Big Question: What is motherhood?

As our understanding of gender evolves we must ask, “What defines motherhood?” Until the mid-twentieth century, motherhood was generally confined to reproduction, childcare, and housework. [1],[2] Despite many decades of change, this traditional understanding of motherhood remains the basis of our social knowledge. Nonetheless, with the groundwork done by previous waves of feminism, today’s mothers are challenging traditional feminine motherhood unlike ever before.

With third-wave feminism’s reevaluation of femininity, mothers are uniquely challenging the presumed responsibilities of motherhood. Specifically, they are exploring different divisions of childcare and housework. Instead of accepting traditional motherhood responsibilities such as feeding and clothing, women are asking why they shouldn’t be the ones to mow the lawn. Moreover, many are noticing and demanding change in the unequal amount of time they spend (while working full time) on household chores and childcare compared to men.[3] Today’s women are increasingly focusing on inequalities in their family lives, meaning tomorrow’s mothers and fathers may approach the world from a different perspective.

The question of what motherhood is must also be asked in the context of family variability. Increasingly, there are families comprised of two gay or lesbian parents. Can a family have zero or two mothers? For many today, motherhood is separate from reproduction. Outsourced childcare, especially to nannies of vastly different cultural upbringings, is increasingly common.[4] Many women have children through alternative processes such surrogacy or in-vitro fertilization, meaning children may not be biologically related to or physically born from their mothers. Variability means that today’s motherhood is about complicating, if not transcending gender.

Ultimately, our evolving answer to the question, “What is motherhood?” is of particular importance due to the historical role motherhood plays in the family—humanity’s foundational social unit. In considering the bigger picture, we thus must ask, “As motherhood changes how will our society as a whole change?”

 


[1] Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, “The Sexual Politics of Sickness,” in For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women, 2nd ed. (New York: Anchor Books, 2005), 113.

[2] Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “Household Technology and Household Work between 1900 and 1940,” in More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 189.

[3] Lisa Belkin, “When Mom and Dad Share It All,” NYTimes Magazine, June 15, 2008, 4, accessed November 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/15/magazine/15parenting-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[4] Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, “Global Woman,” in Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology, by Estelle Disch, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006), 445.

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