familiy life stories

How the Social Construct of Motherhood is Deeply Shaped by Literature

“Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way around.”

–David Lodge

Prior to the 21st Century, literature was dominated by the male perspective. Female writers, in order to be published, have often had to adopt male pen names. This practice has been both common and necessary throughout literary history and despite progress in women’s rights, continues to this day. Just as 19th century writer George Sand was actually Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, 21st century writer Robert Galbraith is actually Joanne, or J.K., Rowling.

Consequently, the perspective of women and children has been vastly under-represented in literature.

An article on motherhood in literature points out that the topic has often been portrayed in a negative light by male authors. Novels such as “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina” have served to present society’s definition of a “good mother” versus a “bad mother”. Female protagonists that were deemed bad mothers in these family life stories were usually punished, often by death. At the very least, they were socially shunned and relegated to poverty and obscurity.

Even today, mothers in the family life stories of literature are still judged according to modern social criteria. A recent BBC article celebrating motherhood in literature compiled a list of the best, as well as the worst, mothers in literature. One writer contributed their own list of the ten worst mothers in literature.

Feminists such as Nancy Chodorow have written about the extent to which women’s personal identities have been formed as a response to the social construct of motherhood. Others have pointed out that that most mothers in fiction are objects of their husbands’ or daughters’ narratives, rather than having narratives of their own.

Feminist literary critic Luce Irigaray argues that under a system of patriarchy, mother/daughter relationships are often transformed into rivalries. In such rivalries, the daughter emerges the victor, while her mother’s personhood is subsumed by the role she plays as a mother. Alison Fell presented an analysis of motherhood in the works of French female writers like Simone de Beauvoir, while Adalgisa Giorgio‘s work examines motherhood in 20th century Western European literature.

Family life stories in literature

Family life stories in literature in which women were portrayed as achieving moral goodness through motherhood, such as the mother in “Little Women” were far more common than the portrayal of women who rebelled against male authority. For example, in Anne Brontë’s second novel, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall“, written under the male pseudonym Acton Bell, the heroine escapes her alcoholic husband to protect her son.

This novel dared to suggest that sometimes being a good mother meant challenging the patriarchy and breaking the law. At the time the novel was published, 1848, women were permitted no way to legally exist independently, and fleeing a marriage with a child was viewed as the crime of kidnapping. The novel was so controversial that after the author’s death, her sister Charlotte prevented it from being republished. However, in 1913, women’s suffragist May Sinclair said that

“the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.”

Happily, a greater number of family life stories told from the perspective of women and children are being published and gaining a wider audience than at any other time in history. Diana Secker Tesdell, who has edited a number of Everyman’s Pocket Classic anthologies, has assembled a collection of family life stories that feature motherhood. “Stories of Motherhood” features some of the finest and most well-known female writers of this century including Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen, Amy Tan and Alice Munro . However, it also features some lesser known writers, such as Colm Tóibín and Anita Desai.

One review in the Guardian praised the collection, but pointed out that with the exception of one author, all the writers featured are from the United States. Despite this criticism, family life stories from a number of different ethnic cultures within the larger culture are vividly portrayed. This collection contributes the valuable perspective of mothers caring for infants such as Lydia Davis’s “What You Learn About the Baby” as well as the perspective of children, as in Ernest Gaines’s story “The Sky Is Gray“.

In life, as in literature, children represent both continuity and change, the past as well as progress. Their parents’ actions serve to illuminate the path towards posterity. By presenting family life stories in which mothers are portrayed not as good or bad, but as fully human, modern literature is helping to reshape destiny towards a more humane future.

familiy life stories
Daughter of Niobe (one of the 14 children killed) bent by terror, Niobe room in Uffizi gallery

June 6,2016  |

maternal construct

How The Social Value Of Women And Mothers Has Changed

The Changing Social Value of Women

“Women’s maternal role has a profound effect on women’s lives, on ideology about women, on reproduction of masculinity and sexual inequality, and on the reproduction of a particular form of labour power. Women find their primary social location within the sphere of social reproduction”

Nancy Chodorow

The Introduction of Reproductive Rights and the Maternal Construct

As early as the 1920’s early feminists who helped found the modern women’s movement formulated three basic elements which they felt were necessary for women to achieve equal rights. Those elements were civil marriage, divorce, and abortion. Later, birth control would be added to this list of political demands that feminists have worked tirelessly to achieve.

Reproductive rights began to be included as an element of basic human rights beginning with the 1968 Proclamation of Teheran, which states that

“Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children”.

In 1969, the UN General Assembly in the Declaration on Social Progress and Development elaborated further by stating that

“The family as a basic unit of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members, particularly children and youth, should be assisted and protected so that it may fully assume its responsibilities within the community. Parents have the exclusive right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.”

The Maternal Construct Before Reproductive Rights

Historically, society’s shifting views on the ideology of motherhood had been reflected in the types of social programs created to support those views. The impact of social programs, or the lack of them, on society, is a substantial one. Feminism has played a large role in re-inventing the maternal construct and women’s role in society, which before the introduction of reproductive rights, had been created and maintained largely by religious organizations, including the Catholic church.

In early 20th century Europe and most parts of the world, the ideology surrounding the role of women in society was based on two basic premises navigate to this web-site. The first premise was that women were emotionally and intellectually, as well as physically, inferior. Therefore, it was believed that their survival was completely dependent upon men. Their primary value lay in their ability to give birth, and in exchange for their financial support, men claimed ownership of their sexuality, which included any children they produced. In this way, men were better able to ensure that that their possessions, and power, would be passed to their “rightful” male heirs.

The second premise of the maternal construct was that maternal instinct, and therefore the ability to be a good mother, could only be acquired by giving birth within a societally sanctioned heterosexual marriage. The social message underlying this belief was that women had to choose between their sexuality and motherhood. Those who became pregnant outside marriage were viewed as having chosen sexuality, which rendered them incapable of being good mothers. It was considered women’s duty to control not only her own sexuality, but that of men as well.

The Effect of Social Programs on the Maternal Construct

Industrialization was a contributing factor to a sharp rise in the number of single mothers. With migration to larger cities, smaller communities lost the power of peer pressure that often contributed to men marrying women when they became pregnant. The Catholic Church was among one of the first organizations to develop and implement social programs for single mothers.

Despite the fact that these women were often the victims of economic and sexual exploitation by the employers upon whom they depended for survival, they were viewed as sinners deserving of punishment. In addition to suffering the loss of their babies, which were put up for adoption, many of these women were also subjected to a lifetime of forced labor and physical abuse.

Other organizations provided less punitive and more therapeutic assistance to those considered “fallen women” which often included victims of incest or domestic violence and women forced into prostitution to survive. Anglican facilities called “penitentiaries” in Victorian Britain were among those that offered shelter and support to women who, not being considered fit mothers, had lost all value to society.

The Hull House Settlement in Chicago, modeled on Toynbee Hall in London, was begun by Jane Adams in 1889. Similar settlements, such as the Kozma Street settlement in Hungary, that provided a number of social services for women and children, were established in Europe. These programs helped change the prevailing maternal construct by demonstrating that unmarried women were in fact capable of being good mothers. However, many believe that this change resulted in male control being replaced by that of the state.

Science, in the form of brain research and modern birth control methods, has played an important role in changing the maternal construct. However, the history of forced sterilization points to the potential for abuse of its power by the state, which demonstrates the need for continued feminist activism to prevent such abuses. Science, combined with activism, has helped women demonstrate their true social value, completely independent of the maternal construct that once defined it.

maternal construct
Mrs. John Garden, Ann Garden and Her Children, John and Ann Margaret, John Hoppner, 1796

April 11,2016  |

educational psychologists

Educational Psychologists On Why Motherhood Is More Defined by Psychology than Biology

Educational psychologists and child psychiatrists explaining motherhood

Biologists have often explained the behavior of mothers from a biological viewpoint. There is also a psychological school of thought and a range of educational psychologists and child psychiatrists that attempts to explain mothers’ behaviors.

For example, mothers are the primary caretakers of children, yet there are differences between boys and girls in their reactions to mothers. Girls find their own identities through a process of merging and identifying with their mothers, while boys separate themselves from mothers to find their identities. Some educational psychologists and child psychiatrists believed that the absence of fathers in the home due to the division of labor resulted in a number of psychological conflicts.

Helene Deutsch, an Austrian-American psychoanalyst

Helene Deutsch, colleague of Sigmund Freud, saw motherhood as a psychological phenomenon rather than a biological one. She was the first psychoanalyst to specialize in women. Deutsch believed that it was a child’s psychological reactions to biological realities that determined behavior.

“The child will undergo biological changes and therefore his behavior will change. However it is not this biological change that will change the behavior of the child in a direct and mechanical way. It is much more how he sees himself and construes this biological change in his mind that will determine his behavior.”

She believed that the same principle applies to young mothers, and that the way they view themselves determines how they behave as mothers. Other factors which determine a woman’s interpretation of herself as a mother are her own personality, her life situation, and the attitude toward childbearing of the society in which she lives. In her own words:

“Motherliness in women is not the automatic product of female biological processes. Some women are motherly without ever being pregnant, while others, who have borne children, are not motherly.”

One poignant example is the child woman, pregnant with an unwanted child, in whose mind the fetus is not a beloved being, but rather, perceived as a parasite.

In her work, The Psychology of Women, Deutsch discusses the phenomenon of feminine masochism in connection with her attachment to, and possible identification with, her father. She introduced the concept of the “as-if” personality, in which women, as the result of patriarchal repression, learn to act as if they are in fact the social ideal they are told they should be.

She addressed women’s struggles for education and independence as well as the ambivalence of women toward motherhood that results from their sexual and maternal feminine identities being split by society. Unlike other educational psychologists and child psychiatrists of the time, she believed that a healthy mother/daughter relationship, or a surrogate one, was important for a woman to experience a healthy pregnancy.

She was inspired by the powerful examples of socialist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Angelica Blabanoff, and became one of the first women to join the Vienna Psychological Society. She went on to become the first woman to serve as head of the women’s section of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Training Institute from 1924 to 1933. Much of her work addressed the issue of the conflict between motherhood and eroticism.

Chodorow: Better care-givers but not for biological reasons

The concept of mothers as superior caregivers can be explained as the result of psychological responses to the division of labor and organization of production. Nancy Chodorow, an American sociologist and psychoanalyst was one of the first to offer a different explanation than the biological one as to why mothers are considered better care-givers. Chodorow criticized sex-role socialization and believed that the differences between the sexes could be altered, but only on a social, rather than an individual, level.

Driven by industrialization, within the span of a very short time, women were assigned the role of home and family chores. Chodorow believed that only by changing the organization of production can rigid sex roles based on the economic superiority of men be changed within society.

“The sexual division of labor and women’s responsibility for child care are linked to and generate male dominance. Psychologists have demonstrated unequivocally that the very fact of being mothered by a woman generates in men conflicts over masculinity, and a psychology of male dominance, and a need to be superior to women.”

One of the ten most influential sociology books of the past quarter

Her influential book, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, published in 1978, and revised in 1999, was chosen as one of the ten most influential books of the past quarter century by Contemporary Sociology. She believes that because girls are less valued, they envy and seek the privilege that boys are afforded. They solve the envy of male privilege by transforming it into heterosexual desire. This process has the effect of creating a form of sibling rivalry with both male children and mothers as girls compete to become the idealized image of the mother created by society.

According to Chodorow,

“motherhood is influenced more by one’s personal psychology, family and culture rather than biological gender.”

She advocates more male responsibility for childcare and for women to be granted economic, emotional, and sexual freedom from male dominance. Modern educational psychologists and child psychiatrists can all agree that acknowledging and integrating all of their human characteristics, whether considered male or female, is best for children, and parents, of both genders.

A beautiful summary on extraordinary women pioneer analysts is made by Janet Sayers in back in 1993 and still a great resource today “Mothers of Psycholanalysts”.

educational psychologist

July 6,2015  |