Introduction to Motherhood Mythology

by Glenys Livingstone

Adrienne Rich notes that there are no experts on the subject of motherhood[i] … that it is women’s own painfully gathered knowledge of it (as mothers and daughters)… their own sense of urgency, their own memories, needs, questions and hopes… that they must above all trust. This I have done in the gathering of research for my thesis.

My own experience of motherhood, as a mother, has had a radicalising effect on me. For my first pregnancy I was single and alone… “thrown to the world” for it to deal with me as it would. It was a shocking experience; and in it was the budding of my feminist consciousness.

My two subsequent pregnancies, this time within a marriage context, were again revealing. I got to live with my children (the first was adopted out and later died). Somehow I was supposed to know how to care for them, while my husband went out every day to work. The assumption that I perceive was being made by the culture around me was that each child I gave birth to was almost totally my responsibility. And at the same time it was assumed that as mother per se, I had abdicated my responsibility for my own life.

The truth is that I did indeed learn quickly about caring for and loving my children… I was very nurturant. And indeed my children gave me back a lot, I enjoyed their very existences. I did become a mother.

But a mother wasn’t all I wanted to be, there were many other parts of me yet unmanifested. And there was something negatively appealing to me about being a mother… about being pregnant and breastfeeding at least… I felt my existence was justified and I did not have to reach any further. Colette Downing calls it “the Cinderella Syndrome” … the wish in women to remain dependent, passive .[ii] It struggled in my being for supremacy over what I believe to be a more innate drive, to come home to my Self. I experienced a choice between my Self and motherhood. I did in the end choose my self above all, expressed radically in the leaving of my children, at least temporarily. I am now in the process of trying to work motherhood back into my choice where I can.

However I believe that the fact of needing to choose is at least partly attributable to the way in which my culture handles motherhood. I have chosen to restrict my main concern in this thesis largely to my own white Western culture, through the study of other cultures has much to offer by way of relativising this cultural mythos… or on the other hand much to offer to broaden my argument since there exist parallel motherhood mythologies –sometimes more oppressive – in other cultures.[iii]

What eventually precipitated my conscious research for this thesis on motherhood mythology was a dialogue I had with the archetypal image of the Great Mother within me. She constellated for me in the form of a mother bear. I had been at the point of raging at Her for trying to imprison me, and She countered with the exclamation that She was a victim too –that She Herself was imprisoned by deep cultural assumptions. As long as She is embodied by “shes” who do all or most of the nurturing of infants and small children, She as an archetypal image will be affected.[iv]

I believe that the cycle of the reproduction of mothering by women must be broken, that more men must learn to do mothering, that children must be loved by more than one person (or two). Our children belong to all of us and we all belong to them… other peoples have always known this, but the culture to which I belong has lost sight of it.

It is a commonly held notion that it is women’s biology that has bound them… that women’s liberation has only become possible with scientific advance, technological intervention. But this is in fact short-sighted. Women have always attempted to control their biology, often against great pressure from the dominant culture, sometimes with its support. Contraception has always been available in various forms, knowledge of it is what has been suppressed. Abortion (and even infanticide) has always been practised –and sometimes legitimated by the culture – when for various reasons it was deemed necessary. And as of child rearing, the extent of women’s involvement is not justified simply by the fact of lactation… in some cultures and at other times, men have participated more, either by taking their children to the fields with them, or staying in the village with them, as fathers, older brothers, or grandfathers.[v]

As Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, women must stop believing that the Creator/Nature is responsible for the “present absurdities”. We must start believing that our biology does not betray us, that there are other possibilities.

I have in Chapter One of this thesis presented a notion / a possibility, of a whole motherhood by describing something of the Great Mother of old. She was nurturant, but She was virgin and crone too. In Chapters Two and Three I relate something of what happened to Her in Western European culture: in Greek philosophy, and then in the Judeo-Christian tradition. She becomes therein confined to a passive motherhood. Chapter Four is an account of how women as mothers particularly suffer in and from this limited role, but also how from a psychoanalytic point of view it is unhealthy for everyone. In the final chapter I describe a possibility for change that is perhaps already beginning to happen. I describe a theology that I call “maternal”. Most theology has been done from the point of view of the (male) child… hardly ever from the point of view of the nurturing parent, who has been mostly the woman as mother. A question I came to this thesis with is, what is the reality of the nurturing parent, how might “they” theologise?


[i] Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets and Silence, p 259.

[ii] Colette Downing. The Cinderella Syndrome. I would now comment that this “wish” has its roots in a woman’s feeling of powerlessness to do anything else, given the patriarchal cosmology and narrative of our era.

[iii] As Sheila Kitzinger discusses in Women as Mothers.

[iv] She is also imprisoned by an inability of so much of current religious consciousness to relate to Her as Creative Principle.

[v] Elizabeth Fisher relates how the Montagnas Indians did not understand why the French Jesuit missionaries got upset about the Indian married women making love with Indian men other than their husbands, and therein making possible confusion over who was the father of any children. One Indian remarked, “you Friend love only your own children, but we love all the children of our tribe”. Woman’s Creation: Sexual Evolution and the Shaping of Society,  p. 259.

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