Mother–Daughter Relationships in Families with Substance Abuse Treatment and Child Welfare Service Background

Elina Virokannas

'Women's mothering is one of the few universal and enduring elements of the sexual division of labour' stated Chodorow (1978) in her well-known volume about the reproduction of mothering over 30 years ago. Chodorow's main idea was that girls and boys both identify at first with their own mothers, who are constantly present in their early childhood. Boys are then taught to separate from their mothers and learn the gender role of their fathers, who are absent most of the time. In contrast, the identification process for girls continues with their mothers, and they become caretaking and loving mothers as adults.

Chodorow's object relations theory has been challenged as Western society has changed and women's participation in the labour market has increased remarkably. The criticism has pointed out that the focus of her theory is centred on a single, normative pattern and that the diversity in mothering is neglected (Schreurs 1993, 4; Glenn 1994, 5). Still, the main idea that girls identify with their mothers has succeeded in maintaining its explanatory value in academic, therapeutic and lay people's worldviews. The mother–daughter relationship has been considered significant and has inspired researchers with the traditional psychoanalytical views as well as those engaged in sociological studies (for example, Mens-Verhulst, Schreurs and Woertman 1993; Ribbens 1994). The early mother–child relationship has been understood as forming the root of the process of becoming a human subject (Kanter 1993, 26).

More recently, several feminist researchers and social scientists have discussed the topic of motherhood and mothering from varied viewpoints. Mothers have been seen as exhausted (Jokinen 1996), living separately from their children (Nousiainen 2004) and struggling hard to be 'good' caretakers when using illegal drugs (Hardesty and Black 1999; Baker and Carson 1999) or, for example, as the clients of child welfare services (Hall, Slembrouck and Sarangi 2006, 107–23). On the other hand, generational relationships in the families with substance abuse and childcare problems had not very often been the focus of the social work research although, it is widely known that substance abuse and social problems accumulate to the same families even on three or four generations (for example, Holmila, Bardy and Kouvonen 2008; Toimiva lastensuojelu 2012). My focus in this study is on the mother–daughter relationships of women who have abused illegal drugs and received treatment and social welfare services and who are mothers themselves. The data is derived from one-time, individual interviews with 19 women, which I conducted between May and December of 2005 in two institutions for female substance abusers in southern Finland. The idea of the interviews was to discuss themes such as their current life situations, childhood family, school and studying, use of intoxicants, male partners and drug treatment. The main focus was on experiences of pregnancy and motherhood.

My primary aim is to consider the self-conceptions of the interviewed women as they talked about their own mothers at different points of their lives. I look at the various categories of the mother–daughter relationships given in their explanations of their own life as daughters and mothers. The difference between my study to those of the 1990s (Mens-Verhulst Schreurs and Woertman 1993; Ribbens 1994) is that most of the women in my study had been emotionally abandoned and had experienced abuse from their mothers (and fathers), and in some cases had been removed from their home and placed into foster care as a child. Furthermore, they had acted in more or less similar ways with their own kids.

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