Motherhood is a stage in the life of a woman. It is not a defining characteristic, the sole purpose or the only “correct” way of experiencing womanhood. Yet, for centuries, motherhood has existed side by side with womanhood; often overriding its very definition and negating those experiences of being a woman that are not in conjunction with the socially constructed idea of motherhood.
Women are made to prepare for motherhood right from their childhood. It comes in the form of remarks from family members made in jest; young girls playing with dolls and “kitchen sets” are lauded on their potential as exemplary homemakers and mothers. As a kid, one of my favorite games to play was one in which I pretended that my dolls were my own children and I took care of them. As expected, that invited countless remarks from my relatives telling my mother how I already have learnt the ropes of being a good mother. It is also interesting to note that one of the primary aspects of the relationship between a mother and her daughter involves the passing on of good mothering skills. Even female relatives are part of this collective project of making good mothers out of girls. I remember how my aunt would often ask me to accompany her in the kitchen while she cooked food for the family. She’d tell me how her mother did the same with her and prepared her to be a good homemaker. Since she only had a son (who of course, did not require to be trained in any of these skills!), she took it upon herself to pass on this knowledge to me. What is important to note here is that sometimes the act of mothering extends beyond the child and applies to the entire family. A mother is expected to be nurturing not just to her children, but to the entire family unit.
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In the Indian society, the above norms are reinforced through different forms of media as well. There are undoubtedly several examples in the film and television industry of the ever-sacrificing maternal figure who gives everything up for the sake of her family and her children. This figure exists alongside the archetypal Fallen Woman- the selfish woman who chose not to have a family and children; the one who failed to fulfill her purpose of being a dutiful, nurturing, tender mother, and by extension, a “good woman”.
A closer look at the advertisements churned out will reveal how the idea of the woman as a maternal figure is further established. If one notices carefully, advertisements for products commonly used in households always have a maternal figure as a comparison to it. Think of the the healthy cooking oil that has no cholesterol and thus, reduces risks of cardiac diseases. The liquid soap that kills 99.99% germs, the toothpaste that contains the choicest ingredients that one can trust, the detergent that cleans every mark, the spices that make food taste so much better and literally every single advertisement for baby products. All of these have a woman advertising the respective products. And it’s not just any woman. It’s always the caring, genteel, loving, nurturing, responsible mother who only has the best interests of her children and family members at heart. What else could be more important to a woman anyway? Thus, the idea that a woman may choose not to have a child is practically unimaginable, it is a concept that the Indian society has still not reconciled itself with.
A woman who is childless by choice is simply exercising her agency over her own body. Just like a woman has the right to consent whether or not she wants to engage in sexual activities, she also has the right to choose whether she wants to be a mother or not. Forcing a woman into motherhood is just another means to oppress her and deprive her of bodily agency. A common argument that is proposed to women who don’t want to have babies is that they’ll eventually change their minds; that they’re still too young to make the decision; or that one day they will wake up and regret their decision, and by then it will be too late to do anything about it. Not only is this line of argument extremely patronizing and paternalistic, but it also means that women are judged based on the intensity of their so-called maternal instincts. Women are not just meant to be baby-making machines; the ability to create life is indeed magical, but it is not the sole purpose for which a woman exists. It is a conscious choice that a woman makes, and she has every right to choose otherwise.
Women who opt for being childless by choice are often painted as selfish women driven solely by their career goals. They are painted as anomalies- their lack of “maternal instinct” makes them, somehow, lesser than and inferior to women who do. Here is my attempt to breakdown this argument. First of all, there exists scientific evidence to prove that the maternal instinct in human beings is actually a drive. An instinct is something that is hardwired, irresistible, automatic. According to the defining guidelines laid down in 1961, a behavior that qualifies as an instinct requires no training, is unmodifiable and occurs in all individuals of a species. Clearly then the maternal instinct does not fall under this classification. Dr. Gillian Ragsdale, biological anthropologist and psychology professor at Open University, United Kingdom, has stated that if a woman chooses to not become a mother then the biological changes that occur during motherhood will not take place either. So, maternal “drive” as Dr. Ragsdale calls it, is attributed to hormones. It is influenced by several factors, like pregnancy, and usually kicks in once the offspring is in front of them, sometimes not even then. Thus, maternal drive is not inevitable; it is cultivated through several factors, such as social conditioning since childhood.
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Assuming women as natural caregivers then becomes problematic. Not only does it set unattainable standards for them, it restricts them to predetermined gender roles. A woman who is forced into motherhood will not only regret her entire life if the maternal drive fails to kick in, but it will also have adverse long term effects in the development of the child. If a woman who doesn’t want children now does decide to have them later in life, as many argue is bound to happen, then there are several other options apart from biological childbirth. This is a much kinder option than realizing after childbirth that you don’t want your child. It puts undue pressure on the mother who begins comparing herself to idealistic notions of motherhood and beats herself up over not living up to them. At the same time, the child is deprived of a healthy relationship with their mother and an environment that is conducive to individual growth.
A woman may choose to be childfree, or childless by choice for a multitude of reasons. One of the frequently cited reasons is the unavailability of proper paid maternity leave. While some form of parental leave is provided by most countries, the effectiveness of it is often not accounted for. Many women are unable to return back to their original jobs or miss out on important promotion prospects either because of familial expectations of prioritising the child, or because they themselves are unable to put in as much time as they previously did. The neoclassical labor market model predicts that if the cost of hiring women in their childbearing increases (either due to paid parental leaves or absence from work during leave), then there will be a decline in the demand for women in the labor market. For many women, juggling a full time job and a child may be difficult to handle. It is perfectly okay for her to choose one over the other (patriarchal societies usually prefer those who choose child-rearing), instead of struggling with both. On the other hand, women may not have access to the necessary resources for bringing up a child. Many choose to not have children because they may not be able to provide a certain level of financial security to the child. And many just simply don’t find motherhood as fulfilling as others do; maybe they’d rather spend their savings on a trip that they had been planning on forever. And all of these reasons are valid simply because of the fact that a woman has the right to exercise her autonomy and agency over her own body.
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Mythologizing the woman as a natural caregiver and maternal figure is just another example of the many gender roles society expects women to fulfill. It limits the scope of womanhood, dismissing those who choose to opt out of the lived experiences of motherhood. A woman is much, much more than an embodiment of maternal love and it is time the world realized that.
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