“I’d rather be making cupcakes!” said my sister.
She said it so many times in fact that our mother had it printed onto a t-shirt for her birthday. Cupcakes to my sister meant spending time at home with her baby. Before she gave birth, she had set out to become a scientist. Yet now that her baby was here, she wasn’t so gung-ho.
In truth, my sister did not want only to make cupcakes as much as she did not want only to be a scientist. But splitting her time between the two was not that simple. My parents raised us with the belief that we could “be anything we wanted if we only put our mind to it,” and now my sister found herself of two minds: she wanted to be a mother raising her baby but she also wanted to be a successful scientist. Like many modern mothers—myself included—she could not do one without feeling as though she were significantly shortchanging the other.
Plato would not be surprised. Even though he was writing over two-thousand years ago in ancient Greece, entirely unaware of the modern woman’s condition, he said a few things about motherhood that were interestingly spot on. Or, at least the character of Socrates did in Plato’s most famous dialog the Republic.
In this work, Socrates proposes to build a city from scratch in his mind. Many wild things come of this, such as a eugenics program and a “noble lie” told to citizens to get them to accept this program. Socrates’ willingness to vastly reconsider everything also leads him to a somewhat forward-looking take on women. Challenging Greek tradition, Plato has Socrates pitch the idea that women have the same “souls” as men, by which he means that they have the same mental capacities as men. That is, women can reason and so are capable of jobs typically reserved for men, like politics or doing philosophy.
To persuade his friends that a woman can do a man’s job, he tries to persuade them that it’s absurd to allow one’s physical appearance to determine their ability to do a job. He says that “if bald men are shoemakers, we won’t let the longhaired ones be shoemakers, or if the longhaired ones are, then the others can’t be (454c).” It’s absurd that one’s hair-length should determine one’s profession; Socrates wants us to see that and then to consider that it is also absurd to allow other physical traits, such as one’s sex, to decide one’s professional destiny. Just because women are physically different from men, he argues, doesn’t mean they should have different jobs from men. In fact, he argues that when it comes to thinking and doing politics that “men and women have the same nature” and so women should also be in the business of politics, too (456a).
But what does this all mean for motherhood? Socrates wants these women to also be mothers (smart women have smart babies, he assumes, which is good for society). But he also wants them to keep their jobs. His solution? “[T]he children…will be in common, and neither will a parent know his own offspring, nor a child his parent (457d).” He wants to break the mother-child bond “so she won’t recognize her own.” As a result, Plato presents us with women who are mothers and professionals. But the catch is that these women are not torn between these two worlds, like some of us moderns, because by teaching women to see their own children as common to all Socrates conditions the mother out of them. Literally.
Getting rid of the mother’s soul, as Socrates does, is not a solution for me or my sister or any modern woman for that matter. And Plato didn’t really seem to think it was a solution for ancient women either. There are suggestions throughout his text that he made the creation of the city so absurdly impossible that he didn’t really wish for it to exist (for example, Socrates tells us that the annihilation of all persons over age 10 is necessary for the city to come into being, since those over the age 10 are corrupted by tradition. Not only is that downright immoral, but you run into the absurdity of who will teach all of these 10 year olds how to construct this city anyway?). What we can say is that the difficulty Plato saw facing women, that they are smart like men but also by nature drawn to care deeply for their children (he didn’t seem to think the same bond could be found between babies and their fathers) is probably why every morning, as the legend goes, he thanked the gods for having made him “a philosopher, an Athenian,” and foremost, “a man.”
Before my son was born, I looked forward to the connection that I would feel for him. Everyone told me how the parent-child bond was so unique. Yet I also harbored a deep seated fear that this love would take from my professional drive. Somewhere lurked the belief that the more time I spent with him, the weaker my ambition would become. My mother liked to tease me once I was pregnant by reminding me of my proclamations that I “will never marry!” and “never have kids!” which were in a way my own self-inflicted conditioning to “get the motherliness out of my soul,” as Socrates might say.
Still a part of me didn’t totally believe myself either. I did get married, and now I have a child. Like my sister, a part of me wants to enjoy staying at home and making cupcakes, but that is quickly overcome by my desire to do other things too. There is an undeniable joy I derive from both the maternal and the professional sides of myself. Yet that doesn’t solve the pull I feel in either direction. Being a mother is rewarding, and Socrates’ attempt to remove that from women’s lives is too extreme. Nonetheless, maybe there is something a modern mother can take away from his discussion, which is that for mothers who also aspire to have a professional life, at least some sort of conditioning is necessary for them to be convinced that the balance they have struck between their professional endeavors and the caring of their children is right. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that like the people over the age of 10 in Socrates’ city, my soul is already too set in its own ways for any conditioning.