Motherhood and Maternity

Maina Chawla Singh. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Motherhood the world over is commonly understood in terms of a generic terminology. Regardless of country, clime, or class, age-old mythologies in all cultures eulogize motherhood and impart to it an importance that goes well beyond the physical act of birthing. At the level of twenty-first-century popular culture, however, motherhood and maternity have been appropriated by modern-day consumerism, particularly in Western cultures where specialized stores like Mothercare sell fashionable maternity apparel, and Internet sites like The Mothersbliss Shopping Experience offer both goods and advice on mothering. While religious symbolism stresses motherhood as creation, modern-day marketing targets the “mother-consumer” to sell fashionable maternity clothing, lingerie, and accessories as a form of “Pregnancy Chic!”

Given all the numerous contextual underpinnings, the concept of motherhood lends itself to a variety of interpretations across culture and historical time. It therefore needs to be analyzed in terms of history, culture, myth, art, and more lately in terms of the scientific discourses that shape new reproductive technologies and population control policies, all of which focus on women’s bodies and their biological ability to become mothers. This article touches upon all these contexts, drawing illustrations from diverse cultural, social, and geographical locations to point out that motherhood is valorized in all cultures, yet the notions, symbols, and cultural practices that constitute motherhood and maternity are neither homogenous globally nor stable chronologically.

History, Religion, and Myth

Motherhood is wrapped in many cultural meanings. Birthing and nurturing new life physically has led to a conflation of “feminine,” “maternal,” and “feminine spirituality” in many cultures and religious traditions. Motherhood has been painted as a sacred and powerful spiritual path. In literature and in nationalist discourses alike, motherhood is a recurrent theme across cultures.

Religious scriptures and myths place motherhood in an exalted realm. Christian, Judaic, and Hindu religious imagery sentimentalizes and idealizes motherhood. While Madonna images are characteristic to Christianity, conceptualizations of the Devi-Ma (Goddess-Mother) in Hindu tradition are reinforced by the many goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, each epitomizing an attribute (Durga/Kali: strength; Lakshmi: prosperity/abundance; Saraswati: knowledge; etc.). In West African, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-Brazilian traditions, Yemaya (or Yemalla) is a creation goddess. Often depicted as a mermaid or a beautiful woman, and associated with the moon and ocean, Yemaya governs the household and rules over conception, birth, and ensures the safety of children. Local mythologies suggest that the fourteen Yoruba goddesses and gods spilled forth from Yemaya’s womb, and the breaking of her uterine waters caused a great flood that created the oceans. From her body were born the first human woman and man, who became the parents of all mortal beings on earth.

Although Buddhism does not give motherhood such overwhelming spiritual status and significance, maternal imagery and symbolism are present in the concept of the archetypal female Bodhisattvas, seen as supreme mothers. Tara is compared to a mother with compassion and forbearance; Prajnaparamita is seen as the mother of all Buddhas. Interestingly, the Bodhisattvas (transcendental ideal mothers) are also essentially androgynous—thus distinguishing the Buddhist spiritual tradition from the Christian and the Hindu.

Influenced by religious mythologies and local lore, classical literature from Europe, Africa, and Asia is filled with examples of self-sacrifice in the name of motherhood. While mothers are revered as creators, nurturers, and goddesses, they also inspire awe because they are believed to both protect and destroy. At the heart of the sprawling metropolis Mexico City stands the Monumento a la Madre, a monument commemorating motherhood. Its location and the Spanish inscription on it, “Porque su maternidad fue voluntaria” (because their maternity was voluntary), emphasize the centrality of motherhood in Mexican society. In fact, two of Mexico’s most important mythical figures are mothers, contrasting figures with origins in Mexican history and mythology. La Malinche (also known as Malintzin), a Mexican Indian princess born around 1500, was given as a slave to Hernán Cortés, the leader of the conquistadors in Mexico. She later bore him a child. Because of this sexual transgression and for her role as mediator between the Spanish and the native Indians, popular mythologies view her as a traitor and a bad mother responsible for the quick defeat of the indigenous peoples and the downfall of the entire Aztec Empire. In contrast, the Virgin of Guadalupe, a Madonna with indigenous features, is seen as incarnating all the values associated with the good Mexican mother: meek, kind, self-sacrificing.

Indeed, in modern societies the concept of mother has commanded popular appeal as a symbol of the nation-state. Nationalist discourses in diverse global contexts deploy the nation-as-mother symbolism to mobilize patriotic sentiments. Love of mother and love of nation have been conflated. The symbolism of the enslaved mother was at the heart of the anti-colonial nationalist struggles, both in India to free Bharat-Mata (Mother India) in the 1940s and in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. While patriotic songs and monuments in many countries celebrate the nation-as-mother, there are exceptions. In Russia, for instance, patriotic songs often invoke sentiments of loyalty toward the land of birth (rodina), referring to it as otechestvo (fatherland).

Although maternal ideals are espoused and valorized in all cultures, in patriarchal societies that uphold a woman’s central purpose to be her reproductive function, motherhood and mothering become intertwined with issues of a woman’s identity. Essentializing theories that define women in terms of fertility are reinforced socially through many female archetypes (such as the Virgin, Venus, and Mother Earth) that remain bound to women’s reproductive functions. Such cultural myths, perpetuated throughout the centuries, enforce the belief that motherhood is an essential part of being a woman. The Mexican writer Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974) pointed out that a Mexican woman does not consider herself to be a real woman unless she has proved herself to be fertile and the “halo of maternity” shines over her. This holds true for most women not only in Mexico but also in Iran, India, China, Korea, and many Latin American societies, where the index of motherhood is used to define “real” women. Given that motherhood becomes a prerequisite for social acceptance in such societies, many non-mothering women experience feelings of rejection and low self-esteem. In cultural practice, this means that patriarchies can deploy notions of motherhood to foster conservative traditions, through which motherhood becomes a means of female control.

Although in many cultures expectations of mothering roles are buttressed by intense social pressure to conform to them, this seems to be driven less by levels of modernity or urbanization than by the status accorded to norms of familial and community cohesiveness in a society. For instance, Japan’s highly urbanized, industrialized society continues to perpetuate highly prescriptive notions of motherhood, just as in Egypt, Iran, India, or Afghanistan. Despite differences in economic status and levels of development, all these societies share widely held beliefs about the importance of family and community linkages. Regardless of whether a particular African society displays a patrilineal or matrilineal kinship system, mothers are the essential building block of social relationships and identities in most African cultures. Because mothers symbolize familial ties and unconditional loyalty, motherhood is invoked even in extrafamilial situations that call upon these values. Women-as-mothers, then, become key players in the maintenance of linkages and acquire important community responsibilities.


Given such assumptions about motherhood, the act of birthing is both anxiety-producing and a dramatic moment in what is perceived as the cycle of creation. In many Islamic and Hindu communities, birthing is also associated with rituals of purity and pollution: While these traditions exempt the mother from household chores and burdensome tasks, they also regard her as unclean and force her to live somewhat segregated from community spaces for several days post-childbirth. In many societies in Africa and Asia, among Muslim, Hindu, and Christian families (both urban and rural), daughters still return to their natal family homes late in pregnancy, to be properly cared for and pampered during and after birthing. Given the high maternal and infant mortality rates in most developing countries, birthing is understandably regarded as a dangerous and life-threatening process, the successful completion of which calls for prayer and celebration.

African societies also widely posit birthing with great significance. Feminists in Africa, while conceding that this may at times operate in an oppressive manner, have attempted to recuperate other conceptualizations of motherhood that are empowering for women. Within such conceptualizations, birthing bestows a certain status on women—even mystical powers. Yoruba traditions are a case in point. Among the Yoruba, motherhood confers privileges that hark back to the very foundations of society and women’s presumed roles in it. Women symbolize fertility, fecundity, fruitfulness. The Yoruba say, “Iya ni wura, baba ni jigi” (Mother is gold, father is a mirror). Mother is gold: strong, valuable, true, central to a child’s existence, wise, also self-denying. The Yoruba also believe that ikunle abiyamo—the kneeling position that is assumed at the moment of birth—confers spiritual privileges on a mother. Thus there are powers, privileges, and entitlements that come with motherhood—even in the act of birthing.

Stereotypes of “Ideal” Mothers

Even in Western societies, at least until the postwar years, women were encouraged to produce large families, to find satisfaction and pride in motherhood. However, the nobility and respect assigned to full-time motherhood was still regarded as inferior to male pursuits. Thus, motherhood was simultaneously idealized and denigrated.

The importance of these cultural and religious symbols of motherhood is borne out by the fact that they are repeatedly invoked in art and literature and form part of ongoing mythologies that create icons and idealized stereotypes pervasive in communities. Literary and artistic works through the ages valorize those attributes of motherhood associated with Virgin-identified self-sacrifice, offset by myths of the bad mother, which are just as prevalent. Depictions of self-sacrificing mothers as creators who must bear pain with patience and nurture selflessly leave no space for mothers as women who feel pain, anger, frustration, or are simply drained by the responsibilities that accompany their mothering roles. Thus good mother stereotypes assist in sustaining a bad mother/good mother dichotomy within which patriarchy condemns the negative maternal feminine image.

Statistics, of course, prove that the universality of motherhood is a myth. Women across the globe are individual, multidimensional personalities who defy this super-construct. Their roles and self-perceptions as mothers are mediated by the complicated tapestry of culture, clime, and class that shape them. Feminists in the second half of the twentieth century have aimed to debunk these cultural myths.

Feminist Critiques

Debates over motherhood have been fundamental to feminist movements, whether in the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, India, or China. In this context, the issues for feminism are numerous. Some of these are analyzed in a historical context below, with references to how literary representations use tropes of motherhood that reinforce patriarchies of race and gender. Finally, contemporary debates on issues such as abortion, the use of reproductive technologies, surrogate motherhood, and single mothers are examined.

Broadly speaking, critiques of motherhood argue that femininity is widely defined in essentialist terms that assume that women have instincts that make them selfless nurturers. Such assumptions, in turn, shape social practices that make women automatically responsible as caregivers. Feminist theorists argue that such myths, constructed by the patriarchy, undergird social practices that eventually restrict women. Although contemporary feminisms have widely vocalized these issues, it is important to recognize that the first formulations on this issue predate twenty-first-century feminism.

The French writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) argued that women are repeatedly told from infancy that they are “made” for childbearing. While the “splendors of maternity” are forever being sung to her, the drawbacks of her situation—menstruation, illnesses, and even the boredom of household drudgery—are all justified by this “marvelous privilege” she has of bringing children into the world. Beauvoir pointed out that such pervasive socialization shapes women’s desire to “choose” motherhood.

The second-wave feminist movement in the United States (after the 1960s) brought these interrogations to center stage. Feminists argued that throughout human history, maternal experience has been defined and written by patriarchal culture. Religion, art, medicine, psychoanalysis, and other bastions of male power have objectified motherhood, have disregarded female subjectivity, and have silenced the voice of the mother. Feminist activists insisted on middle-class women’s right to work and participate in public life beyond the family (working class and poor women had been working all along, while also raising their families), and, along with this, that mothering was not essential to women’s fulfillment or necessary to every woman’s life.

Feminists in the United Kingdom, North America, and Europe began to challenge the overemphasis on fertility, insisting that the link between childbearing and childrearing is socially manipulative and serves to exclude women from other productive roles. Feminist theorists debunked the social pressures of a mothering role that seeks to control women’s bodies and energy. They argued that such notions limit women’s possibilities to the domestic sphere and restrict their entry into the public domain, thus vitally feeding into patriarchal agendas.

Although the second-wave feminists vocalized the issue of fertility more aggressively than before, it is important to remember that the earliest efforts in this direction were made in the 1920s through activism of the suffragists and women like Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), who founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. Sanger’s movement made an impact in North America, Britain, and India, and forcefully argued for “planned parenthood” as essential to ensure women’s participation in the public domain. Since the work of the second-wave feminists, fertility has remained a crucial part of the feminist agenda.

Literary Criticism

Since the 1970s, feminist critics have generated a prolific body of literary criticism that demands an inquiry into the nature of the maternal instinct and the psychology of the mother-child relationship. This task is common to feminism in the West and the widely different cultures of Japan and India. In the 1970s, Japanese feminist critiques began to assert that bosei (innate maternal instinct) was a social construct. They sought to demonstrate that modern Japanese conceptions of womanhood as motherhood, of motherhood as something natural and instinctive to women, were artifacts of contemporary society whose construction could be historically interrogated. Contemporary Japanese fiction such as Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (1983), about a woman struggling between the reality of motherhood and the expectations of society influenced by an idealized good mother paradigm, presents a stinging critique of rigid and constraining constructions of motherhood.

Along a related trajectory, the work of Marianne Hirsch from the late 1980s captures the spirit of Western feminists’ preoccupation with the literature of matrilineage in conjunction with an ongoing feminist pursuit of retrieving maternal subjectivity. The literary representations of mother-daughter voices in contemporary matrilineal narratives open up a new chapter in the feminist project of repositioning mothers as individuals and as subjects. This repositioning sheds new light in the study of relationality in the field of feminist maternal scholarship.

Feminist scholarship from Latin America has critiqued the implications of local mythologies and motherhood discourses for Latina women. A feminist analysis of the La Malinche/Virgin of Guadalupe dichotomy reveals that the Virgin (symbolizing passivity, tenderness, and self-sacrifice) is central to the construction of femininity in Latin American cultures because she embodies virtues convenient for the patriarchal order. La Malinche—the sexualized, headstrong woman who freely chose her destiny—is dangerous to the patriarchal order and is presented as hateful. Women thus feel compelled to emulate the Virgin, a less threatening figure. In effect, the Virgin image serves to suppress the threatening or deviant femininity embodied La Malinche—regarded as the Mexican Eve. The Virgin becomes the embodiment of Mexican motherhood, while La Malinche’s depraved sexuality becomes a reason to justify the oppression of women.

Motherhood and Race

Feminism and the self-reflexive questionings within the women’s movement in North America also drew attention to the fact that notions of motherhood are racially specific and conditioned by prevailing social hierarchies. For instance, in North America from the Reconstruction through the Progressive Era, African-American and white women were encouraged to view motherhood as a national racial imperative. The mother-nation symbolism was anchored in a patriotic discourse. Literary representations depict a conflated mother-nation as a protector who also needs protection by her children/citizens, who must ensure the mother-nation’s perpetuation by reproducing her progeny. Novels of sexual awakening by Kate Chopin (1851-1904) and Edith Wharton (1862-1937) depict motherhood as personally limiting but racially necessary. Women writers and activists responded to this imperative by using diverse strategies that reflected the broader public debates about race, reproduction, and female agency.

In the American context, it has also been argued that early-twentieth-century depictions of motherhood for African-American women sought to depict mothers as active agents rather than passive instruments of reproduction. However, the narratives also revealed that women’s agency as mothers comes at a price and was continually constrained by fixed gender roles and social expectations. The brutalizing effects of slavery marred the joys of black motherhood, as did complications of biracial identity (Berg). Such fictional and nonliterary texts also reflected the early twentieth-century debates over birth control, feminism, and eugenics in the United States, using motherhood and race as key tropes for discussions of social progress and decline. These texts also established that even notions of universal motherhood that fostered cross-racial conversations reinforced social and racial hierarchies.

Feminist critiques from South Africa point out how nationalist and patriarchal causes have appropriated the African-woman-as-mother. This figure has been used to extol the ostensibly unique qualities of nurturance, protectiveness, and altruism of African women, qualities that are often believed to make them morally and culturally superior to Western women. Celebrated in much of the nationalist poetry and prose during the 1950s and 1960s, the African mother recurs in a range of present-day discourses in public and domestic life.

From another context, ethnographic research from Asia and the Pacific shows that maternal experiences vary greatly depending upon historical time and local discourses. For instance, motherhood as embodied experience for women in colonized societies was shaped by colonial policies, missionary influence, and conflicts between Western medicine and biomedical birthing methods. All these shaped the experience of modern mothering in many colonial societies (Ram).

Feminist theorists and writers challenge valorizations of motherhood fostered by conservative patriarchies. However, it is important to emphasize that feminists do not reject maternity or devalue the woman-centered experience of birthing and mothering. Their project is to interrogate the myths and assumptions that impose oppressive role expectations and erase the reality of maternal experience. Feminist voices seek to liberate motherhood from the institution and the myth that confine it to the narrow playing field of the conventional family, leaving no space for women to choose alternative identities.

Motherhood and Development Discourses

Some of the public debates, campaigning, and policy-making that surround women’s relationships to their bodies at the turn of the twenty-first century make evident the extent to which affirmations of motherhood constrain discursive frameworks of justice for women. The American feminist Patricia McFadden identifies this in relation to dominant trends within research, public debate, and policy-making around HIV/AIDS, while Jessica Horn discusses how the patriarchal emphasis on reproductive health anchors perceptions of women’s sexual health firmly in stereotypical gender roles and identities (Narayan).

Along another axis, projects like the Population Council’s “Save the Mothers Initiative” places attention on motherhood in development discourses. The Safe Motherhood Conference (Nairobi, 1987) of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) noted with alarm that almost half a million women die each year because of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. FIGO sought global support, stressing that because 99 percent of maternal deaths occur in the developing countries and among women in the most deprived sections of the population, it was a socially unjustifiable phenomenon.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, United Nations agencies and the World Bank supported several country projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to evolve cost-effective and sustainable ways to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity. Institutions like the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have maternal programs for conducting research and disseminating information on policy issues related to maternal and child health.

Critics of such population policies, however, argue that mass distribution of hormonal medicines used for population control in developing countries has serious implications for the health of millions of women who are unaware of the long-term impact of these drugs. Feminists also point out that notions of “reproduction” and “reproductive rights” have many possible interpretations, with varying degrees of social impact on gender and family. In the 1960s, the core issues around reproductive rights involved the access to family planning and to information on birth control; in the abortion debates, the right to privacy seems to encompass the right to decide whether to conceive and to carry a fetus to term. Since the 1990s and the struggle against AIDS, reproductive health has won new relevance.

Contentious Debates

In the light of the revolutionary changes that have come about since 1978—when the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born—it is important to touch upon abortion, surrogacy, and new reproductive technologies (NRTs). Such contemporary issues relating to motherhood have provoked controversies that reflect diverse social and cultural perceptions of motherhood.


The conscious decision to medically terminate pregnancy is controversial in religious and political terms in many countries, regardless of levels of modernity. Pro-life groups in the United States and Europe staunchly campaign for the closure of abortion clinics, while for women in contemporary China or India abortion is easy and inexpensive, given the population control policies in these two countries.

Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, perhaps all religious and secular philosophies, focus on two central questions relating to abortion: (1) When does the embryo/fetus acquire the property that makes the termination of pregnancy “killing”? and (2) Is abortion, before or after this point, ever justifiable? Orthodox strains in Christianity, Buddhism, and classical Hindu embryology (which maintain that the trans-migration of consciousness occurs at conception) believe that all abortion is sin and incurs the karmic burden of killing (in Buddhist and Hindu terms). Before modern embryology, however, in both Buddhist countries and the West, ideas about conception were scientifically inaccurate. Although the findings of modern neuro-embryology provided scientific support for subsequent arguments developed by most Western ethicists to defend abortion, such legacies continue to impede pro-choice campaigns in asserting that any society that values liberty should not control a woman’s reproductive rights by law (Luker).

Whether abortion is ever “justified” relates to whether religious ethics about motherhood are absolutist, utilitarian, or “virtuist” (i.e., seeing the good in the development of personal qualities). The absolutist would regard abortion akin to murder, whatever the justification. The utilitarian would justify it on compassionate grounds (based on the mother’s health or the population crisis or parental inability to raise a child).

Traditional Jewish law (halakah) takes a positive stand on procreation and is comparatively lenient regarding the NRTs. In densely populated countries like China, India, or Bangladesh, state-sponsored family planning policies have enhanced the social acceptability of abortion. Japanese society combines both utilitarian and virtue approaches. Widely accepted as a “sorrowful necessity,” abortion is openly ritualized in Buddhist temples selling rituals and statues intended to represent parents’ apologies to the aborted. Some Buddhists have adopted a moderate position: abortion is akin to killing, but women should have that choice. Since most Buddhists support laws that discourage or punish murder, implicitly this position seems to suggest that abortion is either justifiable (when it conflicts with bodily autonomy) or that fetuses are closer in status to animals.

Such reproductive accommodations, while they reduce the impact of oppressive regimes on women’s reproductive autonomy, do not necessarily emerge from debates that incorporate women’s voices. Feminists also point out that pro-life activists (women and men) are not necessarily opposed to capital punishment or killings in war, implying thereby that anti-abortion positions are motivated by considerations of power and control over women rather than morality. Thus, feminist activists the world over stress that abortion should be viewed as an issue of autonomy, constitutionality, and economic status, rather than simply of ethics.

Surrogate Motherhood

Like abortion, surrogate motherhood—which allows for a woman to carry and bear a child for childless couples, mostly as a commercial transaction—is a highly problematic issue. In pitting claims of mothering-as-biological birthing against those of mothering-as-nurturing, it poses ethical, legal, and, some would argue, moral issues. Although new reproductive technologies that enable childless women to raise genetically related offspring increase women’s motherhood options, they are pitted against religious beliefs and conservative ethical systems. By creating alternative forms of parenthood and supplanting sexual intercourse as a means of reproduction, this branch of biomedicine has also unwittingly created challenges to kinship and family law. Ethicists generally view surrogate mothering arrangements in terms of stark moral choices: between the tragedy of infertility on the one hand, and the potential for exploitation of the host mother on the other. Among the many compelling objections, the likely economic exploitation of poor, working-class women by affluent childless couples remains a key concern. There are also concerns that widespread surrogacy would lead to a commodification of infants, while reducing motherhood to paid labor and the woman’s body to an incubator that can be hired through a contract.

New Reproductive Technologies

Feminist theorists of different persuasions have been critical of the effects of NRTs as “potentially insidious forms of social control” over women’s bodies. Radical feminists believe that by using NRTs, and participating in these technological processes that invade the autonomy of their bodies, women unwittingly aid patriarchy in gaining more control over their bodies. Feminist theorists Jana Sawicki and Donna Haraway, however, advocate a more complex reading of these technologies. For Sawicki, radical feminists ignore the resistance already emerging within this area. Haraway suggests that rather than view this simplistically, one should complicate our theories of experience. Haraway calls for a shift away from dualistic, oppositional thinking that posits technology as solely destructive and fragmentary. In short, Haraway proposes that while is it true that technology can and has been used as a negative force against women, to write it off as unredeemably patriarchal limits feminist thinking when more nuanced perspectives are needed.

Contemporary Redefinitions: Single and Lesbian Mothers

It is evident that notions of motherhood are culturally varied and shift over time. In Japan and in South Asian societies, for instance, where traditional abortion is readily available and relatively free of social stigma, single motherhood is highly stigmatized. In fact, given rising divorce rates in Japan, the institution of single motherhood has become a particularly salient issue for contemporary Japanese feminism. Single motherhood in Japan almost inevitably involves financial and physical hardship, perhaps more consistently than in the West, given that there is little provision for child support and that even a divorced father usually does not continue to pay child support to the mother when she has custody of the children. Only 10 to 20 percent of divorced Japanese mothers receive regular child support payments. In addition, given the mythologies surrounding the mother’s role in childrearing, there tends to be social stigmatization of working mothers in Japanese society, which has historically restricted and problematized conditions of access to daycare and other facilities. Thus, in the Japanese context, there are issues of institutionalized discrimination against single mothers that are intertwined with social perceptions of what constitutes a family.

Other redefinitions of mothering and motherhood have emerged with the turn of the twenty-first century. These new definitions interrogate gender stereotypes and question social constructs of “family.” Nontraditional models of mothering by lesbian mothers in North America and Europe have further destabilized received notions of motherhood. Research scholars such as Ellen Lewin have analyzed models of the lesbian mother and lesbian and gay commitment ceremonies in the United States.

Definitions of motherhood and assumptions about its intersection with womanhood have been central to feminist theory in anthropology. Often these ideas draw directly on notions of nature and culture, conflating particular components of motherhood with virtue and authenticity. Insofar as some theorists have presented motherhood as a set of practices, it might be argued that men who undertake basic childrearing and caretaking activities are in some ways “mothers” rather than “fathers.” What are the implications of these social realities for enacting cultural notions of motherhood and fatherhood? If men can be mothers, then can the conventional, biologically drawn boundaries of the basic gender categories—female and male—be defended? These questions remain complex and unresolved.

Motherhood in Academia and National Policy

Although millions of women in the world become mothers, motherhood generally is not regarded in academia as a core issue relating to society and the nation-state. Some universities, such as York University in Ontario, Canada, are beginning to study motherhood as an academic discipline, yet much of the research looks at the psychological and sociological aspects. Feminists argue that if motherhood is viewed as a historical experience, it will be evident that it is shaped not just by personal experiences and desires but also by public policy in which the nation-state plays a significant role.

From the discussion above, which draws upon the heritage, traditions, literature, and art from various cultures, it may not be far-fetched to suggest that the failure of institutionalized religions to give women a visible and valid role has traditionally led many women to seek dignity and self-respect, salvation and status, in society through birthing and motherhood, a role and path unique to them. In the new millennium, however, the emerging reality, especially in the industrialized countries, is of a falling birth rate. As millions of women join the global workforce, as more and more women gain control over their lives and bodies, and as motherhood becomes one of many acceptable identities and choices, it would seem that fewer women become mothers (and those that do raise fewer children). The birth rate in Japan has been falling steadily since the 1970s. On average, the first postwar generation had four children, and the second, two. Trends in Europe are also alarming. Such statistical projections are causing concern to government planners and national policy-makers in many countries. If women increasingly begin to feel that the challenges outweigh the “joys of motherhood,” demographers may well predict for the rapidly industrializing world a future of restructured family norms, labor shortages, fewer taxpayers to support a rapidly aging society, and fewer caregivers for the elderly.