Is Motherhood Liberating or Confining?

This past year, two significant feminists have spoken out against an increasingly popular trend in parenting. French philosopher Elizabeth Badinter says that today’s mothers are experiencing a “relapse to times long past.” American essayist Erica Jong writes that contemporary motherhood is like a “prison.” Are we truly experiencing a devolution in women’s liberty?

The trend in question, attachment parenting or, a similar variant, green-parenting, encourages mothers to breastfeed, make baby food from scratch, frequently carry them around in a sling, and to generally not be absent the first 3-5 years of the child’s life. Badinter and Jong both see this as severely restricting of a mother’s time. But that is not enough to warrant criticism. On their view, this trend is problematic insofar as it has become so popular and in cases so self-righteous as to eliminate alternate ways of mothering. Women are pressured to always be at their baby’s side, and if they’re not, then they’re made to feel guilty. In this oppressive environment, argue Badinter and Jong, mothers are likely to toss out their ambition with the bath water. In short, Badinter and Jong believe that the ideal for mothers today is counter to the feminist ideal of self-actualization. But is this true?

Not according to everyone. There are some who argue that being a mother is a political act. For instance, these mothers extol breastfeeding because by denying to buy formula, they are shunning consumerism and so sticking it to the man. Similarly, they reject the medicalization of birth, in which hospitals and pain killers alienate women from their bodies. For these women, being a mother is empowering because it allows them to take back control over something that they feel society has progressively taken from them: their bodies and their relationships to their babies.

Who is right? Badinter and Jong have us believe that in the current climate, motherhood keeps women from acting in the world, whereas the other school of thought tells us that motherhood can have a significant impact on society. Yet both sides argue that they are feminists fighting the good fight against oppression. In a way, this is an iteration of the age-old battle in feminism between defenders of women’s individualism and defenders of women’s ability to nurture others. It seems that the question of whether motherhood is liberating or not requires us to answer a deeper question: are we best defending women’s liberty by advancing their individuality or rather their woman-ness?

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14 Comments.

  1. As I see it, parenting is about what’s best for the children, not what’s best for the parents — it’s emphasis on the later that seems key in producing new additions to society who are intellectually, emotionally, and/or morally stunted.

    I can’t help but feel that evaluating whether a particular parenting style is empowering/beneficial/XYZ to the parents misses the point of parenting being about raising children — it’s only after a parenting style has been identified as raising children well that considerations of how it impacts the parents should enter into the picture.

    There seems to be this idea that social justice and equality demand that someone be able to wear every hat at once — or if not every hat, then at least two or three very big hats at once.

    This just seems silly; some hats are so large that nothing else can fit on your head while you’re wearing them. There’s nothing unnatural or biased about that, it’s just a function of finite space and a large brim.

    Social justice and equity require only that no hat be denied to someone who can fill it except to give it to someone else who fills it better.

  2. Anje Voulon-Jonker

    While saying that parenting is doing what is best for the children, one should keep in mind that parents can only be good parents if and when they feel comfortable with their own style of parenting. Remember the following safety rule in airplanes: Apply the oxygen mask to yourself first and then look after your child. The worst thing for a child is having perfect parents. In general parents should do what comes naturally. Try to keep a balance between all members of your family. Will your child be happy if it finds out that you made huge sacrifices? Babies who receive care from more people than only the parents, are fine and happy. So relax and follow your own ideas. Relax and your child will be happy.

  3. @asur

    However the problem is motherhood is sometimes seen as the only hat a woman can wear.

    If you look at child rearing practices around the world you see a range of different ways of caring for babies and children. Even within groups there is variation. This is because cultures and individuals are different. If mothers must farm to feed their children, someone else must hold the baby. If your baby detests lying in a sling, why make him if there are alternatives?

    The REAL feminist issue is that child rearing practices are just as skewed as work practices. Child rearing in the Western world too often means a mother-child dyad, isolated from all the other dyads. No traditional society I know of expects this of their mothers. This is compounded by attitudes to breastfeeding (I fed in public, many are afraid to). This means that while motherhood can be an incredible learning experience, it can also be incredibly isolating.

    I think a positive feminist goal would be to celebrate motherhood and work to end this segregation of parenting. Not sure how it can be done, mind you. I’d also lose severe prescriptive parenting models. The art of parenting, of balancing needs of child, parent ( who after all needs to keep going to provide care), and other children is more complex than a simple model can allow for.

  4. Full-time mothering, a day dedicated exclusively to the baby, has been tried before and it drove many women crazy. Spending all day knitting natural fiber diapers
    and preparing organic soup sounds romantic, but after a few months, it gets to be very very tedious.

    What’s more, no one is more ungrateful than children: a life spent tending them is unlikely to be rewarded with “thank you” or a smile.

    So I advise young women (and men) to diversify their life options, to try to balance insofar as it is possible their child-care with satisfying paid or unpaid work or other projects outside the home.
    I know that much paid work is monotonous and alienating, but
    at least one is not likely to romanticize it and suffer a probable letdown, as will occur with many of the new full-time mothers.

  5. Is motherhood liberating or confining?

    I think this is a very interesting question. One I have thought long and hard about. After 14 years of parenting, I still have not come up with an answer. I have many conflicting views about motherhood.

    Because I work part-time from home and set my own schedule, I see myself both as a career woman and as a stay-at-home mom to 4 children.

    Although many would see my work as adding value to society (I am a teacher) I believe I have added much more value to society by raising my children. As I look back over the last 14 years of my life, I don’t think “boy I wish I could have worked more, accomplished more achieved more of my goals,” etc and I certainly don’t see myself as not having had an impact on society because I wanted to be at home with my children.

    I think it has to do more with the mother’s approach to life and her philosophy of motherhood. I feel confined by motherhood when I feel that I should dedicate every waking (and sleeping) moment to my children; when I forget about myself and focus only on my children; when I forget that motherhood ads value to society; when feminists make me feel guilty for wanting to be at home with my children; when laundry and cooking become so time consuming that I haven’t had the time to go out into the world to be with friends and work colleagues.

    At times, I have felt like motherhood is isolating or like I have not “lived up to my full potential,” but then I think what does this really mean – to live up to one’s full potential, to self-actualize? For me, I think being a mother during the difficult times has led to much more self-actualization and much more internal growth then I ever would have had “out in the real world” so to speak.

    In my mind, the best way I have found to “know thyself” is by being a mother. During motherhood there is sometimes sacrifice, there is the lesson of patience, we must truly learn how to reach out and love others unconditionally, we must find compassion and put others first, we must explore who we are and whether or not we like ourselves and we must scrutinize our behavior to make sure we are behaving in a way that helps our children thrive. We must temper our anger, teach values to those who are most important to us, and learn not to cling too tightly so that our own children can self-actualize and come to know themselves.

    This is the part of motherhood that I feel is extremely liberating. To reach out and touch others lives so profoundly and so intimately is really what life is all about.

    There are so many ways to have an impact on our world, to leave our mark or stamp on society and as a mother, I would like to feel free to choose how to do that. Can mothering be confining – yes, can it be liberating – yes. It is all of the things mentioned in this post and much, much more.

  6. I am not sure that as suggested, one of these alternatives is right. Both views have good points and bad points and can do no more than just be a viewpoint, not a once and for all non-contradictable statement/directive for certain behaviour patterns to which parents or potential parents must/should adhere, and the spirit of the age support.
    The problem here as I see it is simply that people differ, sometimes quite profoundly. These differences are caused by many factors for instance social class, standard of education, financial well being, recollections of one’s own childhood and the psychological shaping which occurred therein. In addition we are all influenced by our genetic inheritance and ambitions.
    So far as parenthood is concerned that only person who knows what they want from life, what they feel capable of doing, and what are the possibilities open to them is, the actual parent. Certainly there are many who are not cognitively adapted to make such choices of their own free will and these need to discuss and take advice from others.
    Whatever happens, society should, without oppression, tolerate and support as far as possible whatever path a parent chooses provided it does not conflict with the law of the land, or generally agreed human decency. Tossing ambition out with the bath water should never happen.

  7. “So I advise young women (and men) to diversify their life options, to try to balance insofar as it is possible their child-care with satisfying paid or unpaid work or other projects outside the home.”

    Well said, Amos. The problem I see is that many of these “alternatives” involve sticking people in a box (figuratively) and saying “This is what you must do and want to do”. Not everyone wants to be a high powered executive or a full-time, do nothing else parent. The advantage of living in a modern Western democracy is that many of us can choose.

  8. “There are some who argue that being a mother is a political act.”

    Some clarification might be needed here. Perhaps the statement means – those with a political agenda argue being a mother ought to be a political act. I can see the concern for political interference. Governments are beginning to dictate motherhood behaviour and this might explain the appearance of Jongs “prison” life. It is not enough that government may interfere with parenthood at the planning stage, but the interference continues with increased government subsidization with health board programs. As government inputs more money, a more repressive atmosphere for mothers can be expected. Politics and governments are often conducive to establishing a single set of a values, usually interpreted by the current Caesar, and they fail to accept that everyone has different values (in the philosophical sense as suggested by CathyBy above). Or, am I reading into the statement too much?

  9. Motherhood is both liberating and confining. I welcomed my first child in 2010 and my world has changed dramatically. I have never in my live felt so restricted while at the same time feeling so free. I brought an angel into this world – a blank slate who stares into my eyes everyday seeking answers. Someone who literally depends on me for everything. I feel restricted because I cannot do anything with out this little munchkin attached at the hip but I feel free because I know I have it in my power to be the best role model a mother can be. When I feel guilty, it is not because the government or society pressures me to do certain things, it is because I feel an obligation as a mother to satisfy my sons needs until he is old enough to take care of himself. Whether motherhood is liberating or confining depends on the individual woman’s mentality and beliefs. I personally feel it is very natural for a mother to feel “obligated” to be the sole care giver of a child up to a certain age. It is biologically wired into us! This is not a black and white issue and treating it as such slaps mother nature in the face.

  10. Hello! I find after reading and re-reading this viewpoint that I have to say motherhood is both liberating and confining. This is not stating a simple answer, but rather a long contemplative one, which scans 3 decades of this exact question to myself as a mother,many different times in my life .
    The answer, is only dependent upon the learning of the meaning of unconditional love. Not having any strings attached to the love you give is liberating and to not love unconditionally is confining. In the end that’s all there is to say about your life .Did I love well? Motherhood helped me to love well.

  11. Is motherhood liberating?

    from what?

  12. It’s 3:30 a.m. and I just got my son back to bed(bad dream) and now I’m awake! So I have decided that my 3:30 a.m. mommy brain is quite sharp right now to answer this daunting question in my groggy opinion of course, here goes…the answer is YES! It is confining, all the things we have been told and have heard about what reality is like when you have a baby, and that you really won’t understand or get it till you have one…it’s all that and then some. The “liberating” part, I would like to go back a bit farther and a little deeper. I am all for women’s lib, the whole movement was much needed and women have opportunity today because of that. Problem is, I think it really screwed us on the hole “being a mother thing”. We were told we can do it all, and we’ve been busting our butt’s to do all ever since! Go to work, be good at your job, be a good mom, keep a good home, fulfill your need’s, oh, and don’t forget your husband’s and dam you gotta look good doing it! How and why are we still buying into all this? I chose to be a stay at home mom, and I’m sure there are other’s out there who will agree that sometimes you may feel dismissed by some people because what would we possibly have to say, or contribute. If we are not “doing it all.” The sad part of that is we are women and mother’s and we do it to each other. I may be stretching here, bear with me, but could these be some repercussions of our liberated mothering choices?…divorce rates have skyrocketed, single parenting, childhood obesity, drug abuse among kids,.When the kid’s are bigger and they don’t need the nanny or daycare anymore and they come home from school and “plug in to something” and it’s not mom and dad because they have been quite disconnected form them since they were babies, and we wonder why? We need to be there for our kid’s, which ever parent, mom or dad, someone has to make a sacrifice to take on the child’s need first and that is just how it is. If the “old day’s” of being a parent and making your child your first priority is coming back into style I say great. We need to do with LESS, if parents are in a fortunate enough position for one to take a few years out of their job/career why does that have to be such a agonizing sacrifice? If you feel good about your decision to work then you do it . We have to do what works for us without tortchuring ourselves because that can just make you sick, and realize that we made a choice to have a child, not the other way around. See mom’s or dad’s who choose to stay and raise their children as of value, and not just face talk. Mothering can only be as confining as we all make it to be. Whatever a mother’s decision we need to support each other more as women now, so our liberation can be all that was intended for us long ago.
    A book I recommend “The Red Tent” (can’t quite remember author, it’s very late now….4a.m.! Thank’s Reg for the lappy…now I can post my 2 cents all over cyberspace! M,R, & L , Luv ays Alice.

  13. moders - pingback on August 1, 2011 at 5:19 pm
  14. moders - pingback on August 2, 2011 at 4:13 pm

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