Text: Caroline Renaux
“It’s a girl”, announces the doctor. You’re not even born yet, but gender roles already rest heavily on your shoulders. Not only will you suffer from double standards and gender binarism, but you will also experience the sacralization of motherhood. From this very moment, you are more than a girl: you are a future mother.
Self-realization through maternity
While a man can be self-fulfilled by other means than fatherhood (among which are work, faith, sports), society equates womanhood with motherhood. Being a mother serves way more than a mere social function: your entire identity as a woman is at stake. If you don’t, you are not fully happy, not fully achieved, not fully woman. To give birth or not to be?
This strict essentialism, anticipating your gendered identity, has roots in the sacralization of motherhood. The latter is seen as a sign of self-realization and happiness, as a transition to adulthood, and as the last stop of the relationship escalator. Childbirth is portrayed as the pure product of individual desire, yet is constantly depicted as sacred, empowering and beautiful – which often silences the less romanticized stories. The endless myths about a systematic appeal to childbearing, as well as the supposed accomplishment that it would bring, show how strong the dogma remains.
Although we have become deeply skeptical of any biological determinism, there is still something about motherhood that predisposes people to use the argument of Nature. From a physical disposition, one mostly avoids deducing a predetermined behavior. Nevertheless, uteruses are the undeniable proof that women have to give birth, aren’t they? And when they don’t, as Laurie Lisle pointed out in Without Child, we give them childlike substitutes: an author gives birth to her book, a teacher is a motherlike figure to her students… This institution of motherhood reinforces the belief that every woman dreams of having a child, which further naturalizes pregnancy – and at the same time, the unequal repartition of parenting, and the social injustices it implies. But why is there still an unshakeable consensus that a successful life automatically means having descendants?
The Mother-bliss lie: social pressure and stigma
“You would make a great mother”, “One day you’ll regret it”, “What if everybody did that?”. If you ever heard one of these, then you already know that the social stigma around childlessness is omnipresent, and often prevents women from keeping a room of their own. Since female aspiration to give birth is constantly emphasized – or imagined –, to be a woman without being a mother is to be constantly pressured into child rearing. That’s why career-driven women are put in such a bad light for being liberated, thus bearing the stain of self-absorption and deficiency. Despite the difficult conciliation between the traditional Mother ideal and today’s work requirements, injunctions to parenthood are overwhelming, and come even from within family circles. Who hasn’t ever heard a parent take over their daughter’s body and make her feel guilty for not giving them a grandchild?
The archaic fantasy of the ideal, nurturing and sacrificial mother plays a significant role in this. If there is a commonly adopted model of the family structure, the same is true for mothers. Depicted as utterly happy, they seem to systematically escape the painful disappointment in front of the ideological promises of maternal achievement. Nonetheless, others give voice to these unusual and silenced testimonies: in Regretting Motherhood, the sociologist Orna Donath interviewed 23 women who regretted being mothers, despite loving their child. Sure, motherhood might be a source of personal bliss, but in the meantime can also be the cause of great suffering and persecution. How come the unrealistic expectations surrounding motherhood are still not deconstructed, or these muted maternal experiences not unveiled? Facing backlash in the media, Orna Donath summed it up: “there is only one answer society tolerates from mothers to the question of motherhood: I love it”.
Women’s wombs, a man’s business
Unfortunately, these debates are the result of centuries of masculine domination over women’s bodies. Global conflicts turned their wombs into a State affair: in an attempt to face with the post-war demographic collapse, abortion and birth control were largely prohibited. Interfering in the intimacy of couples, the Law reduced women to a reproductive function, where giving birth was not a choice but a duty.
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir ties this obligation to the temporal division between cyclicality and linearity: while women are demoted to the cyclical time of nature, men can take control and shape their future. As she phrased it, women’s misery “is to have been biologically destined for the repetition of Life”.
Silencing women through the ‘natural’ labor of childbirth still has a hand in the process of gender differentiation in our society. It remains an effective means of perpetuating their economic subordination as it prevents them from pursuing more lucrative, powerful or socially recognized occupations. However, deconstructing the constant motherhood propaganda and romanticization is only one step among many others to end women’s misfortune in motherhood. Obstetric violence should also be spoken up and out against, along with rethinking the supposed ‘maternal instinct’ – which continues to serve as a justification for unequal parenting. In short: let women live motherhood as a subjective experience which associates independence and equality, while accepting that one can love someone and remain childfree.