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Maternal Theory: A Primer on Patricia Hill Collins, Paradigm Shifter

Patricia Hill Collins, maternal theorist and Distinguished University Professor Emerita at the University of Maryland, was a revelation to me, consistently denying the artificial line that patriarchy has drawn between work and motherhood, between public and private, and between the personal and political.

"As a black woman, I work and have three kids. My mother worked and had three kids. Her mother worked and had four kids. Her mother was a slave. My models of women have done this for a hundred years. I have no overarching existential guilt because I am a working mother.”

Lonnae O’Neal Parker from I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Motherhood, Work, and Marriage

Reading Patricia Hill Collins was a revelation to me. I first read her when most maternal theory served to reinforce the binaries of "mother" and "work." This divide had weaponized the so-called “mommy wars,” pitting “working” moms against so-called “stay-at-home” moms. This “war” is primarily white and middle-class and receives extravagant mainstream media attention. Mothers are primed to resent one another, and the constant battle cry “to have it all” invites all mothers to feel guilt and shame for their situations (not necessarily for their choices).


I was in the midst of that war myself—I had a toddler and a teenager at home, I was surrounded by dirty socks and dirty diapers and I was teaching. It seemed that my work at the university and caring for my kids required two separate parts of myself, and I was forever divided.

Patricia Hill Collins, maternal theorist and Distinguished University Professor Emerita at the University of Maryland, consistently denies this artificial line that patriarchy has drawn between work and motherhood, between public and private, and between the personal and political. In “Shifting the Center, Race, Class and Feminist Theorizing About Motherhood,” Collins suggests that shifting the focus of maternal theory to the lived experiences of women of color and working-class women offers a new paradigm and denies the very existence of the “mommy wars.” She writes to challenge and resist this notion of "divided" mothers, and offers us important new conceptions of what mothering actually means.

She introduces the concept of motherwork: the work that you do both inside the home and outside contributes to the survival of your children and is thus motherwork. My teaching, which contributed to the survival of my family was part of the work I did as a mother. She expands this definition to include the work we do for our communities as well: watching out for neighborhood children, working on political campaigns, participating in anti-racist protests, taking in a cousin’s or friend’s child, volunteering at a school event—all of this is motherwork.


She also offers us the concept of othermother. Othermothers are men who care for children, aunts and uncles who have never had their “own” children, friends and neighbors—teachers, and members of communities who band together to make political changes that support the lives of children.

Read more: Patricia Hill Collins: Reconceiving Motherhood, edited by Kaila Adia Story

I'm Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work by Lonnae O'Nae Parker

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