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Motherhood and Maternity

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.

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