Skip to main content Skip to local navigation

From Roman times to today, covered in one mother of a book

From Roman times to today, covered in one mother of a book

The Romans were celebrating mothers in about 1250 BCE when they began honouring Cybele, the mother goddess. Even so, motherhood throughout the ages has not always been given the respect it deserves. That’s something York women’s studies Professor Andrea O’Reilly knows a little about. She is general editor of the recently released Encyclopedia of Motherhood, a three-volume, 1,520-page book devoted to mothers and motherhood. The project has already attracted media coverage from The Toronto Star and

“Over the last 25 years, the topic of motherhood has emerged as a central and significant topic of scholarly inquiry across a wide range of academic disciplines. A cursory review of motherhood research reveals that hundreds of scholarly articles have been published on almost every motherhood theme imaginable,” says O’Reilly, who coined the term "motherhood studies" to acknowledge and demarcate motherhood scholarship as a legitimate and distinctive discipline.

"Indeed, similar to the development of women studies as an academic field in the 1970s, motherhood studies, while explicitly interdisciplinary, has emerged an autonomous and independent scholarly discipline in the last decade," she says. "This intellectual tradition of maternal scholarship both made possible and created the need for an encylopedia on motherhood."

Founder and director of the newly formed Motherhood Initiative for Research & Community Involvement (developed from the former Association for Research on Mothering at York), O'Reilly approached contributors and compiled articles by some 300 women scholars throughout the United States, Canada and beyond for the book.

The Encyclopedia of Motherhood, the first scholarly reference devoted to the subject, covers a vast array of topics, including how the study of motherhood is almost completely ignored in archeology, mothers in popular culture, hip mamas, influential maternal theorists, the economics of motherhood, psychoanalysis, fertility, guilt, ecofeminism, refugees and the future of mothering. The encyclopedia touches on mothers, and what it means to be a mother in almost every country. It also looks at mothers in film, books, art and poetry, as well as in the Bible.

“The publication is for me a significant moment in motherhood scholarships as it confirms that motherhood has indeed arrived as a legitimate and distinct academic discipline and scholarly field." says O'Reilly. "As well, the encyclopedia, in bringing together for the first time over 700 motherhood topics from A to Z, from aboriginal mothering to zines, and in providing a detailed summary and a bibliography for each topic, is an invaluable resource for anyone – students, journalists, writers, researchers, community agencies – in need of an overview of a particular motherhood topic and/or interested in doing further research on the subject matter.”

Left: Andrea O'Reilly

The book delves into the anthropology of mothering, a discussion on advice literature for mothers, a chronology of motherhood and mother activists. It explores the concept of bad mothering, absentee mothers, alcoholism, ethics, HIV/AIDS, race, slavery, lesbian and bisexual mothers, breastfeeding and more. In addition, it examines terms, concepts, themes, debates, theories and texts of motherhood within history, geography and academia.

To O’Reilly (BA Hons. '85, MA '87, PhD '96), the publication of the encyclopedia is like the coming of age of mothering research. The scholarship of motherhood has been legitimized and recognized, she says.

She introduces the Encyclopedia of Motherhood with a quote from author Adrienne Rich: “We know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood.” And that is exactly what O’Reilly hopes the encyclopedia will change, that it will provide a glimpse into all things associated with and to mothering. The publication of the encyclopedia demarcates motherhood as an academic discipline and points to the future.

O’Reilly is the author of Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart and Rocking the Cradle: Thoughts on Motherhood, Feminism and the Possibility of Empowered Mothering. She is also the editor of 14 collections.

For more information, visit the Sage Publications Web site.

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.