(This is a slightly edited version of a post that first appeared on The Iron-On Line)
Complete the following: “A mother is…”
a) An embodiment of what it means to be feminine.
b) Someone who gives birth.
c) A female parent.
Depending on the context, b) or c) could be the appropriate response. c) includes adoptive mothers, which I think makes it a better fit to what we usually understand by the term, but it’s not hard to think of a context where b) would be a better fit.
I’m very suspicious of a). The linking of motherhood and femininity is so intrinsic in some people’s minds that it seems insane to question it, but I’m questioning it. Motherhood as an ideal is only linked to femininity as an ideal because our culture has defined it thus. And therein lies the danger.
Some of the most painful emotional abuse I’ve suffered in relationships has come from men who see their mothers as goddesses on lofty pedastals. They respect women only to the extent that these women match the divine example set by their mothers. Any deviation from this, and the respect vanishes.
That’s the harm on an individual scale. On a cultural scale, the idea that any woman who is a fit mother will automatically be classically feminine hurts every woman who struggles to fit into the mould. Women who choose not to become mothers are seen as denying their femininity, hence the ubiquitous question, “But aren’t you worried you’ll be unfulfilled?” Women who are incapable of bearing children are objects of pity.
For those who choose motherhood but reject classical femininity, the world’s judgement can be even harsher. If a woman raises a child alone, whether through choice or acceptance of necessity, she cannot be classically feminine enough to satisfy certain groups. “Children need fathers” not just to provide them with positive male role models, so the logic goes, but also to protect their mothers from having their femininity – and therefore their motherhood – eroded by adapting to the practicalities of life.
And why is it so horrifying to consider a lesbian having a child by artificial insemination? Or even – God forbid – a trans man giving birth? It attacks the link between femininity and motherhood; it calls into question whether this link is really as intrinsic as it once seemed. And that’s an uncomfortable line of thought to go down; far easier to say that “those people” shouldn’t be allowed to have children.
When I first started to explore the question of gender identity in my fiction, I was drawn to the idea of an amazon-mother, a woman so masculine that her motherhood becomes masculine by contact with it. It has always fascinated me, and I’m sure it will continue to fascinate me as I move up into this category myself. Come November, barring miscarriage or other disaster, I will be a mother in sense b). To the extent that I’m female, I’ll also be a mother in sense c), although I probably won’t be in a hurry to pin that label on myself any more than I use any other female-specific label.
I will not be a mother in sense a). For the sake of my sanity and the sake of my baby, I’ll save my energy for the tasks that are not futile from the outset.