as autonomous subjects. Instead, it rests upon the assumption that the mother-child dyad is interembodied, that the boundaries between the two are blurred rather than distinct, and that the mother, instead of actively seeking to foster autonomy and independence in her child, will follow its cues and submit to its neediness for her bodily presence.

For people in contemporary western societies, these are highly challenging and confronting concepts. This perhaps explains the controversy over the cover image and the use of the term ‘extreme’ to describe attachment parenting.

For sociological studies on women’s experiences of attachment parenting, see the work of Charlotte Faircloth: http://kent.academia.edu/CharlotteFaircloth. For my own work on concepts of infants’ bodies, see Deborah Lupton (in press) ‘Infant embodiment and interembodiment: a review of sociocultural perspectives’, Childhood and Deborah Lupton (2012) Configuring Maternal, Preborn and Infant Embodiment. Sydney Health & Society Working Paper No. 2. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group, available at http://hdl.handle.net/2123/8363.