Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 36, September 2014

JaneMarie Maher and Wendy Chavkin (editors)

The Globalization of Motherhood: Deconstructions and Reconstructions of Biology and Care

London and New York: Routledge, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-415-77894-7 (hbk), xi + 271 pp

reviewed by Kristina Göransson

  1. The Globalization of Motherhood: Deconstructions and Reconstructions of Biology and Care brings together research from the fields of demography, sociology, law and public health to spotlight how different aspects of motherhood are transformed by the processes of globalisation. The global remaking of motherhood is a broad and not easily defined topic that touches on numerous themes and questions. This book narrows that scope by focusing on three major themes: cross-national care labour (chapters 3 and 4); transnational adoption (chapters 5 and 6); and new reproductive technologies (chapters 7 to 9).
  2. In the first part, editors Wendy Chavkin and JaneMaree Maher lay out the theoretical framework that ties together the empirical chapters. By using the notion the 'globalization of motherhood,' the volume's editors bring to light interconnections between seemingly disparate aspects of contemporary mothering. They define motherhood as an identified relationship between mother and child that is entangled with physical, emotional and social activities, which include the biological labour of reproduction as well as the social labour of care work. 'The convergence of dramatic declines in birth rates worldwide (aside from sub-Saharan Africa), the rise of the untrammelled global movement of capital, people, and information, and the rapid-fire dissemination of a host of new medical technologies has fuelled the disaggregation of the biologic and care-giving components of motherhood that we term "the globalization of motherhood"' (p. 3). The globalisation of motherhood is thus a metaphor for the ways women's reproductive activities (biological as well as social) are transformed by global economic and social trends, particularly the increased mobility of people, capital and technology.
  3. The second part of the book deals with issues of transnational care and rearing. Brenda Yeoh and Shirlena Huang's chapter addresses the transformation of mothering arrangements in Singapore. In Singapore, and many other Asian societies, educational success is perceived as the primary route to upward social mobility. In this context, mothering practices tend to move away from basic caregiving and nurturing (tasks that are increasingly delegated to domestic helpers) and instead centre on supporting and coaching children in their academic activities. The authors discuss this reinterpretation of motherhood in relation to three different groups of mothers: mothers whose busy working lives require them to carefully select which mothering tasks to prioritise, such as those related to children's educational endeavours, and practice 'discretionary mothering'; mothers who work abroad to secure the finances needed to support their children's education and practice 'long-distance mothering'; and mothers who relocate with their children to secure better educational opportunities, what the authors call 'mobile mothering.' Next Gioconda Herrera examines how family reunification and labour policies in receiving countries-in this case Spain and the United States-affect Ecuadorian women's strategies of transnational mothering. In effect Herrera reveals how choices and strategies that appear to take place on the individual and family level are in fact very much shaped by, and closely entwined with, migration policies. In the case of Spain, there is greater mobility for Ecuadorian transnational families, which is enabled by the family reunification policy, whereas in the USA, restrictions on family reunification have resulted in structural rather than temporary transnational arrangements.
  4. Part three examines transnational adoption and its implications for motherhood. Peter Selman's chapter takes a close look at how the practice of inter-country adoption is characterised by a range of different 'motherhoods,' such as lost motherhood (i.e., birth parents) and stolen motherhood (i.e., parents who have been coerced to give up their children). Selman also discusses the rights of the child and adopted children who seek to reconnect with their birth parents. The latter part of his chapter provides an overview of current trends in inter-country adoptions that looks at both receiving and sending countries. Next Barbara Yngvesson examines how the obligations of care bend (as opposed to end) for women and children separated through adoption, despite the formal 'relinquishment' of the child in adoption law. Based on interviews with adoptees, Yngvesson illustrates how care is displaced in the adoption process, as 'the birth mother urges adoptive parents to provide the love she is unable to give her child' (p. 107). To illustrate the emotions experienced by adopted children in relation to their birth mother, adoptive mother, birth country and adoptive country, the author presents long excerpts from interviews (these interesting accounts are nonetheless too lengthy to follow without difficulty).
  5. The fourth part addresses the development and globalisation of assisted reproductive technologies. Sayantani DasGupta and Shamita Das Dasgupta examine assisted reproductive technologies in Indian communities. They look specifically at how traditional constructions of motherhood in India clash with western notions of bodily ownership and autonomous selfhood when Indian women 'rent out' their wombs to western couples. This chapter also scrutinises the notion of son preference and the related phenomenon of Indians travelling abroad for sex-selective abortions. The authors argue that such new reproductive technologies in combination with the long-standing notion of son preference undermine Indian women's well-being and agency. Margaret Jolly's chapter examines how different fertility regimes represent actual continuities between colonial and contemporary global economies. Based on ethnographic and historical material she examines how this proposition plays out in two different contexts: the Pacific state of Vanuatu and Thailand. Lastly, Marcia Inhorn addresses the phenomenon of reproductive tourism in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. In the course of fieldwork, she interviewed nearly 240 individuals of Indian, Lebanese, Emirate, British, Pakistani, Sudanese, Filipino and Palestinian origin who, in different ways, are involved in reproductive activities. Through the narratives of these individuals, she highlights different forms of 'reproflows'; infertile couples, egg donors, medical specialists, and so forth, travel to and from the UAE. Inhorn concludes that reproductive tourism and assisted motherhood provide striking examples of 'stratified reproduction,' that is, the ways in which reproductive tasks are based on hierarchies of class, ethnicity, gender and place in a global economy. [1]
  6. The fifth and final part of the book consists of two concluding chapters. First Joanne Csete and Reilly Anne Willis discuss globalised motherhood in relation to human rights, and in particular, women's rights (including their reproductive rights). They ask, in what ways does globalised motherhood pose a challenge to human rights? As the empirical chapters illustrate, globalised motherhood is inevitably enmeshed with various forms of inequality, whether they be North-South, class and income-based, or sex and gender inequalities. In the epilogue, the editors Chavkin and Maher synthesise the different themes of global motherhood covered in the volume. They point out that '[t]here are no ready conclusions about whether the fragmentation and reconfigurations of motherhood under the conditions of globalization deliver women into harsher oppression or offer more opportunities' (p. 228), but the empirical examples recounted in the chapters clearly unveil the 'layered complexity and multi-directionality of stratified reproduction in this globalized world' (p. 228). Policy makers need to carefully consider if and how developments in reproductive biology and care advance equity between women and men, globally as well as within countries.
  7. Overall, this book is a contribution to the study of reproduction, motherhood, and the ways these are linked to global economic and social processes, as well as to technological developments. As such, it is of interest to researchers and students concerned with these issues especially in the Asia-Pacific region, but beyond it, too. However, as with many edited volumes, this collection of papers comes across as somewhat incoherent, which may in part result from the extensiveness of the research field represented by motherhood and reproduction. The notion "globalization motherhood" is presented as the theoretical core tying the different chapters together, however its analytical relevance remains vague and unconvincing; it is mostly employed as a vague metaphor (as opposed to an analytical tool) for the transnational implications of contemporary motherhood. Another theoretical concept that could have been further developed in each of the empirical chapters is that of stratified reproduction. To sum up, the chapters are interesting in their own right, but as an edited volume it would need a more convincing common theoretical framework. The lack of theoretical and empirical coherence between the chapters is to some extent offset by the volume's solid introduction and conclusion.


    [1] The term 'stratified reproduction' was originally coined by Shellee Colen, '"With respect and feelings": voices of West Indian childcare and domestic workers in New York City,' in All American Women: Lines that Divide, Ties that Bind, ed. Johnnetta B. Cole, New York: Free Press, 1986, pp. 46–70.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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