Part Two: Becoming a mother
One account of autonomy developed by feminist theory is in relation to the abortion decision. Whether this decision is seen as based on a liberal notion of choice or on a post-liberal concept of the self, there has been little contest, within feminism, about justification, which is presented as a personal choice. While the history of abortion does provide a context for a contest by women to gain control over their own bodies, so does the decision to refuse motherhood after giving birth, which still remains largely unexamined.
Women who go through pregnancy are generally assumed to want a child; for otherwise, why not terminate? Conventional language conflates maternity and motherhood, with health practitioners referring to the pregnant woman as a ‘mother’ throughout her pregnancy. Our contention is that conceptual clarity requires a distinction to be made between maternity and motherhood, notwithstanding the assumption made currently that continued gestation signifies an intention to take up mothering. Yet, as we shall argue below, there is little space for other intentions. Surrogacy, where a different intention is agreed and proclaimed at an earlier stage, might be an exception, and the surrogate appears to have been accepted as a social identity. But the identity of a woman ‘who gave away her child’ seems to be less acceptable now for unmarried women than it was historically.
Even in feminist literature, motherhood is not often presented as a choice to be exercised after giving birth. Various stories are told of motherhood – of natural instinct, of altruism or martyrdom, of self-interest – and unpicking these is difficult. Not only are individual childhood stories of mother subjective and particular, but suggestions of a woman’s choices after giving birth touch on fears of abandonment and rejection. Notwithstanding the contextual quality of individual biographies, mother love is taken to be universal, timeless and the same in space and time. Yet, might it not be the case, as Ruddick suggests, that a
corollary to the distinction between birthing labor and mothering, is that all mothers are ‘adoptive.’ To adopt is to commit oneself to protecting, nurturing, and training particular children. Even the most passionately loving birthgiver engages in a social adoptive act when she commits herself to sustain an infant in the world. . . The work of a birthgiver is not compromised if she carefully transfers to others the responsibility for the infant she has birthed.
Ruddick is here suggesting that mother-care can consist of transferring the actual care to others.
A woman’s previous history, the attitudes of others, life plans, including plans in relation to the child, and the birthgiver’s present identity will affect attitudes to birthing labour. It is self-evident that birthing involves a separation of a shared physical identity which has continued throughout pregnancy, during which the foetus depends on the woman. After birth, the woman regains her body to herself. Notwithstanding a claim that ‘the baby is not planted within the mother, but (is) flesh of her flesh, part of her’, and the obvious lack of physical independence of the foetus, it is not being suggested that the foetus is part of the woman’s body. As MacKinnon observes:
Physically no body part takes as much and contributes as little. The foetus does not exist to serve the woman as her body parts do. The relation is more the other way around; on the biological level, the foetus is more like a parasite than a part. The woman’s physical relation to her foetus is expected to end and does; when it does, her body still has all its parts.
Having endured the birthing trauma, the woman, in Ruddick’s terms, can now decide whether or not to take up mothering in relation to the now physically separate infant with whom she once shared a physical identity.
Identity, and with it the ability to engage in moral activity, is formed in specific cultural and historical situations, and thus it coincides with subjectivity, the ability to judge and to act. The self is not conceived as an entity but as the protagonist in a biography.
Yet mothering and being a mother are laden with social and historical meanings and contests. As we saw, even in feminist theory, motherhood is seen as a source of both joy and oppression. Alison Diduck notes that relationships between parent and child ‘are assumed to be based upon the irrationality of ever-enduring love or upon timeless and universally understood duty’. This she terms ‘the romantic’ ideal. She contrasts this with ‘relations in the ideal modern family’ that are said to be based upon ‘choice, flux and freedom’. Once mothering is taken up, a woman is faced with both imperatives. She is subjected to advice, comment, and criticism and, in advanced Western societies, to a highly demanding standard of knowledge of psychology, first aid and education. And through it all, maternal sacrifice, maternal instinct and empathy are expected of her.
The ideology of motherhood, as analysed in popular American accounts, requires a level of devotion, self-abnegation and perfection that one might think sufficient to discourage mortal women. Named the ‘new momism’, this ideology is diffused throughout the media, including on popular television shows, with the insistence ‘that no woman is truly complete or fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological emotional, and intellectual being 24/7, to her children’. ‘Mom’ is an identity, constructed for a market promoted in the media, containing a romanticised yet demanding view of what it means to mother. ‘Mom’ is a cultural icon whose standards of perfection are, in reality, unattainable.
Why might it be important to seek freedom for women to decide on whether or not to take up mothering after giving birth? Empirical research indicates that, aside from women who do not seek an abortion for personal reasons, or cannot do so because of legal prohibitions, some enter into a state of denial; others, aware of their pregnancy, cannot cope with the steps necessary to terminate. Yet others choose motherhood as a positive step towards changing their lives. It may be objected that teenagers who continue their pregnancies are ‘non-copers’, but the research shows that they exercise an element of choice. A recent study of abortion decisions shows that young women from areas of social deprivation are more likely to become pregnant and are less likely to have an abortion than young women from more privileged backgrounds, who are less likely to become pregnant, but once they do, are more likely to terminate. How women view motherhood in their future lives is considered by the study as crucial to the outcome of conception. The evidence is that, where motherhood is seen as a positive change to a present way of life, pregnancy will continue, whereas ‘those who are certain that future life will develop through education and employment tend to opt for abortion’.
The above might seem to suggest that the only moment to exercise choice in relation to motherhood is the moment of confirmation of pregnancy. Those who enter into a state of denial, or fail to confront a decision on abortion, might be regarded as powerless and paralysed. Research on infanticide suggests that a proportion of cases can be explained in these terms. However, those birthgivers who decide to refuse mothering after delivery may also be said to exercise choice. And that choice depends on many factors, including present identity, previous life experiences, and the conditions in which the subject finds herself, including social structures. This is not to say that conditions of discrimination, economic disadvantage and social powerlessness should be accepted, but rather to recognise that these may limit the possibilities within which a decision is made.
A second story, therefore, is of motherhood as a foundation of gender discrimination, both in terms of labour in gestation and delivery, and in caring for children. This story is not about love of one’s child, but is about structures in society. It is these structures which limit efforts to make parenting gender neutral, despite the language of gender neutrality. The introduction of norms and rights discourse into this arena may create more problems than it solves. One senses that the debaters on gender power and parenting have retired exhausted.
Further, the decision not to take up mothering once one has given birth may be based on identity: a self unable to see a way to encompass childrearing at present. Not unlike the ‘encumbered self’ – that is, a self claimed by inescapable duties – the ‘refusing self’ might be said to make a decision which is conditioned by the present and past aspects of her life. These stories address hidden aspects of motherhood. It is quite possible to love one’s child passionately and still kick against those social structures which relate parenting to gender. However, the romantic ideal creates social problems in the decision to renounce motherhood, and essentialist notions of womanhood contribute to a discourse of condemnation.
These essentialist notions survive even feminist accounts of the subject as an autonomous agent in charge of her own life. The decision to renounce motherhood, for example, is said to be ‘inauthentic’, the illegitimate result of social conditions that overwhelm and contradict the subject’s self-identity. Little account is given to the possibility that internal and external factors may be liberating as well as constraining for some; an autonomous subject can make life plans, change her situation, and resist the conditions of oppression. Identity, in other words, does not float free of its context.
Moreover, recent feminist accounts of identity recognise that the self is composed of fragments, a web, or perhaps a patchwork, according to Morwenna Griffiths. That self is depicted as varying according to time and space and as constrained in a myriad of ways. But despite constraints, it is an agent capable not only of action, but also of continual self-creation of identity. This self makes itself, but not in conditions of its own choosing. Griffiths is drawn to the notion of ‘authenticity’, where ‘selves are in a process of becoming’, selves are constructed, a self has agency. The construction and maintenance of self takes place with and through others in the face-to-face sense, and in the structural sense. The past leaves traces, even unconsciously on the future self. (In)authenticity therefore seems to be actions or decisions out of line with identity. This approach remains within the social constructionist tradition, despite an effort to marry it to autonomous agency.
‘Authenticity’, as used in this discourse, must be understood in relation to agency and becoming:
To be authentic requires acting at one’s own behest both at a feeling level and also at an intellectual, reflective one. . . authenticity has to be achieved and re-achieved. Each action changes the context and requires understanding if authenticity is to be retained. Simply acting on what you feel will not answer. Nor will acting on what you think. Both are required, and it is difficult to know which to emphasise at any stage. The re-introduction of the term ‘autonomy’ into the explanation may help to
clarify the idea: autonomy comes from agency which takes place within a context
Griffiths argues that ‘the individual can only exist through the various communities of which she is a member and, indeed, is continually in a process of construction by those communities’. The communities include the wider society and its political categories, including gender. The structures of power in the society in which the self finds itself affect decisions and choices. Although these structures are themselves changing, giving rise to a diffusion of power and to plurality, nevertheless they impact on the subject, as do her past experiences. Thus a constrained subject is to strive for authenticity in her actions. If this is an account of moving towards freedom, including freedom from gendered societal expectations, it engenders hope, but if it is an idea of the ‘right decision’, it may mask coercion.
Identity can thus be presented as a matter of choice, but also as created by choices. The subject of post-liberal theory, ‘embedded and constituted by context’, is the product of her relationships and experience. Although the context varies, both personal characteristics and a self develop. Yet the characteristics of the individual self are central to the achievement of self-realisation leading to autonomy and freedom. It is this achievement that leads to ‘authenticity’, where actions and decisions fit with one’s sense of self. However, some subjects may be divided against themselves because of social experiences and the social conditions of their lives. How then can such subjects be autonomous or make authentic decisions? Difficulties in identifying an autonomous subject are evident in recent debates amongst theorists. Creating a gendered relational subject associated with some versions of feminism minimises the role of agency and autonomy, but has not proved to be the way forward. The requirement of a constant effort in seeking authenticity is open to criticism as unattainable. The subject may never reach that desirable state. She may reproach herself in her reflexivity. And in the meantime, practical decisions once taken may not be revocable on re-assessment.
The traditional ideal of mother and child, instinct and the ‘natural’ are probably close to a communitarian version of the self. The mother-child relationship is described as ‘innate’. For some feminists, this is as constructed a relationship as any other. From the child’s perspective, it is one of those relationships from which personal autonomy is constructed. But is it an exaggeration to suggest that feminist theory has been reluctant to question this romantic ideal? For decades within feminist theory, notions of the natural have been scrutinised, and the commitment to a social constructionist account of mother-child relations has been sustained alongside the valorisation of those relations. But the ‘romantic/duty’ ideal still has purchase.
The conventional reaction to a woman who ‘gives away’ her child is one of distaste, even horror. Such an ‘unwomanly’ woman is more like the wicked stepmother of fairytales than a ‘real woman’. Even those sympathetic to her plight may tell the woman that the decision to renounce motherhood after giving birth is a debilitating action. When it is said ‘you will regret that later’, or ‘it is not natural’, the message is that the self is divided against the self, that the proposed action is inauthentic. Yet, as the notion of authenticity is sought, it moves like mercury out of grasp.