I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what motherhood ‘means’ to me.
My research rests on the assumption that motherhood is a construction. Many of us (including, until recently, me) assume the forces which drive mothers to behave in a particular way are powered by, most significantly, nature, instincts, or moral ‘responsibilities’. If you’re a mum, you’ve probably heard people say ‘it’s natural to feel that way’… ‘follow your instincts’… or ‘you’ll know the right thing to do’. But, I will argue, a lot of the time what we see as being ‘natural’ or ‘right’ is a social construction. ‘Motherhood’ is built on a complex and powerful set of ideas, values or guiding principles, set down layer upon layer over centuries, building powerful traditions and moral doctrines. The result is what we might call an ‘ideology’ of motherhood.
If you’ve seen Slavoj Zizek’s film ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’, you’ll know that he finds a great way of showing how ideologies affect the way we perceive the world. He takes his inspiration from the 1988 Hollywood film ‘They Live’, in which a homeless man finds sunglasses which allow him to see the ‘real message’ behind all the propaganda, publicity and various forms of social conditioning which surround him. The dark glasses allow him to see that he has been manipulated by social forces in every aspect of his life. Funnily enough, he can’t persuade anyone else to wear them; the truth, as Zizek puts it, can be painful. One of the things my research is forcing me to do is to try and look at motherhood through these glasses.
One of my tasks this month was to make a dent in some of the literature that’s already been written on the topic of motherhood. This task has really helped me to move those glasses a little closer to my eyes. But it’s been surprisingly difficult. This is the first time that my research has felt really personal. It’s often proved challenging to focus on what I’m reading, when I feel like the ‘subject’ being described is… well… me. I find myself daydreaming; trying to work out what I think makes a good mum, and where I got those ideas from. Can I envisage motherhood free from hegemonic forces? Not really. But I can try.
This week, not surprisingly, in the run-up to mother’s day, motherhood seems to have seeped into every aspect of my life. Like everyone else in the country, I’ve been constantly reminded that I’m a mother, and that a very important day is about to arrive, where I will be rewarded for my commitment to the norm; for my selflessness, my tireless hard work, my endless sacrifices. I’m always there for my children, I’m told. I’ve nurtured them, supported them, picked them up from school, cleaned the house, cooked their tea, washed their clothes. I deserve a rest. And the truth is that I have. And I do. Not necessarily from my children (though that’s always nice) – more from the mothering commandments that rain down upon me – and on every mother: I am the most important person in my childrens’ lives. The kids’ needs come first. My whole world revolves around them.
The bombardment of mothers-day related emails, facebook notifications, advertisements, conversations and school assemblies have actually helped me to see more clearly that I am being sold a very particular ideology of motherhood.
As a feminist, it’s the first ‘commandment’ that bothers me the most. Because the truth is, though we’re supposed to live in a post-feminist society (women can have it all! we’re superhuman!), we are not anywhere near the equality that the suffragettes fought for so passionately all those years ago. And for me, that became painfully obvious only when I became a mother. Because only women can bear children. Only women can feed them in almost any situation. And it’s those little biological details, I believe, that have led to the construction of a glass ceiling so high that perhaps we will never truly break through it. Woman = mother, and children, we are told, need their mothers.
I like to think that it’s possible to put on those glasses and see that perhaps this isn’t the case. Perhaps the commandments we soak up so hungrily (and I include myself here) have created a trap for women, which keeps us down, keeps us in our place. At the very least, I see no reason why men can’t raise children just as well as women. In fact, I’ve had the pleasure to meet some men who are the main carer for their children. Times, it seems, are changing, albeit very slowly. But what about the rest of the community? There are plenty of cultures which see child-rearing as a community responsibility, or at least a responsibility for the extended family.
But do women want to put on the glasses? Because to see that ideology for what it is, and to reject it, may seem like a very painful reality indeed, when that ideology positions women in a very restrictive, but so very wonderful, place in society.