45 years after Adrienne Rich published Of Woman Born, two authors are tackling the issue of motherhood and the new orthodoxies that surround it
The publication in 2022 of Eliane Glaser’s Motherhood: Feminism’s Unfinished Business and Lucy Jones’s Matrescence in 2023 demonstrate that writing about motherhood remains urgent and topical. Although for the last two decades a steady stream of books on the topic have been published, those two recent works have caught my attention as they bring a fresh outlook on the issue of motherhood and prove that many questions remain unaddressed. In 1976, when Adrienne Rich wrote what remains today the seminal work on motherhood, the priority was to expose the way women had been robbed of the experience of mothering by the patriarchal institution of motherhood. 45 years later, as more and more women are coming out to share their experience of becoming a mother, the impact it has had over their lives, we seem to have come a long way indeed. Childbirth is no longer the preserve of a male-only scientific elite who treat mothers like so many pieces of machinery needing to be fixed. Similarly, it is no longer unheard of for a woman to claim to become a mother after 40, to juggle her career and her family, and mothers are not expected to remain at home to focus solely on the care of their children. Yet, Jones and Glaser remind us, much work still needs to be done. Not only have we not completely defeated the patriarchal forces which constrain the experience of motherhood, but, they claim, we have replaced the old discourses with new, more seemingly empowering ones, which focus on giving women the possibility to make the right choices for themselves and their babies. Yet the rhetoric of choice, the two authors say, is often a scam which gives women the illusion they can make their own decisions while setting them up for failure.
While Jones and Glaser broach similar topics, such as pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, postnatal depression as well as the possibility to both work and mother at the same time, they do so from different angles. They both see motherhood as a social, even political, issue: for Glaser, it is to this day a bastion of patriarchy that feminism has never completely dismantled. Even if mothers seemingly have more control over their lives, their experience of mothering remains constrained by ideologies which could from the outside seem outdated yet have become completely mainstream and internalised by women themselves. In the introduction to the book, Glaser argues:
The reason I have written this book is that even now, after decades of social progress and feminist campaigning, motherhood is still much harder than it needs to be. In some ways it has become even harder. I believe it’s high time for that to change.Eliane Glaser, Motherhood: Feminism’s Unfinished Business, 2
Glaser takes specific aim at the “natural” discourses around motherhood, which are peddled as belonging to the “counter-cultural ‘minority’ option fighting for recognition in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy. The reality is the opposite” (5). Women, Glaser claims, are being tricked into accepting to bear the burden of motherhood alone and to continually choose the most arduous path (whether it’s about pregnancy, childbirth, or education) all in the name of a quasi-religious search for purity. Although women are constantly set up for failure, as they struggle to meet forever-moving goalposts, “the dominant mood among mothers is not indignation, but guilt” (4).
Lucy Jones tackles the issue by bringing into the light a little-known concept, matrescence. For her, we tend to think of adolescence as the main time of transformation for young women, but we forget that the passage into motherhood is another major event in a woman’s life, one that involves a number of dramatic mutations in her body as well as her brain. As a society, we have come up with a number of rituals to ease young women’s passage into adolescence, but where are the matrescent rituals? When women become pregnant, they are expected to keep the experience very much to themselves and go about with their lives, and when they give birth, they are all but removed from society as they are expected this time to shut themselves up in their homes in order to take care of their babies. The starting point for Jones’s reflection is the alarming incidence in post-natal depression among young mothers, for which she believes the main factor is the lack of proper attention given to the fragile state of women undergoing matrescence. She wonders:
Unlike other cultures, which treat becoming a mother as a major, traumatic life crisis, with special social rites and rituals, Western societies had been failing to recognize matrescence as a major transition: a transition that involves a whole spectrum of emotional and existential ruptures, a transition that can make women ill, a transition in which the mother, as well as the baby, could be celebrated.Lucy Jones, Matrescence, 16
Both Glaser and Jones start from a common observation: over the course of history, babies have become the centre of much of the social and medical care around early motherhood, while the health of mothers has been allowed to fall on the wayside. And far from revolting against this evolution, women have ended up buying into the discourse which would place babies and children’s needs over theirs even if it meant substantially losing in autonomy and wellbeing. Women, in other words, have been guilt-tripped into accepting that their needs should come after their children’s, that anything short of self-sacrifice amounted to child abuse and was deserving of shame and social stigma. As they both explain, the Rousseauist representation of the baby as a pure, untainted being who needs to be protected at all costs from the ills of society is often a covert way of controlling women’s bodies. They both show how a lot of the prescriptions around how women should give birth or take care of their young children hide a patriarchal agenda beneath a veneer of benevolence and self-empowerment. The rhetoric of “choice”, when it comes to women, often hides very stringent social injunctions.
The contemporary discourses that surround pregnancy and childbirth are perfect illustrations of this shift. As I have tried to show here, the women who wrote about their experience of pregnancy and childbirth up until the end of the 20th century would often lament the disproportionate amount of power wielded by the scientific institution, in which the often male doctor and his attendant nurses exercised strict control over the information imparted to the women, and kept the upper hand over the procedures they were asked to undergo. Both Jones and Glaser agree that this is no longer the case today: most gynaecologists today are female, and women are definitely more in charge when it comes to the way they experience pregnancy and childbirth. Yet even if women now have some modicum of control over their experience of childbirth, they are still expected to conform to scripts that eventually leave them little leeway. Both authors lay the blame on the popularity of discourses that could roughly be gathered under the umbrella of “natural birth”, and popularised by such authors as Grantly Dick-Read, and later Shirley Kitzinger. Even as she wrote the preface to the second edition of Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich admitted that she was little convinced by the emergence of those discourses, which she identified as mostly white and middle-class. Today, Glaser and Jones argue, “natural childbirth” has become the dominant discourse in labour wards, and it is being served to women via books, magazines, and ante-natal classes. According to its advocates, natural birth is defined as a birth which involves as little medical intervention as possible: after having been introduced as major scientific progresses and improvements of the lots of women, the use of anaesthetics and surgical c-sections are now being eyed with suspicion and considered as unnecessarily interventionist. Most midwives and health professionals now defend those ideas and present them to new mothers as the only right way to give birth. Jones explains that, like most first mothers, she had felt compelled to give birth in the most “natural” way possible, that is without the use of anaesthetics. Eventually she realised that she had been “misled” (77) and that the ideology which would have women forgo techniques that could make childbirth more comfortable is just as patriarchal as the old scientific discourse. Similarly, Glaser admits that natural childbirth was originally about countering the supremacy of the medical discourse, yet she feels “the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction” (36). She notes the paradox that some women are attracted to natural childbirth options as they seem, at first sight at least, to provide a gentler alternative to medical practices that may have seemed too cold and sometimes even brutal. Yet, she argues, although natural childbirth presents itself as the underdog to more mainstream discourses, they are in fact sold to women all across the West as the only option, all under the rhetoric of “choice”.
Jones and Glaser observe that the social control exerted upon women begins even before childbirth: pregnancy is increasingly becoming a time when women’s bodies are scrutinised and controlled, through once again pregnancy books, medical advice, and increasingly websites and blogs dedicated to motherhood. Eliane Glaser quotes a passage in Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work in which the narrator is baffled by some of the restrictions she finds regarding food in pregnancy books. One of them actually warns pregnant women: “When you raise your fork to your lips […] look at it and think, Is this the best bite I can give my baby? If the answer is no, put your fork down” (36) The rhetoric of caution which now dominates the advice given to pregnant women has now taken such a stringent aspect that women end up feeling guilt and anxiety as they are constantly monitoring their bodies in order to make sure they do not inhale or swallow anything that could harm their babies. Jones remarks that it is particularly unfair to place the onus on individual women to protect their babies when we are all collectively exposed to harmful chemicals and air pollution. Instead of working towards providing a safer and cleaner environment to pregnant women and babies alike, society is expecting women alone to bear the collective responsibility of protecting their unborn child.
After childbirth, breastfeeding can become another contentious issue, which illustrates the contradictions within feminism. Earlier in the 20th century, the invention of formula, much like the introduction of anaesthetics in labour wards, was hailed as a major step in the liberation of women. No longer tethered to their children by the necessity to feed them several times a day, women could be free to share the burden with their partners or another carer and could therefore seek employment outside of the home much more easily. Today, Glaser and Jones remark, choosing bottle feeding over breastfeeding is met with reprobation across the board, from midwives to social workers and mummy blogs. Precisely because the benefits of breastfeeding for infants are clear and have been scientifically demonstrated, it has been assumed that not choosing this option was akin to child abuse. Yet not because bottle feeding is the second-best option does it mean that it actively inflicts harm upon the child. As Rachel Cusk wryly describes in A Life’s Work, “A quantity of evangelical fire is reserved for those tempted to sin with the bottle” (119) Moreover, the “breast is best” discourse which is being foisted on young mothers as soon as they become pregnant, can have negative consequences on the mother’s mental health if, for any reason, she finds that she is unable to breastfeed, or even if she finds that she is unable to provide enough nutrients for the baby to thrive. Failure to breastfeed, Jones demonstrates, is a major factor in the occurrence of postnatal depression among young mothers and should be addressed as such. The injunctions to protect the unborn child as well as to breastfeed exclusively, are forced upon women in the name of an ideology which would place the needs of the child before those of her mother. For Jones and Glaser, they all participate in an arms’ race to purity which harms the women, who end up suffering excruciating amounts of guilt, often leading to anxiety and depression, indirectly harming the babies themselves. A similar logic is at play in the advice surrounding sleep training and dealing with toddlers’ tantrums. The emphasis is always clearly laid on the needs of the children, but never on the mothers, who are given impossible standards they cannot live up to.
Jones and Glaser both tackle the issue of women’s return to the workforce once they have given birth. Once again, women are being served with impossibly contradictory injunctions. On the one hand, they are expected to stay home with their children for up to the first 18 months of their lives, but they are not being given the adequate financial support to sustain such a prolonged time away from work and are more likely to fall behind in their professional progression when they do return. While the possibility to get back to work or not in the very first weeks or months following the birth of a child is often presented under the rhetoric of “individual choice”, many women find that their options are limited by their guilt, on one side, and the financial needs of the household on the other. Some women are indeed very happy to spend as long as possible with their young children, while others cannot wait to get back to their professional lives, if not only to enjoy the company of other adults. Modern parenting has enclosed mothers within the home, away from the public sphere, where they find themselves isolated and cut off from the community. While some manage to find local child support groups and playdate arrangements, many find they crave the social interactions they had fostered in the lives they had before being parents yet feel guilty for wanting to leave their children in the care of another, having been persuaded that that would also inflict irreparable damage upon them. As they try to travel up to the sources of the cultural injunction for women to be the sole carers of their children in the first years of their lives, both Jones and Glaser identify John Bowlby’s theories on “attachment parenting” as the main influence on the contemporary discourses around who is best suited to look after a young child. Like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, they realise that the blame does not really rest on John Bowlby himself, but rather on the way his theories have been appropriated – and in some degree distorted – by contemporary discourses on supposedly “good” mothering. Essentially, mothers today are being told that anything short of a lengthy and exclusive involvement in the care of a child on the part of her mother is likely to inflict emotional damage upon them, which has a chilling effect on those mothers who both wish to be good parents as well as get back to an activity in which they can thrive as individuals. Glaser is particularly wary of the way neuroscience has been reined in to give a scientific backing to what essentially amounts to a moral prejudice: babies’ brains, she claims, are not “set” by the age of three. The belief that a child’s life is completely defined by the first few years of her life is also part of a discourse that is aimed at keeping women in their place, and it still has a lot of traction, even though it has been debunked by several neuroscientists.
Both books argue for a complete change in the way we approach young motherhood. For Lucy Jones, we need a proper recognition of the deep transformation experienced by women who become mothers, possibly with the help of “matrescent rituals” that ease the transition into motherhood. Eliane Glaser argues for a more holistic societal approach on the issue of mothers’ integration into a contemporary society which tends to segregate them into the private domain. The major contribution both authors make to the debate is that they both help to deconstruct the seemingly empowering discourses that are being foisted upon women today as replacement for the old myths and ideologies. 45 years after Adrienne Rich wrote Of Woman Born, young mothers are still assailed by constant feelings of guilt and inadequacy, maybe even more than they used to. If we want this to change, we need to make sure the old orthodoxies are not replaced by new ones. The choices we as mothers make must be real choices.