Author Examines What It Means To Be ‘A Good Mother’

Kristine Benson, pictured here with sons Niklas (11) and Leif (14), is one of the moms featured in Brown's book.

Solveig Brown was in graduate school in 2008 when she started interviewing mothers about their experiences. The Golden Valley resident was working on her dissertation in anthropology and conducting research on the social pressures that middle class mothers felt shaped their ideas about how to be a good mother. She talked to women about their experiences, fears and goals and began to see some common responses. Women who Brown interviewed frequently said they wanted to know more about what other mothers were thinking and feeling.

“The women I interviewed all said they want to read the results of my work when I finished,” Brown recalls. “I had all these amazing voices talking about their experiences—I wanted to collect all that information and support in one place, so it could be shared.” That was the inspiration for her book, All on One Plate: Cultural Expectations on American Mothers.

In addition to wanting to share all the stories she was hearing, Brown wanted to help women see that some expectations aren’t really personally driven. She says that changes in our larger culture play a significant role in dictating what women think a “good mother” should be and do. “I was interested in how cultural changes impacted the way mothers saw themselves,” Brown says. “We don’t talk a lot about how changes in our culture impact the way women see themselves as mothers.”

While conducting the interviews for her dissertation, Brown thought a lot about where attitudes about mothering fit into—and were shaped by—larger cultural shifts. “I wished that anthropologists would write more about these issues. Then I thought ‘Aha! Why not me?’”

All on One Plate is organized into chapters that focus on practical concerns, including how to manage kids’ consumer desires or how having a child impacts the division of labor in a household. But it also deals with larger issues of guilt and judgement. Brown has an anthropologist’s interest in where the personal issues fit into the larger societal concerns, and so judgement and expectation are themes in every chapter. What makes a good mother? And, who gets to decide that?

The book is a collection of conversations with mothers across the Twin Cities, including Eden Prairie’s Kristine Benson, who says she still struggles with some of the worries and stresses she shared with Brown. “I’m pretty hard on myself,” Benson says. But participating in the book—and reading the finished product—helped her obtain perspective. “I felt better after I read the book,” Benson says. “I realized that we all make mistakes or fall short of our ideals sometimes, but everybody is doing the best they can.”

Through the experience of learning what other mothers were saying about day-to-day and week-to-week of mothering experiences, Benson says she was also able to say, “Hey, I am a good mom.”  

All on One Plate: Cultural Expectations on American Mothers (Paragon House) is available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Paragon House. A reader’s guide is offered at the website here.