The Cult of Motherhood

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What does the phrase ‘the cult of motherhood’ mean to you?

Nora Heyson

 It came to me this morning during an interesting discussion on Twitter about being a mother. I have storified it, so you can see the whole exchange, rather than just the quote later in the blog. 

 

The discussion started when we were talking about the excellent article by Rowan Davies in the Guardian about ‘Yummymummy Hate’. 

Now, anyone who has been following my blog for a while will know that ‘yummymummy’ is a term that makes me narrow my eyes and grit my teeth. I hate it for its twee-ness, for the assumption that mummies must be yummy, for the way it reduces a woman to just a mother, but only if she is attractive.

I feel the same about ‘mumpreneur’, ‘mummyblogger’ and other symptoms of what I call the mummy-fication of women.

 

The moment that someone calls Sir Alan Sugar a ‘dadpreneur’ is the moment when you can call me a ‘mumpreneur’.

A lot of bloggers like the title ‘mummybloggers, and indeed identify themselves as one. It is a term I have never felt comfortable with, as I don’t blog only about my life as a mother and posts about motherhood and children are becoming ever more rare on Salt and Caramel.

Mainly I dislike the fact that male bloggers, entrepreneurs – or indeed fathers – are not referred to in such a way. Just as they are not asked how they are going to square childcare and career, or if they have a provision in place in case their childcare falls through. We talk of dads ‘babysitting’ their children, as if they do not share parental responsibility, which is pretty insulting to them really. 

 

Which brings me to my point about the Cult of Motherhood and what it means to different people. I googled the phrase and the first hit was a US blogger who referred to herself as a feminist, yet called her friends ‘breeders’ and gave them names such as UTERUS and OVARIES.

There are a fair few articles on the expectation of mothers to be perfect and that the ‘Cult of Motherhood’ is damaging because it raises expectations that no normal woman can fulfil.

In an interview, the author Jessica Valenti talks about being a mother:

 

“I don’t think that putting all my energy into parenting — at the expense of my career, marriage and social life — will be the difference between Layla becoming homeless or the president. But too many women are made to believe that every tiny decision they make, from pacifiers to flash cards, will have a lasting impact on their child. It’s a recipe for madness. It also reveals an overblown sense of self-importance.”

 

 

An ‘overblown sense of self-importance’.

 

That resonated with me, as it was something that I had been trying to express in my Twitter discourse.

When we begin a sentence with ‘as a mother, I believe…’ — does it not express that I have a more insightful comment to make than someone who is not a mother? 

Should the simple accident of biology that made me a mother mean I can demand respect for my status as a mother? Why should I ask for respect for something that millions of human beings have done – procreate. Should fathers be more respected than men without children?

The blogger Clare Kirkpatrick (whose blog you should check out – it is excellent) argues that the women gain wisdom through motherhood that they would not have otherwise gained, and that we should respect this wisdom, and 

 

‘men’s experience as men has been valued above that of women for too long, yet the wisdom women carry, from having cycles, to being mothers, to menopause is not valued’

 

which is a good point.

In the end, we agreed to disagree, and I have been mulling over the exchange ever since.

I cannot think of any wisdom (other than don’t stick a finger down the back of the nappy to see if your baby needs his nappy changed) that I have gained from being a mother. I would say that I am wiser than I was before I was a mother, but would attribute that to the intervening 10 years and not motherhood. 

We don’t say, ‘Oh, he is a father, isn’t he wise’, do we? And I have met both mature and terribly immature parents, so this wisdom is obviously not automatically granted with your Bounty pack.

 

Becoming a mother has changed me, there is no doubt about that. Before I had children, I had no idea that I could feel this deep and totally unconditional love for another person. They make me less selfish, more cautious, they bring joy and chaos into my life. I could not imagine life without them, but they don’t alter who I am, or how I think. And their existence doesn’t make my opinion more valuable than a childless person.

 

Do we contribute to the Cult of Motherhood by expecting our opinions to be valued more because we have borne a child?

What do you think? 

 

 

 

 

Update – 

Other blogs on this subject 

 

A Fresh Start

The Awakened Mother

 

 

30 Comments on “The Cult of Motherhood

  1. What an interesting post. I tend to agree with you on this one. Being a mum is one of many roles in my life, and to have that role tacked on to label me as a specific type of blogger, writer, person, s bloody annoying. Being a mum is only part of what defines me.

    The other issue with this labelling is that mumpreneur and mummy blogger and mummy porn are used by mainly male but also far too many female journalists and feature writers in a pretty derogatory fashion.

  2. “The moment that someone calls Sir Alan Sugar a ‘dadpreneur’ is the moment when you can call me a ‘mumpreneur’.”

    I love that line… so true. I’m a mother of a little boy (Nemo – his nickname) who has Complex Special Needs. It doesn’t make me a ‘better’ mother in any one area of parenting because of it, nor does it make me feel that I do more than any other mother either. I’d still be his mother, it’s just that his needs are different to those of my teenage daughter, and other children of his age.

    When our son was born in May 2009 (11 years between him and our daughter due to the loss of triplets in 2005 but that’s another story) we weren’t expecting any of the news we received. I cried my heart out for days. I’d failed him, my poor little boy, I’d let him down. I wasn’t up to the ‘job’ and felt utterly deflated. Whilst other mothers sat feeding and nursing their newborns, I was going back and forth to SCBU, along with my husband who was at home, juggling our daughter having to get to school, the house and his own job, hoping and praying that today was the day that we’d be able to hold him. Just for a moment.

    Anyway, fast forward a little over three years, and this September, he started at mainstream preschool with me going in as his full-time carer (we are waiting for a Statement decision that is six months’ late due to an ‘admin delay’) and medical support due to him being tube fed, and having a heart condition..

    The reason I’m telling you about this is because a group of friends I have, had their eldest children move up from said preschool to the local primary school which is just next door, on the same day that Nemo started at preschool. I have noticed that of late, the result has been that I now hardly see them, this particular group of friends, unless we pass on our way into or out of the school gates. These friends also have smaller children, from almost 12 to 24 months, so we’re kind of in the middle of all of the children.

    However, one morning last week, I was late (tube feeds can be tricky even after all this time) and I was rushing to get to preschool on time after wrestling Nemo into his wheelchair, trying to fit the feeding set and various other paraphernalia underneath, checking that we had all we needed etc so was aiming for the pedestrian crossing and not looking around me.

    I was met with a rather surprising sickening feeling as I got nearer to the school gates. There, chatting happily were the group of three friends and mothers, all laughing and joking, having just deposited their older children into the care of the primary school next door. I had to walk past them to get to the entrance where the preschool is.

    They all turned and said hi and then turned away again, carrying on with conversation.

    I felt about 5 years old all over again. I felt like the odd one out, I still do. It’s silly of me, I know this but I can’t help it. I’m no longer part of their group. I’ve not heard from them much at all since September, I feel as if they have all grown closer, (I’ve heard from other friend’s that the group of three mothers/friends have been to places with their younger children, even on days when I could have gone with Nemo as it was a non preschool day) I feel a little betrayed, upset and left out, pathetic?

    Would I feel the same if I wasn’t a mother? Would it matter if I’d not seen a group of childless friends for a while? Is it because I have less in common as a mother with them now, that they don’t make an effort as much? I still text and say when we’re free or at least I did up until this week. Why don’t they ask to catch up when we are all free?

    Even typing that out makes me feel like I’m being silly about it all, I’m 37 years old, I am a grown woman! I’m still the same person I was on September 4th…… is it really so important that my child is not the same age as theirs? Is that the reason? I’m not sure if I want it to be the reason or not….. I’m not sure what to think about it all.

    School gate politics and ‘cliques’ have never been something I’d been interested in nor part of. Am I jealous? Maybe, but of what? That I can’t join in because my credentials no longer match the requirements to be a part of the group? Hmm…….

    • That is sad, but I suspect the hurt would be the same if you were not a mother. Only you would have – as a single person – perhaps have more chances to ‘replace’ these bad friends. They are no friends, so don’t feel bad about them. It is their loss, not yours.

  3. Mixed views on this! I think most things with the mum or mummy prefix are patronising or pigeon-holing, and like you, yummy mummy really makes my teeth grate. I think though mothers should speak up and campaign more on pertinent issues- eg. Pro-choice mothers/ mothers assisting third world mothers, because there is a commonality of experience.
    Of course when someone says “as a mother” we don’t know if they are a good mother or a bad mother; but then the same is true of someone saying, as a nurse or as a politician. If it helps to get heard then it’s another tool for us.
    Still, It’s no coincidence that the ‘cult of motherhood’ has risen at the same time as women’s achievements at work. Sometimes, it feels a bit like: ok you might be good at work but more importantly a. Are you hot? B. can you make cupcakes?

    • Oh, that is so true — are you hot? Can you make cupcakes?

      I do understand the other side of the argument, and agree with it to some extent.

  4. “I googled the phrase and the first hit was a US blogger who referred to herself as a feminist, yet called her friends ‘breeders’ and gave them names such as UTERUS and OVARIES.”

    This attitude makes me so angry. I have had friends remove me from FB since having children as they are so bitter and mean about ‘spawners’ (as one of them called me – also regards herself as a feminist). They immediately wrote me off as no longer useful or interesting. I can’t say I miss them much!

    • That is what amazed me about the blog – that she considered herself a feminist while being so utterly horrible about other women. You are well rid of them.

      • It’s vile, isn’t it? I would never, ever dare to criticise someone for NOT wanting children.

        In fact, I’ve always admired people who know for certain it’s not for them and don’t just go along with it because it’s expected. I wouldn’t change my lot for anything but I can certainly see the appeal!

  5. This is really interesting to read. I wrote about this a few months ago from the point of view as a woman who can’t have kids and how I felt that the life circumstances that led to that situation had made me as wise and as deserving as opinions as motherhood is believed to automatically convey. I got savaged by a woman who believed that in pointing out there are other childrearing roles than biological mother said she was a bad mother and that I was undermining her love for her child, and that I couldn’t possibly know because I wasn’t a mother…

    She did delete the comments, but I was very hurt and I have to admit my first response to make some kind of snippy little comment about her mothering status but (more out of my desire to feel superior) I bit my tongue. But it made me wonder how much of it is that mothers and non mothers are pitted against each other and resentments often encouraged. I know I often over emphasize the ‘freedoms’ I have since I don’t have kids to make it sound like I totally don’t mind not having all the socially acceptable things my coupled and parenting friends have and they sometimes think I’m rubbing their nose in it, while I can feel that they are mocking me for being a failure for being alone and unable to carry kids, even though I don’t think either of us mean to make the other feel that way. Perceptions often mean more than realities on this.

    I don’t condone name calling and there are definitely times when people are just crappy no matter whether kids come into it all because well, people are just crappy sometimes. Some childfree people are self absorbed as hell, some mothers are terrible at it, some dads are totally hands on, some people manage to be a bit of everything, but that doesn’t sell papers or products. I’m more concerned by the way society makes women feel like nothing matters more than being hot enough to get someone to knock you up and then that no other achievement matters more than having a kid (even being hot. Look at the yummy mummy hate…) I like to see all women made to feel that childrearing isn’t the be all and end all, but just one valid thing you might do in life. (Kind of like it is for men in fact!)

    • Great comment. It is such a shame that women are pitted against each other in this way. I absolutely agree that your experiences were just as character building and valid as those of women who have been lucky enough to have had a child. It makes me sad to think that someone felt that pointing that out insinuates that she was a bad mother, and was so horrible to you.

      I think that mothers have a responsibility to respect women who stay childless (whether out of choice or because they have not been lucky enough to conceive and carry a child to term). I always see that having children is a blessing — not from God, or from any deity, but a gift of chance that should be valued. Which doesn’t give us the right to feel superior or more womanly, and plain decency should stop us from saying hurtful things to a woman who cannot have children.

    • I agree with Lynn – we should not be pitting ourselves against one another, but celebrating the different experiences and, therefore, wisdom our different lives have given us. I would love to see a world where we value the different contributions all women make

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  7. An insightful post. I too can see both sides of the argument. I do hate the pigeon holing and “tweeness” of certain terms but I do also think that if you have made the choice to be a mother first and foremost you should be able to celebrate that just like you would in any other field . I am not saying that it is a “better” choice than anyone else’s or even that it makes you a better parent but you should be able to feel proud of that decision and the achievements that come with the job without being ridiculed by those with a “real” job. We all make choices in our lives, either out of necessity or a sense of what will be best given our individual circumstances. I think the important thing is that we don’t judge other people’s choices.

    • Yes, absolutely – the choices we make in life should be valued by others, and not judged.

  8. As a new mum this really resonates with me as I have just been exposed to a lot of this over the last few months – for the very first time. I always knew that I wasn’t a fan of tacking the word “mum” onto everything. But when it comes to the deeper stuff, the idea that being a mother makes you more of a woman, the way mothers are seen by society – it’s so messed up. As I was telling you earlier, I once wrote a guest post about feminism for a prominent US blog that’s read by a lot of conservative SAHM types. A couple of commenters really objected to the fact that I was writing about womanhood as a young (ish!), childfree woman. In their eyes, my opinion counted for nothing and they had much more wisdom. Then on the other hand, since I had my son I’ve really noticed the nasty comments online from people who are my friends, sniping at women who post pictures of their children on Facebook or talk about their children, etc. The way I see it, there’s definitely a cult of motherhood, but at the same time we’re constantly encouraged to pit ourselves against each other over parenting choices, lifestyle choices, even pregnancy choices. Mothers are revered as the women who have done what they’re supposed to do, yet are torn down at the slightest opportunity for their perceived failings.

    • Yes, I agree with that – It seems to be an extension of the ‘Woman. Know your place!’ kind of thinking.

      I am astounded by the idea that only mothers are qualified to talk about feminism. It makes absolutely no sense.

  9. What a great blog! You raise some interesting points/questions. Does being a mother give us more wisdom? This point is also explored in ‘How to be a Woman’. Clearly, I have more wisdom in the parenting arena than I had before, but outside of that sphere, I’d have to agree with you and C. Moran. I haven’t suddenly turned into an oracle, and, just because I have had children, it doesn’t make me any more qualified to comment on topics of the day than somebody who hasn’t had children. I really enjoyed this. I need to sit down and ponder it some more.

    • Thanks. I really do need to get around to reading Caitlin’s book – I read a few negative reviews and have perhaps been too influenced by them.

      I hope that you too will blog about this topic. It is interesting to read other opinions.

  10. This post has so many twists and turns it is hard to know where to begin to comment. Looking at the last comment reply just above where I am typing, seems a good place to start. No, only mothers are not qualified to talk about feminism, but I truly believe that only mothers are qualified to talk about motherhood. Don’t get me wrong, nearly every Pediatrician I have dealt with, has NOT been a Mum, and their advice has still been sound, BUT they are not necessarily talking about Motherhood in its full reach, but rather a micro aspect of it.

    You said that Motherhood has not given you any wisdom yet you acknowledge all of the changes in you. I would most certainly say it has given me wisdom, but now that challenges me to give an example, and one doesn’t spring to mind, so I think I am going to have to ponder on this subject for quite some time.

    I do refer to myself as a Mummy Blogger, but dislike many aspects of the “community”…

    I find the term yummy mummy far too twee, and am nowhere close to being one.

    Great post – I hopped here from Mumsnet’s email where they have included a link to you.

    Bye for now, Liska
    @NewMumOnline
    x

    • Hi Liska,

      thanks for your comment, glad to reach a new reader – will be sure to check out your blog.

      Yes, I agree that giving an example on the wisdom gained is tricky, because that would mean concentrating on just one aspect of the gained maturity. Would be interested in your further thoughts and hope you will blog about this topic.

  11. I really enjoyed reading this post and the comments. I think I broadly agree with you about how women should not be pitted against one another and that feminists can be mothers or childless, I agree that motherhood is common and unremarkable in that sense, but I do think that being a mother fundamentally changes a woman. You can never stop being a mother once you are one, even if something tragic happens. Physically and emotionally motherhood changes us. While there are many facets to a woman, all of which are important, it is likely that her role as a mother will be undervalued by society. Therefore, I think it is important to value our motherhood ourselves and use language about motherhood in such a way as to acknowledge that value.

  12. “…their existence doesn’t make my opinion more valuable than a childless person.”
    Thank you, Lynn. I, too, was doing some research online on the cult of motherhood, and happened across your blog. You’ve helped me underscore a point for a blog post I’ll be putting up tomorrow.

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  14. I’m really horrified by the cult of the perfect mother, and how that feeds the inadequacy and guilt that most mothers feel. I think it’s got a lot worse since we all had access to the internet, and I remember wistfully that my favourite parenting book was ‘The Fun Starts Here,” by of all people Paula Yates. No-one would buy a book like that now… It’s all got so serious.

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  17. Men are viewed as being inherently imbued with credibility and wisdom; their opinions are viewed as automatically valid simply by virtue of their masculinity. Women, on the other hand, still require credentials to “back up” their claims and opinions; we are still viewed as being “less-than”, as not having the same innate stores of wisdom and world experience as men, regardless of -actual- experience (or lack thereof).

    Women are told they are free to make their own choices about motherhood, work, lifestyles, etc. ,but at the end of the day, the most valued and viewed as morally correct thing a woman can do is to be actively engaged in motherhood–thus, granting women the ability to have their ideas and opinions seen as validated. Culturally speaking, Motherhood= Wisdom= Validity.

    The Cult of Mommyhood reinforces these toxic ideas, and champions the outdated notion that women are only useful, intelligent, productive, wise human beings, deserving of validation and respect, if they have reproduced and are actively engaged in the lifestyle of motherhood.

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