It is clear that as an institution, motherhood and the way it is set up for women fails everyone involved because all the pressure is applied upon the ones who, if they fall short, disappoint not only themselves, but their mates, their children, and how their children perceive women and mothers in adulthood.
In becoming mothers, women are led to believe that this will be their place of authority and dominion. They face the challenges of parenting because it is every woman’s journey, and their sacrifices are for love and family. Within motherhood their voices will be heard and they will have the power and volition their mothers did not. This is not true.
As mothers, women are still powerless. This is emphasized in an article titled “An International Perspective on Parenting: Social Change and Social Constructs” (Journal of Marriage and Family, 1994) in which Anne-Marie Ambert conducted a global study that examines parenting as a social construct and how it is influenced by culture, gender, race, and class. Ambert concludes that there is a great deal of pressure being applied to women when they become mothers because: “They have to submit to a vast array of experts and must even delegate their parenting responsibilities, as well as their self-empowerment, to day cares, schools, professionals, and other child-welfare personnel in what is the professionalization…of mothering” (537).
It seems that while women take on the major responsibilities of caring for their children, children they gave birth to, every institution under the patriarchal machine commits to knowing more about parenting than mothers do. As high as the standards are set for women, mothers are also reduced and devalued at the same time by those who conspire to keep them in enslaved patterns of existence.
This is beautifully demonstrated in Of Woman Born(W. W. Norton, 1995), wherein Adrienne Rich quotes Apollo, who defends Orestes’ killing of his mother as a just retaliation since she killed Agamemnon, Orestes’ father. In justifying matricide, Apollo devalues Orestes’ mother’s life by distinguishing between a mother and a parent: “The mother is no parent of that which is called her child, but only nurse of the new planted seed that grows. The parent is he who mounts” (qtd. in Rich 109). It is in this way that women are defined under the laws of patriarchy. They are simply reduced to nurses, caregivers, and babysitters, but they are not given any value as parents, as women, or as mothers.
Mothers are being continually told how to breastfeed and why they must; they are instructed on how to discipline and when; they are warned that if they are too harsh with their sons, the boys will experience castration, and if they are too harsh with their daughters, the girls will rebel and get pregnant; women are told how to eat, what to drink, and how much weight to gain or lose while pregnant; new mothers are stacked in a 6-bed hospital room after they give birth, their bodies being prodded and invaded by foreign hands; they are told how to parent, that they must immunize their children, how to please their husbands in bed and out, how to cook for the family so that they are healthy, and how to clean the house so that it is spotless. When women are unsuccessful in all these things, or just a few, they are deemed inadequate, unnatural mothers. When women fail “to correspond to the prevailing ideologies and structures in the larger society…they are stigmatized by child-welfare professionals for their negligence” (Ambert 531).
With their hands tied behind their backs, women are forced to raise their own children in fear, guilt, and consternation. One wrong move, one public spanking, one dirty look of warning, and mothers’ parenting comes into question by those who tell her it’s her primary job, yes, but only if she does it “right.”
As Adrienne Rich posits, the only way to stop this domination of what rightfully belongs to women is to destroy patriarchy and reclaim motherhood. Women can hold onto motherhood, reshape and redefine it, but they need to destroy the institution, and “to release the creation and sustenance of life into the same realm of decision, struggle, surprise, imagination, and conscious intelligence, as any other difficult, but freely chosen work” (286). This is a “common human battle” that everyone needs to embrace and fight for, but before it even becomes a global issue, according to Rich, each woman must begin the change in her own home by asserting her rights over her body, her voice, her children, and her mothering.
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute’s Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.