Photo by David Bleasdale, Flickr CC

In U.S. culture, we get a lot of messages about what a “good” mother should do. A good mother should always make time for her kids, model healthy eating habits, throw her kids a birthday party, and so on. Sociologists have  acknowledged how motherhood is raced and classed, but fewer studies recognize the ways that constructions of motherhood are dependent on ability status. In her new article, Angela Frederick argues that popular ideas about “good mothers” assume these women are able-bodied. As a result, mothers with disabilities are excluded from mainstream images and parenting advice, perceived as threats to their children’s well-being, and disciplined by medical professionals because of this perceived risk.

Frederick conducted 42 interviews with women who had sensory (blind, deaf, hard of hearing) or physical disabilities. In the interviews, women highlighted the ways doctors perceived them as risks to their children. For instance, one doctor initiated a social services investigation because he assumed a mother who was partially paralyzed on one side could not care for her child. Doctors also pressured women into submitting their children for genetic tests, even when the mothers’ disabilities were not genetic. 

While in some ways their disabilities made these women targets of greater attention from doctors, in other ways medical facilities rendered them invisible by disregarding their needs. Blind women, for instance, were often forced to verbally provide confidential medical information because the medical office did not have an online option to fill out paperwork. And parenting advice materials, like magazines and parenting books, often ignore the experiences of mothers with disabilities in the advice they offer.

The way medical professionals interact with mothers who have disabilities and the way mothers are constructed in parenting advice materials reflect a “normalcy project,” according to Frederick. “Good” mothering has become synonymous with able-bodied mothers. Even when women with disabilities follow standard expectations of “normal” mothering, they remain suspect as a potential risk to their children.