Engaging Sociology: Raising children with invisible disabilities

We were delighted to begin this year’s series of ‘Engaging Sociology’ lectures with a talk by Linda Blum, Associate Professor of Sociology at Northeastern University, USA, about the themes in her new book: Raising Generation Rx: Mothering Kids with Invisible Disabilities in an Age of Inequality (New York University Press, 2015).

Professor Blum explored how the burgeoning diagnoses of children with social, emotional, behavioural disorders convey new cultural messages about the kind of behaviour that is considered ‘normal’ and acceptable for children, and the ways in which certain forms of ‘parenting’ are variously blamed for children’s disabilities, or proposed as a way of managing children’s problems.

She discussed the ways that mothers in widely varied households advocate for their children in the dense bureaucracies of the educational and medical systems, and wrestle with difficult decisions about the use of psychoactive medications. While it is sometimes assumed that parents’ use of medication for their children is an attempt to find a ‘quick fix’ for their problems, she revealed the amount of time, effort and anxiety experienced by parents as they attempt to find ways of managing conditions that are often poorly understood and uncertainly diagnosed.

Professor Blum argued that the ways in which mothers, in particular, are compelled to take ‘personal responsibility’ for maximising their children’s brain development is symptomatic of an individuated policy response to social problems in the present day. She argued that an intersectional analysis, which takes into account the pressures of class, ethnicity, and gender, is needed to make sense of mothers’ experiences of stigma and mother-blame.

The lecture was attended by staff and students from across different faculties in the University, and also by practitioners working in the local health service. It was followed by a lively Q&A session, in which participants raised questions about the problems of assessing different degrees of ‘invisible disability’ amongst children, and what a better policy response might be.

Professor Blum was in the UK as a Visiting Fellow to the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent. Her work focuses on ideologies of motherhood in the United States: how we judge fit and unfit, respectable and disreputable, and measure mothers against each other in ways that reinforce class and race inequality. Her previous books include Between Feminism and Labor: The Significance of the Comparable Worth Movement (1991, University of California Press); and At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States (1999, Beacon).

More details about this lecture, and others in the Engaging Sociology series, are here.

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