Letting Men into the Cult of Motherhood

HiResI’m having a dilemma.

Am I a parent, or am I a mother?

Am I a uterus, or am I a person?

It sounds funny, but actually, it’s quite serious.  From the age of eleven, I have been reminded every few weeks of my ‘reproductive potential’. Now, in my mid-forties, the odd sweat emanating from my left armpit as I embark on an apparently one-sided menopause, reminds me of that potential coming to an end. Now more than ever, I am consciously unpicking what it means to be a woman. What it is that really constitutes the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ beyond body parts and hormones?  What are the scientific facts about ‘gender’ and how many of my assumptions are the result of nothing more than cultural mythology and social conditioning?*

I have always bought into the idea of ‘the feminine’ as a universal principle. I absorbed the western interpretation of Taoist yin/yang thinking from childhood and have never really questioned it until now.  This idea of the feminine representing the creative dark, the yin, the nurturing principles of community and communication has much appeal, but I am beginning to understand the ways in which this concept as a subtle cultural principle polarizes men and women. It narrows the economic, social and human potential of both sexes.  I have been thinking a lot about whether it would be helpful for women’s equality if I played down what I feel is my ‘difference’ from men; the fact that I birth and breastfeed, the fact that I bleed.

The problem, as I see it, is that if we stick with the feminine and masculine principles as cultural rather than something housed within each individual, how can men ever meet us in the domestic sphere so that we ‘parent’ our children together? If we assume that women are innately better at nurturing, we tie ourselves to the kitchen sink and limit our possibilities, at the same time sentencing men to a life outside the home, chasing some intangible goal that takes them away from their families and the hard work of bringing up children. Men too can be nurturing, intuitive, loving, and caring; these qualities are not somehow innately bound up in motherhood are they? Before you say it, men get a hit of the love hormone oxytocin when they hug their children too!

Does it empower mothers and increase their status in society of we say they are nature’s homemakers and innately nurturing?  I am beginning to see how this helps to keep mothers in a place of cultural servitude, maintaining nothing but status quo. Equally, does it really ‘empower’ men to have a social script that says they should be ‘out there’ earning money, locking them into a lifetime of ladder-climbing and provider-stress that keeps them away from their offspring?

Yet, I am left with a glaring issue if I deny the glory, power and mystical wonder of my uterus!  HEAR ME ROOAAAR! The issue is where to put the fact that mothering my daughters has been the best, most enlightening and empowering experience of my life. Of all the ‘careers’ I have had (and there have been many) mothering my children has been the most natural fit for my personal strengths and weaknesses.

But I have begun to question whether I am ‘mothering’ my children or actually just ‘parenting’ them? What, when we go beyond birth and breastfeeding, am I giving them that my husband does not, other than some experience-based empathy about periods? If I’m honest, my husband is a better shoulder to cry on. He is the ‘nurturing force’ of calm in our home. I am not innately better at laundry and finding lost homework folders. I am far more the outwardly-focussed forager-spirit traditionally associated with masculinity. My partner and I have found ourselves in different (and I would claim, the wrong) spheres as a result of our own social/cultural expectations, education and upbringing.

I despair when gentle fathers who are great with their children, get derided for ‘being in touch with their feminine side’ as if it’s a bad thing. Surely these men are simply evolved human beings. If I hear one more excuse for friend’s sons being allowed to hit me with sticks because, “Oh! They’re just being a boy,” I might choke on my yin/yang necklace. How limiting, how sad. LET’S SHAKE IT UP!

If you take the gender-based social conditioning out of parenting (as in the case of many single sex couples) things get really interesting. It becomes a question of individual temperament, laying the groundwork for a more equal distribution of the task of bringing up children. Plus, a whole load of women can unburden themselves of the guilt they carry about the fact that motherhood, for them, is not enough.

I have found motherhood to be very tribal and divided, with no unified or unifying political voice. Part of the problem is that we see ‘the other’ woman’s choice as the thing that holds us back. Stay-at-home mothers view full-time working mums and nanny-culture as part of the reason motherhood is not valued, and working mums see the stay-at-homers as upholding cultural stereotypes that maintain inequality in pay and rubbish parental leave legislation. We are at a paralysing impasse.

Can and should ‘motherhood’ be absorbed into the word ‘parenthood’, or is it more important to raise the status of motherhood as a ‘career choice’? Can we ever go beyond gender and simply be humans, together, doing this thing called life? Do we need to let men into the cult of motherhood and bridge the divide, one dirty nappy at a time?

I’d love to know what you think and especially hear about any good books on the subject; I’ll compile them into a reading list and share.

*Gender Delusions by Cordelia Fine is a good starting point on all this.

10 thoughts on “Letting Men into the Cult of Motherhood

  1. I think women can bare the burdens of mothering children from the dirty diapers to the bouts of stomach flu that they inevitably drag home. God made women have a special gift, I feel, to die for your kid. I read a study once about men and whether or not they have that “I would die” bond, they were asked that if they had to make a choice between saving the life of their child or their wife which would they choose. The huge majority chose their wife…because she would be able to bring them more children and also care for them…and they would not be left alone to raise that child. Scarey thought huh


  2. Gosh that’s thought-provoking. I wonder, if one day we will eventually reach a place where parenting is based less on gender and more on choice. I’d love to think so, given that more and more men are taking the childcare role, but I’m guessing it will take a long time…


  3. My feeling is that men and women should share the rearing of their children in whatever way works best for them and I think this is starting to happen. Are things as black and white as they used to be? I don’t think so. This is a fabulous post about equality – for men – and much deserved. You are one of the best feminist / equality writers I know. XX


  4. Fantastic essay. I want to tweet it, FB it, pick it apart and book club it, and may well do some of the above! There is so much to respond to. My husband is the archetypal male believing that his role is to ensure that his family are financially secure, however he is also very active in parenting, caring and demonstrative. He does occasionally come out with the typical corker of “but you’re their mother!” to explain or rationalise what I should be doing or feeling, and I regularly bat it back into his court with “but you’re their father!”, and he gets the irony of his statement.

    What I do resist however is the idea that we feel “the other woman’s” choices are holding us back. I have gone back to work and have a nanny. I miss my children, but I also missed being the other part of me that worked in a dynamic fast paced environment, working at a level that I spent years getting to, and which was and is reflective of some of my interests and passions. I in no way feel that SAHMs are living up to a stereotype, I just think that they are making different choices to mine, and that’s absolutely fine. Being a SAHP (parent) isn’t for everyone, nor is going back to work. Both are difficult choices in many ways, as each involves compromise. At the end of the day, when people talk about “choosing” between kids or career I think it slightly odd – I would never give up having my magical, incredible children; but I know if I want to have my other side fulfilled I need to give up a little bit – and at the same time, I don’t do the networking and events I used to at work as I would much rather eke out as much time at the beginning and end of the day with my children, and I have to say, my husband does the same. V interested to hear what others think of this. Will now go forth and forward!


  5. I think this may be shifting with generational changes. My husband stays home with our one year old, I work. This makes sense for us because he wants to be home, and I want to work, and I have more earning power than he does, so its win-win. What I think is interesting is that most people we know under 50 find our marriage and home life unremarkable, while our parents friends have expressed concern about the effect of his staying home on our marriage. Apparently the fact that I earn the money, while his hard work and dedication do financially unrewarded is supposed to slowly tear us apart. We think this is stupid. Hopefully such assumption will go the way to the dinosaurs, and more men will feel free to SAHP if that is what they want.


  6. What does it mean to be masculine and feminine these days, when both genders hold the active and receptive principles within them….. fathers can be mothers and mothers, fathers seen in the many parents doing it alone. And I agree that it is down to individual personality and style. But then I do wonder, and in agreement with the first comment, that women have this protective link to their children which is possibly something not all men may experience and understand – when you have grown a baby within your body – it creates a link that you (well I would) would die to protect your children – and I think of the last person slain before Harry Potter is orphaned, and it’s his mum. I am sure that many, many fathers would die for their offspring too, but there is a deep, deep cellular link between a mother and her child……


  7. Blimey Sara Bran your brain is a marvel and I whole heartedly enjoy reading about your dilemma – and feel strange in that I rarely considered my role – and found myself thrust into being the mother and my old man the breadwinner. Not through choice – but through circumstance – and it is only as we travel down our paths that we question when either of us decided to go each way.

    As the mama I do indeed feel a ‘deep cellular link’ but surely my husband feels this too – but perhaps just not in the same way, I mean without the pregnancy process – but via another process that is just as difficult for him to define as is my ‘cellular link’…I’ll ask him

    And Yes, I agree, as a SAHP – I do feel that we are not valued and that for mums who work the shoe is on the other foot – that we chafe at each others roles each believing their choice is best – it is indeed a paralysing passé – but is definitely a cultural one that we need to SHAKE UP.


  8. Brilliant post Sara. Having returned to work a few months ago after my second (and final) maternity leave, this post is close to the bone for me and I could blather on for ages. I second those comments of Mama and More aka Zaz as I often envy, not reproach, my SAHM friends despite knowing that I would prefer to be working and am happy (most of the time) with my choice – each to their own. I am now back at work full-time and know that my husband doesn’t share the same guilt that I do being away from the kids so much. I’m not sure whether I feel it more because of my maternal instincts or because as a mother, I feel as though I will be judged at every turn – whether I work or stay at home. I often think there are too many options for mothers these days and perhaps fathers would rather keep it simple.


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