Perhaps due to the unique position humans assign themselves among all living beings, giving birth to a child is considered a sacred act. The extent to which the title of “sacredness,” bestowed upon a woman after giving birth, serves the mother’s best interests is a subject of debate. While this rhetoric symbolically places heaven at the feet of the woman who has given birth, in practice, it often implies that she should be controlled.
In the absence of any health issues and by choice, women can bear children during a significant portion of their lives. Especially in ancient times when human self-awareness was only beginning to develop, a woman’s ability to give birth and create life might have seemed incomprehensible and intimidating to the male gender. Jean Cournut, in his book “Why Men Fear Women”, discusses the reasons behind this fear: “ This is an essential fear. Therefore, one assumption can be put forward: men keep women under their dominion because they fear them; they do whatever it takes to defend themselves against the object of their fear, resorting to every conceivable method from the most rational to the most mystical”(1). While the identity of the biological mother of any human offspring has never been a question, determining the father’s identity has only become possible in recent times. Therefore, throughout the ages, there has always been an element of doubt regarding the ownership of offspring. To reduce this doubt, it was necessary for women to be under control.
The methods employed by men to keep women under their dominion are countless and have evolved and diversified over thousands of years. Locking women into the identity of motherhood by sanctifying it and constantly depicting the ‘ideal mother’ through ideological tools is one of these methods. As motherhood is sanctified, the societal aspects of raising a child are proportionally overlooked. Approaches that emphasize the role of the father and promote a more equal parenting concept are relatively advanced in this regard, but essentially, they still approach the matter from an individual standpoint, missing the fact that humans are social beings.
Mother with two children II, 1915, Egon Schiele
All mammals devote a certain period to caring for the offspring they bring into the world, nourishing them, protecting them, and imparting essential survival skills before releasing them into the wild. However, for humans, this process is excessively long. Even when a human child can walk on their own, speak well enough to express themselves, and feed themselves, they still cannot separate from their parents. Even becoming proficient in cleaning their room, mastering the art of shopping, speaking multiple languages, and tackling complex math problems are not enough! As the list of expectations from ordinary individuals in the modern world grows, the burden on families increases proportionally. Considering the increasing complexity of our lives and the soaring expectations, isn’t it excessively demanding to place almost the entire responsibility of raising a child on the family, particularly on women?
Perhaps to overlook the peculiarity of this situation, a sense of sacredness needed to be attached to the process of a mother dedicating herself to her child. However, it seems that the sanctity of motherhood alone is no longer motivating enough in recent times. Fortunately, social media comes to the rescue. Pregnancy photo shoots, baby showers, celebrating the first tooth, the first birthday, the first step, and the constant sharing of every moment of both the child and mother on social media, all contributing to the pursuit of an idealized concept of motherhood… Amid all these extravagances, what surprises me the most is how many women suddenly define themselves as the mothers of their three- to five-month-old babies and prioritize this identity over all the other roles they’ve had for so long. In the midst of all this excess, aside from the influence of hormones, I believe there’s also an aspect that can be explained by cognitive dissonance theory.
Cognitive dissonance theory posits that people have a need for consistency between their attitudes and beliefs, and they strive to avoid situations of inconsistency. When there is a misalignment between behavior and thought, individuals typically attempt to resolve this dissonance in one of three ways: 1) by changing their behavior, 2) by seeking new information to reduce the weight of the conflicting belief, or 3) by diminishing the importance of the belief itself.
To better illustrate the theory, let’s briefly discuss a famous experiment conducted by the renowned social psychologist Leon Festinger. In this experiment, a group of students was asked to perform a boring task for one hour and then was instructed to say positive things about the upcoming participant who would take part in the same task. Some students were paid $20 for their participation, while others were paid only $1. You might expect that the student who received $20 would be more motivated to lie about the task being enjoyable, right? However, the results defied this expectation. It was found that the students who received $1 were actually more motivated to lie about the task being enjoyable. This was because the student who received $20 felt that they had already received fair compensation for the boring task, while the student who received $1 did not want to admit that they had undertaken such a tedious task for only $1. As a result, they convinced themselves that the task was genuinely enjoyable (2).
I wonder if a similar cognitive process might be at play in parenthood, especially in motherhood. Despite the advances in modern obstetrics, the lengthy pregnancy period, painful childbirth, sleepless nights following birth, the various crises that come with each developmental stage, the expenses and time dedicated to education and nurturing – all of these factors contribute to a considerable burden carried by parents, particularly mothers. To rationalize such a sacrifice, it might be necessary for mothers to reevaluate and magnify the positive aspects of their experiences during this process. And perhaps for this reason, even though we often hear about what a wonderful and special experience it is to have children, encountering those who openly admit how challenging it can be is not all that common. Those who dare to express such sentiments are frequently met with a public backlash (3)
French psychoanalyst Corinne Maier not only openly acknowledges that motherhood is an exceedingly challenging profession but also takes it a step further by writing a book titled “No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children,” in which she describes babies as creatures that put an end to a parent’s sex life, empty their bank accounts, disrupt their careers, and take away their freedom. Additionally, she points out that the idealized myth of parenthood serves an economic purpose by providing a steady stream of consumers. These prospective consumers also translate into cheaper labor for the market (4).
Actually, the recent news that I read not long ago brought all of these thoughts to mind. In Taiwan, a mother took her dentist child to court to recover the money she spent on raising and educating him, and she won the case (5). This is such an unconventional way of thinking that it’s not far-fetched to label the mother as a monster and an opportunist. What do you think about a mother who raised and educated her child with the hope of getting something in return? Is she a monster mother? Yet for much of the world, the social state has become a nostalgic memory, the state’s role in upbringing is diminishing, and today’s parents, who invest their heart and soul into providing the best conditions for raising their children, live with uncertainty about what awaits them when they become unable to work, is it surprising for a parent to view their child as a genuine investment tool?
A child free from the guilt of ownership and the burden of economic competition will grow up with the will to do what needs doing and the capacity for joy in doing it.
The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin
I don’t intend to follow the path of the French psychoanalyst who calls for a collective halt to human reproduction. Certainly, bringing a child into the world and raising them has many satisfying and rewarding aspects that can only be truly understood through experience. It’s unlikely that so many women who define motherhood as the turning point in their lives and describe it as the most beautiful feeling they’ve ever had, asserting that they wouldn’t trade the bond with their child for anything else, are living in a world of mere imagination. The problem lies in the excessive idealization and romanticization of the process of giving birth and raising a child. Such an approach hinders the expression of the difficulties of parenthood. It isolates and alienates parents, especially mothers, by making them the sole responsible for the child-rearing process, overshadowing the fact that humans are social beings.
Unless we proclaim, “Parenting is undeniably challenging, so let’s abandon reproduction,” we must underscore the reality that we are inherently social creatures. Consequently, nurturing this social existence should be regarded as a communal duty, calling for dedicated efforts to promote the socialization of child-rearing. This becomes the most compassionate path for not only the middle-class parents who deplete themselves both financially and emotionally in their quest to provide their children a decent place in the rat race, but also to middle-class children who spend their entire childhood in what seems like an endless competition. Also, it is equally the most compassionate solution for working-class parents, laden with the guilt of not being able to offer their children a decent shot in a demanding world, and for working-class children who, growing up in adversity, is uncertain whether they will secure a place to fill their belly in the daily grind of life. Furthermore, it stands as the sole path to liberate motherhood from the weight of all its ideological burdens.
- Cournut, Jean (2006). “Pourquoi les hommes ont peur des femmes” PUF
- You can watch Festinger’s experiment on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=korGK0yGIDo
- “The Breakdown of a Taboo: Regretting Having Children” (5harfliler.com): Link to the article
- Maier, Corrinne (2009). “No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children,” Emblem Editions.