Recently I searched the internet for a knitting pattern for a toy. I did not survive the exercise unscathed, spending hours trawling a bottomless sea of websites, ideas, customer feedback, knitting networks and opportunities for money-making, all for the sake of a little Minion. So I felt considerable sympathy with Julie Wilson and Emily Yochim’s investigation of day-to-day mothering and family maintenance in the context of an exponential growth of internet communication and participation in the midst of austerity and the loss of public and collective spaces.
Mothering Through Precarity, based on ethnographic interviews with 29 women from the hard-hit Rust Belt in Pennsylvania, richly illustrates what a theoretically, conceptually and emotionally confused and paradoxical situation women are in with respect to an online world that offers family-enhancing information and advice, communicative solace and flexible income-earning opportunities, but also exploits their ongoing efforts at maintaining a positive family environment by creating new anxieties and offering meagre financial returns. Digital culture, now a taken-for-granted part of life in the home, alleviates feelings of precarity and its ever-present material reality, but also multiplies them in a competitive “momasphere” marked by what the authors call “cruel optimism”: all can be made better with a bit more effort and a few more carefully collected coupons.
Leaning heavily on Google, “mamablogs” and dubious “expert” advice can disempower in more ways than simply failing to trust oneself. Unsurprisingly, some of the more emotionally supportive websites these women use are run by family-focused religious organisations. “Mamapreneurialism” is about making the family “survive and thrive” through “flexible” (while children sleep) homeworking, blogging, selling content, and budgeting schemes. Women take pride when their pictures or blogs become part of companies’ online infomercials. But, as the authors point out, most “mamapreneurial” labours, although profitable for digital companies, come without health and social security benefits for those who carry them out. Instead, these labours optimise the very system of precaritisation they are responding to.
The book’s explanatory framework of relating caring networks to post-industrial, neoliberal capitalism, and the authors’ own development of a more collaborative feminism, is challenging, but perhaps ultimately no more explanatory or helpful than earlier sociological attempts to explain the popularity of women’s magazines and Tupperware and Avon parties. And although the authors apologise for this study being “depressing” – sharp economic downturns always have harsh consequences for some – in fact it presents a group of admirable, resilient and loyal women making the best of available technology to support their mothering and homemaking, including getting out of the internet rabbit hole when it no longer serves their needs. They are resilient because they have no choice, short of abandoning their children. But is it these women, or is it creative media cultural theorists, who see their everyday world as “mundane” and “ordinary”, or characterise their daily tasks as the “muck” of parenting?
The truly depressing thing about Mothering Through Precarity is that it serves as a reminder that yet again a wealthy society has failed to distribute its resources with sufficient public concern for those with genuine social and economic needs. After reading this book, it is not so difficult to understand why some women in the Rust Belt voted for Donald Trump’s media-fuelled promises of a better future.
E. Stina Lyon is professor emeritus of educational developments in sociology, London South Bank University.
Mothering through Precarity: Women’s Work and Digital Media
By Julie A. Wilson and Emily Chivers Yochim
Duke University Press, 232pp, £77.00 and £20.99
ISBN 9780822363361 and 3477
Published 1 March 2017