Plato and Modern Motherhood

“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.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Fascinating post. Unfortunately I can only see from the perspective of a man, but I must ask – being a mother may be rewarding, but is it necessary? Is it important? If I were considering giving up something I enjoy but which detracts from my chosen pursuits I would be hard pressed to see why to keep it.

    If it were to pass in the future that we might find some new way to generate further human beings than the biological, would that, in your opinion, be a grave loss?

    And a final thought – if being a mother is indeed important and not something to give up, is it ethical to confine it to women? Would it not be kind to work to allow anyone to experience it, whatever it takes, regardless of their gender?

  2. But what about Dad? He does not seem to get a mention here. Yes a child is a burden and one to be shared by both parents. Most certainly the responsibility for the child’s upbringing must not fall on the mother alone. If you really want to do something, then as already stated it can be done if one’s mind, and one’s partner’s mind are put to it. The philosophy department at my University had two lady lecturers both married who became pregnant. One is now a professor and head of department the other is still active, and lecturing in Philosophy. The children are still quite young and I am sure thriving. Whilst you have responsibility towards your child you also have a responsibility towards yourself. Neither of these should be significantly neglected at the expense of the other.

  3. Wouldn’t a lot of the dilemmas outlined above be lessened or eliminated in a society which had decent, inexpensive or free child-care for working women?

    And as Don points out, both parents are responsible for raising a child, and women need to insist that their partners do their share. There is nothing especially feminine about caring for a child, after the child is weaned, and in fact, I spent two years alone with my then 9 year old son, while working, without any problems.

  4. Thanks for the many provocative points. Let me just start with a few for now.

    Parenting should be fairly shared by both partners. Indeed, recent studies of the Swedish system where men are given strong incentives to take “Daddy Leave”, has helped create more balanced families:

    But the question remains: even if parenting is equally shared, doesn’t the parent (mother or father) who aspires to be a successful professional and an engaged parent struggle to do both well?

  5. Caring for a new-born baby is a lot of work, and society should offer (and some do) leave from work
    for either the mother or the father
    to dedicate herself or himself full-time to the baby.

    As a child grows older, caring for him or her involves less and less effort, partially because he or she spends most of his or her day in school.

    Perhaps the problem is that the demands on the labor force have increased in recent years. When I was younger (I’m now 64), people worked an 8 hour day, which left ample time to be with the family. In fact, the years I spent living alone with my son are happiest years of my life.

    However, when, in order to become a successful professional, one has to work or to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it is difficult to balance working and being an engaged parent.

    A long long time ago, having to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week was called “exploitation”, a word that is no longer in good taste.

    If you read the history of the international labor movement, you’ll see that workers (and everyone who works, not just those who work with their hands, are workers) struggled and at times died for an 8 hour working day.

    It is sad that working people, be they professionals or not, have lost sight of their right to decent working hours.

  6. In my previous comment, leave from work means paid leave from work. Raising healthy children is a responsibility of a whole society and should be financied, as far as necessary and far as is possible, from general tax revenues.

    One more comment: if working people do not demand decent working hours, they will not receive them. Employers will squeeze every drop of blood or every extra-half hour of time you can better spend with your children from you if they can.

  7. @AMOS: As someone who’s training to be a primary school teacher I’ve been surprised to discover how little sympathy there is for the hours that teachers have to put in. Your comment is therefore quite sobering. But I’m too young (or perhaps, more accurately, too naive) to judge the rights and wrongs of it.

    @REGAN PENALUNA: The most interesting thing about your original post, to me, was the question of how to choose between your aspirations and parenthood. If we conclude that it’s good to enjoy the latter then more interesting questions arise, such as whether it’s right that only people born as women should be able to be mothers, and how to respond to technological advances that affect, or even threaten, the traditional model of childrearing.

  8. Plato is telling us that it is not possible to choose between our aspirations and parenting, that is, if we are left to our nature to guide us. That’s why it’s necessary to condition one or the other desires out of women (Plato assumed that men didn’t have the same problem) so that they don’t have conflicted souls.

    I think it’s interesting that women today seem torn between these two very things that Socrates discusses.

    I think at this point the interesting question that arises, before we ask whether mothers should be the only caretakers (I don’t think so), is whether Plato is right that women are naturally drawn to be mothers in the first place.

    An interesting study came out recently to suggest that motherhood is in fact not instinctual:

  9. The number of women who are uncaring, cold, selfish, hostile or fickle mothers is proof enough that there is no maternal instinct.

    Generally, people behave as parents as they do with others in general. After a few months of
    special parent behavior, the person, as he or she is with others in general, emerges. And there are a lot of cold and selfish human animals on this planet.

  10. This post is about the problem faced by Buridan’s ass, the donkey that couldn’t choose between two bales of hay. Like most of us, Buridan’s ass understands that any time you make a choice, you’ll get stuck with the opportunity cost.

    But the ass makes certain presuppositions. The assumption is that you can only choose one of the two options in front of you, and not both. In this case, we’re not necessarily constrained by this false dichotomy. For example, many people in academia plan to have kids after they’ve gotten tenure (to the extent that these plans are viable).

    Also, I have to wonder if success in one area wouldn’t actually enhance success in the other. For example, I would imagine that being a parent can show you how to be a better teacher.

  11. Buridan’s Donkey is often used as example of a dilemma; that is, the impossibility of making a decision. The choice between motherhood and aspirations does not appear to qualify as a dilemma.

  12. Welcome Regan to TPM. At least I find your writing comprehensible.
    I have to ask a similar question to the one William Russell did in the first comment. Is giving birth to a child necessary for women who choose to do so? At some point in your life you were adamant that you would not have children. What happened? Were you won over by those who told you of the uniqueness of the mother-child bond? It certainly sounds as though you were at least partially culturally coerced. Was there a process of convincing yourself that you should have a child? When you finally decided you wanted a baby was the conclusion reached rationally or emotionally or biologically?
    There was a time when women had to get married and have children. This is clearly no longer a social requirement, and in your case, with a future that promised academic and other professional success it wasn’t necessary. Surely, you must have visualized what you were getting yourself into by having a baby. To put it bluntly, why should I give a damn about your situation? Although blunt, I don’t mean the question to be dismissive. I’m curious.

  13. Dennis, appearance depends on your point of view. Speaking for myself, I instinctively feel — on first blush, at this stage of my life — that I couldn’t be a dedicated philosopher while also being a capable father. I need to shift into stoic rational mode before I can convince myself to think otherwise.

  14. Re Regan Penaluna 19th Nov:

    “But the question remains: even if parenting is equally shared, doesn’t the parent (mother or father) who aspires to be a successful professional and an engaged parent struggle to do both well?”

    I think the reply to this is;- Well yes, so what? Life most often is a struggle to do well not only with a career and children but dealing with a host of many other concurrent problems which confront a person whose wish is to embrace life fully. Overcoming all that is the mark of a successful human being. If you are worried about a struggle and want things easier you lack the spirit to go forth. Seize the problem and get on with it. If you really, genuinely want to progress further in Philosophy and as a parent and are prepared to work to that end then you will most likely succeed. To be fair, things might might take a little longer, that’s all.

  15. Re Posted by amos Nov 20th.
    I feel that the evolutionary process has bestowed on the female of most species, patterns of behaviour, which for want of a better expression here, we may call a maternal instinct. Observations of the animal kingdom do seem to verify this. Yes of course there are exceptions: those who are cold, selfish, hostile or fickle. However surely they do not predominate to the extent whereby one can validly draw the conclusion that a maternal instinct does not exist. Is this not the fallacy of composition reasoning from the attributes of parts of a whole to the attributes of the whole itself. There are many who lack sanity but that is no reason surely to infer that sanity does not exist.
    I agree with the emergence of personality after special parent behaviour also that there are a lot of cold selfish humans on this planet. However there are also a lot of warm selfless humans too. People are cold and selfish in varying degrees and in different ways and to conclude that these traits will always lead to bad parenting I cannot feel, is correct.

  16. Hello Don:

    You know that I’m much more skeptical of evolutionary psychology than you are.

    I don’t deny that some animals may show a maternal instinct.

    However, I don’t see much evidence of it in human beings. Instincts function most or all of the time, and much of the time human mothers don’t seem to care much about their children, although given what society expects of them, they pretend to.

    By the way, this time I’m not only drawing on my own limited experience and observation of the human animal, but on an excellent book, The Reproduction of Mothering, by Nancy Chodorow, University of California Press, 1978.

    Ms. Chodorow searches the literature and finds no evidence of a maternal instinct (p.23)

  17. Amos,
    It’s good having someone as well read as you making contributions here. What you wrote about Ms. Chodorow not finding any evidence of a maternal instinct is, if what she says is true, the crux of what’s being discussed above. Ultimately, it boils down to conditioning. Regan says of herself “my soul is already too set in its own ways for any conditioning.” The conditioning she’s talking about is the after the fact type, viz. learning to weaken the mother – baby bond. What I was questioning in my first comment was whether she had been conditioned to becoming a mother in the first place, which there was a suspicion of in her writing.
    So are we bull-shitting ourselves when we say women have some choice in the matter of becoming mothers? With society branding them failures if they don’t acquiesce in this question then it appears we are.

  18. Hi Ralph: I don’t know if I’m well read, but I’ve always been interested in how people are conditioned or formed to believe that their social role is “natural” and that the status quo is “natural” and inevitable. Ms. Chodorow’s book impressed me a lot when I read it about 15 years ago.

    Out of curiosity, I googled “maternal instinct” and got an article on “maternal bonding”.

    The maternal bond has nothing to do with being a biological mother per se, but can be formed with a child and any primary caretaker, be it the father or an adoptive parent or any person who is open to bonding with the child. On the other hand, the article points out that often such a bond is not formed with the biological mother, which explains the phenomenon of uncaring or cold biological mothers.

    The above more or less confirms what Chodorow says, and it does seem that in human beings at least there is no evidence of a maternal instinct. In fact, Chodorow, whose book I glanced at a few minutes ago, says that there is no evidence for such an instinct in primates at all, although there is certain evidence in rats.

  19. amos
    Thanks for your comments. The term instinct has had a tortured history in so far as agreement on definition is concerned. It seems that some have suggested banishing it as a psychological term. Whatever the case it seems to be a word to be handled with care. I first came across it many years ago reading William Mc Dougall’s ‘An Outline of Psychology’. It was defined there as ‘an innate disposition which determines the organism to perceive (to pay attention to) any object of a certain class, and to experience in its presence, a certain emotional excitement and an impulse to action, which finds its expression in a specific mode of behaviour in relation to that object.’ I am not a trained psychologist and my knowledge here is not extensive, but this definition has always seemed to make sense to me.
    Mc Dougall did define and describe at great length, a Parental instinct, which found its origin in the evolutionary process again which seems to make sense to me. However remember this book was published in 1923 and Mc Dougall is I believe, little read these days. I shall accordingly be interested to read how Nancy Chodorow defines Instinct. Her book is on shelf in the uni Library here and I shall borrow it and try to make some inroads into it.

  20. AMOS:-

    I have read Chodorow’s book chapter 2 ‘Why Women Mother’. It is very interesting and appears to make some persuasive points in holding that mothering is more of a social construct than instinctual. Thanks for drawing attention to it. At this juncture I feel sympathetic to her view that the maternal instinct is a fiction, but I need further consideration.
    I have a close friend who recently has been placed in the position of sole carer of his eight year old daughter. His efforts in this capacity are exemplary and he is making a far better job of it than his wife. The child seems completely happy. He teaches science, and the child is deluged with scientific teaching with which she is very receptive. They visit museums regularly which she loves. I took her to our local museum once, and could hardly drag her away.
    That said I cannot help feeling, when studying the child, that there is something missing in her life that is to say, the feminine touch. To elaborate here would be too lengthy, but I think you probably know what I mean.
    The point I am trying to make here is that for a child to have the best chance of becoming a fully rounded person, whatever that may mean, it needs the close attention of both male and female influences in its life. Yes there are variations on this theme, some successful some not, but overall I think a child with an attentive mother and father will have the best chance.
    Whether mothering is instinctive, or a result of different social pressures perhaps enhanced with some hormonal input, or possibly anybody can do it if necessary, is irrelevant to the fact that the patterns of behaviour emerging will vary in intensity from person to person. For instance the instinct of curiosity can be minimal in some, and in others like myself, extensive (unfortunately not matched by my cognitive and other mental attributes). We tend to hear more cases of bad mothering than good, possibly due to the fact that no news is good news, that is, all bad news is newsworthy. Yes there are certainly some atrocious mothers about but to declare that this supports absence of a maternal instinct is surely not a valid inference.

  21. Hello Don:

    I’m glad that you found Chodorow’s book useful.

    After my comments, I read the same chapter as you did, perhaps the most interesting in the book, and skimmed through the rest of the book. Some of the psychoanalytic jargon does not convince me, but in general, I think that she’s on the right track.

    If you read on, in part III (the chapter on the Sexual Sociology of Adult Life is good) and the afterward, you’ll see that Chodorow observes exactly what you do, that children need parenting from both men and women.

    In her opinion, that only women parent in conventional families (that is changing, I know) creates children and future adults
    who are not full human beings.
    It’s apparent that the same reasoning would show that if only men parent, children will be similarly limited.

    I spent 2 years caring for my son without his mother, and it’s easier, for obvious reasons, for a man to care for a boy than for a man to care for a girl, as your friend is doing.

    A friend of mine cared for his daughter for several years, but she was older than your friend’s child, and her personality was already formed.

  22. Don (and others):

    An interesting article on the subject.

  23. Amos.
    I have read the Hirschmann article with interest. I feel there is stain of feminist misandry within it somewhere and generally feel uncomfortable with it. The fault may be on my part not being sufficiently acquainted with feminist philosophy. However it appears that a generalisation is being made here about the lot of married women. Yes, what is said can be true, there are some lazy people around who do not pull their full weight both male and female. Accordingly to argue from some to all, from the particular to the general is always beset with problems. Different households, different relationships are not all identical in their functions. The article does seem over academic as one commentator has already pointed out; is it really in touch with the functioning workshop of family life where things go amicably and smoothly? Whatever is meant by women’s individuality being compromised, a somewhat pompous pontifical phrase, in my opinion? I am wondering how far the viewpoints expressed in the article are supported outside of philosophical and similar societies. My own experience in speaking to many women has revealed that feminist views are by and large regarded sceptically and are the product of those with their heads in the clouds of academia rather than the practicalities of down to earth life; misandry has often in this connection, been quoted as the reason for feminist views. Additionally many women have expressed the opinion that men get the worst deal in the conventional set up of husband and wife.
    The three stories of obvious atrocious parenting at the the beginning of the article, seem somewhat superfluous to the main thrust. Again I am wondering if three quarters of class of young ladies had as their main ambition in life to be stay at home mothers ( there is nothing wrong in that if that is what they want) then why are they apparently at college/university engaged in higher education?
    My own father was self employed he worked a six day week leaving at eight in the morning and returning at eight in the evening. He accordingly provided a good standard of living for both me and my mother he taught me how to box, wrestle, lift weights, long division, and chess. He also dealt with the family finances, maintenance of a large garden, and the running of the family car. My mother did all the conventional jobs of a housewife and mother with painstaking industry and little or no complaint. My father would return from work each day quiet tired. I am not claiming that he did any more than many hard working and diligent men. However to expect him to then take a share of the housework would have been nothing less than insulting.

  24. Don:

    I sent the Hirschmann article, not because I agree with it 100% or even 80%, but to animate the discussion.

    I know many cases like that of your father, and it is obvious that someone who works as hard as your father and my father did cannot be expected to share the housework.

    It’s sad whenever human beings are stuck in or forced into roles which do not allow them to develop all facets of their human potential. Conventional gender roles prevent both men and women from developing said potential.

    I don’t want to idealize the world of work. Leaving the home to
    work as, say, a supermarket cashier hardly allows a woman to develop her full human potential. In fact, being a housewife is more varied and interesting, less stressful and oppressive than many jobs that women fulfill in the labor force.

    In fact, the glorification of working involves a small number of elite or professional careers, which allow a minor percentage of the population to develop their human potential, as intellectuals, doctors, writers, artists, etc.

    The rest of humanity work long hours in boring and tedious routines. I guess that the solution would be to humanize the world of work, but our societies are farther and farther from that utopian goal.

    Certainly, shortening the working day would be a positive step, allowing people more leisure time to develop their potential and to spend time with their children or friends. When I was young, there was a lot of talk by the experts about automation shortening the work day and even speculation about how people would adjust to increased leisure. In fact, the working day has increased, which just shows us how far the pundits can be trusted.

  25. Very interesting article. Isn’t is wild to know that the eugenics programs are still alive and working today? Wrong if you asked me.

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