Review of Good Enough Mothers: Practicing Nurture and Motherhood in Chiapas, Mexico. J. M. López, New York: Berghahn Books, 2022, 200 pp.

Reviewed Book

Good Enough Mothers: Practicing Nurture and Motherhood in Chiapas, Mexico. J. M. López, New York: Berghahn Books, 2022, 200 pp.

Good Enough Mothers: Practicing Nurture and Motherhood in Chiapas, Mexico. J. M. López, New York: Berghahn Books, 2022, 200 pp.

Cover of Good Enough Mothers (2022)

Jessica Dailey

University of Notre Dame

J. M. López’s Good Enough Mothers: Practicing Nurture and Motherhood in Chiapas, Mexico is a theoretically sophisticated exploration of the three interlocking themes of childbirth, nurture work, and global health in the context of women’s transition to motherhood in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Throughout his narrative, López weaves together poignant ethnographic stories with broader theoretical contexts, such as the neoliberal shaping of health goals, the intersectional, neocolonial, and gendered underpinnings of public health, and the social construction of maternal identities. The author adopts a feminist anticolonial framework to critique global health praxis and its technocratic approach, positing that colonial narratives of global health create and enforce ontologically homogeneous binarized categories that erase key differences between and within populations. In his own analysis, López makes a point of avoiding these oversimplified binaries—particularly those around gender, ethnicity, and class—and instead focuses on an intersectional approach that questions the ways in which neocolonial power dynamics shape how global health conceptualizes the world. Intersectionality of any sort is profoundly and paradoxically lacking in both the praxis and the theory of globalized health, as noted by the author; even as it bills itself as being focused on intersectional identity markers such as gender, global health entities often fail to recognize the gendered components of their own agendas.

This monograph is ethnographically grounded in fieldwork conducted in barrio La Orilla, a working-class neighborhood of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. López thinks of La Orilla as a dynamic, socially constructed space, rather than a geographic one, and is particularly reflexive about how his understanding of place evolves throughout the course of his fieldwork.

The first section of the book provides local contexts about the geographic area of San Cristóbal and the local histories that shape the particular social context within which local people live and make decisions. This section contains discussions of themes such as the local legacies of coloniality, discrimination, and structural violence that spurred the Zapatista uprising. It also examines the historical tensions within San Cristóbal between Indigenous groups and people with traceable lineages tying them to both Spanish colonizers/settlers (or Mestizos) and Indigenous peoples, who self-identify as coleto/a. Here again, the reader finds that López is careful to refute oversimplified identity categories in San Cristóbal, which are reduced into a Mestizo/Indigenous dichotomy through a colonial gaze. In reality, as López describes, the local population is variable, dynamic, and complex, and the identity categories found within it are not altogether discrete or mutually exclusive.

The second section of the book focuses on women’s experiences giving birth, focusing on three care modalities available to women in La Orilla: hospital birth; the care of barrio midwives or parteras; and a local birth center called Luna Maya. Through several ethnographic stories, López details the different experiences women had with each type of care, exploring themes of maternal autonomy, medical risk narratives, obstetric violence, and the social construction of natural childbirth. Women’s level of agency during childbirth with each style of care often determines the nature of their transition to motherhood—and maternal agency is often mediated by intersectional identity categories such as gender, ethnicity, and class. López’s discussion of maternal agency is helpful in bridging the often-abstract theories of power and authority with actual lived experiences, focusing on the “social determinants of power relations” (p. 36) rather than power as object of analysis.

The third section of the book, entitled “Nurture,” details the postpartum period and transition into motherhood. Of particular importance to López’s discussion of the maternal transition is the cuarenta días; a 40-day-long postpartum quarantine period that new mothers typically spend in the home of an older female relative, such as the mother or mother-in-law or suegra. This home care involves not only postpartum support for healing and navigating administrative tasks, but also a socially constructed and culturally specific site for defining and reproducing what constitutes motherhood. The cuarenta días and the social transition into motherhood in la Orilla can be understood in certain ways to be antithetical to neoliberal narratives of subjectivity—for instead of individualism, the postpartum period in this case relies on intergenerational networks of social support among families, respect for local knowledges, and the need to protect the mother-baby dyad. Although by no means sequestered from outside forces, the local commitment to the cuarenta días in la Orilla illustrates an important life process which has not been entirely subverted under the auspices of biomedical or state power. Therefore, as López aptly discusses, it represents a locally specific space for negotiating and producing embodied maternities, as well as contesting state narratives of modernity.

Good Enough Mothers is an excellent example of an ethnographic study that uses reproduction as a critical lens through which to better understand the intersectional social dynamics that shape society—a theoretical stance held by many social scientists who study pregnancy, birth, parenthood, family genesis, and related themes. Anthropological work in this vein has demonstrated that reproduction is a locus for the expression and reinforcement of various social hierarchies, such as those related to race, class, and gender, sexuality, and poverty. Works that pay careful attention to the social, economic, and historical contexts of human reproduction are often key to understanding larger themes. Within medical care intersectional relations of power often correlate to quantifiable health outcomes; in López’s example of Mexico, overuse of surgical intervention can be related to misogyny, structural violence, colorism, and classism within the medical system itself. Therefore, López’s concept of “local-global maternal health” (pp. 169–72) represents a powerful way to situate intersectional frameworks within health care to potentially improve the implementation of public health. This book is an excellent teaching resource for students of the anthropology of reproduction, as well as students of public health—a discipline where improved understandings of intersectionality are sorely needed.