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Motherhood and Maternity

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.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Motherhood and Maternity - History, Religion, And Myth, Feminist Critiques, Motherhood And Development Discourses, Contentious Debates