Why motherhood is not a job
If we want women’s equality to be part of the big picture of a mothers’ movement, it may be necessary to start from scratch and begin to imagine new possibilities for the meaning of motherhood, mothering, and caregiving in our society. The task at hand is to build a legitimate case for social change without resorting to sentimentalizing or idealizing the practice of mothering, and without minimizing the social significance and emotional complexity that motherhood adds to the lives of women who mother. In seeking common ground for collective action, we might begin by questioning whether there are any universal aspects of maternal experience. Based on my study of motherhood as a social issue and my experience of corresponding with hundreds of mothers over the past few years, I’m convinced there are a least two: Becoming a mother changes you, although it doesn’t change every mother in exactly the same way; and all women who mother are disadvantaged by the cultural and social circumstances under which they must mother, but not all are disadvantaged in exactly the same way, or to the same degree.
I’ve been accused of alienating potential supporters of the mothers’ movement by suggesting that motherhood is not, in fact, "the most important job in the world." And to be perfectly honest, I don’t think it is. I don’t think motherhood is a “job”— or a profession, or career— at all, although there's no denying that mothering entails a prodigious amount of mental work and physical labor. And when I criticize the valorization of motherhood and magical thinking about women’s power to change the world through conscious acts of responsible mothering, some readers may find me unsympathetic and pity my poor children for having such a hard-hearted mom.
To tell the truth, I have very deep and passionate feelings about the meaning of motherhood in my own life and the lives of other women who mother. That’s why I’m doing this work. It’s also why I’m so forthright in my rejection of pre-packaged narratives of motherhood that— based on both my personal experience and the view from my critical eye— are contrived to conceal, rather than reveal, the social and emotional value of motherhood and mothering.
My therapist (may a thousand blessings rain down upon her head) has always insisted that motherhood is not a job— it’s a relationship. And in my mind, thinking and talking about motherhood as a relationship— rather than a system of social reproduction, or a duty, or a vocation— is one way we might start to compose a rich new script for motherhood, a script that honors the possibility of complexity and variation in mothers’ inner lives, individual outlooks and aspirations.
If we locate motherhood and mothering in the context of relationship, we can still talk about love, work, desire and obligation, but we might be able to talk about these things in a more authentic way— or at least without feeling as though there is only one right answer to the question of what it means to be a mother. After all, interpersonal relationships do give rise to the impulse and obligation to care, although the strength of the impulse and the intensity of the obligation usually depend on the tenderness of the attachment, and the nature of the needs of the person we’re attached to. Because caring for others is not always easy or spontaneous, caring relationships put us in touch with the intricacies of our own emotional clockwork— and in this way, they can alter us. They can lead to new awareness of ourselves and others around us; they push us to grow. And this is just as true for the care-giver as it is for the cared-for.
When we look at motherhood as a relationship, we have an opportunity to weave a more mother-centric story to explain why becoming a mother can be a profoundly transformative experience, and why it never transforms every mother in precisely the same way— because when we conceive of motherhood and mothering as relationship, we’re describing an individual process, not a monolithic one. (Or as Jesse Bernard suggests, “Motherhood may work miraculous changes in women, transforming at least some of them into a close approximation of the model, or a close facsimile thereof, but for the most part women enter motherhood with the full complement of human virtues and defects, as various as all other living beings, and they remain different to the end.”)
Perhaps if we begin to think of motherhood as something other than a job, we might discover a new way to acknowledge that motherhood is an ending— the ending of a woman’s life as not-a-mother— and also a beginning, not of a different life, but of a changed one; a life that’s still full of open-ended and unexpected possibilities as well as added responsibilities. When we start talking about motherhood as a relationship, we— women, mothers— take ownership of it. And by the way, fatherhood is also a relationship, not a “role,” and it’s about time we started talking about the meaning of that, too.