I Was Expecting More from This Book: Modern Motherhood

When I first came across Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945-2000 (2012) by Angela Davis, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I eyed it for a few weeks, and then I broke down and ordered it. As soon as it arrived, I was so excited to read it. I even posted a picture of it on Instagram. Isn’t it lovely?


Well, now I’ve read it. And I was underwhelmed.  I expected more depth and meat about what it meant to be a mother during this time period and how culture and society shaped those conceptions.  However, what I got instead was what seemed to be a compilation of dissertation chapters on different themes the author found among the women she interviewed. She conducted oral histories for the qualitative data, which is awesome, but the way the data was presented turned out to be dry, uninformative, and lacking in analysis.

I know, you’re thinking that if you picked up a dissertation-made-book that wasn’t dry, had good information, and contained expert analysis, you still wouldn’t want to read it. I really wanted to read it, given my love for the culture and politics of motherhood class I took several years ago. This seemed like it could be complementary to those readings, and that it would inform some of my historical research on women in the workplace and motherhood as a profession.  This book did not.

Davis made a great argument for the legitimacy of oral history as a research method. She argued that it allowed the women to be the central figures of the book, and their experiences came first. Not only do we learn about their lives, but we learn about their reactions, thoughts, and feelings. I appreciated this part of the book, in case I ever decide to conduct oral histories as a research method, but I also liked that she placed her research firmly within the feminist goal of filling gaps and silences in history.

One chapter did enlighten me on the meaning behind play groups.  I started a neighborhood play group years ago. It was a great way to meet friends, get out of the house, and socialize our children. I don’t participate much any more, but occasionally somebody will resurrect it for the summer time months. Davis noted that play groups have been categorized as “middle class,” as voluntarily organizing a function and then volunteering time and effort to make sure it goes is a middle class phenomenon. While some scholars have argued that play groups reinforce or operate within the model of patriarchy with men at work and women at home, Davis did recognize the positive aspects of play groups from the interviews she did with women. They are an “opportunity for social contacts, work outside the home and a break from their children” (p. 38). She must be referring to the model of play group in which everybody dumps their children off at somebody else’s house for an hour or two. That isn’t the kind we had.

Another section explores the education of mothers. I was particularly struck by the fact that many women did not know anything about menstruation or child birth until it happened to them. This echoes what Brumberg found in her historical study of girlhood and diaries, that girls often were not given information about their bodies from trusted adults. They were instead surprised by maturation events or read about them in books. Davis suggested, “The lack of communication that occurred within many families throughout the second half of the twentieth century also accounts for why some commentators believed it was so important for women to be educated for motherhood outside the home” (p. 65).  This suggested another reason for the rise of the sanitation movement and domestic science movement during this time.

Overall, there were moments of this book that I liked and parts that I found useful.  Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this, unless you are specifically focused on the oral histories of women in England during this time period. It could have been more interesting than it was.


22 thoughts on “I Was Expecting More from This Book: Modern Motherhood

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  1. I often guess that nonfiction books presented as for a general audience are actually dissertation chapters, but usually someone has written them in a style that is also appropriate for a more general audience, which I think is becoming more acceptable in dissertation writing. Too bad about this one.

    1. Yeah, it was very likely a dissertation or a large academic research project. I think Davis might be a more established scholar, so maybe not her dissertation. I still like reading those, but this one just lacked interest and conclusions.

      1. I’m especially surprised about the lack of conclusions from an academic. I was teaching a college-level technical writing course once, and as a submission for a large end-of-term project, one of my students submitted a bunch of office correspondence (it was a real-world project) with absolutely no analysis at all. I was shocked in that setting, and it is even more shocking in a published dissertation or book.

        1. I know what you mean. You can sometimes see that coming from a student, but not an experienced researcher! Of course, now that I’m writing my dissertation, I’m wondering just how well I’m doing at this myself…

  2. Well, you may have been disappointed in this book but your review was wonderful. It didn’t make me want to order the book, but it did leave me wanting more of your writing and thoughts.

    Once your dissertation is written and presented, I hope you will consider reworking it for a general audience and getting it into print. You have a lot to say, and a wonderful voice in which you say it.

    1. Thank you. You just made my day. I do have grand dreams of making my dissertation a book someday. We’ll see. First I have to finish writing it. 😉

  3. On your comment about play groups: in the UK a play group (for toddlers to nursery school age) is most likely to be staffed by community volunteers, and take place in a village hall, or other community space. Parents can stay and help if they wish, but it’s not required. I think they’re more common in rural areas these days. A ‘Mothers & babies’ or ‘babies and toddlers’ group, is where mums would socialise with their babies, though they often meet in community spaces rather than individual homes.

      1. I generally read several reviews before purchasing a book so that I get the general concept of the story and skill of the writer. Maybe this book had poor reviews.

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