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Motherhood and its discontents

page three

A 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 now.

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 as fathers.
  • 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

Judith Stadtman Tucker is a writer, activist and the editor of The Mothers Movement Online. She lives with her husband and two sons in New Hampshire. Email: editor@mothersmovement.org
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