Motherhood Above All?

29 Jul

This piece was first published in this month’s issue of India Currents magazine. Weigh in–I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Amidst all the chatter and marketing gimmicks that make up Mother’s Day celebrations, I came across a quote by Ralph Lauren, which said, “My wife Ricky has accomplished so much in her life, but being a mother has always come first.” In this seemingly simple sentence, a globally-renowned fashion icon and figure of our times placed a giant emphasis on motherhood, simultaneously outranking his spouse’s other accomplishments as a human being. He is hardly alone in this declaration of priorities, with millions of women around the globe asserting it is the most important thing they will ever do.

Fair enough. The sheer physical metamorphosis a woman undergoes when producing a child, followed by a transformed-for-life sleep cycle, relentless emotional and mental demands, and a heart permanently bumping around on a leash is enough to make the toughest soldier wimp out. To anyone who goes through it, I have no argument if they believe it is the most crucial role of their life. If that is what they choose to be defined by, more power to them. I, too, believe it will be among the most critical things I do in my years on earth (but not the only one!)

What fascinates me is how—and more specifically, why—entire cultures feed into this belief and generate narratives to support it to the extent of passively punishing those who don’t conform. I struggle with understanding exactly why we as a society—nay, societies across the planet—endorse this prominence of motherhood to the point where any other achievement—whether it be the Nobel prize or Prime Ministership or the rescuing of trafficked children—is deemed relatively less significant. (Case in point, Hilary Clinton recently stating that Grandmother is the most important title she—U.S. Secretary of State and past presidential candidate—will have.)

First, a home truth: Not all mothers are created equal. Their circumstances are not equal. The extent and manner in which they engage in caregiving and nurturing and the rearing of little human beings is far from equal. Yes, there are certain sentiments mothers are definitely more predisposed to than other categories of the human race. Still, speaking of the experience in absolute terms does nobody any favors (except perhaps the slackers who are happy to scurry under the umbrella—and as a therapist for socially disturbed and abused children, I’ve met more than my fair share of those).

Why does society put such absolute emphasis on motherhood? Because of its significance in shaping the future or because it serves a distinct purpose to do so? Would our social structure be threatened if women one day believed other tasks were more important or satisfying? Does the unabashed promotion of mothers as the more important parent serve a social purpose?

It behooves us to consider who society is made of: men and women. Parents and non-parents. Those who value their work (whatever it may be) and others who get by just because they have to do it. Given the ratio of men to women on the planet, it is only natural that mothers do not form a majority of the world’s population. However, by virtue of the nature of their job, every creature has one—as it has a father. But do we hear of fatherhood being the most important job a man will ever do? He has a company to run, that ladder to shimmy up, and no one thinks badly of him for leaving a colicky baby to finalize a deal. Have we as a society decided fatherhood is not Life Position #1 because it doesn’t serve us to do so? Are those global profit margins we’re sneaking a look at? Industries, incomes, and other concepts that fade into the background when the parent in question is female?

As products of social conditioning who may or may not question this narrative, we need to check if we’re merely being pumped up to serve a social purpose—especially if our hearts are not in it. As much as I believe that parenthood—not just motherhood—is a joyous, rewarding experience for many people, equally, it is not for everyone. Unfortunately, the strength of this all-encompassing motherhood narrative does not account for individual differences and choices. It does not count the woman who feels her role as an international development expert is more important. It scoffs at those who would rather follow a map than a trail of diapers. It disallows space for reflection and questioning, for you must be a really selfish person for thinking you could be complete without a person emerging from your body.

In and of itself, this smothering social story is polarizing and inconsiderate of variations in personalities, ambition, and temperament. It allows no debate on whether a person may actually be a better human being without producing one. It gathers all their life’s work—no matter how significant or exceptional—and hangs it in unfavorable balance to human beings who have utilized their uterus. And in doing so, this overarching myth fails us.

In far too many cultures around the world even today, Jane Austen, Frida Kahlo, Noor Inayat Khan, Emily Bronte, Florence Nightingale, Ellen Degeneres, Anne Frank, Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Sotomayor, and Mother Teresa would have questionable social standing for failing to fulfill their proscribed social role. I will repeat: It is not for us to diss motherhood. If a woman believes that is her only destiny, then she deserves (and definitely requires) all the support she can get. Equally, it is not for us to glorify motherhood to such extremes that we look askance at those who prefer another life mission—whether by choice or circumstance. May we find it in us to applaud their work, vision, and contribution to the planet with the same gusto we reserve for the parents of bonny, chubby-cheeked, dimple-elbowed, fat-toed, three-toothed little folk.

I will be a parent in the future. And already, I know the shift in attitude that will occur by those not closest to me. Finally, I will fit the mold. And once satisfied that I’m propped safely on that pedestal, they will walk off into the distance, looking for other matrons to idolize. And from that vantage point, I will throw darts of doubt in their direction, hoping my aim is not amiss.


14 Responses to “Motherhood Above All?”

  1. chroniclesofdee July 29, 2014 at 10:55 pm #

    So well said.
    It bugged me to no end when people speculated everything when I was still not pregnant after 5 years of being married – being infertile, being fat, being stupid etc. It never occurred to anyone that my silly reason of “wanting to travel more, wanting to be irresponsible, wanting a career” was the reason for no baby.
    Now, that I have a baby. Its become another “oh my god, you’re 30 already! can you have another pregnancy quickly and give the Cutlet a sibling”. The fact that we did so MANY things this past year, to secure his future is absolutely of no interest and will not change anyone’s opinion, about how irresponsible we are as parents.
    No right answer.
    * everyone = our extended family 😀

  2. habibilamour July 30, 2014 at 12:54 am #

    FFS fathers are just as important as mothers when it comes to a child’s development! High school dropouts can become mothers, it takes years of learning/practise to become a doctor/fashion designer/dancer/etc

  3. Kavana July 30, 2014 at 4:04 am #

    Oh, this was perfectly timed, given my recent confessions to the people around me that bearing children was not a priority in my life. I suspect much of that comes from the fact that I would very likely be expected to bear most of the career / social costs of childcare which is almost *never* something that men think (or indeed, are expected to think) about when asked whether or not they want to have kids.

  4. sukanyabora July 30, 2014 at 6:47 am #

    you could say the same for women who are single.

  5. LauraCarroll July 30, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    “Why does society put such absolute emphasis on motherhood?” The answer is a set of beliefs that has driven society for generations: Pronatalism. Check out my book, The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World – here is an excerpt: ~Laura Carroll

  6. G.K July 31, 2014 at 4:58 am #

    Hi OJ, long time reader, first time commenter!
    Just today, at lunch we (me and two male colleagues) were discussing a well liked female colleague (who is around 50) in her absence (not in a bad way, just talking) when I learned from my 50 year old, thrice divorced colleague (has 2 kids from first wife) that she is divorced. I had assumed she was single and child free by choice so this was a surprise. Bracing myself for another surprise, I asked – does she have children? And my colleague said- ‘No (and after a pause added) poor M! (after another pause added) Oh I can’t believe I said it out aloud’. And I got into a whole- life can be very fulfilling without children, remember how much fun she had in Vegas (she told us about the trip!), I dunno why you will pity her…and I added many more things how fun life can be without kids, colleague number 2 mentioned things such as my kid called me the other day to ask for $6000 and I said- see! I am sure there are better ways to spend that money. However the fact that I have 2 little children of my own was only making me sink in his eyes 🙂 and I had do clarify- dont get me wrong, I love my children but it doesnt mean everyone has to have them! Didnt look like he was convinced! Sadly he has never pitied one of our gay male colleagues who will never have children either!

  7. zennfish July 31, 2014 at 8:58 am #

    this is a question i have been asking myself the last month. i decided to be honest and say that i don’t see myself in the role of a mother and would prefer not to have a child – very few people get it.

  8. Dancing Fingers Singing Keypad July 31, 2014 at 11:17 am #

    Love, love love your article! They echoed my thoughts exactly in a very polished and practical way.
    An extension of this topic is work-life balance for the female gender. There is another blogger who I have always admired for his logical analysis. On Indra Nooyi’s recent anti-feminist statements, he countered them with a refreshing point of view saying “even men cannot have it all” in his post Equalizing genders this way by having to share the same problem seems to me like a step in the right direction instead of constantly throwing the question at only women.

  9. Roshni August 1, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    I would say that raising two human beings who DON’T turn out to be assholes would be a pretty big accomplishment! 😛
    Seriously speaking, of course I agree that this social conditioning of convincing women that motherhood is the zenith of their life is pretty much bullshit and completely takes away the accomplishments of so many! It also completely makes women who have not or cannot have children feel completely worthless, which is a big disservice to them.

  10. Aunty G August 4, 2014 at 11:42 pm #

    This post poses a puzzle
    Of negative versus a nuzzle
    The choice-criticism
    Is crass chauvinism
    It deserves all of a mental muzzle!

  11. Minati September 10, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    It’s the most demanding, least rewarding job in the world so if they didn’t put mothers on a pedestal they are afraid we would actually figure it out and more woman may decide to stop doing it and women are the biggest culprits in this, because if they couldn’t do it all because they chose to have kids they feel like they need to put themselves on that pedestal because otherwise all their “sacrifice” would have been for nothing,

  12. Orange Jammies September 10, 2014 at 10:31 pm #

    chroniclesofdee: Opinions. The most freely distributed commodity in the world. Never mind that they’re rarely solicited. I hear you, girl. 🙂

    habibilamour: A very valid point, but few are buying it. 🙂

    Kavana: Oh the horror, the horror! She doesn’t want to propagate her Cambridge-educated genes! It’s a miracle I didn’t hear about this in gasping tones. 😉

    sukanya: “Who are single” wasn’t even necessary in that sentence. No matter what our life stage, unless we’re a Stepford Wife and Clockwork Uterus, we’re all subjected to The Spiel.

    Laura: Thanks, Laura.

    G.K.: Sigh. Thanks for reading and finally sharing! 🙂 I’m glad you at least tried to challenge their notions.

    zennfish: More power to you for knowing yourself well!

    DFSK: Ah, but motherhood and the maternal gene, unlike a career goal that both genders are equally equipped to strive toward, is supposed to be innate, and a woman with one gone missing is considered faulty goods. There’s the fallacy and the pity. :eyeroll:

    Roshni: Agree with both your sentiments. 🙂 It is immensely hard, no doubt about it. And terribly discriminatory too.

    Aunty G: I’d much prefer a physical one, thank you. 😉

    Minati: Well said. Thankfully, not all women are so self-serving. There’s hope yet for this world.

  13. tanviidotcom September 20, 2014 at 9:14 am #

    OMG! You have expressed what I haven’t been able to, in spite of my several attempts. Thank you for putting it out there, now all I have to do it send everyone here to read it (:

    ∞ ∞

  14. Orange Jammies October 30, 2014 at 12:45 pm #

    tanviidotcom: 🙂 They may not want to hear it from a rank stranger.

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