Fractured mothering: African American mothers at the crossroads of expectations and reality

Mae Henderson. “Fractured mothering: African American mothers at the crossroads of expectations and reality.” Diss. U of Washington, 2006.

Motherhood is a central role defining women's lives. The ideal mother is all-caring and selfless; she is always available and willing to sacrifice her life for the life of her child. The ideal mother does not leave her children and has no interests or desires outside of her role as mother to her biological children. But the reality of mothering is often very different from the ideal.

In 1995 approximately 1 million mothers lived away from their biological children under the age of 18, most giving up their children voluntarily. This study uses the voices of ten African American women to help us understand the lives and experiences of live-away mothers. Most of the women in this study were not raised by their biological mothers. They often faced lives of childhood abuse and neglect. Many of these women became mothers at a very young age under less than ideal circumstances. Their children were left with family members, friends, and/or Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Often mother's relinquishment was intended as a temporary arrangement but ended up being more or less permanent. Sometimes children were simply taken by family members. Others were relinquished so mothers could continue schooling or they were removed from the home so mothers could otherwise improve their lives.

This research highlights that relinquishing mothers clearly understand the importance of nurturing and caring for their children but they lack the tools necessary for them to provide this care on their own. This is frequently the basis for their relinquishing. Often the mothers could not protect themselves from a world of poverty, drugs, and/or homelessness. In these cases, relinquishment was an attempt to provide a better opportunity for survival and for the welfare of their children.

Acknowledging mothers' needs and understanding relinquishment as a form of nurturing will help social service agencies to reevaluate guidelines to optimize the social and psychological well-being of both, relinquishing mothers and their children.

Further research that includes an analysis across racial and socio-economic boundaries would provide a more thorough analysis of women's experiences and attitudes about what it means to mother.

Status of Research or Work: 
Completed/published
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