- Reconstructing Motherhood and Disability in an Age of "Perfect" Babies
Anthropologists have recently begun to show more interest in applying ethnographic research methods to the analysis of the social and cultural contexts of disability. However, there is still much to be done in order to demonstrate anthropology's relevance to the study of physical and intellectual disability, the relationship between disability and reproductive technologies, and concepts of normality and abnormality. Gail Heidi Landsman's new book on finding meaning in motherhood in the U.S. when a child has a disability is a very important step in this direction. Landsman explains in her introduction that her monograph is
…about transformation, about the meanings mothers of "imperfect" children give to motherhood and to disability in an age in which infants are commodified and technology seems to hold out the promise of "perfect" babies. It is not a book about disabled people [End Page 837] but about the experience of, and possibilities residing in, mothers' ongoing reinterpretations of disability.(p. 3)
By fulfilling this task, however, Landsman inadvertently speaks to broader cultural questions—deeply-rooted American values, ideals, and expectations surrounding the perceived boundaries of personhood, and the meanings ascribed to those who do not meet the standards. Ideas about personhood are indeed central to Landsman's analysis of the experiences of the mothers in her study: she argues that the " full" personhood of the disabled child is diminished, in conjunction with that of the mother—specifically, her social identity as a mother—her motherhood.
Landsman conducted ethnographic research in Albany, NY in a Newborn Follow-up Program program at a major medical center that provided outpatient healthcare to babies and toddlers who were disabled or "at risk" for being diagnosed with a disability. Her data come from interviews with sixty of mothers whose children received care at the program as well as her observations of developmental evaluations. Conducting research during the earliest stages of diagnosis and treatment is a unique element to this study, and seemed to reveal a set of deeply held prejudices about abnormal children, as well as the process through which mothers begin to dismantle and reconstitute some of these ideals (about normalcy and ability to attain perfection) they themselves had once held. The vast majority of the women in her study were white, but varied in terms of other demographic criteria. The specific types of disability also ranged widely, from a concise physical condition such as a missing limb, to more ambiguous problems such as an observed developmental delay, perhaps following a premature birth or complication during birth. The range of physical, genetic, and neurological conditions adds an intriguing element to the study as well: while many of the biomedical and practical details may have differed, the mothers reiterated similar feelings and practices in regards to the social aspects of having an imperfect or abnormal child.
Early in the book, Landsman explores the burdensome web of social and emotional conflicts that mothers find themselves tangled within upon hearing their child has, or is at risk for, a lifelong disability. The contemporary American biomedical milieu prescribes certain behaviors for pregnant women that are intended to ensure the health of the baby. While few medical doctors would say that all mothers who avoid alcohol and cigarettes, for example, are certain to have a "normal" child, the reality is [End Page 838] that popular discourses on fetal health do promote a perception that mothers have the ability to control the health and "quality" of their unborn children. So when the majority of the mothers in Landsman's study had done "everything right" during pregnancy, and still found that the baby they had produced did not meet social standards of normality, such ideas about maternal responsibility led to serious internal conflicts. Mothers described feeling harshly judged by others, blamed for causing the disability by engaging in poor maternal behavior. The consistency of this sense of social stigma regarding the mothers' lack of prenatal responsibility demonstrates that these mothers' perceptions represent more than an oversensitivity or misunderstanding of...