4ZZZ | Institutional Motherhood

I’m a volunteer producer for the radio show, Only Human on 4zzz Zed Digital in Brisbane. You can find our podcasts here. This week I had to write two stories about the effect of “motherhood” on the mental health of women. We interviewed Aleksandra Staneva, a Brisbane-based academic whose work focuses on the differences between the expectations and realities of motherhood, and how these affect all women. Here are my stories:

  1. Institutional motherhood in Of Woman Born

Adrienne Rich uses the term “institutional motherhood” to describe the how women are demanded of maternal ‘instinct’ rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realisation, and relation to others rather than the creation of self. Though This book was published in 1976, it still applies today – nothing has changed. Women are still experiencing motherhood as an institution, as a set of rules and regulations imposed by outsiders. One of the main ideas Rich explores is the myth of the good mother.

There is no human relationship where you love the other person at every moment. But mothers have been supposed to love that way. When mothers don’t feel like they’re being constantly loving, it creates a sense of ambivalence, wondering if other mothers are happier more patient, skilled, and selfless. This myth regulates women, even if they choose to defy it because it was a choice that they had to actively think about.

Another issue Rich explores is fact that child-rearing is so heavily placed on women – there is an enormous pressure on mothers to be perfect as they are blamed for anything that goes wrong with their children. Take it from the recent incident at Cincinnati Zoo, where the three-year-old boy ended up in a gorilla’s enclosure, and the gorilla ended up dead. Maybe there is blamed to be doled out and maybe there isn’t. Even so, the mother has faced a lot of scorn. Some have said they should have shot the mother instead of the gorilla. The father on the other hand, received almost no criticism, despite his presence at the scene.

Motherhood is high pressured and intensive. If a woman must be a helicopter mom, which is often the standard, what is left? What energy would remain for her to love and enjoy her children? Where is her time to find personal fulfilment in order to be a good role model for her children? Rich wrote, “A mother’s victimisation does not merely humiliate her, it mutilates the daughter who watches her for clues as to what it means to be a woman.” Institutionalised motherhood holds women to impossible standards and teaches our children that women are not people but servants, set up to fail.

To sum up, mothers are not perfect and the institution of motherhood does not help with our perception of motherhood, nor the pressure women still feel from this deeply internalised view.

     2. Child-free: Motherhood as a standard

A recent study by Zoe Krupka reports that more than seven per cent of western women choose not to have children. This statistic is set to grow as society develops and women have more freedom of choice. In a workplace discrimination report, Anna Byrd found that women who choose not to have children are often overtly labelled as “selfish, damaged, cold-hearted, shallow, overeducated and greedy.”

Other researchers found that Australian women experience social exclusion if they choose to remain childless. While all childless women experience exclusion to some degree, women who have consciously and publicly rejected the role of motherhood are at the greatest risk of social disconnection. The fact that women have to write articles, explaining and justifying themselves, redressing dialogue around the choice to not have children is telling of the ideals we place on women, and the way society still tries to control our autonomy.

Many writings on the choice to remain child-free actually challenge the labels and myths surrounding their choice. If we actually listen to these women, we find that the deciding factors are not a hate for children, the cost of children, the lack of childcare, parental leave nor the loss of superannuation. It’s just the desire of a certain kind of life. To be criticised and policed for this is simply not fair.

It should be noted that for many women the choice to remain childless is still an ideal rather than a reality. Just over forty per cent of pregnancies worldwide are unplanned, many being unwanted. There is a plethora of reasons for this, including access to contraception, domestic violence, social pressure and lack of information.

The statistic speaks volumes about how hard it still is for women to be free to make personal decisions about their own bodies. The conversations around not only voluntary childlessness, but also abortion, older or teenage mothers, and anything that does not fit into the expectations of motherhood continues regulate the behaviour of women. Women who are fortunate enough to voluntarily reject motherhood play an important part in challenging rigid and unforgiving gender roles. Listening to them will help us understand the oppressive binding of womanhood and motherhood, and help society move forward.



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