»Motherhood-Mothering-Mathering-Mother-Mother Love-Mother Instinct-Biological Mother-Sociological Mother-Surrogate Mother-Motherliness-Rabenmutter-Bad Mum-Mother Mary-Mother Tongue-Maternity leave-Muttermund-Mother’s Day-Mutterkreuz«
On October 7 & 8, I attended a conference at the University of Marburg about motherhood. This sparked my interest because I am working on a project concerned with motherhood and its position and power within Western European societies. The conference title was »Motherhood – Between Construction And Experience« and it was hosted by the psychologist and psychoanalyst Helga Krüger-Kirn and the psychologist Laura Wolf.
Recently I’ve been reading Elisabeth Badinter’s works on motherhood where she reveals the historical dimensions of mother love, mother instinct, and mothering. So I felt like I was well prepared to attend the conference. Indeed the name Badinter was dropped many times and it seemed like everybody had read her.
However, during the conference it was still necessary to constantly remind ourselves of the strong historical component in everything concerning motherhood. The main problem here in my opinion is the concept of the so-called mother instinct. The term instinct has a powerful deterministic effect that has been burned into our minds.
»If a mother does not have mother love for her offspring it is seen as an abnormality and pathological.«Jasmin Schädler
Challenging this term is connected with a lot of taboos. The first and most important reflex sparked by the mother instinct is the mother love. I grew up with the belief – especially propagated by my own mother – that mother love is something natural, unconditional, and irrevocable. If a mother does not have mother love for her offspring it is seen as an abnormality and pathological.
Looking Back at Motherhood Historically
The second strong pillar of motherhood is the belief that motherhood, the female body, and being a woman are closely linked. It is one of the most difficult heteronormative concepts to tackle and dissolve.
Looking back in history will show us that not so long ago, motherhood was in the way of the societal duties of women. In western European societies in the 17th and 18th centuries almost no children stayed with their biological mother right after birth (across all social classes), but were instead handed over to so-called wet nurses. What is interesting here is that the term wet nurse shows no resemblance or connection with the word mother but only to the actual task of nourishing. This becomes especially interesting when we look at the discussion about surrogate mothers. Here the motherhood of the woman who carries the child to term (I specifically do not use giving birth in this case) is strongly and quite emotionally debated. 250 years ago the woman who breastfed a child and brought it up for the first five years of its life was never linked to motherhood.
»The status quo is – and so it also happened at the conference – to talk about motherhood, pregnancy, and being a woman in one go.«Jasmin Schädler
A very important change in how we approach motherhood is the re-discovery of planned motherhood through legal abortions and contraception. I am referring to Simone de Beauvoir here, when I say re-discovery. She mentions in The Second Sex that the knowledge about contraception has been voluntarily mystified and made inaccessible.
In the contemporary societies in which women have access to both – contraception and abortion, having a child has a very different meaning than it had when it was unavoidable unless a woman was living chastely.
Today in many countries it is a choice to have a child – not to say that it is without taboos to decide against it. Talking about abortions is far from being a common place in the countries where it is legal. And to stay willingly childless is also the source of many questions – too often it is accompanied by blaming the woman for not having children instead of just accepting her choice or condition.
On the other side when somebody decides to have a child the expectations of being a good parent are much higher. Yet, the disappointment if it does not work out as planned is also amplified.
Motherhood And Feminism
But let’s get back to the conference. All these thoughts mentioned above are reasons why this conference happened in the first place. One common desire of all attendees – there were approximately 30 people attending from the fields of psychology, psychoanalysis, social sciences, educational science, political science, gender studies, communication & media studies, anthropology, law, film directing and theater directing – was to discuss the terminology of motherhood and to start looking for new terms. The status quo is – and so it also happened at the conference – to talk about motherhood, pregnancy, and being a woman in one go.
The very first talk by the sociologist Samira Braig was already pointing this out. Samira Braig suggested to unlink these concepts. She explained that the motherhood discourse is connected to the binary split of the sexes and therefore womanhood and motherhood are linked.
Yet, somebody who brings a child to term does not necessarily need to define her/himself as a woman or mother. For people who are close to gender studies this seems to be an obvious consequence. For others it might seem odd since this was always the one thing that truly separated men and women and helped to keep up these categories. If we enter this discussion from the other side, namely from the perspective of people who define themselves as women but are unable to have children, it seems clear. Why would anybody take away their right to define themselves as women?
»The inability to give life has severe effects on some women – partially connected to the reactions they receive from their social environment, which often tries to blame them.«Jasmin Schädler
However, as seen throughout the last talk of the conference, an interview based study about involuntarily childless women by psychologist Karin Deis, many women in this situation feel disconnected from their bodies and limited through it. The inability to give life and to leave something behind that perpetuates after one’s death has severe effects on some women – partially connected to the reactions they receive from their social environment, which often tries to blame them.
One woman she interviewed said: »I often don’t know where to direct my love to.« Some think of themselves as functionless. Some replace their wish for children with rituals like rose gardens with a rose bush for every unborn or miscarried child. The fact that they are unable to have children or missed the chance to try exerts psychological and societal pressure in them.
For me these observations open up the question »What do we have children for?« – personal fulfillment, immortality, to feel useful within society, to perpetuate humanity?
Another very important part of the discussion was the question about the relationship between motherhood and feminism. This topic was also introduced by Samira Braig who gave a condensed overview of the feminist movements and their relationship with motherhood. Starting from the first wave where they opposed each other, to the second wave where motherhood was revalued, followed by the post-structural approach that dissolves the binary split of the sexes as mentioned above already. Yet most of the time the discussions were struggling between opposition and revaluing, mainly because that is the struggle most women and mothers face and observe everyday.
Motherhood in The Media
Two talks which observed these tendencies, dealt with parental guidebooks and the representation of mothers in print media. The first one by Beatrice Hungerland showed the changes of expectations towards West-German mothers throughout the 20th century. It started with the post-war-mother who was expected to reestablish the social order by clinging to the bourgeois family ideal and reproducing the NS mother image due to lack of rehabilitation. This was followed by early childhood learning in the 1970s, when mothers were expected to prepare their children for the democratic society and the capitalist market through intellectual encouragement. In the 1980s the ideas from the 68 movement were introduced into mainstream parenting. Children were seen as innocent creatures who could show the adults the path to a better world. Therefore the mothers were expected to react to the needs of their children, which reduced their independence especially due to breastfeeding on demand. The last movement Beatrice Hungerland included was dated to the 2000s and stressed the idea that mothers should stay independent but also be fulfilled through their child. She closed with the observation that today children are seen and handled as the performance of their mothers.
»Children were seen as innocent creatures who could show the adults the path to a better world. Therefore the mothers were expected to react to the needs of their children…«Jasmin Schädler
Natalie Berner analyzed articles from the German newspapers Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Süddeutsche Zeitung that talked about motherhood related issues. She found that most of the time the articles were written by female academics, often without children. The area of conflict was between carrier mother and the compatibility/have-it-all lie as well as between child-well-being and regretting motherhood. She described it as the ideological arena of motherhood and suggested that the media not only reflect present concepts of motherhood but also create them.
Another media related talk was given by Merve Winter who investigated motherhood in the American TV series Homeland. During the third season the series shows the main character, a CIA agent, struggling with motherhood. She avoids it and only tries to be a mother when forced to by others. In one scene she even considers to drown her daughter until in the end she accepts her motherhood. Merve Winter analyzed the behavior of the character as a psychologist showing when we can empathize with the protagonist’s actions and when not. The discussion that followed was trying to make out if the character went through a postnatal depression, if her reaction was normal or completely pathological. However, what impact this portrayal of motherhood might have on the audience was not focused upon. Merve Winter mentioned that fans of the series were complaining in online commentaries that this part of the story was only slowing down the actual plot and was irrelevant. This indicated that motherhood is an annoying side effect and in the way of action in the eyes of many.
Motherhood and Self-Determination
Very important for the concept of motherhood is of course the moment when the person carrying the child to term and the fetus are separated into two entities. This is not anymore the day of the birth where they are also physically separated but has shifted far into pregnancy.
»A pregnant person is expected to subdue to very strict rules of living as not to harm the unborn.«Jasmin Schädler
Tina Jung was discussing this issue during her talk about self-determination in relation to birth and obstetrics. She explained how the pregnant body has become a threat to the unborn due to seeing them as separate entities very early on. A pregnant person is expected to subdue to very strict rules of living as not to harm the unborn. Today the pregnant person is no longer expected to only listen to the personal somatic sensations but has to rely on a medical-technical system. Tina Jung investigated how this shift took place. Her thesis is that due to the pressure on the pregnant person to have full responsibility for the wellbeing of the unborn the best way of assurance is the medical surveillance, which leads to a downgrade of the somatic sensation. She calls this surrender to the system of birth due to expropriation of reproductive abilities. The female body becomes a public place controlled from the outside. Tina Jung closed her talk with the observation that the sensual bodily aspects become invisible through the separation of motherhood and birth and she asked how we can talk more about the bodily aspects without becoming essentialist. In the feminist discourse essentialism refers to the claims based on biological differences, such as the ability to give birth.
This more general talk was followed by a series of interview-based case studies starting with Anna Sieben’s talk about the tension between rationalization and romanticism within motherhood. Her research is based on the popularization of John Bowlby’s attachment theory – people are in need of close relationships with others. She observed how mothers claim an expertise for themselves, which they deny the fathers. And fathers fear to be unable to offer their children appropriate activities and engagement. She makes a case that motherhood is the new romantic love. In accordance to attachment theory mothers are looking for the experience of attachment yet are uncertain how much they can expect from the relationship with their children. Since children are not equal partners and are quite unpredictable the expectations are often disappointed. Anna Sieben mentioned that many women seem to have a need to make up for a close relationship to the child they think they missed during the pregnancy. This seems to be due to the violence of the birth and the unconsciousness – fear of harming the child and inability of control, some women experience.
»Especially female academics experience a strong conflict between wanting to have a fulfilling career and being a fully available mother.«Jasmin Schädler
Katharina Mannhart followed with a discussion of her findings related to motherhood between traditional and modern expectations. Her interview partners all put family first in their lives. Due to an overwhelming amount of advice the women she interviewed focused on their intuition and started to ignore everything coming from outside to focus on their own path. One main aim was to make intensive time with their children possible next to all the other responsibilities they had, especially work.
Tina Kleinkamp discussed motherhood among academics and how there are no tested and reliable models of motherhood which cater their needs. She interviewed heterosexual academics couples during and 1,5 years after the pregnancy. Especially the female academics experience a strong conflict between wanting to have a fulfilling career and being a fully available mother. The moment they decide to become pregnant is usually well planned. They want to experience what it is like to be a mother. For those couples the tension between equality and naturalism is especially strong. Full equality is always aimed for but never realized due to its complexity. It is also hindered by reappearing biological arguments as the mother-child-attachment, hormones and instincts and obligated breastfeeding. Breastfeeding especially is connected to ideological thinking she noted. The rule of all or nothing applies often and keeps parents from mixing breastfeeding with bottle-feeding. The conclusion they draw is that fathers can only help but not fulfill the early child caring tasks.
»When one is expected to put the family first and to breastfeed 100%, it is difficult to admit that neither is what one wants.«Jasmin Schädler
Tina Kleinkamp also observed that many women are not willing to share the intense experience of the first months by splitting parental leave. They say “I am allowed to care for our child” instead of “I have to care for our child”. In the end the solution is more about functioning than about equality. However, they look upon child rearing as a biological exception that will pass as soon as the child enters a care taking facility.
Tina Kleinkamp closed with the observation that many see motherhood as the reflection of the inner self and therefore it is hard to share.
One major point that was made in reaction to these interview-based talks was that during these investigations and interviews many are reluctant to talk about taboos including real unhappiness with the situation and expectations . When one is expected to put the family first and to breastfeed 100%, it is difficult to admit that neither is what one wants.
One participant mentioned that collective breastfeeding for example has died out. She used to take turns breastfeeding with friends who also had babies at the same time. Most of us were very surprised to hear that this was a common practice – individualism seems to have swallowed it. Of course women need to have the right to breastfeed their children and of course the options for maternal leave are not supporting this very much – yet it is surprising that there only seem to be two options. There is a great need of diversifying the topic of breastfeeding.
»The first (lesbian) couple was planning to have two children from the same sperm donor. During the interview the one who had given birth told her partner that she will love the child she will give birth to herself in a different way than she loves her child now.«Jasmin Schädler
In contrast to the observation of heterosexual parenthood Janine Schallat investigated lesbian parenthood. Before the question of splitting parental leave is discussed among these couples they have to decide who is going to give birth to their child. Janine Schallat reported about two couples where in one both wanted to give birth and in the other only one woman wanted to give birth. The first couple was planning to have two children from the same sperm donor. The older of the two women had the first child. During the interview the one who had given birth told her partner that she will love the child she will give birth to herself in a different way than she loves her child now. This is an obvious reproduction of the idea that unconditional love is only possible through biological motherhood. The ideas of mother love and mother instinct are even reproduced within some untraditional family concepts. The second couple where only one partner wanted to give birth did not differentiate between biological and social motherhood.
A Real Mother
One of the participants, the filmmaker Antonia Hungerland, is in the process of creating a film with the working title Eine Richtige Mutter (A Real/Proper Mother). With her film she is investigating the fragmentation of motherhood – biological , social, and surrogate motherhood. She sparked a discussion among a group of participants for her film that gave space to many thoughts about new concepts of motherhood and the challenges and benefits of »fragmented motherhood.« Today it is easily possible for a child to have three mothers: the genetic mother who donated the egg, the surrogate mother who carried the child to term, and the social mother –who initiated this life in the first place through her wish to have a child – who then raises the child. Since in Germany egg donation as well as surrogate motherhood are illegal the discussion was very much focused on trying to understand why motherhood and fatherhood are categorized so differently – sperm donation is legal in Germany. The ethical reasons for allowing sperm donation but not egg donation nor surrogate motherhood are based on the idea that a mother is physically much closer to giving live. Sperm comes out of the body easily – it is meant to come out. While a medical treatment is necessary to obtain female eggs and during surrogacy the woman even carries the child for the time of the pregnancy within her body.
»Today it is easily possible for a child to have three mothers: the genetic mother who donated the egg, the surrogate mother who carried the child to term, and the social mother –who initiated this life in the first place through her wish to have a child – who then raises the child.«Jasmin Schädler
The participants involved in this discussion were discussing the possibility of pregnancy as an experience that excludes social motherhood from the beginning and if it is possible to think this concept outside of monetary needs which is so easily connected to human trafficking. The discussion showed that there is still a lot to think about and that it is important to think these options through – especially in relation to child well being and psychological needs of (potential) parents.
Samira Braig introduced the term mathering – a fusion between mothering and fathering which tries to overcome the binary approach by stopping to differentiate. Mathering can be seen as the outlook of the conference in Marburg. Although there were many different opinions in the room concerning the idea of motherhood being a unique female feature or not, all agreed that our society needs new models of motherhood, fatherhood and parenthood and its relations to womanhood. At the moment, we observed, whenever we talk about motherhood we quickly get to a power and hierarchy debate.
The fact that today transsexual men can give birth dissolves the idea of motherhood being an exclusively female occupation already. Second wave feminism had to revalue motherhood because suddenly after women distanced themselves from only being (potential) mothers – motherhood had become something that was seen as weakness. To strengthen motherhood and the power as well as the decision to give birth instead of ghettoizing it, is of course important. Yet, just like we want it to be normal that women are in executive positions, should not everybody have the right to enjoy the tasks and feelings of motherhood? Somehow throughout history women often stood up strongly for having the same rights as men. Through the biological possibilities available to us today this might reverse into men standing up for their rights to be mothers. Uterus transplantations and the possibility to obtain egg cells from skin cells will open up new possibilities and new need for discussion concerning motherhood.