Motherhood as a topic has fascinated me recently. It is such a big part of life but literally nothing that motherhood is expected to be before you have children, is an accurate reflection of what it is actually like to be a mother. The reality of motherhood is taboo. Society has glossed over it with a fantasy of how it should be and how it should feel. The result is that moms end up feeling gas lighted and they end up gas lighting each other. To understand what I mean by this, I have to back up and give you a dose of history. But I must prepare you in advance, much of what I am about to share is such a stark contrast to our modern day way of thinking that it will be hard to even imagine that a human being is capable of what I am about to describe.
Maternal love is something that has been considered to be an absolute of female existence. We are indoctrinated with the idea that love for mothers is not a feeling or a choice but that it is pure instinct. Instinct is something like the fight or flight mechanism. It is inborn, universal and so strong that it is mechanical. But the truth is that maternal love is a human feeling that is imperfect and can be influenced by any number of factors. Variables cause this human feeling to be strong, to not exist or any number of possibilities in-between. Previous to the invention of property ownership, maternal love was still a feeling. There were many instinctual reactions that occurred within a mother towards her child that we could consider more or less animalistic. Things like the urge to cling to one’s child for example after birth and the urge to protect them. These reactions existed for the sake of species survival. But any change in conditions altered the relationship between the mother and child. It was not uncommon during times when food was absent or scarce for the mother to leave the baby to the elements. Even though there is something very special in the bond between mother and child, much of the reaction we have to the idea of a mother doing this to her child is because of the modern ideals we have been educated with rather than some objective morality that seems to be absent in these primitive women.
Property ownership changed everything. Property ownership was what gave rise to the modern family. This is especially the origin of the Western family. Once a man could own property, it became important to establish what people went along with that ownership. The wife and child was property of the man, just like any other object or land or business he possessed. For thousands of years, the father and husband was essentially the authority and held all of the power. A woman had no different status than the minor child. The woman was a slave. Back during this era and before, women were considered to play a secondary role even in conception. Aristotle (one of the foremost thinkers at that time) even said, “Like the earth that must be seeded, her only worth is as fertile ground, a good belly. As she is endowed with only a meager capacity for reflection, her views are of no great loss. Their moral value is to overcome the difficult task of obedience. Her honor and glory is a modest silence”.
The dawn of Christianity was the first glimmer of a change to this idea. One of Christ’s teachings that rocked the world was that the wife-mother was not a slave, but a companion. He sought to make marriage a divine institution. Despite Christ’s direct message, Christian theology, which in fact formed its roots deep in Judaism opposed these teachings. The bible was written in accordance with the social beliefs of that time and therefore strengthened the authority of the father and husband. It portrayed woman as having been created from man (Adam’s rib specifically). And then it portrayed woman as the origin of sin and therefore human suffering by eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Women became a symbol of evil. From the fourth century on, women were portrayed in terms of their penchant for evil. For example, St. Augustine wrote “ Woman is a beast who is neither steady nor stable, full of hatred, nourishing madness. She is the source of all contentions, quarrels and inequities.”
During this time, it was perfectly legal and not even abnormal for a father to put his own child and/or wife to death. It was the Catholic Church that changed this. In the twelfth century the church took the stance that since man is a creation of god, man should not destroy what God had created. The standard practice of abortion, child abandonment and infanticide was directly opposed by the church. However, they could do nothing to stop the rampant practice of child abandonment.
Before the mid 1700s sensitivity towards children was not a societal value. The child did not matter. The child had the least amount of value in the family. The child was not seen as a resource. Children, being born with original sin, were seen as ignorant, capricious and driven by passions. They represented the weakness of the spirit. Goodness was restored through the taming of this inherent sinful nature, which was the aim of upbringing in general. Parenting was entirely oppressive and violent. It went completely against the desires and needs of the child. Maternal softness and nurturing was thought to exacerbate the natural sinful nature of the child and was therefore thought to corrupt the soul of a child. The child was actually seen as a nuisance and even misfortune. According to economic status, the vast majority of children were either pathologically abandoned, abused, treated with indifference, actually physically abandoned or killed as babies.
At this time it was common practice for women to outsource nursing. So common in fact that in the 13oos in Europe, the first agencies for wet nurses opened. The child was a burden regardless of what social class you belonged to. A child made the demands of social life of the wealthy impossible and a child made it so you could not work if you were poor. This gave rise to a social epidemic… Babies dying. The noble women would give up their babies at birth to a nurse because motherhood was not a value, a woman existed merely as fertile ground to bring them forth. Women gained no credit for being mothers despite it being their primary function. And the women who took the money to nurse them would in turn give up their babies to do so. This was such an epidemic problem that in Paris in 1780, out of 21,000 children born, fewer than 1,000 were nursed by their mothers. 1,000 were nursed by live-in nurses (a luxury only available to the super wealthy) and all others 19,000 were sent away to wet nurses. Of those, only 2,000 could afford to send their babies to suburbs of Paris. The rest had to ship their babies off to distant locations where wet nurses were more affordable. This seems sad, but not tragic until you discover that the vast majority of babies sent off to wet nurses died. It was not that indifference showed by women and men towards their children was a form of self-protection because so many of them died. It was that parents showed so little interest in their children that they died in such great numbers. The way that society was set up at that time, made it so that the variables and circumstances of daily life of all the classes, had a huge impact on maternal love. The death of a child was perceived to be almost routine… The reverse of our thinking today. One child in four did not live past a year. The babies who were sent away to wet nurses were often packed into carts like sardines, exposed to extreme cold and heat as well as wind and rain. They were lucky to get milk during that period. Often their bodies were simply returned to the parents. Depending on the season, in Europe, between 5 and 15 percent died en route to their nurses depending on the season. The women who would nurse these babies by profession were often the poorest of the poor. They lived in hovels. They kept the babies tied up in swaddling clothes, sitting for hours in their own excrement for hours and even days, unable to move. The swaddling clothes were so tight; they caused issues with the formation of the babies’ bones. Their poor health made their milk go yellow, bitter and watery. These babies were often lucky to get any milk at all and were not fed on demand. They were fed only at the convenience of the nurses. They were often simply fed a mix of bread which had been pre-chewed to make it a consistency that the babies could ingest. The ingestion of this pre-chewed bread, infested with bacteria from the nurse’s mouths would often kill them. If these babies cried, they were often put to sleep with drugs like laudanum. Four years was the average stay with a nurse even into the 1800s.
The child would soon after coming home from the nurse, be sent off then to neighbor’s families where they would work as servants or apprentices, this was until the beginning of the 16th century, where the boarding school took the place of apprenticeship. The schoolmaster became the replacement for the nurse. These schools were not for the wealthy. They were in fact less expensive than a tutor or governess and they were less expensive than losing a working woman to the tasks of motherhood.
Up to the middle of the 1700’s, society operated in a survival of the fittest way, where children were subjected to the worst conditions possible and through the process of elimination, the weakest links were cleansed from society. This is when suddenly the weak and defenseless became a concern of the state. The state, in need of industry and war became alarmed suddenly at the waste of human life, especially in the first year of life due to the alarming infant mortality rates. It became obvious then that there was only one solution: For women to pick up their neglected duties.
During this time also, abandonment was so common that orphanages were literally overrun. The governments were spending so much money on these children that the only sensible thing to do was to change one’s attitude from seeing these children as a waste to seeing them as an exploitable economic resource. These children were trained to be slaves to the country. It was believed that by giving them a second chance at life, they were obliged to the state. They were therefore trained as soldiers for militia and trained in the most basic life skills so that they may be sent to populate new colonies in places like Canada and America.
It is important to note that at this time, up until the middle of the 18th century, marriage was NOT an affair of the heart. In fact it was greatly looked down on. It was not until the 19th century that it was even considered acceptable to grieve the death of a spouse. In the 18th century, children were treated as dolls, a thing with no soul of its own. Both paternal and maternal relationship with the child was entirely narcissistic. The treatment of the children was a direct result of the incredible inequality shown due to the child’s sex, birth order and any number of other factors involved.
In the middle of the 1700s, thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau launched the idea of a family founded on mother’s love in which there were a concrete collection of obligations that amounted to a mother being a good mother or not. A radical change took place where mothers were told to be mothers first and foremost and were reminded of their obligation to breast feed and care for their children. They accomplished this change in maternal attitude by promising women that their only hope of societal esteem and happiness was to make themselves indispensable to the family and society by being one thing and one thing only: Mothers. Suddenly, they were expected to subordinate their self interest for the sake of their children’s. And they were told that to the opposite, they would suffer grave consequences for neglecting this god given duty. Motherhood became a matter of expected personal sacrifice.
Up until this time, women’s natures were equated to Eve, the original sinner. A diabolical and devious character who must be tamed into right action by men. At this time, women’s natures shifted to be seen as that of the Virgin Mary. A sweet, sensible and self sacrificing character who submitted herself in the name of what was right to the loving care of others. Her ambition would never naturally extend beyond her family. Society began to propagate the idea that it was not only that a woman’s duty was her family but that a woman’s only happiness can and should be being a wife and being a mother. It was her only guarantee of lifelong esteem in the public, solid and secure attachment from their husband and financial security. Women then became the central figure of the home. If a man neglected his duties as a father, it was now her fault. It took several decades however to win women over and convince them to fulfill their societally assigned duties as mothers. At this time, infant mortality rate was still astonishing. Francisque Sarcy, a french journalist, found that out of 25,000 children sent away to wet nurses, 20,000 died due to poor care and supervision.
In the late 1800s, Dr. Joseph Gerard voiced the viewpoint that was so common to this time as well as the frustration with the standard practice of mothers sending their children away from home for their caretaking and education by saying “When a hen lays an egg, she does not yet claim to qualify as a mother. Laying the egg is nothing. The hen’s real virtue emerges when she begins conscientiously to sit on it, depriving herself of her dear freedom… In a word it is when she fulfills her duties as a mother that she truly earns the name of mother.” It begs the question… If the ‘maternal instinct’ was in fact so strong and ‘maternal love’ was such a given of human nature, why did it take so much effort on behalf of society to apply this amount of pressure to women to get them to assume the expected responsibilities that came along with motherhood? What developed during this time is a masochistic expectation of motherhood. And what history shows us is that a mother embraced this societally enforced expectation slower or faster based on her economic situation. The liberation of the child to the perfect care that society now expected meant one thing: the loss of personal freedom of the mother. It was a job that would monopolize her entirely, and if she were to refuse this god given and societal given assignment, she was not considered to be a natural woman or a real mother. Society recognized two distinct type of women, the seductress and the saint. The old mother, who was modeled after the evil of Eve, and the new mother who was modeled after Mother Mary. To be the first, was to be rejected by family, society and country. To be the second was to be esteemed by family, society and country.
In the 1900s, another prominent thinker, a neurologist that is considered to be one of the four fathers of psychology, Sigmund Freud, had a huge impact on the way that society views women and motherhood. A person could write entire books on his positions about motherhood. But to wrap it up in a tight package, one could say that Freud put mothers in an even more impossible place than ever before. But this time, the argument was scientific in its approach. The joke in psychology circles is this: Freud’s position on mothers is simple: Everything is their fault. Freud propagated the idea that improper mothering was the root of psychological problem. That bad mothering is a kind of psychopathological curse that passes from generation to generation. There was now not just religious morality to consider when a woman does not fulfill her natural role of complete devotion to her children, there was medical morality to consider. Despite the fact that Freud discovered a very real phenomena, which is the very real psychological impact of parenting., what Freud managed to ingrain within society was the idea that there was absolutely such a thing as a good mother and a bad mother and that being a bad mother in any small way will destroy the overall health of her child long term. This added a thick layer of anxiety and guilt over the obligation that was already a cloud covering motherhood.
In the 1900s, something else happened to drastically change women’s roles within society. When men went off to two sequential world wars, women were recruited to do many of the jobs that men had vacated. To mobilize them into these roles they were fed the idea that they would gain esteem through being so needed and valued in these roles. They were fed the emotional idea that they were patriotic by doing so. And many jobs were created for them that needed to be filled to support the war efforts. It was expected that they would take far less pay then men in the same positions and this was the beginning of the demand on behalf of women for equal pay. When men returned from war (if they returned that is), it was expected that women would let go of the jobs and revert to their ‘natural place’ by simply going back to their place in the home. Many did not want to. On top of financial motives, the purpose, meaning and esteem they had experienced in their professions during that time felt better than the roles they were fulfilling in the home. They were not ignorant to the fact that even though in previous centuries, motherhood was the role that was promised to bring them esteem and happiness, it was a hollow promise. Society did not hold the position of homemaker and mother to be one of much esteem at all. It was obvious to them that it was the role that was considered to be by far the inferior role within society. Women were not seen as equals at all. Their position was seen as basic and menial. Let’s not forget that in the US, women only won the right to even vote in 1920.
The issue that arose for women when they started to take over the roles that men had vacated is that there was nothing done to relieve them of their duties as mothers and homemakers. They were simply expected to do all of it. At that time, housework was an all-day task. It was a time where all cooking had to be done from scratch and dishes had to be washed by hand. It was before clothes dryers were invented. This included directly caring for the children. It was more than a full time job. It was a job with no off hours. When women took over jobs that men vacated, life looked like a living hell. For example, if a woman had a job on the night shift in a factory, she would work all day doing household tasks, then all night as well. Many of the plants where women worked were forced to set up child care within the facility so these women could even go to work. This is what eventually gave rise to the development of childcare centers. This is the return of child care being outsourced by mothers out of necessity. This is also the origin of gender roles blurring. No person can work a full time job and take care of children, which is another full time job. So women were increasingly speaking out about the need for equal responsibilities within the home and with children. What most people don’t know is that during the world wars, women came dangerously close to being drafted in fact.
In the 1940s to 1970’s, so much focus was placed on post war propaganda to get women back in the home and kitchen and to remind women of their place and to re-instate the late 1700s ideology about women. When they couldn’t convince women to do it, they started forcing them to do it. Their jobs were given back to men, there were huge layoffs as wartime positions were eliminated, plants eliminated childcare facilities. Society sought to simply make it impossible for women to keep working and have a family. But it was too late. Things had changed. There had already been a breakdown of assigned gender roles. The message from society, which was being run by men was clear: “It doesn’t matter what you want, the decision has been made for you… You do whatever we say you do. If we need you to take up jobs, you take up jobs. If we tell you your place is in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant, then that is where it is.” And to put it mildly, women revolted. There was a real division within women between those who accepted and aligned with the idea that a woman’s place is in the home as a wife and mother and those that had their sights set on equality, careers and personal achievement. The feminist movement began. A revolt against the tyranny of women being treated as second class citizens and as if their only right is to be someone’s keeper (husband and children). It was about the barriers being broken down for women.
And here we are today. It is easy to look back through history and to say that so much has changed. But for most women, it doesn’t FEEL like it has. In today’s Western world, we are straddling ideologies. I say that we are straddling because we have not evolved beyond the shift in societal thinking that took place in the middle of the 1700s. We still hold the ingrained idea that for a woman to be a good person, she must be like Mother Mary (the Western archetype of a good woman). She needs to be 100% dedicated to her child and self sacrifice. She is a good woman if loving others and caring for others is her accepted mission. Her personal freedom takes away from her children.
And yet, we have adopted the idea that there is something degrading and without esteem and even embarrassing and anti feminist about being a stay at home mother whose life is dedicated to only homemaking and children with no career. And so, women are between a rock and a hard place. And still, just like during wartime, women are expected to do it all. Women are expected to be 100% dedicated to their children as mothers and compete with men and other women for full time careers and maintain a healthy marriage. There is no way that any person can do this. And so, the atmosphere that mothers have had to become accustomed to living in is guilt… Guilt, guilt and more guilt.
We live in a world today that is so complicated and so expensive that now a day most households simply cannot afford a woman to stay home to be a caretaker even if she really wanted to. And so even though there are men out there who participate equally in the tasks of childcare and home, the growing trend I see arising from many women (and the genuine danger between the genders) in the Western World is that Women are really resenting men and society at large. Women resent men and society for the unfairness of being expected to fulfill their ‘natural’ roles as wives and mothers and still work to bring in income as well. And in this atmosphere of resentment, there is a growing thought I see arising within the minds of women… “Why the hell are men even here? If we are doing everything on our own anyway, there is no purpose for him, especially if he is adding pressure instead of taking it away. At best, he simply provides some additional income for the home and sperm in case one wants to be inseminated.”
This week, I asked my son the question: How are mommies supposed to be? He said "mommies should take care of their children by being super nice to them and trying to do the best they can to help them feel safe and to keep them safe. And they should play with their children. Mommies should make money and so should daddies to make their kids healthy. Mommy and Daddy should split up days to make money and to take care of the kids. Most of all the most important thing is to keep their kids safe". I can’t help but feeling that I wish his vision were the reality. The fact that mothers are so stressed out is not the fault of children. It's the fault of society and what society expects of women. It is the fault of the pressure women are under.
Because society has ingrained women so deeply with the idea that to be good women, they must be good mothers, women are all too terrified to admit to how they really feel about motherhood. There may be a collection out there of women who do not feel the distress of motherhood because taking care of kids is literally the air that they breathe. But most women fall somewhere more in the middle of the scale. For most women, the truth is there is nothing more confusing than motherhood.
From my own experience as well as listening to the experiences of so many other mothers, I can tell you that on the one hand, you feel a connection to your child that is indescribable. You love them so much it feels almost unhealthy to love something that much at times. You want the best for them. On the other hand, you continually feel like providing the best for them is impossible because of everything else that demands your time and energy. You feel the stress of your life corrode the relationship between you and them. You feel like motherhood is the hardest damn thing in your life. So much about parenthood is wonderful and so much about parenthood is terrible that you feel almost stunned. And on top of all this, your children are your biggest mirrors in life. Anything that is unhealed within you and unresolved will reflect in them instantly. So you end up having to face your internal emotional trauma at the same time as care for them to the best of your ability at the same time as trying to make your other relationships flourish at the same time as make money at the same time as making sure that every detail of daily life is in order.
Complexity is the life of a human in today’s world on earth. Complexity is especially the life of a mother. Motherhood gives rise to a plethora of contradictory feelings. Women are all too afraid that if they tell it like it is, they will be seen and treated as bad mothers… Mothers who do not deserve their children. And this is something women cannot bear to be treated like because it is already how they feel. It is already how they feel because it is how society has ingrained them to feel for hundreds and hundreds of years. Guilt has invaded women’s hearts. And women are set up to feel it. They are set up because it is impossible in today’s world (the way it is currently set up) to fulfill all the duties that are expected of women. And when they fail because of it, they believe themselves to be guilty and deficient in some way.
The bottom line trend in the Western World is that women who are mothers live with a kind of unconscious anxiety. They want to be good mothers. They also feel obligated to be good mothers regardless of their true feelings. Their true feelings are buried because they are so ashamed of them, they cannot admit those feelings to themselves much less to anyone else. They do their best to imitate the societal ideal of a ‘good mother’ but that ideal often runs counter to their own happiness and so they ruin their own lives and often the lives of their children because of it. All kinds of shadows lay claim to their relationships because of it. It has created a kind of societal neurosis.
I can’t help but dream of something better than this. I can’t help but hope that even though (as you can see from the first part of this blog) we are in the infancy of women’s equality, we are on the road to something better. I am dreaming of a world where people can wake up to less pressure and get out from this position between a rock and a hard place… A world where a woman having their own ambition is not seen or felt as a ‘taking something away from’ their children. I am dreaming of a world where women don’t have to ‘do it all’. Where there is a healthy way for children, mothers and fathers to have their needs met and to feel as if they do not need to limit themselves in any way or do things out of obligation to do it. I am dreaming of a world where personal freedom and motherhood do not conflict in any way. I am dreaming of interdependence. I am dreaming of a return to tribal society, but this time, a tribe without the shadows that so often come along with ‘tribe’. I am dreaming of a time when women can experience motherhood in its divine expression, out from under the cloud of human projections that we have so tainted it with.