Being the 'good' mother : a discursive study of breastfeeding women's experiences of accessing early childhood education in New Zealand : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science in Psychology (Endorsement in Health Psychology) at Massey University, Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand
A majority of women in New Zealand will attempt breastfeeding, return to employment, and access
early childhood education (ECE) care within the first year of their child’s life. There is a great interest
in promoting and increasing national breastfeeding rates, yet little research exploring how
normative ideals of motherhood influence breastfeeding women once they return to employment.
Psychological studies that explore breastfeeding and employment often locate the issue at an
individual level, constructing breastfeeding as a personal ‘choice’. Such research ignores the
significant influence that structural barriers and societal pressures have on breastfeeding women’s
ability to freely choose an infant feeding method. This research seeks to remedy this limited focus.
In the current study, I was interested in examining how discursive constructions of breastfeeding
shape women’s subjectivities as mothers, and the ways in which these subjectivities enable or
constrain women’s ability to breastfeed. I utilised a poststructuralist approach to highlight how
women’s constructions of breastfeeding influenced their accounts of infant feeding in ECE and
workplace settings. I conducted qualitative interviews with seven women living in Auckland who had
experienced combining breastfeeding with employment and I applied a Foucauldian discourse
analysis to make sense of the data collected. Through my analysis I discovered that the participants
worked to align themselves with the subject position of ‘good’ mother. Participant’s discursive
constructions of breastfeeding worked to strengthen their subjectivities as ‘good’ mothers through
three primary discourses; breastfeeding as best for the child, a natural and easy part of motherhood,
and a difficult journey. The subjectivity of the ‘good’ mother had significant implications for how
women navigated ECE and workplace settings. Participants often placed themselves under
considerable stress to ensure they continued breastfeeding, despite structural difficulties. In the
workplace the ‘good’ mother had to manage disruptions caused by breastfeeding, navigate poor
management, and mitigate stigma. In ECE settings women had to manage tensions between public
and private spheres and deal with low structural support. Women’s ability to uphold their status as
‘good’ mother in these contexts was often dependent on the level of privilege each participant held.
Western constructions of motherhood compel women to be ‘good’ mothers regardless of the strain
introduced. Therefore, I argue that by unpacking women’s constructions of breastfeeding and
motherhood, in relation to ECE care and employment, the negative impacts of such discourses are
highlighted and avenues to address these can become apparent.