This semester I am teaching a course called Motherhood. It is an interdisciplinary class that I developed and is being offered through the Sexuality, Women's and Gender Studies department at a small liberal arts college located in Winter Park, FL. The course is composed of students from both the traditional School of Arts and Sciences population on campus as well as students from the evening school, which includes more non-traditional students (often older, many working full-time in addition to pursuing a college degree). When making our introductions, the class of all women ranged in their reasons for wanting to take the class. Some students were interested in activism and the ways in which feminism and motherhood intersect, some have children of the own and were excited to explore motherhood from an academic perspective, and others said they want to be mothers someday and are interested in social issues that affect mothers. Some students have an academic interest in gender studies and have previously taken a course in the department while for many students this course is their first exploration in using a feminist lens to analyze a topic.
The development and proposal of this course was a bit selfish. I spend so much of my academic time and energy studying issues of gender/sexuality, religion and culture, but because of my experience as a mother, I really wanted an excuse to dig deeper academically into Motherhood Studies (yes, that's a thing), and look at issues around motherhood and mothering. I always say that the best part of being an academic and teaching is that you get paid to read and discuss things you find interesting. Teaching this course brings together my personal and academic interests more profoundly than any other course I have taught. I guess some would say I am in my flow.
On the first day of class, just after we made our introductions and before we read any assignments, I asked the students if they thought that there is a difference between motherhood and mothering. The students were a bit stumped and it was clear that most wondered if there was a difference in these concepts at all, but eventually it was suggested that perhaps motherhood is something we construct in society, a messy collection of cultural expectations, legal requirements, biology, and parenting. They went on to identify mothering as a more nurturing and loving role, one that was most easily discussed in class in contrast to fathering. One very astute student noted that when we talk about fathering, we do so "in a Jerry Springer kind of way", suggesting the assumption of an exclusively biological role. In contrast, we think of mothering as the care and nurturing of a child. We then started picking at the veneer of these ideas. Do fathers not also nurture and love? (Of course!) Do mothers play a biological role? (Obv., in the case of biological families!) Why do we feel the need to tease out certain qualities and assign them to mothers and fathers? This is a question we will ask all semester long.
The first week we jumped right into the classics with selections that frame and theorize motherhood, such as Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born, Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought, and Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering; we also read from Andrea O’Reilly’s 21st Century Motherhood: Experience, Identity, Policy and Agency, which is a more recent look at motherhood and an attempt to place into one edited volume the primary concerns and issues for mothers at start the 21st century. After reading from these texts, we had the opportunity to return to the question of the difference between motherhood and mothering. O’Reilly states that “the term motherhood is used to signify the patriarchal institution of motherhood, while mothering refers to women’s lived experiences of childrearing as they both conform to and/or resist the patriarchal institution of motherhood and its oppressive ideology” (O’Reilly, 2, 2010). Rich beautifully weaves in her personal experiences as a mother with the frustrations of the expectations that have developed in a society that is entrenched of certain expectations and ideas about what it looks like to be a woman and a mother, expectations and ideas that have been set by the ruling class of men, a group that has had no experience as mothers. Rich states another distinction succinctly when she discusses the frustrations mothers feel as they are “alienated from the institution of motherhood, not necessarily mothering itself” (Rich, 39, 1976). She is arguing that the conflicts mothers feel are not so much with the experiences and practices of mothering, nor with their children, nor with their spouses/partners, but with the institution of motherhood that has created a space in which mothering suffers under the constraints and pressures of society that has been not so friendly to women, especially women who are poor and women of color.
Why do we as a society unnecessarily categorize qualities and assign some to mothers and others to fathers? The selected theorists argue that a heteronormative, white-privileged, patriarchal society plays a significant role in our concepts of motherhood and fatherhood. As me and my students unpack issues around mothering and motherhood this semester, we also will continue to consider these larger societal problems, expectations, constraints, and oppressions. I hope you will join me here to be a part of the discussion.
Suggested Readings- Theorizing Motherhood
Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering. University of California Press, 1978.
Hill Collins, Patricia. “Work, Family and Black Women’s Oppression”
Chapter 3, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, 2000. Second edition.
O’Reilly, Andrea. Introduction to 21st Century Motherhood: Experience, Identity, Policy, Agency. Columbia, 2010.
Rich, Adrienne. Foreword, and Chapters 1 and 2 in Of Woman Born. Norton, 1976.