I have been reading a very interesting book titled “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution” by Adrienne Rich, and have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a mother in this day and age. I received my degree in Parenting and Family Studies from New York University, and currently teach the parenting class at Brooklyn Young Mothers’ Collective titled ‘Nurturing Skills for Teen Parents’, so I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on what it means to be a parent and how to parent effectively. That being said, Adrienne Rich proposed an argument and a way of thinking about motherhood that my education interestingly overlooked: motherhood is a misogynistic institution forced upon womankind by the dominant patriarchy.
Sounds kind of harsh, right? Rich herself is a mother to three sons and explains that she loves them each unconditionally, but that does not mean she isn’t operating in a system of oppression and a servitude. She argues that from birth females are groomed to become mothers, whether this grooming is intentional or not. Thinking back on my childhood, I can definitely see this, but I’m sure as a person slightly obsessed with babies that I’m a bit biased. I have always known I would one day be a mother; there was no question about whether or not I would have children. And if I ever said or thought or even ALMOST thought that maybe, just maybe, I might not have children, the booming voice of society inserted itself saying, “You’ll change your mind. You’ll definitely want children. Everyone wants to have children!” Being a naturally care-taking and nurturing person, I gripped onto this notion and ran with it all the way to a degree in Parenting and a Doula certification. But for the women around me, this was not the case. One of my closest friends has always said that she doesn’t want kids; she doesn’t like children and has no intention of ever being pregnant. I spent a lot of our friendship arguing that she would change her mind, that everyone wants children and she would see the light, it was only a matter of time. I can now say that I was wrong, and that I played a strong role in reinforcing the misogynistic, mainstream societal message that the ultimate role a woman can play is that of a mother. I know now that I was wrong.
Interestingly enough, that same friend has changed her mind. As we have gotten older and adult life has become more real, she has felt more strongly the pressure to conform to the path we are constantly being told is the right, acceptable, and successful way to live: the path of education –> career –> marriage –> children –> death. The problem with this trajectory of events is that it entirely overlooks the capacity, interest, individuality, and life circumstances of each person, like prescribing the same medication for 100 different diseases. While I still plan on having children later in life, I no longer encourage others to do the same; I don’t even recommend it! In fact, I might even discourage those who are unsure. In this day and age when we have the science and ability to prevent pregnancy and parenthood, there is no reason to become a parent without choosing to become a parent.
Unless, of course, you don’t believe you have a choice. A lot of the young women that come to the office of Brooklyn Young Mothers’ Collective believe they did not have a choice when it came to motherhood. Some young women have religious beliefs that make contraception and abortion unacceptable, while some were unaware that they could prevent pregnancy with contraception. The most upsetting for me to see, however, is the young woman who believes that motherhood is her sole purpose in life. The young woman who walks into the office and at 15 felt she had reached her full academic potential, had achieved adulthood, and made the choice to fulfill her life’s purpose of having a child. Absent are the dreams of a career, having an apartment or home, traveling the world, or even living on her own. The young woman firmly believes she is doing what she was put on this earth to do: get pregnant, have a child, raise the child, repeat. I don’t want to shame anyone who chooses this lifestyle; you are as entitled to choosing young parenthood as I am to choosing the opposite. What I am critiquing here is that girls are very often unaware that they have a choice. I will continue to support young parents, older parents, single parents, gay parents, ALL PARENTS who are in need, because I recognize the intensity of the need. But I will not support the societal message sent to little girls as they unwrap their very first babydoll on Christmas morning that they are not complete or fully “woman” until they have conceived, nourished, delivered, and raised a child. Motherhood is a choice; it does not have to be the life sentence of every XX chromosome developing in utero. So let’s keep personal choices where they belong, with the person.
- Michela Crowley