Motherhood: A Socially-constructed Virtue of Patriarchy?

By Zeba Kazi

Biological claims are often used to explain motherhood as a fact and an experience. Feminists have shown that the concept of motherhood is socially, historically, legally, and politically constructed. Many of them have refuted the claim that motherhood is innate to women. Associating motherhood as inherent to women coalesces biological and sociological motherhood and refuses to see motherhood as work. When motherhood is framed as nature, social motherhood is seen as a labour of love, her natural responsibility. The idealisation of mother and motherhood is a way of creating and maintaining the subordination of women. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir expounds on the idea of motherhood and maintains that motherhood is the main cause for the ‘othering’ of women. Women are conditioned to see motherhood as aspirational. The decision to be a mother is therefore never performed ‘in complete liberty’. The only social solution is the foregoing of motherhood. But Carole Pateman has identified how “the devaluation of motherhood and women was a result of patriarchal construction of sexual difference.” Men, through the social contract, become equal as members of the society while women are relegated to nature. This accentuates the sex difference. Changing laws and institutions is not enough to free women from the shackles of motherhood or even change the conditions of motherhood, unless the othering is transcended.

      Feminists like Firestone, Adrienne Rich, and Nancy Chodorow argued that “motherhood is a well-propagated myth and the notion of mothering as natural to women has its roots in patriarchy, since it serves to lock women into biological reproduction while denying them identities of personhood or self outside the experience of mothering.” Chodorow cautions that ‘biological claims’ used to explain motherhood is one of the many social forms tied with how gender has come to be socially constructed. The notion that biological ties are necessary for motherhood (and fatherhood) has been called into question with the emergence of reproductive technologies.

      To understand how these notions operate in society, one can turn to the efforts of Maila Stivens, Stivens examines the historical and contemporary construction of motherhood in Singapore and Malaysia through state, media, and popular cultural representations. She suggests that the multiplication of diverse images of motherhood in circulation today points to the post modernisation of motherhood. This produces reconfigurations in the meanings of home/private, work/public, domesticity and family, e. g. the commoditization of motherhood and new images of the ‘working mother’.

      She further mentions that in these two countries, motherhood is constructed as an explicitly nationalist project that is linked to the wider geopolitics of ‘Othering’. She shows how state policies are geared to produce ideal family units for the reproduction of the country. The burden of then sustaining the culture and traditions falls on the women. Stivens also contends that as a result of these intransigent gender roles, mothers are expected to carry out the waged work outside while being traditional caring women at home to produce ideal children. This further reinforces the idea that child rearing is essentially a woman’s responsibility. This forms the myth-making of the modern woman. Such state policies and unrealistic social expectations, Stivens adds, have created an aversion to motherhood amongst young women.

      Stivens sees postmodern motherhood as a balancing act of work and life, the flight from marriage and child-bearing and the representations of motherhood as a national and international project. The state’s paternal concern about the quality of life in stressful times, corporate initiatives for work-life balance, anxieties about a supposed decline of morality and family values from some religious and state quarters, ‘progressive’ state interventions, and, in the case of Singapore, a full-scale moral panic at the absence of such a balance, all of these together may be behind the continuously declining morality. She sees these cultural contests—firmly linked to wider global developments and concerns—as putting into play the diverse images of mothers in a number of sites like the academic, state, market, and religion. The contests underline the shifting boundaries of the increasingly problematic, fragmenting divide between public and private and the ongoing reconfigurations of ideas of work, home, domesticity, worker, mother, and child. Mothers are also ‘designated consumers’ who acquire all commodities necessary for satisfactory performance of motherhood/ parenthood.

      The state then seeks to create a national narrative of motherhood, basically a heterosexual, patriarchal idea of family and family relations. The state often reduces the idea of motherhood to its essentialist and ‘biological’ sense, which again creates new and unprecedented hierarchies amongst those who identify as women. Motherhood is also used as an excuse to deny women rights and equality. Women are expected to perform the role of a mother to produce new citizens for the state. Furthermore, states who rush to modernity tend to blame working women for the fragmentation of family and social deterioration, thus showing the state’s bias for selective modernity. Stivens acknowledges many forms of motherhood like those of single mothers, surrogates, and non-heterosexual mothers, despite the relative invisibility put upon them by the state.

      Stivens also points out how the ideal of work-life balance is exclusively a question that women need to deal with, not men. Patriarchal societies often connect family and society intrinsically, where the family is seen as the building block of the society. These families stand on the backs of mothers who are not only burdened with child-rearing but also sustaining cultures and traditions. This essentially turns motherhood and morality into metaphors for the nation.

Zeba Kazi is currently doing her diploma in Gender culture and development while waiting for her PhD in literature to start. She’s an avid reader and an occasional writer.

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