The Unnatural State of American Motherhood
Why does everyone insist that motherhood comes naturally to women?
About eight years ago I had the privilege of being at a conference that was mostly a waste of time, until the last day when I found myself at a round-table with Patron Saint of Relationship Wisdom, Dr. Esther Perel.
I couldn't tell you what someone like Esther was doing at this awful conference, but I'm thrilled she was because now I get to tell you this story.
At the end of her roundtable chat, I remember one guy in a white shirt raised his hand to ask how he could be a better partner to his pregnant wife given that her "brain was changing and she had all these hormones controlling her. And she gets... you know."
Suppressing my inclination to scream at the top of my lungs, I let Esther handle this one. (Also, I wasn't allowed to "handle it" as I was not the speaker.)
The eloquence with which Esther ripped this guy a new @$$hole made us all sit up a little straighter in our seats. With dignity and grace, she said, "Listen, bi+ch, your wife's brain is fine. She's not broken. And presumably you've known her a long time. Use your empathy and perspective taking skills. Also, bro, ask her what she needs and she'll tell you. Remember she's pregnant, not an invalid. Her brain is working fine. In fact, it's working over time building a skeleton, muscles, organs, and a full. on. nervous. system. This is a dumb question."
Okay, fine, she did not call him a bi+ch or bro or say it was a dumb question. I added that. But it sure felt like she said it.
The pièce de résistance was at the end when, in her signature nondescript accent, waving her hands, she asked, "What is this with you Americans and this 'change your brain?' you ask about?" It was as if she was posing an existential question for us to clarify for her as representatives of America. (She used American similarly to how my immigrant family uses it; to mean: ‘you naive egocentric child.’) Then Esther continued. I'm paraphrasing, but this is what I remember:
"Everything changes your brain all the time. You look at a flower and your brain changes. You listen to me and your brain changes. What kind of changes specifically are you asking about that you are so worried about. What do you think 'change your brain' means'?"
Excellent question, Esther.
Her point was that we falsely equate "change" with bad.
Our brains are neuroplastic. They change all the time. This is not a problem. It simply is.
What Esther wasn't saying, but I will, is that this kind of rhetoric that masquerades as support ("I care about my wife and I want to help,") is actually the thing suppressing his wife. Because what is he asking if not “Help me change her back to the way she was,” or “Tell me there’s nothing I can do, so you can let me off the hook for not helping her?”
In psychologist Darcy Lockman's book, All the Rage, she interviews neuroscientist Lise Eliot about the least controversial topic in the world: gender and brain development. They talk about the whole "natural mothers" fallacy.
Or is it a fallacy? That is the question.
I have personally been told by everyone in the world that motherhood comes naturally to women. My own mother informed me that in graduate school she learned that a woman's love is unconditional, but a man's is conditional and that that's just science. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Ooof.
I have personally been told by everyone in the world that motherhood comes naturally to women.
I remember when my ex-father-in-law "warned" me that "the baby will come and you won't notice anything else—you'll see." I did see. I saw that he and everyone else was wrong and very bad at what they called "science." As well as seeming to know me.
Like most cishet women, before I could even speak, I was deluged with all the ways in which I could not know anything about the world unless I was a mother. Self-actualization is only possible if you are a mother! Because until you are a mother, you don't know who you are, what you want, what matters to you, what matters in life, and what it really is(!) to love someone.
We love using "motherhood" as a way to disqualify other ways of being a woman or even being valid as a human.
Last week, I wrote about how psychology was founded on the denial of women's experience. This, my friends, is an extension of that. Neuroscientist Eliot said says it more eloquently in All The Rage:
"It's bullshit. Our brains get good at whatever we're faced with doing." As in, you're not natural at parenting. You get good at it. You learn it. It is a learned skill.
Read the book to find the overwhelming amount of data that supports this.
"It's bullshit. Our brains get good at whatever we're faced with doing." — Lisa Eliot
The part that I found most astonishing, namely because I did not know this part, was this bit of data from Bar-Ilan University in Israel (page 90-91, All The Rage):
"The researchers concluded that the differences between the three groups were not so much a function of biological sex or genetic relatedness to the infant, but rather, of how much time the subjects had spent in intimate contact with their babies. They write: 'Assuming the role of a committed parent and engaging in active care of the young may trigger [a] global parental caregiving network in both men and women, in biological parents, and in those genetically unrelated to the child. Such findings are consistent with the hypothesis that human parenting may have evolved from an evolutionarily ancient alloparenting substrate that exists in all members of the species and can flexibly activate through responsive caregiving and commitment to children's wellbeing.'"
Translation: There is no such thing as "natural" motherhood. If you spend more time with your kid, you get your alloparenting substrate activated. BOOM.
Bolding above is mine because [head explodes]. It makes so much sense. Women died giving birth constantly. Men had to take over. So of course we have the same brain structures. They just needed to be activated and the mitigating factor was (drumroll please) time spent with child.
A natural mother is an invented idea.
The person who spends the most physical time with the kid gets the "instincts" (aka has the necessary brain circuitry turned on). Men are not inept, quite the contrary. They're merely absent, thanks to the myth that sits next to the Natural Mother myth: Be a Good Provider.
The myth that “men are providers" is just as corrosive here, especially for the men who suffocate and/or hide under the weight of their responsibilities and later hold it against their wives and children, and so often maintain that "they are the real victims." In many ways they are also victims. No one wins in this system.
When we say it is "men's duty to provide," but narrowly define "provide" as money, house, and food—we rob men of the opportunity to connect with their kids and develop their "instincts" and we rob women and families of the actual support we all need.
I'm so sad for all the children who've grown up without a father providing actual co-parenting, co-partnering, and fathering. For the fathers who don’t have a model for how to be an active, engaged parent. For the workplaces that use shame to prevent men and women from caretaking.
Womxn and mothers don't need providing for. They need partners.
Mother's Day is this weekend and my feed is drowning in well-meaning attempts at "supporting" and "appreciating" mothers with things like candles with puns on them, sparkly jewelry, fluffy socks, and for some reason a very expensive sky-blue tea kettle.
Much like the confused boy at Dr. Esther Perel's round table, these gifts are not how you support mothers. You support mothers by objecting to the systems that diminish their freedom to be a person in the world. And you reject the idea that "motherhood" is a woman's thing.
Celebrate parenthood by actually supporting systems that support parenting.
Push back on schools ending at 3PM and push for flexible schedules at work. Campaign for paid family leave at your organization (or hire Sarah, she can help). Pass common sense gun laws (don't @ me bro). Don't say "She's not working," when someone is on family leave. They are very much working. They are simply not getting paid.
Be the guy who calls out the school when they call his wife first because they assume he's at work and she's available. Shame your friends who openly cheat on their wives. Especially if those wives are sitting at home with their kids. Stop normalizing neglect from men and calling it "work." And for the love of god if you're a dude reading this and your wife sent a Mother's Day gift to your mom — you can celebrate Mother's Day this year by growing up.
Get yourself a copy of All The Rage. It's a click-baity title for a very serious book. Binge listen to Where Should We Begin? and then read Mating in Captivity (this TED talk gives you the gist). Listen to the Startup Parent Podcast. Listen to Anne-Marie Slaughter. Hire Sarah K Peck to talk to your organization about paid family leave. Ask yourself sincerely why it's "bad" that your son is playing with a baby. For real. Why.
83% of today’s new dads want equal paid leave. They want to do fatherhood differently. They want to be a part of parenting and we should let them. We need them. And they need us. We have to work together as partners to create a system that benefits all of us — especially our kids.
That's what I would like for Mother's Day.
No more candles. Some accountability and systemic reform, please.
And fine, that tea kettle.
— Margo Aaron
This post is great. Thank you.