This article examines the mothering experiences of college educated Deaf women and connects this to their identities as part of the Deaf community. Using feminist life history interviews with ten Deaf women, the analysis focuses on their work as mothers and the connections with "maternal thinking," difference, and sameness. Findings include an analysis of the various strategies that these mothers used in their mothering, which include teaching the skills of lifetime educators and self-advocates to deaf children, sending their hearing children to Kids of Deaf Adults (KODA) camps and incorporating their activism and volunteering in their mothering. The author argues that an analysis of ability along with gender is useful to further current theorizing about gender and mothering as a kind of work and that an analysis of the role of language allows us to question the idea that mothering is an innate quality of women. Instead, the author argues that, due to the social context of their life situations, "maternal thinking" and language choice are learned practices that these women negotiate in their work as mothers.

This article addresses the experiences of mothers who are Deaf and how they navigated their positions as being part of the larger Deaf community while raising their children. The analysis addresses the struggles they faced when encountering school systems and how, particularly in the hearing world, they were often put in positions to portray themselves as legitimate mothers. What can these women's experiences tell us about the concepts of motherhood, ability, and disability? Overall, the author seeks to use this research to question the work of mothering as something that is innate and instead illustrate how these Deaf women, especially when confronted with decisions about language choice, are responding to the social contexts that they are placed in as part of their daily lived experiences as mothers.


In previous research, I have explored how Deaf mothers do the work of "maternal thinking" when they communicated with their children in family groups and explored how they discussed wanting hearing or deaf children and how they made decisions about how they communicated with their children (Najarian, 2006). I argued that the Deaf mothers developed strategies to "normalize" their experiences as Deaf mothers by often rejecting the idea of deafness as a disability and taught their children both English and American Sign Language (ASL) so that their children could more easily go back and forth between the worlds of the Deaf and the hearing. In the current article, I further broaden the idea of their motherwork to include how they negotiated their children's experiences in school systems, extracurricular activities, and in their own activism and volunteer work. How they did this work and the languages that they used played a key role in how they were seen as Deaf women and also as mothers.

Various scholars have argued that families, as social institutions, serve to organize women as expected to do particular kinds of work (Rich, 1976; DeVault, 1991; Harrington Meyer, et. al. 2000). Although this work may seem to be a natural attribute of women, sociological perspectives allow us to question to what extent the work of mothering is something innate and how much is shaped by cultural expectations. Ruddick (1982) has argued that mothering is a learned practice which involves "maternal thinking" and that it has three major components including preservation, growth, and acceptability of the child. Being maternal becomes a socially created category, which is based largely on the disciplinary practices of being a mother or the "discipline of maternal thought" (p. 77). First, mothers work to preserve the life of their child. To do this, mothers must be careful not to exercise control over their children. Mothers must also work toward humility and cheerfulness, which have become associated with successful mothers. Second, she argues that mothers work to foster growth in their children. For growth to occur, mothers must learn how to adapt and respond to change. Third, mothers must raise an acceptable child. Ruddick defines acceptability as determined by the "values of the mother's social group" (p. 83). She argues that there is a contradictory side to this third aspect of maternal thought. As she explains, while a successful mother might be rewarded for sacrificing herself, she might also be teaching her children this idea along with other potentially harmful practices, which ultimately might harm her children. This practice, then, is in tension with the first two practices of maternal thought, preservation and growth, which mothers work to instill in their children, since it has the risk of harming children.

Hays' (1996) work on intensive mothering, especially in terms of women who give up paid work to do full-time mothering is particularly salient to this study. For Hays (1996), the ideology of intensive mothering is seen by mothers themselves as having a method of child rearing that is "child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive" (p. 8). This work is seen as something that is done by women and those that adhere to the idea of being a good mother. Malacrida (2008) has written about the tightrope that mothers with disabilities walk in terms of being good mothers who are thought to be good if they are dependent through a relationship with a male provider and also able to nurture their children. She argues that, for women with disabilities, a dependency on male partners can bring vulnerability to abuse and she explores the dilemmas that mothers who are seen as disabled face in their work as mothers. Malacrida (2009) also examines the contradictions and tensions embedded in mothers who are seen as disabled in terms of how they perform ideal motherhood. She is careful to point out that all mothers struggle to be seen as ideal, but that the experiences of mothers with disabilities allows us to see more closely how this process occurs. Similarly, this study about Deaf women investigates how these women experience their lives as mothers and how they often struggle to be seen as good mothers.

Other scholars have investigated how caring for a disabled child requires "maternal thinking" (Kittay, 1999), the extended caring role of mothers who have children with disabilities (Traustadottir, 1992), and how women with disabilities have struggled to be seen, by some, as mothers (Reinelt & Fried, 1998). Others have explored the idea of mothers who are seen, in some cases, as different than the "norm," such as lesbian mothers, single mothers by choice, and mothers who adopt children, and who are often put in positions to justify that they are, in fact, legitimate mothers (Bock, 2000; Dunne, 2000; Dalton & Bielby; 2000; Rothman, 2005). For example, Dunne (2000), in her study of lesbian parents, found that these women challenged ideas of a heterosexual norm. Dalton and Bielby (2000), who also studied lesbian parents, had similar findings, but also found that the women in their study also reinscribed gendered ideas of parents in their families. These two studies show how ideas of what is normal are also largely connected to larger ideas about gender and family and what constitutes a "good" mother. Building off of the above literatures, I will analyze the "maternal thinking" of Deaf mothers and discuss how doing an intersectional analysis of gender and ability furthers thinking on the topics of mothering, gender, ability, and what it means to be a legitimate mother. I will also focus on the role of language contributes to the above literatures and the concept of a "good" mother.

As part of a marginalized group in the larger hearing society, Deaf women are often, like other women, striving to achieve the ideal form of motherhood. Yet, Deaf women are also proud of their cultural identity as part of the Deaf community and seek to pass this on to their children. How the mothers in the above literatures are stigmatized in the larger society connects with the stories of Deaf mothers who also experience being stigmatized and thus develop various strategies to illustrate their legitimacy. These strategies include how they educate their children in schools, include them in extracurricular activities, and how they involve their children as part of their activism and volunteer work. Language and whether or not to teach their children American Sign Language (ASL), Sign Exact English (SEE), or to use oral methods, also becomes an important factor in the work of these Deaf women. This article will show how language becomes a key part of the work of maternal thinking, not just for the women of this study, but for all mothers, especially those who consider themselves part of a linguistic minority.


According to Deaf scholars, the lowercase deaf describes the audiological condition of the not hearing whereas the uppercase Deaf refers to a group of deaf people who share a common language, American Sign Language (ASL), culture, and history (Padden & Humphries, 1988). Instead of viewing themselves as disabled, the Deaf community defines being Deaf as cultural and sees itself as part of a linguistic minority whose primary language is ASL (Lane, 1999). People who are deaf are often, although not always, older Americans who lose their hearing and become deaf later in life and do not consider themselves part of the Deaf community. Hard of hearing individuals, as another group, sometimes identify with the Deaf community, but not in all cases.

Deaf studies scholars often contest the distinction between the terms deaf and Deaf. In their study of deaf and hard of hearing youth and welfare policy of the disabled, Hauland, Gronningsaeter, and Hansen (2003), discuss how it becomes problematic to place individuals into such categories because of the risk of reducing people's complex identities to one particular status. Instead of using either deaf or Deaf, they adopt a "minority approach" when it is necessary in their analysis and a "disability approach" where it is useful. Brevik (2005), in his study of Norwegian Deaf people, adopts a similar perspective and provides an analysis of how individuals navigate their deaf/Deaf identities. These literatures suggest that issues of identity have much to do with the languages of each country and is not solely an American and ASL issue. In line with these scholars, I take the position that the terms deaf, Deaf, and hearing and the privileges and stigmas attached to them are socially constructed and mediated through the various contexts which people find themselves in their daily lives. For the purposes of this article, where all of the women identified themselves as Deaf, I have chosen to use that term as a way of letting them decide how they wanted to be portrayed. When I speak about deaf women more generally, I use the term deaf as a broader way to identify a group, some of whom may indeed consider themselves also Deaf and part of the Deaf community. Thus, the language in this article shows the changing construction of deaf/Deaf while I have also tried to provide the individual women in this study with a say in how they define themselves as Deaf.


The analysis used for this article is part of a larger study where I conducted extensive life history interviews with ten deaf1 women, who live in Rochester, New York and Boston, Massachusetts (Najarian, 2006). I relied on personal contacts and snowball sampling for the data collection. I emailed potential interviewees about my project and also told them that I am hearing, know sign language, and have a Deaf brother. Having a somewhat insider status, I believe, helped me to gain access to these women. Although I know sign language, I know Sign Exact English (SEE), not American Sign Language (ASL), which is the official language of the Deaf community, so I offered to pay for sign language interpreters. In an effort to capture the visual language, I audio and video taped all interviews. Despite the sample not being random and also small, the respondents gave me a tremendous amount of information about their experiences. Tables one and two provide demographic information of the Deaf women.


Sample Characteristics

Table 1: Rochester Women
PseudonymAgeRace/EthnicityEducation*Marital StatusChildren
Beth41WhiteMSSeparated; hard of hearing husbandhearing daughter, age 14; hearing son, age 9
Kristen38WhiteMAMarried; deaf husbanddeaf son, age 10; deaf daughter, age 8
Janice47JewishMAMarried; deaf husbanddeaf son, age 18; deaf daughter, age 15
Stephanie45WhiteBAMarried; deaf husbandhearing daughter, age 16; hearing daughter, age 14; hearing son, age 11
Teresa63WhiteMAMarried; deaf husbandhearing son, age 37; hearing daughter, age 36; hearing daughter, age 32

* Only the highest degree obtained is listed.

Table 2: Boston Women
PseudonymAgeRace/EthnicityEducation*Marital StatusChildren
Carol39WhiteAASMarried; deaf husbandhearing daughter, age 6
Heather36WhiteMADivorced; deaf ex-husbandhearing son, age 9; hearing son, age 5
Ellen34White3 years of collegeDivorced; deaf first ex-husband; Remarried; deaf husbanddeaf daughter, age 2; deaf daughter, age 6 weeks
Debbie39WhiteMBAMarried; hearing husbandhearing son, age 10; hearing daughter, age 6
Marie38WhiteBSMarried; hard of hearing husbandhearing daughter, age 10; hearing son, age 8; hearing son, age 4; hearing son age 18 months

* Only the highest degree obtained is listed.

Respondents ranged in age from thirty-four to sixty-three and all are college educated. One respondent had completed three years of undergraduate studies, one had her Associate's Degree, of the two who had Bachelor's degrees, one of these was pursuing graduate work, and six had Master's degrees. This sample, then, is a particular group of Deaf women and had I interviewed women who did not have a college education, I suspect the data would look different. The sample, then, which consists of upper middle class, predominantly White women is indeed limiting. Many of the women described themselves as among the first group of deaf women in the United States to attend and graduate from hearing colleges. Despite them not being representative of all deaf women, they add to the literatures on gender, disability, and family. I also chose to interview college educated deaf women to investigate the relationship of gender and ability on the topic of mothering. Due to their relative privilege from their college educations, the women of this study, more so than other deaf women, have the potential for more inclusion in the hearing world and therefore are likely to be continually navigating their way in both Deaf and hearing settings. They are, then, because of the continual change in context, a group that allows for a closer analysis of gender and ability.

When asked to describe their race or ethnicity, nine said they were white while one described herself as Jewish. Seven described themselves as economically comfortable while three said they were somewhat comfortable. Nine of the ten women were married while one was divorced. One of the nine who was married at the time of the study had earlier been divorced and one was separated. All except for one respondent had married men who were deaf or hard of hearing. At the time of the interviews, the women had anywhere from one to four children ranging in age from six weeks to thirty-seven years old. Three of the mothers had all deaf children while seven had all hearing children.

I chose to interview five women from Rochester, New York because of its large Deaf community. In the United States, this community, known nationally, exists in part because of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), which is part of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). The school is a place where Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing students all thrive and many settle in the Rochester area after they complete their college educations. I selected five women from Boston, Massachusetts to compare similarities and differences that might exist between a close knit Deaf community like Rochester and a more dispersed, yet still thriving Deaf community in Boston. Although the findings in this paper do not reflect large differences between these communities, I wanted to include the rationale for the author's choice of locals so as to speak to the overall study design and set up.

I interviewed the women using a general set of questions regarding their early family, educational, mothering, and paid work experiences. Through the use of grounded theory method, I sought to have the analysis arise from their stories (Glaser & Strauss, 1999). While also using feminist qualitative methods, I sought to make their stories visible to those who might not know of them to understand the range of women's experiences (DeVault, 1999; Reinharz, 1992). I have, for the purposes of this article, translated the women's quotes into English so that they are more readable to a wider audience. This decision shapes their stories; however, my hope is that by making these women visible to those that might not know about them, this will contribute to larger discussions on the sociology of gender and on mothering as a kind of work.


This article investigates the mothering experiences of college educated deaf women in the context of a larger hearing society and explores how they decided to educate their children. The article is organized into three sections which show the various strategies these women used in their mothering. These include teaching the skills of lifetime educators and self-advocates to deaf children, sending their hearing children to Kids of Deaf Adults (KODA) camps, and incorporating their activism and volunteering in their work as mothers. The findings of this article point to how these women do the work of integrating their children and themselves into their communities and how they make political decisions about their choices of language as well as educating their children. These practices become part of the work of maternal thinking and add to the concept of it as a kind of work. Their examples also allow us to challenge the idea that mothering is something that is an innate quality to women and instead view it as something that is seen as learned and due, in part, to one's social context and experiences.

Teaching the Skills of Lifetime Educators and Self-Advocates to Deaf Children

Advocating for their children, and then later teaching them the skills of being self-advocates as well as lifetime educators, were strategies that all of the mothers developed in their work as mothers. This work included passing down these skills to their children, especially for the three women who had deaf children, so that they might more easily negotiate their way in a larger hearing society. In this way, the mothers worked to ensure preservation, growth, and acceptability of their children.

Mothering and Lifetime Educators

Stephanie, along with her hearing children, did the work of being a lifetime educator where she taught members of her children's schools about the Deaf community. Here she speaks about this work:

S: My hearing children's experience are different from their hearing friends. Their friends from church might ask, "Can your mother speak?" or "can you interpret for your mother?" I always tell my children, "You don't have to be my interpreter. Stay children. If they ask you to interpret for me, say no and tell them that they can write something down for me, talk to me, or point to what they are talking about. I support my children because I want to make sure they stay kids. Their friends can learn to communicate with us…So, my role is to support them and be their mother. I also feel like I'm a professor. I can say that because for a while I saw my children doing research. Small research projects for school. They are such sweet children. They wanted to know about deafness. So, I sat with them. I can help them find information about deafness and give it to them for their school projects. I'm really proud because I can teach them. They have learned a lot about deafness. I feel that I'm an educator.

Stephanie teaches her hearing children to educate their friends about her as a Deaf woman while also advocating for herself so that they will not be placed in the role of an interpreter. She also encourages her hearing children to advocate for themselves by educating their peers about the Deaf community. Stephanie also is a lifetime educator as she educates her children who become educators themselves to their hearing peers about the Deaf community. Part of the work of maternal thinking then, is to pass down the skills of being a lifetime educator as well as a self-advocate to one's children. These women did this so that their children could not only be preserved, but also so that they could grow in the hearing community.

Stephanie's story also relates to the concept that scholars have termed as "young carers." Olsen (1996) has pointed out that, as a whole, this literature has tended to investigate the search for the negative impact of an adult's disability on a child's growth and development and he argues that there is a gap then in what has been studied about caring and childhood. Aldridge and Becker (1996) outline the critique by some disability rights authors who suggest that the definition of children who have parents who are seen as disabled as "young carers" undermines people with disabilities and young children alike and respond as academics working in the field of young carers, policy-makers, practitioners, and children who care. Although Stephanie is careful not to burden her children as "young carers," while considering these literatures and critiques, one might also point out that there is no evidence in her story that her children do in fact feel burdened by being asked to interpret for their mother. It is possible that their experiences as children are affected in a positive way as well. To be seen as a good mother, however, Stephanie tries to ensure that her children will not be seen in this role.

Advocating for Their Children

In another case, Kristen discusses how she left her job to ensure that her deaf children got the necessary services:

K: I loved that job. At that time, I discovered my son was deaf. I realized that I wanted to channel my time and energy to make sure that he got all the services. In my family, I have different roles and wear different hats. I'm a mother and a teacher. I'm a mentor. I'm a facilitator. I'm a role model. I'm an educator for my kids. I advocate for them all the time by going and visiting their hearing elementary school where they are mainstreamed. They have interpreters. They have a teacher for the deaf. They work with the regular teacher to make sure they're up to the par.

C: Very different than your experience.

K: Oh, yes. In my role as a mother, I believe, it's so important for both my kids with their deafness… and I tell them that they have to work three times harder to be close to their hearing peers and to not use their deafness as an excuse. I tell them, "Yes, you're deaf. Accept it. If you want to be someone, dream and work hard."

Having had to advocate for herself at a young age, Kristen saw how necessary this would be for her children and knew the amount of work involved, which led her to quit her job. Janice and Ellen, the other two Deaf women in this study with deaf children, also quit their jobs when their children were young to advocate for their educations. Of the seven women with hearing children in this study, four mentioned quitting paid jobs to stay at home with their children. These stories suggest that these situations placed an unfair amount of work on the women, especially for those with deaf children. None of the women in this study mentioned that their husbands quit their jobs to do the work of advocating for their children's educations, although they contributed to decisions about their children's educations. This suggests that the work, then, is also gendered. This work can be viewed, then, as part of a learned disciplinary practice of maternal thinking where these women were placed in positions to navigate their deaf children's educations while working to make sure that their children succeeded in school.

Ellen, as part of her advocating work for her deaf children's education, also spoke about moving to a different community and state to ensure her children's academic success. Ellen and her husband Peter mentioned that they were considering moving to Florida from Massachusetts because of their own experiences with the school system for the deaf in Massachusetts:

E: We are thinking about moving to Florida. Education is very important.

C: What's in Florida? I don't know about the school there.

E: Florida has a good deaf institution. There are Deaf and blind students there. We want a good education for Kate. Because here in Massachusetts, education is just ok. Peter and I want them to advance. The Massachusetts school system, for the deaf, well it stinks.

Ellen's example illustrates how the work of advocating for one's deaf child often involves making decisions about where one lives. Both Ellen and Peter want their deaf children to learn spoken English as well as sign so that they might learn English and get an education as a way of advancing themselves later in life. This work of mothering is done early, then, as Ellen's daughters are currently two years and six weeks old. Ellen and her family, who are somewhat economically comfortable, were hesitant to make the move because of the potential for financial risk. Kristen and Janice, the other two mothers who had deaf children and were economically comfortable, were able to move to Rochester where reputable schools for the deaf or programs for the deaf in public schools exist. One's economic standing, then, also shaped how these mothers were able to practice maternal thought. They had to be strategic about where they would live to foster growth for their children, but sometimes struggled, due to finances, about how to do this.

Finding One's Voice at Camp

Two of the three women who had deaf children told stories of how, after they had shown their deaf children the skills of self-advocacy and lifetime educating, the children developed these skills as they aged. Janice described when her entire family used these two skills at The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) camp that her deaf children attended:

J: My son and daughter are both advocates for themselves and help others understand about their deafness. One of their earliest experiences was when they went to the YMCA camp. We asked the administration for interpreters for them. They said they had a counselor who knew sign language, but the counselor only knew basic finger spelling and not ASL. One day, my son did not bring his baseball glove because it wasn't interpreted for him that he needed to bring it to camp and he came home upset. We called a meeting with the administrator.

C: So, you and your husband, and your son went to the meeting?

J: Yes, and our daughter, our children.

C: Both the children?

J: Yes. They were ten and eight. We felt that it was important for them both to go in. That helped them to experience self-advocacy. My daughter said to the administrator, "How would you feel if you were at an all deaf camp?" to which the administrator just looked shocked. So, our kids are really strong. I think we have raised them well.

Janice's story shows that these skills are learned and not something that is innate to these deaf children as well as illustrates how Janice taught her children these necessary skills. This became part of the work of mothering and of this entire family when they were put in a position to advocate for their son's needs as a deaf person in a larger hearing society.

In all three of the above topics, which include mothering and lifetime educators, advocating for their children, and finding one's voice at camp, I argue that these women are working to preserve the lives of their children, foster growth, and towards raising an acceptable child. Like Hays (1996) has argued about intensive mothering and Malacrida (2009) has argued about ideal motherhood, they do the work of trying to be seen as "good" mothers. The work that they do is indeed intense and involved. It requires extra thought to ensure that hearing children are not seen as burdened by being interpreters. It often comes at a cost to paid work, such as these mothers quitting their jobs or moving their entire families to help raise their children "appropriately." It also can require teaching an entire family and community about the needs of the Deaf. The situations that these women encounter put them in positions to make decisions about how to raise their children and requires them to do extra work to show that they are "good" mothers to the larger hearing and Deaf communities.

Hearing Children attending KODA Camps

Three of the seven mothers who had hearing children sent their children to Kids of Deaf Adults (KODA) camps where they would meet and socially interact with other children who had Deaf parents. These three mothers saw this as a critical piece to their children's education as sons and daughters of Deaf parents. Stephanie described how her hearing son, who growing up played with her instead of his two older hearing sisters because they were already in school, went to a KODA camp:

S: He had to play with me when he was young. So we signed a lot. But, then as he grew up, he was talking and signing at same time, but he had a hard time doing both because he knew that English and ASL are different. Then, when we sent him to KODA camp, he understood why he had a tough time going back and forth between the languages and he met other people in similar situations. Eventually, he saw it as a skill and is now able to go back and forth between the two languages.

By attending KODA camp, Stephanie's son was able to interact with other KODAs and better understand why he was not, at the time, able to more easily go back and forth from ASL to English. Stephanie described how this helped him to understand himself better and negotiate his identity as someone in between the worlds of the Deaf community and the hearing. Her story shows that for the women who had hearing children, part of their work of mothering was to create spaces where their children could interact with people with similar experiences. The experience also improved communication between Stephanie and her son as well as with the other members of the family as he and they developed strategies for being in between worlds.

Carol, who also sent her daughter to a KODA camp, had a similar story:

Carol: I like to see her get together with the other KODA kids because they can share things. They talk about how they have the same experiences and how they are different than their hearing friends because the parents are different. Well, not really different, but you know what I mean. With the KODAs they feel comfortable. They can talk, sign, they can do whatever. I like her to have both the KODA group and her hearing friends. I use an interpreter who is a CODA [Child of Deaf Adults who is over eighteen] and I always ask them to tell me their experiences. My daughter really looks up to older KODA kids. Like I have a friend who has two daughters and I asked them to babysit her. I said to my daughter, "You know those two girls, their parents are Deaf." And she realized, "Oh, they're just like me. And I told her, "Yeah. When you grow up you can be like them." And she's like, "Oh, cool."

Carol, by naming the two groups of her daughter's friends, "the KODA group" and the "hearing friends," despite the fact that the KODA friends are also hearing, suggests that there are important differences in the experiences of these two groups of children. Carol's comments also show that part of the work of deaf mothers with hearing children is to create environments where these children can go back and forth between these two worlds as they negotiate their identities as well as to resist having their children being seen as different in a larger hearing society.

Importantly, the Deaf mothers in this study also challenge what Ruddick and others might argue is "acceptable" to the norms of society. By sending their children to KODA camps, these mothers were in fact challenging the social stigma attached to deafness and existing negative attitudes about being deaf. Instead, their choices to send their hearing children to KODA camps can also be viewed as a way of challenging and perhaps changing hearing dominated norms. This is a kind of intense and ideal mothering that we see their social situations put them in and requires an extra amount of work and care on their part.

Activism, Volunteering, and Legitimacy

Six of the women recounted experiences of how they, along with balancing their positions as mothers, also did activist work with the Deaf community. Many of these mothers also volunteered their time in their children's extracurricular activities. The work of activism became a place where the women negotiated their identities as well as played a role in how they related to the Deaf world, hearing world, and the places in between these worlds. In some contexts, the women also were put in positions to show that they were legitimate mothers, which became part of the work of maternal thinking.

Teaching Children about Work as well as Deafness

Debbie describes how she takes her hearing children to the meetings of a nonprofit organization for the Deaf to expose them not only to members of the Deaf community, but also to business culture:

D: I'm on the board of the agency and sometimes, I bring the kids to meetings. My son will listen. It's a little bit above his head, but it gives him an experience. I told him, when we talk in the meetings, it's not all about being deaf. There are issues that we need to discuss like, do we cut the program or do we start another program? This is business. I think that's important for the children to understand. I've wanted them to become involved in the non-profit sector. I saw my parents do that. They were very involved in many different kinds of organizations. They're the trustees of a school. My father has been on the board for an oral state residential school for the deaf for twenty-five years.

Debbie, who sees learning about business from an early age as important and a way to gain access to success, wants to pass this skill on to her hearing children to ensure their future success. She uses her identity as a working mother and her identity as a Deaf woman in her activist work while teaching her hearing children about business as well as about deafness.

Marie, who is the leader of her hearing daughter's Girl Scout Troop, also explained how the work of mothering is linked to her identity as a Deaf woman in a nonprofit organization:

M: It's my first year doing it. I had no choice because nobody wanted to be the leader. A lot of mothers said, "How can you do it with the four kids at home?" I said, (She shrugs and smiles.) "I have no choice. I'll do it." So, I have eight girls. They were good about it. I have another mother helping me out. She can talk some of the time and I can talk some of the time. I get nervous because I'm not sure if they understood me or if they're just being kids and are easily distracted. Like sometimes I can't quite tell if they find it boring or if it's that they just don't understand me. I don't think they would stop me if they didn't understand me. That's why I'm glad to have the other mother help me out. They're thrilled to have me as a leader. I have seen one or two focus on the other mother who's helping me. But I also have one or two that come to me. I feel good about it. But, I see that more of them focus on her than on me. I think it's because of the communication lapse. Maybe they don't understand what I say all the time. I don't mind at this point. If they feel comfortable with her, that's totally o.k. If they feel comfortable with me, then it's o.k. too.

Marie suggests that while doing the work of the Girl Scout Troop leader, she is also educating her daughter and her friends about deafness. As a role model for the girls, she is able to show her daughter and the Troop that she is able to do this job as part of her work as a mother. Like Debbie, this became a kind of work which Marie did as part of being a Deaf mother with hearing children. It also became part of the work of maternal thinking where these women, in some contexts, had to not only ensure the acceptability of their children, but the acceptability of themselves as mothers and workers who are able to do this kind of work. Importantly, the mothers had to learn and teach their children when it was seen as "appropriate" to be part of the Deaf world, the hearing world, and the places in between.


This article has investigated the work of Deaf women concerning decisions about their children's formal and informal educations as well as linked it to Ruddick's (1982) concept of maternal thought, which includes the work of preservation, growth, and acceptability of their children. In each of their stories, learning ASL and English became critical decisions regarding how these women did this work, which influenced how they defined themselves as mothers and as members of the Deaf world, hearing world, or the places in between. The learned skills of self-advocating and educating others about deafness, which were passed on to both their deaf and hearing children, suggest that the children as well as the mothers also became active agents in this ongoing process of negotiating one's identity in these worlds. There are three major findings for this article.

First, teaching the skills of being lifetime educators and self-advocates to their Deaf children became part of the work of maternal thought and support the idea that maternal thinking is something that is learned rather than an innate quality of women. The context of hearing schools and navigating their deaf children's educations in these settings put the Deaf mothers into positions where they had to develop this strategy as part of their mothering and also pass along this skill to their children. This was also the case for participation in hearing camps and when searching for an acceptable school for their deaf children. In this way, we can see how, as described in the section of "Being Deaf as an Identity," that the boundaries of being deaf, Deaf, and hard of hearing are blurred and that these women and their children were constantly negotiating their identities in a variety of contexts.

Second, the Deaf mothers who had hearing children, in an effort to ensure acceptability of their children in both the Deaf and hearing communities, sent their children to KODA camps as a strategy so that their children could meet others who had similar experiences. These findings also relate to scholars who study families with "disabilities" and how they often work to "normalize" their experiences (Harris, 2003; Traustadottir, 1992). The women of this study, then, as with these families, through the process of their everyday activities, did the work of integrating themselves into a larger hearing society and resisted being seen as different. As in the examples of those who had deaf children, since these families interacted with both hearing and Deaf people, the mothers had to learn how to foster an atmosphere where they children could be preserved, grow, and be accepted.

A difference from other families, is that these mothers and their children had to learn how to do this for two communities, the Deaf and hearing, and the places and between. The decisions of these Deaf women about language are political ones because in making decisions about speaking English, ASL, or a combination of both, they carved out places for themselves and their families. If they raised their children to speak ASL, they and their families were seen as part of the Deaf community, whereas if they taught them spoken English, they were seen as more a part of the hearing world. The larger Deaf community and hearing society played a role in how these families were seen in regards to these cultural identities, but the women themselves also identified their decisions as political ones. Their experiences also further support the idea that maternal thinking is something that is learned and not something that these women are born with knowing how to do. They learn how to mother in this way because the social situations that they encounter prompt them to respond as "good" mothers.

Finally, the Deaf women, through their activist work and by volunteering in their children's extra curricular activities, resisted stigmas that might have been attached to them as not being legitimate mothers and workers. In this way, they especially worked toward making their children acceptable to the hearing and Deaf worlds, but they also made efforts to show how they were legitimate mothers and could do this work in a variety of contexts. They also taught their children the importance of knowing how to exist in both worlds and the ability to go back and forth in these settings. Again, in this way, the boundaries of being deaf, Deaf, and hard of hearing seem to shift and change in a variety of contexts.

This article has made visible the mothering experiences of Deaf women with specific regards to their children's formal educations, extra curricular activities, and their own activism and volunteer work. The stories of the women in this study suggest that it is necessary to do an analysis that includes a discussion of gender as well as ability to more fully understand the concept of mothering as a kind of work and to question whether that work is an innate characteristic of women. Instead, the data suggests that the practices of maternal thought were learned due, in part, to context and the positions of these women and their families. It also illustrates how the terms of ability and disability are also based on context and suggests that they should be contested by scholars and activists who are interested in further theorizing of these topics and in creating social justice for all people.

I would like to thank the women of this study and their families for so generously sharing their stories with me. Without them, this research and the hope that it will contribute to creating social justice would not have been possible. I would also like to thank Dr. Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Dr. Scot Danforth, Co-Editors of Disability Studies Quarterly, and the anonymous reviewers at Disability Studies Quarterly for their insightful comments. Finally, I wish to thank my family and friends and my friends and colleagues in the Department of Sociology and the Center for Women & Work at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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  1. In the United States, there are approximately one and a half million people who are deaf (Bruyere, 2004). According to the Gallaudet Research Institute (GRI), the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) also provides similar national statistics; however, as the GRI points out, these reports do not provide estimates of those who were born deaf or hard of hearing and those who lost their hearing later in life (Holt, et., al., 1994; Mitchell, 2002). Also, it does not include estimates of those who consider themselves part of the Deaf community. Therefore, we do not have data on how many Deaf, deaf, and hard of hearing people there are, much less those who are college educated women. The Deaf community is a strong one, which has various Deaf Clubs, foundations, and its own private non-profit organization, The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), which was founded in 1880. NAD protects the civil rights of deaf and hard of hearing Americans in education, employment, health care, and telecommunications (NAD website, 2002). Their website includes position statements on various issues for the Deaf community including education opportunities, employment options, cochlear implants, and Deaf culture.

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Copyright (c) 2010 Cheryl Najarian Souza

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