Motherhood is an identity as old as the living world. Typically the wife in a married couple, this identity has undergone many changes over time. It is a vast and varied topic, which for the purpose of this essay I will be focussing on the British woman identifying themselves as a mother; how they have learned to take this on, how they carry it out in daily life and how each new generation deals with it in their own way, and therefore how this identity has transformed from what it started out as to what it is now.
Language is used to describe identity and the use of different words can have a different effect. Nelson Mandela was called a terrorist in South Africa until the perspective changed and he became known as freedom fighter (Potter and Wetherell 1987). In the same way, before one becomes a mother, she maybe a student or an employee. In accordance with the second Stuart Hall model, where identities are thought to be in 'constant formation and alteration' some aspects that were vital to the identity (e.g. breastfeeding) are no longer required and some that were never considered have materialised (e.g. surrogacy). Hall also says that identities defines themselves 'in relation to other identities' which is apparent in this case, as the mother identity exists alongside wife and woman, as well as other identities such as occupational, sexual orientation, and nationality.
Motherhood is expected by society throughout the world, but despite the popular notion, many scholars believe that it is not based on instinct, but is a learned desire.
In an article written in a lifestyle magazine by Betty Rollin (Look magazine, September 1970) entitled Motherhood: Who Needs It?, she quotes psychiatrist Dr. Richard Rabkin:
'Women don't need to be mothers any more than they need spaghetti.... But if you're in a world where everyone is eating spaghetti, thinking they need it and want it, you will think so too.'
This particular idea is borne from birth when our sex sets our identities. From a young age girls are given baby dolls complete with nappies and bottles and all the other things real babies are given and this sets in them the ability to care for and nurture others besides themselves. By the time they have reached maturity they know of two identities to aspire to, mother and wife.
When asked where women have learned to be a mother, they will most likely give the answer that it has been learned from what they have experienced of their own mothers, so for example there are the classic lullabies like Hush Little Baby, Twinkle Twinkle little star, and then there ones unique to you, for example, from my personal experience my mother would hum verses from the Quran at bedtime, something her own mother did, and her mother before that and so on. Neither of these women would have heard the lullabies mentioned above, and this relates to the geographical element of identity formation, as certain characteristics are dealt with in different ways around the world (Chimisso 2003, pp.45-48)
In addition to one's own mother, there was also extended family to lean on for advice and suggestions, but as familial ties are no longer as strong in Britain, first time mothers turn to television and books for knowledge. There is also support from midwifes and health visitors in the hospital and at home, after they have given birth, as well as ante natal classes and local children's centres to visit regularly for weighing and general guidance.
Motherhood has always been connected to the home and performed by the female. The past has shown us that if she died in childbirth which was more oft the case then, there would be someone to replace her, a family member or wet-nurse or nanny, but always a female.
It is performed in several different ways. Firstly in feeding, primarily breastfeeding. This is agreed by doctors to be the best at providing the nutrition and immunity support for babies as well as health benefits for mothers, and if not breastfeeding then the mother bottle feeds herself to ensure the maternal link is still there. In the first few years of the child, they are there in every stage of the child's development to encourage and praise when the he has done well and discipline and punish when it is required. In most partnerships the latter is performed by the father who is seen as a stern, authoritative figure compared to the loving and leniency of the mother. As the child progresses through school and gets homework and projects, mothers take on a teacher role to help and educate.
The acknowledgement of role of mother in the working system is shown with the entitlement of maternity leave for women. This allows them the support and time off for when they are ready to give birth and the months ensuing, which in the UK is 52 weeks split between 'ordinary maternity leave' and 'additional maternity leave' (www.direct.gov.uk, 2010). When they return to work there is usually further provision such as crches and a decrease in working hours. Nonetheless, there are recent studies showing that support for working mums is declining. Professor Jacqueline Scott from Cambridge university's department of sociology said: 'Instead, there is clear evidence that women's changing role is viewed as having costs both for the woman and the family.' The survey she conducted showed a fall in the number of people believing work to be the role of the man and looking after the children to be the role of the wife. In 1984, 59.2% of women and 65.5% of men believed this was the case, compared to 31.1% of women and 41.1% of men in 2002 (Scott 2008).
Within same sex parenthood, studies of lesbian motherhood have shown that the couple share in housekeeping and child-care responsibilities; no study finds any evidence to suggest that these mothers encourage or direct their children's sexual orientation (Stacey 2001). In cases where the child has been adopted, the adoptive mother will tend to overcompensate, thereby ensuring she does things perfectly to overcome her own lack of biological connection to him and also to ensure the child does not feel it either.
Each generation will adapt to this identity in their own way. Whereas the developing world are still doing things the old and natural way, in the Western world certain aspects of motherly charge are now done by machines e.g. bouncer, rocker, or emblematic man made products such as breast milk pump, or being done by nannies to help career focussed mothers.
Toys and activities have undergone changes, for example for most of the last century there was a generic colour code, pink for girls, blue for boys. The types of toys were also gender related, so for the girls it was very much domestic e.g. dollhouse, kitchen appliances, dressing up outfits like nurse and princess, while for the boys it was cars and mechanical utensils to build and fix things, with their dressing up outfits usually being doctors and police fireman. These toys sets the roles for young children from an early change. Despite this changing over the last few decades with the addition of different or neutral colours like yellow and red for previously gender specific toys, the stigma attached to them is still present.
The way a woman was mothered has a significant influence in the way they handle the identity. In cases where the mother has walked out on the child and she is brought up without a mother, the missing bond may or not be present when they have children of their own, for example they may carry out all the necessary tasks of rearing a child but on the emotional front there may be a missing connection, on account of her missing out on her own connection with her mother. In the article mentioned previously by Betty Rollin, she writes about how studies on monkeys 'who were brought up without mothers found them lacking in maternal behaviour toward their own offspring'.
The black mark that single mothers have had when they have had a child without the presence of the father in their lives has lessened in the last 50 years. There is a lot of help from the government with benefits and allowances, not just in monetary value but also council housing should they require it. In a recent episode of the BBC One period drama Lark Rise to Candleford, a young woman from a poor background had fallen pregnant with the son of a gentry family. In accordance with the society values back then, the wealthy family gave her a large sum of money in exchange for her silence and any further contact with the father. Each generation has had to face this until the last few decades, whereby laws were put in place on child maintenance that required the father to provide for the child's financial needs.
Until the late 19th century, women had no choice in falling pregnant. However, the past century, conditions of procreation has changed dramatically in Western Europe. For example there is contraception readily available to prevent pregnancies, or for unwanted pregnancies there is the availability of safe and reliable terminations. This has led to a dramatic decrease in the proportion of women's lives devoted to pregnancy and early infant care (Giddens 1987, p175).
In our current society this identity has undergone a dramatic change over the last two millennia. Examples in religious texts show a somewhat simplified position of women. In the Bible, the character of the woman is listed purely as that of a wife and mother:
The Lord said: 'I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee' (Genesis, 3:16) And again: ' . . . but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children. . .,' (I Timothy, 2:14-15) in Islam, Hadiths, which are narrations of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), teaches the importance and rights of the mother: 'A man came to Allah's Messenger and said: "O Messenger of Allah! Who is most deserving of my fine treatment?'' He (PBUH) said, "Your mother, then your mother, then your mother, then your father, then your nearest, then nearest". (Muslim)
This hadith by Sahih Muslim was recorded around the 9th century AD. It indicates that mothers occupy a position three times more significant than that of the father. In the commentary by Hafiz Salahuddin Yusuf, this is owing to the three difficulties she has to endure, which are listed as carrying the baby in her womb for nine months, the pain of labour, and the following two year period of suckling which disturbs her sleep at night and affects her health (Yusuf, http://www.kalamullah.com/family08.html).
These examples bring to light the illusion that motherhood is the only sphere that is fundamentally laid down for women. As a sex, women are viewed as the natural reproducers of mankind and therefore naturally understood to bear and rear the child. This leads to the point about surrogacy . This has become more viable for same sex couples and consequently the motherhood identity is no longer unique to women that give birth to their own child, but it is being taken on by other people who are already defined by other identities.
A recent BBC Four Documentary entitled Women depicted how mothers have changed since the rise of feminism. Women of all backgrounds were interviewed to show how this identity has changed for them, compared to their mothers. For example, Romana Kuchi, a full time surgeon says her own mother was 'very dedicated to her family, always there to pick me up from school, meals on the table, full time etc and I think I am a complete contrast to that.' Romana works from 7am to 7pm and employs a nanny to look after her daughter as well as household chores. She is married to a surgeon with same working pattern but is of the opinion that she doesn't really need him for anything, as she is able to do all the male related tasks such as car servicing. Another woman, Tracey Walker, is a full time Primary School teacher but as soon as her working day is done, she is a full time mother and wife, focussing on the domestic chores that need doing. The life of Julian and Emma Thomson provides a sharp contrast to both of these women. Emma goes out to work while her husband stays at home, looking after their children. She works to pay for the mortgage, bills and fees and he feeds and clothes the children and maintains the domestic tasks. She works long hours and rarely does anything maternal with her daughters and says Julian knows the girls' clothes and shoe sizes far better than she does.
These examples of working mothers and gender reversal roles has increased considerably in recent times and it remains to be seen what effect this will have on their children and on the mother identity. As one of the oldest identities the identity of the mother will remain so while the human population survives.
- Chimisso, C. (2003) Exploring European Identities. The Open University, Milton Keynes.
- Giddens. A (1987) Introductory Sociology Macmillan Education, London.
- Potter, J. and Wetherell. M. (1987) 'Identities and Diversities' in Miell. D, Phonenix. A and Thomas. K (Eds), Mapping Psychology 1. The Open University, Milton Keynes, pp.69-70.
- Rollin, B. (1970) 'Motherhood: Who Needs It?', Look, Issue Sept. 22, http://jackiewhiting.net/collab/exploratory/motherhood.htm
- Sahih al-Bukhari.and Sahih Mulsim. 'The Book of Virtue, Good Manners and Joining of the Ties of Relationship', Book 32, Hadith 6181 http://www.hadithcollection.com/
- Scott, J. and Dex, S. and Joshi, H. (eds) (2008) Women and Employment: Changing Lives and New Challenges. Edward Elgar , Cheltenham. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7543576.stm
- Stacey, J. and Biblarz, T. (2007) '(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?', American Sociological Review, vol. 66, no.2. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07161/793042-51.stm
- BBC One Drama 'Lark Rise to Candleford' Series 3: Episode 10, 2010.
- BBC Four Documentary 'Women' Episdode 2: Mothers, 2010.