Reaffirming motherhood: Mothers, substance use, and recovery

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Madonna Harrington Meyer


Mothers, Substance use, Recovery, Feminism

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Family, Life Course, and Society | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology | Women's Studies


Mothering and substance use are believed to be incompatible according to conventional perspectives. The 4% of mothers of children under the age of 18 who have abused or become dependent upon illicit drugs or alcohol are the target of punitive social policies and interventions. Yet, these women do not stop being mothers while using substances, and they reject the media-portrayed images of "bad" and "neglectful" mothers they are assigned. Reaffirming Motherhood is a qualitative research study with women in substance abuse recovery programs. It documents how substance-using mothers think about, interact with, and care for, and plan for their children while using substances, seeking treatment, and undergoing recovery.

Mothering occurs in diverse contexts challenging singular and political definitions of conventional mothering. This study reveals how recovering mothers maintained their mothering, cared for children, shared or delegated caregiving as needed, renegotiated mothering responsibilities, and demonstrated their strengths as mothers throughout their mothering careers. The privileges and constraints of racial, class, ethnicity, and gender are traced though the women's trajectories of motherhood and substance use. The tensions between women's individual agency and the overriding constraints of social structures clearly emerge as women attempt to optimize child well-being, seek productive social and mothering roles, and avoid addictive substances. Reaffirming Motherhood demands socially just and humane policy responses for women seeking to maintain autonomy over their families and improve their well-being and that of their children.


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