On Motherhood and Womanhood

Dr. Pamela Chrabieh
Dr. Pamela Chrabieh
2014, Lebanon

Numerous are the times when I – and other women intellectuals and activists in Lebanon – am criticized for being a woman who ‘thinks’ (meaning challenges mainstream and traditional mindset and system) and ‘works’… ‘Why bother?’, ‘Women should only be sluts, housewives and mothers’, ‘Thinking gives bad ideas, like abandoning your husband and children’, ‘Working outside one’s house is a Western invention. We have our own Eastern traditions’, ‘Shopping is your answer’, ‘Go back to your kitchen ya Hurma’, ‘A woman who prefers her carrier over marriage is definitely ugly, frustrated, or mentally sick’, etc.

I am a mother, but I strongly believe that being a mother does not stop your thinking capacities or any other capacities, that ‘thinking’ does not lower your motherhood faculties, and that the process of ‘thinking’ is not related to a category of human beings – i.e. men. I also believe that being a mother is not my only condition and vocation as a woman, and that the equation of motherhood with womanhood is an essentialism. There is a strong presumption that women can, will and want to be mothers, and … that is/would be it! Women are naturalized (via notions of maternal instinct, religious interpretations and biological pseudoexplanation) and essentialized as mothers – and of course submissive mothers.

In Lebanon and the surrounding Arab countries, the culture of idealization of motherhood (and a mother of boys) prevails as the crowning fulfillment of a woman’s life – but only if she is married (motherhood is ‘sacred’ so long as its offspring are ‘legitimate’; children are only legitimate if they have a man’s name and if that man legally controls the mother)   -, as well as a clear public/private divide, making women economically dependent upon men, and-or disadvantaged within the paid labor market. Except for few cases, women are usually seen as ‘less committed’ thus are paid less or are not appointed to high managerial positions because of their current, or presumed future, childcare commitments. And let us not forget the impact of the cult status of motherhood within Islam and Christianity, and how it influences individuals’ perceptions of women without children (child-less or child-free) – generally regarded as not quite fully female -, while mothers who leave their children in the care of others, even on a part-time basis, are vulnerable to the charge of generating ‘maternal deprivation’.

There are feminists who envisaged repudiating motherhood as only and entirely oppressive, like Canadian-born feminist Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, 1970).  Firestone described pregnancy as “barbaric”, and wrote that a friend of hers compared labor to “shitting a pumpkin”. But there are others such as American poet Adrienne Rich who reclaimed pre-patriarchal features of the bodily and social experience of motherhood, as an actual or metaphorical representation of women’s creativity. Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Institution and Experience (1976) is a thoughtful, non-fiction prose examination of motherhood that could have been written in 2013. She argues in her book that women are still experiencing motherhood as institution, as a set of rules and regulations imposed by outsiders.  “Institutionalized motherhood demands of women maternal ‘instinct’ rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realization, relation to others rather than the creation of self” (p.42). Therefore, “The mother’s battle for her child—with sickness, with poverty, with war, with all the forces of exploitation and callousness that cheapen human life—needs to become a common human battle, waged in love and in the passion for survival.  But for this to happen, the institution of motherhood must be destroyed” (p. 280) – meaning the patriarchal institution of motherhood!

Motherhood is but one dimension of a woman’s being. I am a mother, indeed, but I am not only a mother. And there are women who are not mothers. Rather than being only defined as ‘the wife of’ and ‘the mother of’, or by the status of childless, ‘aaness’, etc., we should be able to define ourselves in terms of our multidimensional identities/capacities/vocations, as all humans should be… Also, becoming a mother should not mean to be isolated and not allowed to participate in the social/political/professional world. Motherhood does not limit our actual possibilities as women and the expansion of the limits of our life.

As Adrienne Rich called for a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body, I call for every Lebanese and Arab woman’s right to find out what she does feel, want and need, instead of accepting what she has been told she must feel/do. I call for her right to think the unthought, re-think the thought, and choose. I call for her right to listen to the many voices inside herself! There is nothing inappropriate, inconsequential or scandalous about not being a mother, or being a mother and active citizen and professional. And there are certainly no ‘incongruent’ parts of yourself, as a woman, a human being, especially your intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic creations, that must be ‘destroyed’.

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