This blog post could very well have been entitled, “How to Piss off Mothers and lose your friends” or “Neo-Germaine Greer Rant”.
It is not intended to be.
What I want to highlight here is that where motherhood is concerned, there are universally accepted truths that are illogical and rooted in deeply entrenched religious and social mechanisms that we fail to question. I simply hope that questioning those, highlighting those can aid uncertain prospective mothers in making their own choices about motherhood.
In other words, with this post, I want to reach out to women who have had doubts on this subject and tell them that they are not alone and that it is fine to choose not to have children.
Finally, my experience for this post is the predominantly patriarchal community where I have been raised and the curious number of miserable, depressed and untruthful mothers I have known in my thirty odd years.
So it begins....
Society elevates its mothers to a pedestal whereby motherhood automatically lends honorable and virtuous qualities to women. Granted the pain and sacrifice involved in giving birth is admirable and even unsurpassed by any other biological feat. I respect it.
With all actions, one must always look at motivation. Indeed, often motherhood is an accident. Often it follows from the lack of education, the lack of choices available to women who end up fulfilling themselves through the one task they can indeed do though often, not so well, judging from the depression, family conflicts and adolescent angst that problematic motherhood engenders. Finally, often having children is mere tradition, a duty assumed by females.
In Western societies on the other hand, it is arguable that the need for social acceptance, social approval, social support and often financial support, all of which society somehow naturally offers to mothers, are a powerful driving factor in leading women to naturally assume the role of mother. After all, you can get government support for having children, whether or not you choose to take motherhood seriously.
Granted a woman may be honourable and virtuous but these qualities do not necessarily follow from motherhood and are entirely dependent on each individual’s temperament and disposition. It is highly possible that a woman who has never had children may also be as equally honourable and virtuous. The media just never mentions them.
One must wonder about the source of this unanimous equating of motherhood with virtue and female fulfillment. Going thousands of years back, it may have arisen from a long lost tradition of goddess cults worldwide in which women detained the secret of childbirth and immersed themselves in fertility rites that men could not take part in. In some places of the world, like the Kabyle of Algeria for example, the magic rites of the birth and life cycle still forms part of a sacred female ritual.
But in most places of the world, goddess cults are no more, replaced instead by patriarchal religions like Christianity, where incidentally it is a male god who controls the fertility of women. One of the most glaring examples of this is the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. This topples traditional matriarchal fertility beliefs because it symbolically empowers a male god, not a fertility goddess...
Society’s equating of motherhood with virtue may have arisen from a patriarchal desire to control reproduction.
Notably, in patriarchal belief systems, guilt is a powerful driving factor for women, often leading them to have children. If the qualities associated with raising children are so universally admirable and if one should feel they have fallen short if they don’t enter parenthood or meet the benchmarks of parenthood, why then, is there no such guilt for men? I maintain that this is partly because the guilt was engendered by patriarchy and in many ways sustained by patriarchal religious systems like Christianity where a ‘good’ woman was not ‘barren’. Indeed, in the Old Testament, one encounters stories of ‘barren’ women who finally, 'at long last', are granted a child through divine intervention.
In purely patriarchal societies, it is usually men who control reproduction, either through social rules, laws or religious belief systems.
Even today, the resulting economic effect of motherhood is not to be underestimated. Simply put, motherhood gives males the advantage. In the past, when birth control was not available, it meant that women were frequently burdened by pregnancy. Even today, not occupied by the first years of childhood, male workers experience no glitch in their careers. I have met many women who agonise over having children ‘before it’s too late’ but who are well aware of the career opportunities and experiences that they will have to forego. Men face no such limitations in their careers. Further, the large shift in the workforce resulting from mothers working part-time or stay at home mums means that at any time, there are more jobs available for men.
Note also that in some societies where there are low employment opportunities, such as some African American communities, Mexico or Spain whose unemployment rate is over 20%, we see a remarkable rise in misogyny and or domestic violence. In those societies, women can inspire jealousy and be hated for just having a job.
In a competitive world or one with few resources, having a woman raise children, not partake in the workforce, not rise to positions of power (and be less likely offered positions of power) perpetuates an arguably secure situation for men. This greatly taken-for-granted status quo may not be readily recognised by male consciousness but it nevertheless remains highly desirable and would be met with strong opposition if threatened. Witness the ego threat posed by women who advocated for the pill years ago. Aside from religious opposition, it was the prospect of women not remaining at home to carry out pregnancy or fullfill their motherly duties and instead, taking valuable jobs, that posed a considerable threat to men.
Controlling Motherhood not only allows men to increase their economic chances but also improves their status.
To understand how one acquires status through having children, it is important to highlight the much ignored socio-economic relevance of the aforementioned Judeo-Christian stories. After all, for many years, infant mortality was high and having many children was nothing short of a miracle and a sign of social status. Having many children also secured the likelihood that at least a couple of them would survive from the harsh living conditions.
This is still the case in many parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East where incidentally, parents often have many children.
Returning to the contention of this article, one must appreciate the enormous difference between 1. recognising that a couple must has access to enough food and wealth and can therefore raise many children (valuation of the couple’s status) and 2. the misguided notion that the woman must be virtuous for having had children (valuation of the couple through the wife’s morality). Somehow, the second notion has survived while only the first makes any sense. But let’s be honest, no one wants to openly admit to status concerns, it is better to be seen as virtuous and ‘loving’...
Ongoing Guilt and the need to be Good
A couple with children should therefore only communicate economic ease. Why, then, is there the added impression that the woman must be virtuous and fulfilled? Where does this belief come from?
Firstly, at least the fulfillment assumption may have arisen from the laws of scarcity. In the past, women who understood that child mortality was high, naturally desired what was hard to achieve. They wanted children because it was hard and not many children survived. Therefore a woman who had children, had, in the eyes of others, fulfilled a difficult task.
I must also add here that a woman had through her grace, effectively perpetuated life. A highly valuable consideration especially in terms of its gift to human kind whose population once did not thrive as much as it does today.
Today would be a different story...
But why are mothers, even today, also immediately perceived as virtuous?
I maintain that economically driven, patriarchal guilt-inducing systems are the reason we continue to propagate the image of a mother as good and virtuous. Consider the way the world celebrates Mother’s Day over and beyond Father’s Day, or even the absence of a day for celebrating non-gender specific Friendship or Humanity. The ubiquitous endorsement of motherhood as virtuous and ‘normal’ and the use of celebrity mothers (but not so much fathers) by the media to encourage identification and emulation creates such social pressure on women that those who choose not to become mothers develop guilt, believing that they must have shortcomings as a female human being.
Note further that women who actually choose motherhood are not spared from guilt. They feel it regularly whenever they believe they have failed in comparison to what society paints as a ‘good’ mother.
Breathe. There is more to come.
I don’t want to give the impression that I am against motherhood. I love babies. Full stop. But the heart-warming feeling I get from babies is not enough to warrant my full journey into motherhood not enough to warrant the “evidently, I should abandon all my dreams now and have children” feeling. Not enough to warrant ‘juggling it all’.
I know my limitations and I’m at peace with them. I respect motherhood especially when it stems from a genuine desire as opposed to the pleasure of merely ticking a box (valuation of a couple’s status…remember?).
What is a concern is the lack of choices some women have for contentment and the ongoing guilt that drives them to become mothers. My issue is with the ‘evidently, once you have a partner, you must have children’ attitude that most women face all over the world. Why evidently?
Biology Truisms Toppled
One might say that the evidence for this truism lies in the female biology. Ah yes, one would say that you simply cannot argue with nature. Nature shows us the way…
The proof is right there, it’s in the limited eggs women carry. So why not use them? Well let’s see. I am biologically capable of having children but I am also biologically capable of becoming an Olympic runner or a dancer or, hell, even a porn star…yes? Note that all these involve pain, sacrifice, endurance and discipline. Yes, believe me, they do.
So then, as a woman, let me ask you, why is it more evident that you should become a mother and not a dancer?
And further, why should you feel guilty for not ‘using your eggs’ before they run out but feel zero guilt for failing to use your legs to their full capacity before it’s too late?
We continue to nurture truisms and ‘natural’ ways of being that are grossly slanted by patriarchy and past social beliefs. They obscure the real reasons why women (and men) should choose to have children. And through subtle but persistent ideation of motherhood, they discourage deviations by default.
Do what you like.