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Maternal Visibility at the Commodity Frontier: Weaving Love into Birthday Party Consumption


Journal of Consumer Culture

Published online on


Children's birthday parties are celebrations that offer a means to understand consumption values surrounding motherhood that can remain understated or even taken for granted. Mother's consumption activities and the involvement of their child can reveal their management of the commodity frontier. As the marketplace increasingly provides goods and services to support mothers and parenting, the extent to which this is acceptable is a source of anxiety for the enactment of ‘good’ mothering in some social groups. The maternal visibility that birthday parties demand adds further strain. Building from previous work that acknowledges mothers to be the organisers of family celebrations and work that identifies ideologies of motherhood as important in the enactment, or performance, of mothering, this study examined mother–child consumption and the management of the commodity frontier in the preparation and hosting of young children's birthday parties.

The findings show that mothers could publicly demonstrate their intimate knowledge and care for their child by personalising the birthday party through the gift of their time and effort to create a ‘homemade’ event. Although overt commercialisation was managed, do-it-yourself understates the need to consume the constituent elements of the celebration. Instead mothers' abiding care was woven into the party to express something special for the child without material excess. Effortful work, time and emotional energy were all understated in the creation of a memorable event for the child. The underpinning rationalisation asserted that the fun, innocent simplicity of childhood was an imperative. The involvement of the child in consumption for the party allowed the mother to gauge the child's pleasure, teach values and manage the commodity frontier.