Motherhood and Femininity: I think I get it now.

I cannot stop thinking about this disconnect (for me) between motherhood and femininity. It is a bit bizarre because I never really had to think about it. We always extend what we assume as roles assigned by nature onto a gender identity. It should therefore follow that since a woman is supposed to have a uterus, motherhood should extend to her identity in the way that femininity has.

When I thought of it that way, that’s when I figured it. Mother and motherhood are separate in my mind.

Culturally, only a woman gets assigned the label “mother”. It is really because of her uterus and because by this uterus, she birthed a human being. But when it comes to motherhood or mothering then it goes beyond her body to a different language; a different set of ideologies, I suppose. Society already has a set of ideas on what motherhood looks like. There is an established language in existence and all that is required is a body to fit into it. Which I suppose is why Prof. P in class today dichotomized it with femininity. Femininity has the same structure. There is already a set standard of what it is to be feminine, which is closely linked to the body, and one has to fit into that structure to be feminine.

BUT motherhood has a language that allows for any one and any thing to fit into it. I gave the example in class earlier of how my sister Joyce (I am assigning her another name- she can fit into it) criticizes my other sister’s parenting methods. She thinks she is too rough and has repeatedly said she believes our nieces have grown up “by accident.” To give an example on the “right” kind of mothering style, she- and most of the other family members, me inclusive- have cited my brother David’s methods. He is gentle, he doesn’t raise his voice, he actually talks to his children, he takes days off work when they are sick, and he spends hours at home with them- and never snaps. We don’t feel weird about the gender switch.

Parenting is something we don’t dichotomize. It is less about the gender of the person and more about the caregiving that the child receives from the person. Through the lens of the child, father and mother are the same. We use this lens to decide parenting; and thereby make fatherhood and motherhood interchangeable.

To further illustrate that the language assigned to motherhood is more fluid than femininity, we could think of objects. Or even people that become parent figures in someone’s life. People will say things like “She’s like a mother to me.” Or introduce someone who has played a parent’s role in their lives with, “This is my second mother.” Or even, “This is my real mother” to distinguish between a biological and a non-biological mother. The same goes for objects that we may get attached to that become an embodiment of motherhood in our lives. [I have an old shawl I wear when I am having a particularly tough day. My mother used to wear it in the 80s. It is really, really old. But in her absence, this shawl has come to be an extension of her to me.]

This all does not apply to femininity. Femininity requires a human body; a woman’s body. We do not tolerate the same language embodied in a man, and boys will get teased in school for being sissies (society even has a different language for the male body in this form). Femininity cannot extend to an object like that old shawl I probably shouldn’t wear in public. And that is where, for me, the two excesses depart when using them to apply to a woman and gender.


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