Women as mothers – institutional problems
Motherhood is presented in this literature as an institution or structure, usually constructed by patriarchy, in which women are portrayed as the natural carers of children. This motherhood is a socially constructed ‘myth’ perpetuating oppression and patriarchy, restricting women’s equal opportunities and constraining women’s life plans. On our review, this seems to be the most common approach in second wave feminists’ analyses of motherhood. A common theme in the early feminist work was to stress the correlation between reproduction and production in a structural way.
While acknowledging the obvious, that it is women (but not all women) who become pregnant and give birth, these feminists dispute the inevitable link that is then made to rearing children. These feminists aim for a future where, at the very least, some change to existing child-care arrangements will occur in the public and private spheres; where society, men and women share caring responsibilities;
and where there will correspondingly be some sort of flexibility of work and a fairer work-life balance for all.
Much of this feminist work originated in the discipline of developmental psychology. This research shows that as a female child grows, she develops her sense of identity as continuous with her caretaker’s – usually, therefore, her mother’s – while a young boy develops a sense of identity that is distinguished from his caretaker’s. The reason for this is that, as the child grows older, he or she identifies with the same-sex parent, and parents reinforce this identification. The early experience of being cared for by a woman, therefore, produces a fundamental set of expectations concerning mothers’ lack of separate interests from their infants and total concern for their infants’ welfare. Indeed, this work questions whether there is too much connection of the mother to her infant, resulting in a sense of loss of self or autonomy in the mother.
Questions are also raised by these feminists as to whether women turn to children for what is lacking in our own lives, and serve only to reinforce our lack of autonomy. If social structures existed that allowed women to carry out meaningful productive work, and to have emotionally satisfying adult relationships, it is claimed, we would be less likely to ‘over invest’ in our children.
Even though these feminists are able to separate the biological requisites of maternity from the structural meaning given to motherhood, they still make no explicit distinction between women as child bearers and women as child rearers. It is still assumed that the first will result in the second, at least in some shared way.
A different feminist perspective, yet one that can be categorised in the same way, concentrates on the justice of the family structure. The family is analysed as a breeding ground for an unjust society: in its current patriarchal gendered form, it upholds and perpetuates the existing power imbalances in favour of men. Some feminists critique ‘malestream’ liberal theorists for failing to apply principles of liberal individualism to both men and women in families. It is argued that this is needed to aim for justice within the family, which would then filter into every area of life because of the family’s importance as the sphere where children learn about justice and morality for themselves. Distinctions are made between the mother and the child’s carer, but not between mother and child bearer. Indeed, she is defined as mother because she is the child bearer, and motherhood is not seen as something women can refuse on giving birth.
We see then that, while the feminist literature problematises and contextualises motherhood, it does not go as far as we would go in raising a distinction between maternity and motherhood. The balance of this chapter will explore that distinction and the consequent possibilities it would create for women to choose one status but not the other.