On motherhood

Hardly anybody ever reads it now, but far and away the best book on motherhood, I think, is Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born. Rich was a pioneer in two different ways. In the first place she spoke out for the first time about the difficulties of being a mother and a poet. Biology and creativity just did not go together, she felt, particularly when bringing up babies was a matter of hard, thankless graft. The book was published in the 1970s in America but reflected on the 50s, when domesticity was all the rage. Or at least such was the cultural spin in the post-war years when it was a good way of getting women out of factories and back in the home where they belonged. Her comments caused a fair amount of outrage even then, but they came too late to save another famous poet destroyed by the contradictions of maternity and creativity. Sylvia Plath made sure she left cookies and milk by the bedsides of her sleeping children before putting her head in the gas oven.

The second significant contribution made by Rich's book was to prove that motherhood itself was a topic suitable for academic analysis. Up until then motherhood just was; it was too unimportant to be discussed, although the role of the father had always been vital, not least in the way it offered a parallel to the heirarchical organisation of religion and the state. Rich discussed the myths surrounding motherhood, she considered the history of medical practice in childbirth (gruesomely), she recorded the way that the role of the mother changed across history and cultures. In short, she showed how there was nothing natural about being a mother, but rather how the whole concept was weighed down with social and cultural baggage. From the 1980s onwards the role of the mother has been much more important in the way that cultural theories consider the organisation of society. Psychoanalysis now looks at mothers where it always used to consider only fathers in the development of children. The influential feminist movement that began in America in the 60s and moved across Europe in the 80s also focused on the issue of maternity; how it affected the potential for equality across the genders, how women felt towards their own bodies, how daughters received their maternal legacy.

It is interesting to see how society is once again changing. For several decades now, women have gone out to work. The children now growing up, and a large proportion of young adults will not have had mothers who stayed at home with them. Will those children benefit from having mothers who could seek their own self-fulfillment beyond the confines of the domestic space? Or will they suffer from exhausted, stressed mothers, attempting to juggle to many balls at once? Or will the consequences be entirely different? Only time will tell.

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