different sort of motherhood
It’s tempting to
fall back on the scant social power offered by long-standing cultural
ideals that venerate mothers as the guardians of children’s
welfare. A child-centered approach to advancing the political status
of motherhood has been quite successful in the past, but has not
generated lasting improvements in the status of women or mothers. (7)
The inherent danger in advocating for mothers rights based on the
social benefits derived from maternal nurturing is the potential
to further institutionalize the inequities that trouble mothers
Yet trying to envision
a different sort of motherhood— a motherhood based on the
life of the mother rather than one focused exclusively on the needs
of the child— leaves us riddled with anxiety. If the objective
is to redistribute the responsibility for care work more fairly,
mothers may be overwhelmingly concerned that a “mothers’
movement” will force mothers’ to relinquish their special
claim to emotional primacy in their children’s lives. This
is an unlikely outcome, but since the intimacy of the mother-child
bond is often the most rewarding aspect of motherhood— and
is, for many women, the primary motivation for becoming a mother—
the thought alone is paralyzing.
A motherhood based on
the life of the mother need not be imagined as a cold, uncaring
or unfulfilled existence, nor should we automatically assume that
children would be abandoned or neglected if we choose to cultivate a different
understanding of who mothers are and what they do best. A different sort
of motherhood need not require mothers to love their children
less, or mean that marriage and families will go out of style. But
it may require a re-imagining personal liberty and social
justice in a way that permits all citizens— including mothers
and others who do the caring work of our society— to share
equally in those greatest goods.
What could change is that
more and different kinds of people will be obligated to spend time
caring for others as part of their daily lives. Women, and men,
would benefit from active engagement in the continuing transformation
of male and female social roles. We might adopt broader attitudes
about the appropriate scope of social spending to promote the general
welfare; moreover, we might redefine the concept of the general welfare
to include the fundamental necessities of care and care-giving.
So what will this different
way of life look like? Here’s my short list:
- Individual mothers
will benefit from full equality in all social, civic and private interactions.
- Mothers and fathers
will be equally represented at all levels of all occupations, including elite professions and top corporate management.
- Mothers and fathers
will feel equally entitled to participate in, and be considered equally
accountable for, all aspects of domestic life, care work and the
outcome of child-rearing,
- Mothers will no longer
be disproportionately vulnerable to poverty and hardship
due to their maternal status.
- Mothers will fill
elective offices at all levels of government in the same proportion
- No woman will feel
morally, socially or economically obligated to sacrifice personal
interests or activities she considers central to her health and well-being in
order to earn well or mother well.
- Sentimental representations
of motherhood emphasizing women’s obligations to children
and family will be replaced by more expansive notions about the
nature of motherhood, fatherhood, childhood and family life.
- Care work will be
recognized as an integral part of social and economic life, and
a demonstrated capacity to care for and about others will be considered
an asset to corporate and political leadership, and a central aspect
of good citizenship.
- The value of caring
work will be reflected in public as well as private life. It will
inform our government, our workplaces, and our communities as
well as our families.
It may take several generations
of concerted effort to secure such monumental progress. Like all
great undertakings, the mothers' revolution is bound to be a process of fits and
starts. But one thing is certain: the situation is unlikely to improve
unless mothers take a stand on their own behalf and demand what
is right, what is just, and what is fair.
mmo : march 2003/revised january 2005