Feminists Rediscover Motherhood

A Timeless Role Gains New Advocates

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LONDON, SEPT. 18, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Once considered by feminists as a second-best option, motherhood is gradually gaining favor. In the 1960s and '70s women were urged to cast off the shackles of a homebound drudgery and to seek fulfillment in the workplace. But as increasing numbers of career-minded women delayed or forwent having children, many found that success in the workplace provided only short-term satisfaction.



British author James Tooley, in his 2002 book "The Miseducation of Women," describes how a number of first-generation feminists changed their opinion about motherhood in later years. Tooley, a professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle in England, quotes from Betty Friedan, who already in a 1982 book was admitting that there is a "profound human impulse to have children."

Tooley also notes that leading feminist writer Germaine Greer, who in her 1971 book "The Female Eunuch" despised child-bearing and motherhood, later admitted that she "mourns for her unborn babies," and laments not having had children.

And Tooley quotes from Danielle Crittenden's 1999 book "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: How Happiness Eludes the Modern Women." Crittenden, after the experience of being a mother, wrote of "the single, most profound, life-changing decision" that comes when women decide to have a child.

Maternal desire

A more recent look at motherhood comes in a book published earlier this year, "Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life." Written by Daphne De Marneffe, a clinical psychologist and mother of three, the book looks at the issue of motherhood above all from the psychological perspective.

In spite of her defense of abortion-as-a-mother's-choice, De Marneffe nevertheless seeks to elevate the concept of motherhood. Too often, today's world devalues women who opt for motherhood with "an intransigent insistence that something is lacking in women who spend their time mothering," the preface notes.

Looking after children, De Marneffe admits, involves self-sacrifice. This can be a tricky point for women to negotiate, she explains. Yet, while women make economic sacrifices when they have children, they also experience emotional rewards from nurturing little ones.

De Marneffe calls upon women not to focus narrowly on the moments of sacrifice, which that can involve deferring personal plans or losing control over one's time. Rather, she encourages women to see motherhood within the "deeper goals" involved in parenting. "This process can be one of extraordinary pleasure," De Marneffe explains. Spending most waking, and some sleeping, hours with children and dedicating oneself to making children happy leads to "enormous gratifications."

Moreover, motherhood is not just about pleasure and feeling good, she continues. "It is also grounded in a sense of meaning, morality, even aesthetics." A life dedicated to raising children not only expresses a mother's ideals and ethical goals, but also, in spite of the daily fatigues, says "something intrinsically meaningful" about overcoming these problems in the process of caring for children.

Feminism and motherhood

Feelings run high on how to reconcile the value of motherhood with feminism, De Marneffe observes. Many feminists have concentrated on seeking to free women from the household in order to integrate them fully in the world of business and politics. Too often, she observes, these efforts have "oversimplified women's desire to mother and assigned it to a generally backward-looking, sentimental view of women's place."

This tendency has contributed to a "general social devaluation of caregiving, a devaluation with economic and psychological effects." De Marneffe contends that feminist books too often consider the desire to care for children "as something of a detail or correctable condition." A mother's desire to care for children, and the promotion of political means to facilitate this, "should also be on the feminist agenda," she argues.

While criticizing this aspect of feminism, De Marneffe also dissociates herself from what she terms "traditionalist ideology." She seeks, rather, a midpoint between those who deny a mother's need to care for children and those who would exclude women from any interests outside their children.

Overcoming difficulties

De Marneffe is realistic when it comes to motherhood. The joys aroused by children can easily evaporate in the face of everyday problems. Moreover, coercion, poverty and emotional problems can also lead to serious problems for mothers. As well, mothers can often be torn by competing desires, and adapting work goals and career choices to having children is not easy.

Part of De Marneffe's book looks at how women cope with the tensions of staying at home with children or going out to work, and the subsequent worries of child care. Too often, she laments, the workplace leaves women with little flexibility in terms of reconciling motherhood with a career. Torn between their children and work, mothers are also prey in recent years to a constant flow of books and theories about the possible effects of leaving their children in the hands of others. And generally, the higher up the career ladder they go, the less possibility women have of carving out sufficient time for their children.

"It seems we can't manage to conceptualize the interdependence of mothers' and children's well-being in a way that feels respectable or consistent with women's progress," concludes De Marneffe.

She notes that in the past she has been on both sides of the debate over child care, but in recent times favors the view that spending more time with children is important. On a personal note she cites her own experience when, faced with a growing number of children, she cut back on work commitments to spend more time mothering, while at the same time retaining a certain level of professional activity.

Letter to bishops

Motherhood was one of the themes addressed in the letter to bishops published by Congregations for the Doctrine of Faith last July 31. The "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World" observes that "Among the fundamental values linked to women's actual lives is what has been called a 'capacity for the other'" (No. 13).

In spite of what the letter terms "a certain type of feminist rhetoric," women nevertheless "preserve the deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions which elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection of the other."

This capacity, continues the letter, "is a reality that structures the female personality in a profound way. It allows her to acquire maturity very quickly, and gives a sense of the seriousness of life and of its responsibilities. A sense and a respect for what is concrete develop in her, opposed to abstractions which are so often fatal for the existence of individuals and society."

The letter is careful to note that women should not "be considered from the sole perspective of physical procreation," even if motherhood "is a key element of women's identity." Looking at women from an exclusive viewpoint of "biological fecundity" is "often accompanied by dangerous disrespect for women."

The letter also defends policies that seek to eliminate unjust sexual discrimination in education, work, the family and civic life. At the same time, "The defense and promotion of equal dignity and common personal values must be harmonized with attentive recognition of the difference and reciprocity between the sexes where this is relevant to the realization of one's humanity, whether male or female." Motherhood and feminism may yet find they more in common than many reckon.