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The Rhetoric of Motherhood

The language of mothering wipes out any recognition that it is actual women— real human beings with their own needs, interest and obligations— who mother

By Abby Arnold

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We all know the drill: in the past, motherhood was held to be an idealized state, glorified through myth and pithy statement to keep women anchored to their homes and families. The myths became the justification for political and economic restrictions on women, the foundation for placing on the mother sole responsibility for how her children developed. Luckily, things have changed, the myths have been discarded, women have been freed from accepting only one role and are launched into being everything and anything they want to be.

Except not. Myths of motherhood still permeate our culture and are the lens through which we frame and discuss mothering. The lens may not be as outwardly restrictive as it was in the past and include the language of choice, but it is still centered around the unachievable myth of the perfect, all-available Mother. This cultural image of who a Mother is and how she should be encourages mothers to judge their own and other’s behavior through standards proscribed by “experts” rather than speaking their own truth and connecting with each other. Above all, the language of mothering wipes out any recognition that it is actual women—real human beings with their own needs, interest and obligations—who mother.

For example:

This is the cover of the Oct. 26 2003 New York Times Magazine: a picture of a white woman, probably in her late 30s, casually dressed but her wrists and fingers weighed down with glittering, expensive jewelry. She sits on the floor underneath an empty, glowing ladder, a toddler nestled in her lap. The headline reads:

Q: Why Don’t More Women Get to the Top?
A: They Choose Not To [this in bold black print]
Abandoning the Climb and Heading Home

Through this language, the New York Times has framed the issue so that we don’t have to actually read the article, or investigate the conflicting demands of career and motherhood to know what to think. The readers certainly don’t have to imagine ways fathers, corporate culture, government regulations, or social norms might change to better accommodate workers who also are parents. Instead, through the rhetoric of the cover, particularly the use of the word choice, the New York Times has done all of our thinking for us. Women don’t get to the top because they don’t choose to. End of story.

Choice is the framework through which work and mothering has been discussed in America for years, thus reducing any conflict or consequences, personal, professional or economic agony, to personal preference and maternal whim. Do I choose to wear blue jeans or khakis? To go to this movie or that? Do I choose to stay home with my child or go to work? We, as a culture, need have no serious discussion about how to combine the child’s needs, the woman as mother and woman as worker’s needs (don’t even think about woman as a woman having needs, that’s just not allowed for mothers), the economic needs of the family—none of these issues need to be raised because mothers choose what they do and choice is personal, and often frivolous.

motherhood, the media and messages

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