‘Unnatural Mothers’: What About Women Who Are Unable or Unwilling to Be Mothers?
- I am only too aware of how fortunate I am to have been born into a liberal and supportive family where a woman’s life is not equated to motherhood. Mothers who do not impose motherhood on their daughters may well be the best mothers of all.
The original Mother’s Day proclamation envisaged in 1870 by the great abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe has nothing in common with the modern American celebration with its commercialized and glitzy celebration. Instead, it is a powerful call to action to demand peace and justice from the patriarchal state by eschewing all war and violence. Here is her original 1870 Proclamation that explains the goals of Mother’s Day in the United States:
“Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism, be of water or of tears!
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn.
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country,
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
It is quite obvious why this original proclamation is not commemorated in Howe’s homeland and sadly, much of the world too, where war is celebrated, and peace marginalized. Far easier to celebrate Mother’s Day as a day to indulge in consumerism and make much of one’s own mothers rather than mothers worldwide. So, I was surprised when invited to write about this day. What, I wondered, should I as a woman who had no children should say about motherhood in the abstract?
To opt out of motherhood may not sound unusual out here in the U.S, but it was seen as extremely odd when I was a young woman growing up in India, as most countries from the developing world tend to be extremely supportive of women as mothers, and dismissive of those women who are considered “barren,” and either unable or unwilling, to produce offspring. It is a far cry from the sane attitude of some other animal species such as elephants, where the role played by “aunt” elephants is as critical for the wellbeing of the herd as those of the mothers.
The good side of traditional societies is that no eyebrows are raised if a woman decides to discreetly feed her infant in a public place, and women there are adept at doing so. Here in the U.S., on the contrary, it is astonishing to see the brouhaha over this very natural act of a mother. Society appears to have forgotten that the function of the mammary glands is not to titillate the male species but to feed the infants of the species.
But the bad side of traditional societies is that women are expected to yearn to become mothers from the time they are little girls. They are gifted little dolls for this very purpose, which they proceed to treat as their own infants. This is, of course, a worldwide phenomenon and not just specific to my culture. However, what is specific to my original culture is the obsession that families have with parenthood. The pressure placed upon young couples by the husband’s parents even in this day and age is astonishing.
From outwardly innocuous remarks like the jocular “Any good news?” (accompanied by a knowing smile) to the more obvious and semi-reproachful query, “When shall we hear the patter of little feet?” Young couples are pressured to feel that it is their duty to provide children/grandchildren for the aging parents and grandparents. This attitude leads to immense psychological pressure upon couples who are unable to perform their duty and produce offspring upon request. And, of course, it is expected in most patriarchal communities, regardless of religion, class, or caste, that the firstborn be a boy, in order to carry on the family lineage.
No doubt all these attitudes led to a reaction on my part as a rebellious young woman not to have children of my own, or rather, biological offspring. Any man I chose to spend time with would therefore be informed of this decision. Small wonder then that most took to the hills. After all, who would want a wife who was not just an “uppity woman,” but “an unnatural” one, to boot?! I recall the very hurtful comments made by a close male friend back in the days when my biological clock was supposed to be ticking: “You are an unnatural woman!” I managed to cover up my feelings of hurt with a sharp quip, “And you, being a man, know what it feels like to be a woman?!”
But deep inside, I was hurt, very hurt. In weak moments I even asked myself, was it somehow strange of me as a woman not to feel this apparent universal urge to produce offspring? Did it even, in some way, make me a bad woman? When I came upon Simone de Beauvoir’s ruminations on the societal construction of womanhood I began to feel much better about my decision. But how many women of my generation back then had access to such literature in the first place? Most have access only to the sexist diktats of “Manusmriti,” the infamous Codes of Manu, the lawgiver of ancient India, which were enforced by society in general, through the entire extended family, teachers, astrologers, the works.
In my case, a casual visit to the family astrologer ended in disaster when the man concerned pronounced judgment upon my decision to stay single with a sneering accusation. “How selfish of you! You do not care for the suffering of your aging parents!” My polite response that the parents concerned were not suffering but were quite content to let me make my own decisions was met with horror. What kind of woman would behave this selfishly? And how dare she wait so long and refuse all these offers of (arranged) marriage that had come her way? A sure sign of great arrogance! As to the lax attitude of her parents, no doubt this poor upbringing had contributed to her willful behavior. Yes, he did actually say all this even as I was gathering my things to leave in high dudgeon.
As the years went by and I focused on my career in the media and took up what appeared to be a permanent abode on the proverbial shelf, my mother stopped collecting items for my “hope chest,” (Or trunk, if you will, where jewelry, crockery and sundry other items would be collected by mothers for their daughter’s marital homes). The aforementioned “hope chest” became the teasing family joke as “The hopeless chest” as I stayed defiantly single. Any conversation about my getting married or having a child was long dropped, to my great relief. My mother even reassured me once, when I was in my late 30s with a pithy comment: “Marriage is not the be-all and end-all of life, my dear!” When I did eventually decide to get married, her question was, “Are you sure? You seem to be having quite a full and satisfying life as a single woman.”
It is only now, looking back on it, that I realize what an unusual woman she was of her generation, or even of the next generation, to possess such an unorthodox attitude toward life. For women in traditional South Asian society are usually led to believe that it is their bounden duty to get married and then produce children, preferably male. The situation is so fraught that some states in the country’s most patriarchal areas had prevented girl infants from surviving to adulthood, thereby resulting in a marriage crisis as the young men there are forced to acquire brides from other states, sometimes resorting even to the abduction of women.
Amma herself had been brought up by her father to revere education and had been sent to what was then Madras to acquire a degree in Music and Economics. This was during the famous anticolonial Quit India Movement, and my grandfather was very much a part of that movement. The entire family abandoned all Western clothing and wore khadi, following Mahatma Gandhi’s call to the nation. I can only imagine how my mother felt as a young college student, donning that uncomfortable material in the sweltering heat of a tropical summer at a time when air conditioning was not in use in the country. She told us how she envied her classmates, most of whom wore light, summery sarees as they glided blithely across campus.
Amma herself was quite a revolutionary and we loved hearing her stories. My favorite was the one where she was a schoolgirl in a residential school, and the students had to welcome a visiting dignitary, a British official. She promptly decided to drop the welcome song she had originally been primed to sing and instead chanted the revolutionary anti-colonial “Vande Mataram” chant, the ode to the motherland penned by Bengali poet, Bankim Chandra Chatterji in the 1870s.
The first two verses of the poem were adopted as the National Song of India in October 1937 by the Congress party. It had been banned under threat of imprisonment by the British government and chanting it at a public function was revolutionary indeed. I do not recall what punishment had been inflicted upon the young middle schoolgirl for her insubordinate act, but my sisters and I realized the caliber of the woman who was our mother, a woman of steely resolve.
As for me, I decided to become a television journalist, a field that in that era was dominated by men. Here again it was my mother who encouraged me to follow my dreams even if I had to forge my own path. I told her that I would honor her by taking her name as my last name, along with that of my father. I did eventually fall in love with a man who I went on to marry, once I had finished graduate school in the U.S. But we chose not to have children, partly because we were not eager to become parents. I am only too aware of how fortunate I am to have been born into a liberal and supportive family where a woman’s life is not equated to motherhood, but that is not the norm in South Asian society even today. In fact, it has grown worse with the rise of extremist religious groups that have moved from the periphery to the center and send out diktats that the only way to ensure the power of their communities, is for families to ensure that they have numerous offspring, population control be damned.
However, I will add this caveat: I have discovered that society’s expectation of women is not that different even in the “modern, progressive West,” and not just in the developing world. Let us not forget that it is not just in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR that women were forced into motherhood, to produce good Aryan offspring for God and the nation. That was the case in the U.S. too, where — forget abortion— even contraception was banned right into the second half of the 20th century, thanks to the infamous Comstock Act of the late 19th century which prevailed until it was finally removed in 1936, thanks to the crusade of Margaret Sanger.
The position of many world religions too has been that a woman’s duty is to become a mother and produce as many offspring as possible at that. The powerful Far Right movements in the US and across the world have brought in stringent measures to force motherhood on women. We see it in the U.S. where the right wing managed to take the nation back to the dark ages last year by removing the law of 1973 that protected abortion rights in the US, despite protests from feminist organizations across the country. The popularity of Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” now a popular TV series, must be seen in this light. It explores a situation where nubile young women are forced to act as birthers to cater to the demands for offspring in their own society.
Some may argue, saying this is an unfair argument as we do live in a world where women are not forced into motherhood. But what about the covert message of the mainstream media? Indeed, as numerous television serials and Hollywood films continue to show, women who are content with their careers and other pastimes rather than yearning for motherhood are portrayed as unnatural (yes, that word again!)
Yet, somehow the most unnatural woman is redeemed eventually when she goes ahead and births a child. Although there is little support for either the mother or the child once she has gone ahead and had it, working mothers report huge levels of stress trying to juggle work and home without much access to childcare in most jobs. But that is a different story.
Women who have abortions are still represented in a negative light in Hollywood films. Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown may have incurred Dan Quayle’s wrath in the 1990s, for being a single mother. But she was a mother nevertheless, not a woman who had resolved to remain childless, and a content childless woman at that. Even films that masquerade as progressive such as the Indie film “Juno” (2007) have a dark side when they enforce the hegemonic view that woman’s natural calling is to be a mother. That is the case with popular series like “Friends,” too, where abortion is never seen as an option by Rachel Green who discovers that she is pregnant, despite not being prepared for it. After all, God forbid, a popular television series shows a woman rejecting the role of motherhood and getting an abortion.
We may seem to have come a long way since the dark days of “The Feminine Mystique” (1963) when Betty Friedan wrote of the oppressive standards that women were expected to uphold within American society. Women in this part of the world today can do anything, take up any profession, and be whatever they want to be. And yet, as our television serials never cease to remind women, the one thing they deeply yearn for, regardless of all their outward posturing, is to be mothers.
Small wonder, then, that women who have postpartum depression or parental ambivalence even years later feel abandoned by society, as they are made to feel they are not “normal.” After all, its premise is, isn’t it “normal” to feel complete as a woman only when one has become a mother? Perhaps East and West are not so different after all. And mothers who do not enforce motherhood on their children may well be the best mothers of all. “Happy Mother’s Day, Amma!”
Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal received her Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2003. She moved to the East Coast to take up a position as the Director of the then Women’s Studies Program at Westfield State University and is currently in charge of the Women & Gender Studies Minor in the Department of Ethnic & Gender Studies, where she teaches courses that focus on gender issues and religious extremism in South Asia. She has worked with colleagues across campus and helped develop an Asian Studies Minor at the university. Dr. Rajgopal traveled widely across Asia and Europe in her previous avatar as a broadcast journalist and reported for the Indian Television networks and CNN International from various international locations.
Really enjoyed reading this unusual take on Motherhood. Well written.
What a terrific article, Shoba! And what a tribute to your own dear mother on Mother’s Day! One of my aunts was also active in the Quit India movement, wore only khadi from 1942 on, and never married or had children, instead dedicating her energy to the well-being of women and girls, particularly from Dalit or peasant communities . She was a wonderful aunt as well as a role model, and was also the self-appointed family chronicler. I know what a loving aunt you are too, and what a committed teacher. Thank you so much for having written this important and timely piece.