Twentieth century ideals: The construction of U.S. foster motherhood

Date of Completion

January 1997


Anthropology, Cultural|Social Work|Women's Studies|Sociology, Individual and Family Studies




This research explores motherhood in late twentieth-century America through an ethnography of Connecticut foster mothers. Data are contextualized within the gender, social, personal, political, and historical relations that shape and condition women's experiences. Themes of foster mothering work women identified as important are: (1) the construction and experience of foster mothering relationships; (2) the construction of kinship relationships through affective claims of belonging; (3) mothering and labor: the political economy of fostering; (4) foster relationships and the presence of "the state;" (5) foster mothering work, knowledge, and expertise; (6) the social and familial context of fostering; and (7) the experience of loss and bereavement.^ This research contributes to feminist discourses on the politics of motherhood by examining the tensions that exist between individuals and state institutions around contested definitions of motherhood. On a theoretical level, this tension has implications for changing constructions of gender, gender relations, and kinship. Foster mothers construct an identity of "mother," "child," and "family" based on affective claims of belonging which do not dichotomize "mothering" and "wage labor." Kinship networks created by women through their experiences contest the patriarchal, nuclear family ideals on which state-sponsored foster care programs in the U.S. rest, in which families must be constituted solely from legal and biological determinants and foster mothers-foster children must necessarily constitute a commodified relationship.^ On a practical level, this research has implications for the revision of social and child welfare policy. Nationally, the number of children entering the foster care system is rapidly outpacing the number of available foster parents. This places the foster care system in a state of crisis. Effective child welfare reform requires that the experiences of foster parents be well understood. Prior research has excluded foster mothers from the "official" discourse on fostering; thus foster mothers' identities and experiences have been constructed for them and not by them. This research provides the experiences and perspectives of women who provide a critical social service and thereby corrects this lapse. ^