Motherhood: Biological Essentialism vs Cultural Performativity – Discourse Analysis and Paradigm Shift | Adamas University

Motherhood: Biological Essentialism vs Cultural Performativity – Discourse Analysis and Paradigm Shift


Motherhood: Biological Essentialism vs Cultural Performativity – Discourse Analysis and Paradigm Shift

Happy Mothers’ Day to all my friends who feels the emotion of motherhood irrespective of their gender and marital status. I am trying to provide a sociological understanding of motherhood through this blog. Motherhood, by definition, is all-embracing. The identity of complete women is often replaced by motherhood in our society. Under patriarchy, women are only allowed to be mother and women are expected to aspire so. Mothers appear to have mythological and powerful position and if she is mother of son/sons, then she is associated with more powerful and prestigious position. It is one of the central issues of women’s life whether or not she become mother and restrains their available choices.

Motherhood has a direct impact on women’s lives, anyway, whether or not they become mothers. There are many discourses of motherhood depending on biological essentialism and cultural performativity. Motherhood also complicates binary assumptions that identify agency as either reinforcing or resisting the subordination of women. There are many discourses of motherhood-

  1. Expected childbirth vs medical discourse: The ideology of motherhood is stereotyped. Girls are normally socialized from childhood to perform the role of mother after marriage. A heterosexual couple living together is usually anticipated to give birth to children and rear them. The institution of motherhood comprises of various impending role of women as wife, as mother, as daughter-in-law and so on. In whatever economic and powerful position the women belongs to, her ‘real women hood’ is often connected with her social status of motherhood. 

The discourse of motherhood is influenced by patriarchal and religious priorities rather than equality, freedom and dignity. Following Simone de Beauvoir’s famous writing- The Second Sex (1949), we can argue that it is equally a trap that severely limits women’s individual freedom.

In India, patriarchal joint families exhilarated birth of multiple children and preferably male child. But, the health condition of mother or the risks involved in such motherhood are never taken into consideration.  The socialization of women shaped their ideology of motherhood in such a way that they choose to be mother even after being completely aware of their life threat due to pregnancy. India’s maternal mortality ratio (MMR) per 100,000 live births stood at 122 in 2015-17. (SRS, 2016) The major complications that account for nearly 75 per cent of all maternal deaths are- severe bleeding (mostly bleeding after childbirth), infections (usually after childbirth), high blood pressure during pregnancy, complications from delivery and unsafe abortion.  (WHO, 2017).

  1. Biological mother vs Adoptive mother: Women are expected to be mother within a few years after marriage. Women have to face constant pressure from family, relatives, friends and neighbors and in case of any delay of such endeavor the natural capability of giving birth to child is being questioned. The society constructs psychological pressure on the married women which make her unhappy and anxious.  As motherhood is socially constructed as an essential part of adult femininity, infertile wives (not husband) face social stigma. (Ghosh, B, 2016)

And to get rid from this stigma, spouse often takes help of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) for having biological child. Even after knowing economic and physical consequences of ART, a spouse chooses to do IUI or IVF for getting biological child rather than adoption of a child. Adoptive motherhood is often related to status loss and discrimination which is related to labeling, stereotyping and separation.

  1. Sacred and Profane Motherhood: The notion of sacred motherhood related to good mother. The cultural image of good mother relates to the smiling, peaceful, tolerant, attentive and sympathetic caregiver which relates the motherhood with sacred hood. Ideally good mother should be involved with children, always teaching, regulating, and helping out the children at the school, co-curricular activities and play group. On the other hand, women who are having higher aspiration in carrier, more involved in own passion, love and care for themselves are categorized as bad mother i.e profane by nature. The ethical context of a good motherhood often leads women, especially the working mother, worried and being frightened about their performance. Donald Winnicott (1953: 49) has developed the notion of the “good-enough mother” whose “whole life is bound up with the needs of her child”. In contrast, women who are “masculine” or “preoccupied with themselves”
  1. Intensive Mothering vs Balance Mothering: The ideal type of mother should be full time mother, fully engrossed with their children, face all the hurdles for children devoted whole life for nurturing of children without fulfilling her own wish. The intensive mothering often leads to “Hyper-mothering” (Warner, 2005), which is characterized by the increased pressure and expectations for mothers to raise literate, successful children (Sears & Sears, 2002), hold down productive jobs, support their communities, manage a clean and a spacious home in a and not feel stressed while doing it because stress is bad for your baby. In fact, the idealized image of motherhood is challenging to accomplish. It makes women feel guilt, become unhappy, and suffer from anxiety, depression due to failure of balancing between the ideal and the real life. Women who willingly become mothers and take up the care of children, in other words, need not essentially be seen as capitulating to patriarchal stereotypes of domestic femininity. So, motherhood should be balanced between fulfillment of her own choices and achievements in life and nurturing of children.
  1. Identity achievement vs Identity crisis: Motherhood is not always achievement for many women. Mothers have to bear and rare children irrespective of their personal choices which lead to role conflict and often related to domestic violence. Most of the women has to sacrifice their daily life styles or forced to leave jobs even after the provision of maternity leave. The identity in motherhood often leads to identity crisis for many women. They have to negotiate a contradiction between a belief in autonomy as a central part of adulthood and a perception that autonomy is lost with motherhood. (Stephanie Lawler, 2002). Women often face postpartum depression. The global prevalence of postpartum depression has been estimated as 100‒150 per 1000 births.
  1. Normal vs Deviant Motherhood : Usually society encourage women to be motherly through nurturing loving and caring attributes and reject all unusual motherhood  e single, working, hijras, other memers of LGBTQ, unloving, uncaring – mothers as  non-normative and deviant (Stephanie Lawler, 2002).

Paradigm Shift: 

The reality of mothers’ lives, however, often fails to match the “ideal mother” aspirations. Motherhood is not the only defining attribute of women in present society. Women have different identity as working women – teacher, doctor, social worker etc. and also as daughter, wife, friend and many more roles performed by women in everyday life. They are dreamers, creators, partners, homemakers, entrepreneur, mentors, and leaders. Apart from the identity of mother, a woman has many other identities which have to be recognized by the patriarchal society. The women themselves have to belief on their versatile identity and create their complete identity not only by motherhood but also by utilizing and establishing their potential abilities. The experience of motherhood is diverse across cultures, regions, socio-economic status and psychological status which have to be addressed.

 Some of the changes in social construction of motherhood need to be change –

  1. Admire the choice of motherhood
  2. Lingering voices against patriarchal subjugation of women in the name of good or ideal mother
  3. Shifting paradigm of socialization from aspiration of good mother to self-fulfilling, successful in carrier women
  4. Stop seeing parenting as mother’s issue only
  5. Acceptance of single, working mothers, Hijras and other members of LGBTQ with dignity.
  6. Change of popular media content for portraying the image of motherhood

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