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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  1. Thank you! Love it! At last someone is raising this issue. I’m sick of trying to get a job in this country as a married woman and mother of three, while often being told i won’t be able to be professional. And i’m sick of the guilt trip between being a mother and my other passions. There is a lot of social pressure on women here. To be perfect moms and wives… yet if we work outside our homes, also to be ‘perfect’. Why isn’t that perfection asked of men? Yes there is a pressure on men to be married, but not as much as on women. And yes the mother of ‘boys’ is seen as ‘fulfilled’ !!

  2. I don’t have children. I’m married and am not able to bear for many causes, mainly biological. The pressure is indeed unbearable. Not from my husband’s side, but his family and society.

  3. Being a woman… multidimensional…
    personally, i am a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife, a nurse, an artist, a citizen, and i enjoy cooking and reading.
    i am all of this and more.

  4. Femme et fière de l’être!
    Femme brillant de mille feux!
    Femme qui a la capacité d’être génie, et qui l’est!
    Femmes… nous ne sommes nullement le ‘sexe faible’!
    Cessons d’être victimes et emmurées dans notre silence et bougeons!

  5. ‘Je veux faire ce que je veux’. Cette quête de liberté devrait dicter notre existence, non pas ‘Fais ce que je te dis de faire, car je suis ton père/ époux/frère/despote/zaim…’
    Une liberté de l’être humain, femme oui, et aussi autre.
    Merci pour ce beau post!

  6. Thank you all for your comments and for following this blog. Motherhood and Womanhood can be defined in so many ways. I humbly am sharing my definition here. Hoping that others will do the same.

  7. I am a mother of one girl. I would have loved to have another child back when I could, but although there were many propositions, there was no proposals. So Nadine remained my only child.
    As a bit of a tongue in cheek, I gave myself the name of Imm Nadine, on Facebook, but that created some confusion when people wanted to tag Nadine and they would click on my name instead.
    So as a bigger tongue in cheek, I gave myself the name Mart Michael (my Canadian husband’s name). When Nadine saw that, she gave me heck for not writing my own name instead of all those labels.
    What followed was this status:
    Nadine gave me heck for my name. She said that I am ME. I am not to identify myself as someone’s daughter, someone’s mom or someone’s wife. She is right of course; a woman’s identity should be about who she is, her spirit, and her soul. I will go back to my own name, but I do want to say for the record that I am proud to be Jamil and Layla’s daughter, I am ecstatic to be Michael’s wife, and I am blessed to be Nadine’s mom.
    I am happy that I raised a strong and capable woman.

  8. I strongly agree on the importance of one exploring all aspects of identity. Sometimes we do focus on one aspect but it doesn’t summarize an individual.

    1. I/m proud to read that women have come a long way- mainly in the arab world- since the time I started struggling (early 60’s to present) for our rights- I made it on my own! Traveled, studied, worked and still seeking what’s right in life for both men & women- I can tell you: Don’t stop seeking what’s right…and believe that life’s worth living- when you’re liberated from WITHIN!

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