Institutionalized motherhood

In her introduction to Of Woman Born Adrienne Rich argues that motherhood is not so much natural as it is an institution. Living under a patriarchy, motherhood is no longer something women are worshipped for, but used as a way to regulate their lives. Motherhood is defined by men who are, as Rich says, “Haunted by the force of the idea of dependence on a woman for life itself.” Men are the makers of culture, and women are not. Maushart quotes feminist writer Sarah Dowes, “Women’s experiences as mothers continue to be locked out of history.”  Susan Maushart was told, when writing The Mask of Motherhood, that motherhood does not make for an interesting read. This idea was further illustrated when Maushart speaks with writer Debra Adelaide, who says that despite their urge to talk about mothering experiences, mothers are told that to do so is self-indulgent and boring. The message is clear, mothers want to hear about their children, not themselves. Motherhood is kept so quiet, even mothers feel wrong in talking about it.

In Rich’s introduction she uses the work of Susan Brownmiller, a feminist author, to explain why women chose motherhood after societies switched from Goddess-worship to patriarchy: knowing men are allowed to be violent, women need a man to own them, so that these men will protect their property from other men. Motherhood was how this ownership was validated. Motherhood was a strategy, not an act of nature.

Despite the work women put into motherhood, their labour is under valued. The work a mother does – providing nurturing, stability, discipline, and protection, while acting as a teacher, doctor, cleaner, and chauffeur – is expected. Being a mother means pregnancy, childbirth, and being a continuous presence in the rest of their child’s life. If a woman enters motherhood, she is performing her gender properly. If a woman does not become a mother she is given labels as her identity, such as “childless” and “barren.”

It is obvious that men, when looking at what fatherhood, means make the rules. Fatherhood is not so clearly defined, nor is it seen as necessary. After fertilization, there is nothing else expected of a man. A man’s identity is not connected to whether or not he has children. They are a man first, and if they choose, being a father is a faucet of who they are as an individual. Women are not granted this privilege.

This is why, as Maushart says, “to mother” and “to father” are such different verbs. This contempt of women and their work comes from a place of what Maushart refers to as “womb envy.” This envy is what seems to justify the fact that since women control the means of reproduction, men are the ones who have the right to control the means of production through social and economic powers. “It is the trade off,” writes Maushart, “That ensures that the hand that rocks the cradle does not rule the world.”

Despite all the labour women put into motherhood, they still have no say in what it means to be a mother or how it should be done. As Rich says, “We know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood.”

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