Caitlin Killian, "Failing Moms: Social Condemnation and Criminalization of Mothers" (Polity Press, 2023)


The role of mother is often celebrated in the United States as the most important job in the world but Dr. Caitlin Killian argues that American motherhood is increasingly monitored and perilous. From preconception, through pregnancy, and while parenting, she argues that women are held to ever-higher standards and punished – both socially and criminally – for failing to live up to these norms.

Using historical accounts, public health pronouncements, social psychological research, and course cases, Failing Moms: Social Condemnation and Criminalization of Mothers (Polity Press, 2023) documents how women of all ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses have been interrogated, held against their will, and jailed for a rapidly expanding list of offenses such as falling down the stairs while pregnant or letting a child spend time alone in a park, actions that were not considered criminal a generation ago. While poor mothers and moms of color are targeted the most, Dr. Killian argues that all moms are in jeopardy, whether they realize it or not. Women and mothers are disproportionately held accountable compared to men and fathers who do not see their reproduction policed and almost never incur charges for “failure to protect.” The gendered inequality of prosecutions reveals them to be more about controlling women than protecting children. Other books have examined the specific risks to either pregnant or parenting women – but few connect the issues – and that is Dr. Killian’s goal. Using a reproductive justice lens, she analyzes the extent of the crisis and what must change to prevent mass penalization and provide resources to allow people to mother well.

Dr. Caitlin Killian is a professor of sociology at Drew University specializing in gender, families, reproduction, and immigration. She has worked as a consultant for the United Nations, developing the module on sexual and reproductive health and rights for UN staff training and co-authoring a UNDP report on Syrian refugee women. Her articles have appeared in Contexts magazine and The Conversation, and she has published in numerous academic journals about adoption, overblown warnings about women’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy, sexual and reproductive health and justice, and immigrant and refugee women.

Dr. Killian mentions:

George Lobis served as the editorial assistant for this podcast.

Susan Liebell is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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Susan Liebell

Susan Liebell is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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