This past Mother’s Day, made me acutely aware of how mothers are portrayed. Mother’s day is the day little boys and girls draw stick figures of them and their mothers holding hands, the day Facebook and Twitter explodes “happy Mother’s Day” wishes, and the day people in the U.S. spend the most money on gifts save December 25th. It is a timeless image: a mother and her child. Mothers and children naturally go together. Well, no shit. You cannot be a mother if you do not have any children. Except… maybe the connection that is so naturally made between mothers and children isn’t about parent and child at all. Perhaps the connection being made is between women and children. After all, is Father’s day fussed about as much Mother’s day? Do people automatically conjure up mental images of father and child as often as they do mother and child?
What is this need we [humans] have to qualify all women as mothers or potential mothers? Anytime a woman says she does not want children people wonder what is wrong with her, assuming women who choose not to reproduce are somehow lacking or defective. As if women are supposed to love children and desperately long to give birth to them. Those assumptions are hardly ever made when a man announces he does not want kids. Yet it is considered unnatural when a woman chooses not to be mother. I have personally felt the judgement that ensues when, as a woman, I tell people I do not want kids. People think I am weird and going against nature.
So, what does this mean for women? It might seem like a few raised eyebrows when a woman tells her family and friends she doesn’t intend on having children is not that big of a deal. If that were the worst of it I might not be a feminist, but I am a feminist because that is not worst of it.
It is considered a woman’s natural duty to procreate, and thus the purpose of [a woman] having sex is to become pregnant. So, anytime a woman has sex, the [perceived] consequence is pregnancy. Now, if she is married, she should be ecstatic about producing offspring for her husband, but if she is not married then she ought to be ashamed because, “what kind of life is that child going to have with only one parent?“ In other words, married women are expected to pop out babies – it’s their natural duty – while unmarried women are shamed for reproducing or trying to reproduce (i.e., for having sex). This leads to individuals, organizations (whether that be religious or governmental organizations), and society in general controlling or attempting to control women’s sex lives. Controlling women is done primarily through the ingraining of gender constructs in young girls, through pro-life and anti-contraception legislation, and through spreading of religious dogmatism.
Gender rolls are introduced to children before they come out of the womb. I recently saw newborn bibs in the store, there was a blue one with trucks on it and pink one with purses and lipstick and nothing in between. A newborn baby couldn’t appreciate lipstick. It’s clearly marketed toward a society that expects certain things from women once they are ‘of age.’ There is another child’s toy marketed for little girls, it is a breastfeeding doll. It comes with a bra fitted with mock nipples for the child to wear, allowing them to nurse the doll at their breast. I personally find this toy horrifying. It trains young girls to be mothers, telling them they are mothers naturally and thus denying them the opportunity to chose motherhood or non-motherhood.
Pro-lifers claim their primary goal is to advocate for and save the lives of innocent, unborn children. Well if saving lives and advocating was what they truly cared about, their tactics and positions would be quite different. Pro-lifers are, 9 times out of 10, members of the conservative right. Right-winged conservatives typically oppose social programs that help individuals in low socio-economic classes. One group of people which make up a significant portion of the impoverished community is single mothers. Those on the conservative right also tend to oppose education reform and increased education funding. And right-winged conservatives are much more likely to support the death penalty than Democrats and other progressives. Obviously there are some contradictions among right-winged views. This hypocrisy demonstrates that conservative pro-lifers are more accurately called pro-birth, or pro-fetus. They do not care about the quality of the life a child will lead, only that the child is born.
Okay, so pro-lifers, or pro-birthers, want to make sure children are born into the world instead of being aborted (or “murdered” as they would say). In order to prevent these “murders”, abortion (aka: “murder” of unborn babies) must be outlawed. Whether or not you agree with the banning of abortion, this seems noble enough, right? Well… perhaps not. It turns out that the legality of abortion had little to no bearing on a woman’s choice to get one. The only thing criminalizing abortion does is make the procedure unsafe and therefore potentially deadly for women. Thus, making abortion illegal does not save lives; actually, it takes lives. What then reduces abortion rates? Surprisingly, abortions mostly occur in situations where the pregnancy was unplanned and unwanted to begin with; therefore, if the rate of unwanted pregnancies are reduced the rate of abortions will also drop. The countries with the lowest instances of abortion are the countries in which contraceptives are easily and widely accessible. So, if pro-birthers want to lower abortion rates so badly, they should be aggressively advocating for vast contraceptive distribution and use. But, wait a minute, aren’t most pro-birthers anti-contraception as well as anti-abortion? Maybe they don’t care about saving the lives of unborn babies after all. Perhaps the real motivation behind their anti-abortion/anti-contraception sentiment are their ideas regarding gender rolls. Women are designed to give birth, therefore they should give birth. If a woman does not want to give birth, she should not have sex. An unwanted pregnancy is simply a punishment for having sex when you [as a woman] shouldn’t be (i.e., are unmarried). So while pro-birthers claim to be about protecting the unborn, what they’re really doing is controlling women’s rolls in society through their sex lives and reproductive abilities.
The religious right is deeply involved in the pro-life, excuse me, pro-birth/pro-fetus, movement, and are often the quintessential right-winged nutcases. In addition to their deep connection to all things ultra-conservative, the religious right uses their religious dogma to force women into motherhood. This is accomplished by getting a hold of girls at a very young age and teaching them to be meek, quite, nurturing, helpful, and submissive. As early as 8 or 9 years of age female children are read the Bible verse that says “wives, submit to your husbands.” Their mother pray for them, asking God to send their daughters a “nice man to marry some day who will be a good father.” Upon becoming a teenager, the expectation to marry and have children has been placed squarely on every female’s shoulders. But nobody ever asked her if she wants kids, or even if she likes kids. Obviously she loves them and want some of her own, she is a woman. And when she tells people she don’t like children, she will receive one of two replies: One, “oh don’t worry, I said the same thing when I was your age. You’ll come around,” as if to say the part of her that does not want to be a mother will eventually be fixed. Or two, “what?! But why? Kids are great.” Either way, it is clear something is wrong with women who do not desire to pop out babies. After all, God made women to bear children. Sadly, this vicious cycle is passed repeated from one generation of religious fundamentalists to the next (i.e., their children), and it never stops. The only way out is to cut ties with one’s religious community, which most often includes family, and set out all alone to find another community. Otherwise, women are trapped in a world that pressures them to enter into motherhood whether they want to or not.
Through these three strategies, societal gender constructs, anti-abortion/anti-contraception movements, and religious dogmatism, women are, from the beginning of their lives, trained to be mothers. And then, when most women choose to be mothers, society says “look! Women are natural mothers,” refusing to admit that society itself has made women into primarily maternal creatures.