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The New Future of Motherhood

page three

Why motherhood is not a job

If we want women’s equality to be part of the big picture of a mothers’ movement, it may be necessary to start from scratch and begin to imagine new possibilities for the meaning of motherhood, mothering, and caregiving in our society. The task at hand is to build a legitimate case for social change without resorting to sentimentalizing or idealizing the practice of mothering, and without minimizing the social significance and emotional complexity that motherhood adds to the lives of women who mother. In seeking common ground for collective action, we might begin by questioning whether there are any universal aspects of maternal experience. Based on my study of motherhood as a social issue and my experience of corresponding with hundreds of mothers over the past few years, I’m convinced there are a least two: Becoming a mother changes you, although it doesn’t change every mother in exactly the same way; and all women who mother are disadvantaged by the cultural and social circumstances under which they must mother, but not all are disadvantaged in exactly the same way, or to the same degree.

I’ve been accused of alienating potential supporters of the mothers’ movement by suggesting that motherhood is not, in fact, "the most important job in the world." And to be perfectly honest, I don’t think it is. I don’t think motherhood is a “job”— or a profession, or career— at all, although there's no denying that mothering entails a prodigious amount of mental work and physical labor. And when I criticize the valorization of motherhood and magical thinking about women’s power to change the world through conscious acts of responsible mothering, some readers may find me unsympathetic and pity my poor children for having such a hard-hearted mom.

To tell the truth, I have very deep and passionate feelings about the meaning of motherhood in my own life and the lives of other women who mother. That’s why I’m doing this work. It’s also why I’m so forthright in my rejection of pre-packaged narratives of motherhood that— based on both my personal experience and the view from my critical eye— are contrived to conceal, rather than reveal, the social and emotional value of motherhood and mothering.

My therapist (may a thousand blessings rain down upon her head) has always insisted that motherhood is not a job— it’s a relationship. And in my mind, thinking and talking about motherhood as a relationship— rather than a system of social reproduction, or a duty, or a vocation— is one way we might start to compose a rich new script for motherhood, a script that honors the possibility of complexity and variation in mothers’ inner lives, individual outlooks and aspirations.

If we locate motherhood and mothering in the context of relationship, we can still talk about love, work, desire and obligation, but we might be able to talk about these things in a more authentic way— or at least without feeling as though there is only one right answer to the question of what it means to be a mother. After all, interpersonal relationships do give rise to the impulse and obligation to care, although the strength of the impulse and the intensity of the obligation usually depend on the tenderness of the attachment, and the nature of the needs of the person we’re attached to. Because caring for others is not always easy or spontaneous, caring relationships put us in touch with the intricacies of our own emotional clockwork— and in this way, they can alter us. They can lead to new awareness of ourselves and others around us; they push us to grow. And this is just as true for the care-giver as it is for the cared-for.

When we look at motherhood as a relationship, we have an opportunity to weave a more mother-centric story to explain why becoming a mother can be a profoundly transformative experience, and why it never transforms every mother in precisely the same way— because when we conceive of motherhood and mothering as relationship, we’re describing an individual process, not a monolithic one. (Or as Jesse Bernard suggests, “Motherhood may work miraculous changes in women, transforming at least some of them into a close approximation of the model, or a close facsimile thereof, but for the most part women enter motherhood with the full complement of human virtues and defects, as various as all other living beings, and they remain different to the end.”)

Perhaps if we begin to think of motherhood as something other than a job, we might discover a new way to acknowledge that motherhood is an ending— the ending of a woman’s life as not-a-mother— and also a beginning, not of a different life, but of a changed one; a life that’s still full of open-ended and unexpected possibilities as well as added responsibilities. When we start talking about motherhood as a relationship, we— women, mothers— take ownership of it. And by the way, fatherhood is also a relationship, not a “role,” and it’s about time we started talking about the meaning of that, too.

Our new narrative of motherhood-as-relationship might also be used to articulate why contemporary mothers feel set apart from the rest of society in both good and bad ways. For example, in addition to divvying up our social world along gender lines, our culture also breaks down the rest of human experience into a series of dualisms— such as mind/body, public/private, productive/reproductive, competitive/compassionate, rational/relational— and assigns competing values to each side of the pair. The upshot is that behaviors and traits considered ideal on one side of the set are usually considered negative and inappropriate in the other. Such distinctions make our messy human lives seem a little more orderly and manageable, but it’s important to recognize that they are almost entirely arbitrary and culturally defined. Many people, female and male, struggle with this disconnect— because while it’s relatively easy to shift our concentration and actions in response to different social situations, we can’t split ourselves in two. We are always completely who we are every minute of our lives; we can’t conveniently shed selective aspects of our rational and relational selves when we move into a different setting. So if we accept that motherhood is a relationship and not a job, it’s becomes clear there is no sliding scale to being a mother— our motherliness isn’t based on the number of hours we put into mothering.

But no matter how firmly we plant our feet in the competitive world of free market enterprise, the emotional tethers of the private, relational world are always drawing us back to the reality of human feeling and need. At the same time, our aspirations may constantly pull us outward, inviting us to walk on a different edge of our lives. Everyone experiences this pull of opposites to some degree, but since our present social system depends on women to maintain the compassionate half of the world— and because the needs of children are so urgently felt by children and the people who care for them— mothers may feel the conflict between work and family life most acutely.

When you add all this up, it becomes easier to understand why conforming— or attempting to conform— to the prevailing cultural model of ideal motherhood feels more “natural” to us than resisting it. And the sensation Daphne de Marneffe describes as "maternal pleasure"— one of the emotional perks we get from being in relationship with our children— is real and palpable (Maternal Desire, 2004). But mothering can also be unbearably frustrating, depressing, unsatisfying, oppressive— because being a “perfect” mother (or an “ideal” worker) usually means we have to put a big chunk of who we are on hold. We need a more generous and holistic model of motherhood to fit the fullest expression of our maternal lives— and by describing motherhood as a relationship, not a job, in our script for the new future of motherhood, we begin to stretch the boundaries.

Unfortunately, the motherhood-as-relationship model doesn’t quite get us off the hook for gendered thinking, since by the time boys and girls reach adulthood they’ve been thoroughly bombarded with the message that women are inherently more expressive and attuned to relationship than men— there’s even a school of feminist thought that supports this notion. But if we want equality and justice for women, we’ll need to figure out a way to counteract the presumption of male indifference in our hypothetical script. We might begin by suggesting that it’s shortchanges everybody when we assume that mothers get more out of being in relationship with their children than fathers do, or that fathers’ level of attachment to their children and the attendant obligation to care for them is less compelling than that of mothers.

Even if the framework still needs some tweaking, looking at motherhood as a relationship could shift the dialog in the right direction. Unlike jobs, relationships aren’t results oriented— they’re process oriented; they evolve. So instead of looking at child-rearing as a project and children as blank slates on which mothers inscribe the lines of success or failure, we can begin to consider the ways children are active participants in their own upbringing. Also, it’s safe to assume all relationships are unique, since every relationship encompasses all the unique qualities and personal histories each individual brings into the mix— in other words, it’s unrealistic to suggest that all caring mothers should and do feel exactly the same way about the same things, even though they all share the experience of being in relationship with children.

But what I find most attractive about this idea of motherhood-as-relationship is the opportunity to bring our maternal experience back to a personal scale, and to acknowledge that healthy relationships, including the relationship between a mother and her child, are fluid enough to contain a full range of human feeling— from the most profound love to the deepest ambivalence. So rather than romanticizing motherhood or reducing it to an outcome-oriented project, we might be able to speak more freely about how emotionally complicated and variable this whole business of mothering truly is.

So rather than falling back on the old script that venerates mothers as protectors of children and the stewards of the caring world, we might open up a world of possibility by starting to describe motherhood as one of the most intense, important, and complicated relationships in the world— for both mothers and children. Even if becoming a mother doesn’t align women with a uniform sense of purpose and passion, perhaps the relational reality of motherhood offers us an unparalleled opportunity to know how it feels to be vulnerable, fallible, and utterly human. And as Cecelie Berry, editor of Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood remarks, “if confronting the stuff of humanity doesn’t bring us together, then, frankly, nothing will.”

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