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Unnaturalness: The Institution of Motherhood

November 13, 2008

It goes without saying, of course, that fatherhood is entirely social construction. The biological reality of motherhood, though, works (in patriarchy’s favor, I might add) to obscure the amount of social coercion, in the form of propaganda, brainwashing, and acculturation, necessary to create the institution that motherhood has become. Just as in all cases of socialization – gender, race hierarchy, class oppression, etc. – what is needed in order to ameliorate the harms done by the current social structure is to extricate the social from the purely physiological, to tease apart that which is natural difference and that which is socially imposed upon women due to the fact of our femaleness in male supremacy. What I mean by that is this: no one should have social obligations or restrictions imposed on her or privileges bestowed on her because of her sex, physical racial manifestation, “low-class” linguistic markers or mannerisms (because, once you’ve established your accent and your stance, you’re just about stuck with it), body type, etc.

Well, motherhood is a whole host of expectations and obligations imposed on women due to nothing other than the fact of their female sex, and none of them are natural. Please note, here, that I’ve not said anything about anyone’s aversions or proclivities, their own personal preferences. So, if you’re a mother who feels she truly performs out of the sheer goodness of her own absolutely-unaffected-by-society heart all the duties and responsibilities that have been ascribed to motherhood, for the sake of today’s post, I’m not saying a word to contradict you. All I’m saying is that the *expectations* and *obligations* to do those things are not natural and that therefore it isn’t any wonder why so many women and girls flounder under those conditions, even if you yourself did fine. (Although, I must tack on, perhaps inflammatorily, I think it’d be worth examining the position of privilege it must be from which a person could say that their home life didn’t vary significantly from the glorified “stable,” “whole” family of our male-supremacist society’s social narrative, and really mean it, as opposed to feeling obligated to say it anyway just so that people will think you’re potentially “normal” and not some damaged wacko right off the bat.)

For one, the notion that a woman should remain emotionally attached and psychologically (and, often, physically) available to her children is a source of much anguish, for both the mother and her offspring. Our narrative doesn’t allow youth the meager consolation of the knowledge that there isn’t any one right way to be a mother in this world, neither in the physical nor the social sense. How much relief would it be to all those children being raised by people other than their able, living biological mothers to know that their experience is normal and just as natural as the experience of those children whose mothers felt compelled to stick around for the rest of their lives? I mean, it would be nice, too, if mothers who, for whatever reason, didn’t feel compelled to stick around and be a constant serene and selfless presence in her kids’ lives on through their adulthood and the beginnings of their old age – well, it would be nice if they weren’t *vilified* the way that they are, and if their children weren’t driven mad and subsequently pathologized for it the way that they are. But I do think it would be at least some consolation for those children and mothers to know that they aren’t alone and that they aren’t damaged or bad, except insofar as they are demonized and ostracized by society.

Well, I don’t want to drone on and on with my own examples of unnatural obligations, expectations, and responsibilities associated with motherhood and how they’re detrimental to girls and women. There are so many. And motherhood is only one institution that burdens women with these unnatural social roles. It’s just been on my mind a lot lately, the fact that social expectations cause us so much harm but the solution most often proffered is for us to simply strive to meet them better, rather than that we get rid of the roles altogether. Like, for instance, with motherhood, the fact that some women don’t want to be mothers in the social sense is met with the suggestion that only the women who want to be mothers in the social sense should be mothers in the physical sense (all while there is propaganda to encourage women to be mothers in the physical sense and no support for women to be mothers in the social sense if they weren’t already in a privileged enough position not to need any, of course). The “solution” is for women to just fit themselves into the boxes society has deemed good and right, rather than for society to adapt to the fact that women who are physically capable of – and maybe even amenable to – biological motherhood might be personally unsuited to or disinterested in social motherhood. We certainly understand that about men; we just expect the women to shoulder their share of the load.

Well, let me tell you, human females are the only ones doing just that – shouldering the male load – to this degree. In the rest of the animal kingdom, offspring are abandoned all the time – from fresh-born pups and whelps to gangly adolescent males. Abandoned. By their biological mothers, on her whim. And to think we humans will jail women for discreetly disposing of the spontaneously aborted remains of a pregnancy, already dead by the time it hits the fresh air.

I just wonder what kind of social engineering might come out of an acknowledgment of women’s human individuality, our human right to put ourselves first. I didn’t delve as deeply as I intended into this aspect of things, but I think putting ourselves first might also be beneficial to our children (especially girls), who are supposedly the reason for piling all of these false roles and responsibilities on biological mothers in the first place.

18 Comments
  1. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    November 13, 2008 4:49 pm

    (Although, I must tack on, perhaps inflammatorily, I think it’d be worth examining the position of privilege it must be from which a person could say that their home life didn’t vary significantly from the glorified “stable,” “whole” family of our male-supremacist society’s social narrative, and really mean it, as opposed to feeling obligated to say it anyway just so that people will think you’re potentially “normal” and not some damaged wacko right off the bat.)

    LOL! Love the disclaimers, –right! And if one were to be allowed to admit to the lack of being “normal” it would only last a quick minute, or until the first disagreement came up, then it would be all about how she has issues, thus, people know this, so they keep touting the normal shit, even when it is obvious that there is no concrete normal (therefore never actually achieved), only a fantasy normal.

  2. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    November 13, 2008 4:55 pm

    The “solution” is for women to just fit themselves into the boxes society has deemed good and right, rather than for society to adapt to the fact that women who are physically capable of – and maybe even amenable to – biological motherhood might be personally unsuited to or disinterested in social motherhood.

    Thus the assumption (a terrible and prejudice assumption) that if you are say, 50 and female and without children, it is because you could not physically have children, and/or you could not find a man.

  3. MargaretJamison permalink
    November 13, 2008 5:38 pm

    ***And if one were to be allowed to admit to the lack of being “normal” it would only last a quick minute, or until the first disagreement came up, then it would be all about how she has issues, thus, people know this, so they keep touting the normal shit, even when it is obvious that there is no concrete normal (therefore never actually achieved), only a fantasy normal.***

    YES. This is exactly how the status quo is maintained! Yet no one really wants to acknowledge all of the social coercion involved in keeping up this illusion – that you can only be normal if you had your biological parents living with you in the same house, with your mother still allowing your father continued sexual access, and your mother taking on most of the work of child-rearing. One variation from this theme and you may as well commit yourself to an institution for all the grief you’ll get from everyone, including friends, who, as you’ve intimated, may pretend to affirm your sanity for a while but are just waiting for an opportune moment to cast you in with the rest of the “loonies” as soon as you say something that contradicts the narrative. “Oh, she only thinks that because [whisper] she comes from a broken home.

    And looking at your second comment, a big YES to that too. SO MANY people assume that the only reason I don’t have kids is because I’m incapable – whether due to my decided unfuckability (which lack of sexual allure, they lament, could be easily fixed with a well-fitting bra and a decent-sized heel on my shoe) or to some reproductive “misfortune.” And I’m not even 50 yet.

  4. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    November 13, 2008 5:47 pm

    Funny story, I knew an older woman once (we still exchange Christmas cards, she moved away) who did not have children, but was married to a man who had a son (who was around my age when I knew her, in his late 30’s). Anyway, I assumed, she never had children because she did not want children, and only agreed to marry the man she did because his child was an adult already. Well, shockingly, I had to deal with my blunder. She did not have children because she could not have children and somehow it was my fault for not assuming this the situation.

  5. MargaretJamison permalink
    November 13, 2008 6:08 pm

    Well, under this current arrangement of things, to be physically unable to bear children is a “misfortune” for which the poor benighted soul is due an inordinate amount of sympathy and gingerness due to the “shame” of not being a “real woman.” I’d like to think that if female people weren’t cowed and bullied into believing our only worth lies in our ability and eagerness to reproduce, it wouldn’t be considered a blunder to think a woman might actually have chosen a childless lot in life. And, too, for women who might not otherwise *choose* to be childless but are unable to have children, they might not consider their alternatives to be substandard to the “norm” of biological progenitor and social child-rearer all wrapped up in one.

  6. Anna Belle permalink
    November 14, 2008 7:35 pm

    You’ve hit on something important here. There are two scenarios that explain this dynamic:

    #1: Always, a father who is missing elicits the reaction of grief in the child: a mother that is missing elicits the reaction of anger. Always. Look at Obama, pining away after a man who couldn’t care less, ignoring the woman who gave him everything.

    #2: If a woman leaves a child after giving birth without going through the accepted social steps of signing over the infant, she is jailed. Men fail to show up at the births of children they know are being born all the time and fail to ever support those children, but they are under no obligation to sign anything for that privilege.

    Two things must change: The social construct and the law.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  7. MargaretJamison permalink
    November 14, 2008 11:52 pm

    Wow, Anna Belle, thanks for this comment. Your two examples of situations that illustrate the dynamic I was trying – and I evidently succeeded(yay!) – to describe are SO on point. The glorification of even absentee fathers over present mothers (as illustrated by the Obama father-worship you pointed out) can only be explained by the oppressive obligations/expectations/responsibilities we’ve placed on women’s shoulders. I had a friend whose mother gave her away to be raised by an aunt and who never knew who her father was – didn’t even know the man’s name – but she longed for him and was angry with her mother. It’s pure male-supremacist misogyny. It’s so widespread.

    I really believe that, for women, bringing ourselves to forgive our mothers (not even just our own mothers, but mothers in the collective sense) for their human choices might allow us, and girls and women who come after us, to finally freely make human choices for ourselves.

    And, yeah, I hadn’t even thought about how women have to go through legal rigmarole to give up born children (the mothers [yes, mostly mothers, since, as you note, fathers aren’t often left in such a position] jumping at the legal “loophole” in NV that Kitty’s been writing about is one example, too). There I was thinking about how women can’t even give up UNborn children without going through the same red tape, but, yeah, it continues on after birth too.

  8. Anna Belle permalink
    November 15, 2008 12:07 am

    You’re welcome, Margaret. I was glad to see your post today. I think it needs to be discussed openly and am happy you where willing to get it started.

    I remember when I was a 22 year old single pregnant female, I was so outraged by that fact. That I had to go through with it and that I would be alone, and that he would never pay a penalty, never have to answer for it. It burned.

    I really think the law needs to be changed. There has to be jail time for everyone for financial and physical abandonment of children. Because they are the more defenseless among us, and they have the least rights, they must have special protection. All people ought to be required to sign those forms or to play a role, a greater role than financial. We should all be held to account for keeping track of our genetic reproductive material.

    That’s my opinion anyway.

  9. MargaretJamison permalink
    November 15, 2008 12:19 am

    Ah, see, my thinking on the topic takes me in exactly the opposite direction! I think we ought to open ourselves up to the fact that the people who love us, take care of us, and bring us up, and the people we’re genetically related to might not be the same people. I really wouldn’t want to see women *have* to name the man who got them pregnant in order to have him suffer some symbolic legal burden if they had good reason – or even just a preference – not to name him. The idea that a man has responsibility (or claim) toward the human results of his sex life is, to me, the basis of patriarchy.

  10. The Fabulous Kitty Glendower permalink
    November 15, 2008 2:53 am

    I really wouldn’t want to see women *have* to name the man who got them pregnant in order to have him suffer some symbolic legal burden if they had good reason – or even just a preference – not to name him. The idea that a man has responsibility (or claim) toward the human results of his sex life is, to me, the basis of patriarchy.

    And you know the thing is, the double edged-ness of it all. If a woman with a child in our current society needed assistance, she is forced to reveal the name of the father or suffer not getting that assistance. If she is to lie in order to subvert the system she is subjected to facing imprisonment. If she says she does not know, the narrative is that she is protecting the father, letting him lay up on the taxpayer’s dime, and/or she is a slut and is obviously too much of a ho to know her baby’s daddy. So the system emotionally blackmails her by employing patriarchal shaming, and it literally withholds from her if she dares to subvert the system. The only way around ever possibly not needing the system is not having a baby and only having herself to tend to, however, the patriarchy has placed safeguards to ensure armies of independent and childless women do not become the norm by steadying conditioning society to embrace the “mother,” to elevate the mother over the non-mother, and when the desire for motherhood is not actualised, then hinder abortion efforts, and now with pharmacists dictating who should get birth control, hinder getting birth control, if it is an affordable option to begin with, and if that does not work (as in the woman abstains from male intercourse), there is always the heterosexual sexualisation of everything (t.v. movies, magazines, pop culture) pushing girls into heterosexual sex.

  11. Anna Belle permalink
    November 16, 2008 4:34 am

    I’m all for focusing on how the people who raised us are as important as any person with a parental biological connection. I agree with you there. Family means more than shared DNA, certainly.

    But I can’t get on board with an idea that says women should just be like men, and leave their children at will if they feel like it. That’s a horrible, heartless impulse in men, and is a big part of the patriarchal problem, IMO.

    No, I think the people who created that new person have an obligation to ensure its survival, however they manage to do that. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to raise it and love it, but they do have to ensure that someone else does, even if that just means signing custody over. If that means both parties are subjected to the legal system, then so be it. That’s far better than just one side being subjected to it. (again, IMO)

  12. Anna Belle permalink
    November 16, 2008 4:35 am

    Also, of course, they are free to abort it. I am pro-choice.

  13. MargaretJamison permalink
    November 16, 2008 11:51 am

    Well, given the way things are right now – with men encouraged toward an entitlement to sexual intercourse with women – all of them as a class or one (some) of them as a wife or prostitute, it would be difficult for women to have freedom of choice without there being devastating consequences for many infants and children and possibly the species. However, what I think needs to happen is that people be encouraged to take care of their *own* sexual wants through masturbation. If intercourse were not thought to be the summation of “sex,” several things might happen:
    1) Fewer women would end up pregnant in the first place if men weren’t entitled to penis-in-vagina intercourse.
    2) *Intercourse* itself would have to be shown to have been desired and entered into mutually – not just “sex.” A woman consenting to just a little fooling around is currently seen as having consented to -at the very least – the preliminaries to intercourse. That’s why she can be said to have led a man on. If intercourse were entirely separated from the notion of sexual release, though, women would not have that problem.
    3) With fewer women becoming pregnant in the first place, it wouldn’t be so much of a crisis for raped women and the few women who had voluntarily agreed to “artificially” inseminate themselves (though what exactly is “artificial” about having a man ejaculate into some neutral container, then transferring it to your vagina, as opposed to having him ram his penis in your vagina, I don’t know) but then changed their minds to be able to make entirely free decisions as to what to do with the resultant infants.
    3)Fewer children, born usually to women who actively sought out pregnancy itself (not just sexual release), would probably in general be taken care of by the birthing woman and any people she trusted enough to help her. In cases in which they weren’t, I’m not sure why drop-off sites wouldn’t work. The only reason they don’t work now is because the sheer numbers of unwanted children preclude it. I personally think the numbers of unwanted children are due to male supremacist sexual education (which, even if not taught in schools, almost universally singles the female vagina out for male masturbatory pleasure). Fewer men fucking means fewer pregnancies for women. Women leaving men out of the business of birthing babies altogether means fewer men with access to children to fuck, too, which, if women weren’t letting men fuck them anymore, would certainly be a concern (more so even than it is now, I think, and it’s huge now), which is why I don’t propose any sort of legally mandated interaction between sperm donors and the resultant human offspring.

  14. MargaretJamison permalink
    November 16, 2008 12:25 pm

    Arrgh, I do know how to count, all evidence to the contrary be damned.

  15. Anna Belle permalink
    November 17, 2008 3:59 am

    Wow, some great points. This is a fantatsic conversation, so let me first say thank you. I agree that sex as it currently is a patriarchal tool in which women have little real “choice.” This has been a major bone of contention for me all of my life. Dating dynamics have changed, not for the best. There’s soemthing almost predatory about it. I agree, we need fewer people having gratutious sex just because it’s cool. Of course, how to do that without appearing to be checking personal choice? I have no idea.

    I know for my own daughter, I just tell her the truth of my experience and what I see in the world. I tell her not to have sex because American teenage boys are corrupted by internet porn and will degrade her if given the chance. I tell her the limits of her body is such that she is unlikely to even enjoy sex until she is fully developed, around the age of 21. I absolutely talk to her about masterbation and sex in general, and she’s had her own copy of Our Bodies/Ourselves since I slipped a fresh copy into her room in the fourth garde (she’s currently a freshman in high school).

    You do bring up a great point about the legal issues surrounding rape and sperm donorship (though I always joke that there are no sperm donors–only sperm pushers). I have no idea. I’ll have to think about that.

    Thanks for the great conversation.

  16. MargaretJamison permalink
    November 17, 2008 11:56 pm

    I’ve enjoyed this conversation, too, Anna Belle, truly. The appreciation is more than mutual. I never even dreamed when I started blogging that I’d get to have chats like this one so soon, let alone regularly (maybe ‘regularly’ is strong, but call it wishful thinking :D).

    Ugh, my cheeks are burning just thinking about talking to my cousin about masturbation. It’s terrible that I believe things so strongly, yet still fear the shame that might be cast my way for actually voicing those things. It’s so cool that you talk to your daughter about it. The only time my mother ever brought it up, it was to accusingly ask if I’d been “touching myself down there” because I was sleeping in a compromising position. That was awkward.

    It is so weird to me that people consider adhering to patriarchal values to be a valid choice, as if anyone not born and raised under this burden would ever really choose to mire themselves in it. But you are right that men would cry about their lost freedom to choose to masturbate into women, and some women would mourn their lost freedom to let men masturbate into them, even though no one will ever ask them to relinquish those choices so long as white male supremacy stands. I’m not even allowed to *imagine* what a world I could be happy living in might look like without some status-quo-reveler acting like I’m starting armageddon.

  17. Joan Kelly permalink
    November 18, 2008 7:33 pm

    Late to comment here although I’ve been reading the thread with interest, and appreciate being able to do so. It’s a great conversation even for a person not-having it. 🙂

    The motherhood pressure is for sure a deeply ingrained mind fuck. To simply have neutral – not even hostile – feelings towards *other* people’s babies, never mind having no desire for your own, is evidence of pathology in the minds of many.

    I mean, it is so ingrained even in me that I joke about being half-robot, in reference to my own relationship to babies/motherhood. Which is to say, I’ve never wanted to be a mother, and I’ve loved my niece and nephew since they first got here, but I only got the urge to hang out with either of them once they became old enough to be, well, fun.

    And even now, in this space, I feel weird talking about any of that, like it’s proof that I am not normal or at any rate not a “loving” person, which is often also code for “not doing femaleness right.”

    And this:

    “I’m not even allowed to *imagine* what a world I could be happy living in might look like without some status-quo-reveler acting like I’m starting armageddon.”

    True indeed.

  18. MargaretJamison permalink
    November 22, 2008 4:03 pm

    Hello, Joan! I am so sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to your comment. I’ve been out of town this week, drained of all desire to even touch a computer once I got to my hotel room every evening.

    Man, the baby-worship thing. It’s like the only possible thing a woman can do in our society in order to be accepted is to have a man and as many babies as he wants her to have and to always be happy and self-less about it. That’s it. No other choice. If you vary from that script in any way, you’re damaged goods. You need to get in line. There’s all this rhetoric about how people just want women to stop having abortions, for example. But when I point out that I personally have never and, barring rape, will never have an abortion because I’ll never end up pregnant in the first place because I’m never having sex with a man again – boy, do those “just don’t have an abortion” people freak the fuck out! I’m doing it wrong!

    Women are just NOT allowed to not want anything to do with men and babies, preferably male babies.

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