This blog post was contributed by Katarzyna Gajek, PhD, (University of Lodz, Poland)
ECEC professionals’ understanding of the child’s socio-cultural background and the role of mother in the family may be an important pillar for building trustful relationships between practitioners and parents.
This post refers to the role of mother as perceived by Polish contemporary women of socially and economically disadvantaged background.
Motherhood in the shadow of the myth of the Polish Mother
The Polish Mother archetype identified with the “good mother” pattern is apparent in both everyday and scientific discourse. It is widely recognized and shared by people growing in Polish socio-cultural context. The sources of the myth can be traced in folk and noble culture, values arising from the Catholic religion, traditionalism or history . The figure of the Polish Mother, inscribed in the martyrdom of the Polish nation, takes on a symbolic meaning, provides a model for positively valorized motherhood practices, and strongly influences the identity of ordinary women who are mothers.
Racibórz pomnik Matki Polki (Polish Mother monument in Racibórz)
Photo: Przykuta (CC BY-SA 1.0)
Research on the identity of mothers from Poland
A team of researchers from Poland conducted 16 narrative interviews with mothers with low-income background, as part of the international ISOTIS project . Analyzing women’s stories through the prism of their identities, they found that women most often described themselves referring to the term “a mother”, followed by “a woman”, “a human”, and “a wife”.
Women characterized themselves through:
- Attributes – “good”, “honest”, “hardworking”, “ambitious”, “helpful”, “happy”, “emotional”, “strong and at the same time very fragile”;
- Gender – “normal girl”, “woman”;
- Competences – “a woman who is doing somehow in life”;
- Social roles – “fulfilled mother”, “caring mother”, “employee”, “wife”.
What does it really mean to be a Polish mother?
Women participating in the research more or less consciously entered the Polish Mother archetype. Their narratives focused on family life are an example of a “home matriarch” . The power they possess closes within the framework of the household and the family, while its maintenance is associated with huge amounts of work and time devoted, sacrifices and exhaustion. Reconstruction of maternal experiences provides knowledge about the practices of implementing the mother’s social role, while showing what women feel socially obliged to do.
Pomnik Centrum Zdrowia Matki Polki
(Monument to the Polish Mother’s Health Centre)
Photo: Konrad Strzelecki (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Traditional values – Family
- “I was looking for my happiness in having a family, a boyfriend and finding a relationship”.
- “We always wanted to have a big family. We believe that God gives children and we were ready to accept them as much as he would give them to us and whether he would give them at all. We have five children”.
- “The whole house is on my head. From shopping, through washing, cleaning, cooking, doing … I don’t know, paying bills, organizing activities outside the home”.
Segregation of the duties
- “I think I took a lot of things from home. For me, my mother was a person who took care of everything, because my father was not there. When my son appeared, I was on maternity leave, you know, my husband went to work, and I took over all household duties. My husband came home and he had a child taken care of, the laundry was done, everything was folded up and cleaned”.
Devoting herself to her loved ones
- “Like every parent, I live my own children’s life. For me now the most important are their needs and future”.
- “I am a very happy mother and wife, I only look at how they grow and develop. I try to look at their needs there somehow”.
- “In general, I think that the first child overturns the world the most, because with the second one you have probably already given up everything that was to be given up”.
Convinced of her irreplaceable competences
- “I don’t use support. I am trying to cope alone. I am such, I prefer to do something myself than bother someone. I don’t like asking for help”.
- “My husband does not enter the kitchen. I cook because I do it better”
- “Only I can calm the child down”.
Acting as a family life manager
- “My husband expects, like a child, the delegation of tasks. He will not come up with something to do, because he claims that he is not a woman to think about all these things and he can’t think like that. If I tell him something, he will do it. For me it is still important when he does it”.
- “I consider myself a good manager. I have the skills to look after the team, look at who has the skills, and delegate the right tasks”.
Quo vadis Polish Mother?
The myth of the Polish Mother shared by successive generations of women strengthens tradition and validates certain values, sets a pattern worth imitating, indicates obligations and sets the limits of desired behaviour, describes and explains reality, facilitates its interpretation, and gives meaning to actions, while also affecting the identity of mothers. In the case of some women, a specific (patriarchal) social order imposed in this way, universally recognized, legitimate and universal, raises resistance, and also is associated with suffering. The need to change the status quo pushes mothers to look for different symbolic references and causes a reevaluation of their lives. Emancipation practices are not always associated with a revolutionary change in the way mothers play the role, but their purpose is to empower women.
The article is based on the presentation from the Equality & Inclusion Conference November 29th 2019, in Utrecht
References: Ostrowska, E. (2004). Matki Polki i ich synowie. Kilka uwag o genezie obrazów kobiecości i męskości w kulturze polskiej, [in:] Radkiewicz M. (ed.), Gender. Kon-teksty, Kraków.  ISOTIS project (Inclusive Education and Social Support to Tackle Inequalities in Society), funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 727069. http://www.isotis.org/en/home/  Walczewska S. (1999). Damy, rycerze i feministki. Kobiecy dyskurs emancypacyjny w Polsce, Kraków.
About the author:
Katarzyna Gajek, PhD is a social pedagogue working as an assistant professor (adjunct) at the Faculty of Social Pedagogy, University of Lodz. Her research interests include qualitative research methods, interpretive paradigm, biographical studies, social work as a field of socio-pedagogical action (e.g. social exclusion, domestic violence, human trafficking), Gender Studies and Women’s Studies.