Jai Mata Di! Is necessity the invention of mother worship?

Everybody and their aunt – not to mention their mother – will be gushing about motherhood and mothers today. Mother’s Day takes the whole maternal business and wraps it in the mother of all memes.

And why shouldn’t it? After all, it is exalted across cultures. In the Indian familial universe, mother, father, guru and god are venerated in that order. But is motherhood really all that awesome? Natural evolutionary biology points to the nurturing nature of women due to their innate proclivity to reproduce, raise and care for offspring. Yet, is the deification of mothers a societal ploy so that women feel good about being mums, and are motivated to stay on a self-sacrificing trajectory?

There are women who choose not to become mothers, who do not see giving birth as a biological, familial or social need. Some even see having children in today’s challenged world as an insensitive, selfish act that ignores children’s future in an energy-starved, water-scarce and polluted world.

Some women admit that they choose not to become biological mothers or, if they are already mothers, regret having given birth to children. Their reasons could well be because of 1) Larger issues that affect everyone, everywhere on the planet like climate change, resources scarcity, disease and disasters. 2) Personal issues like wanting to focus on a career or pursuit they are passionate about but may not be able to devote fully if they have children to take care of. 3) Financial issues, since feeding, clothing, entertaining and educating children can cost a lot in terms of money, time, energy and effort requiring self-sacrifice. 4) Travel buffs, to be free of childcare responsibilities so that they can experience different peoples, places and cultures.

Women who leave their home and families to ‘find themselves’ have often been portrayed in fiction. Anita Nair explored this theme in her 2001 novel Ladies Coupe where a woman who has left home, while travelling in a ladies’ compartment on a train to Kanyakumari, gets to listen to the stories of five other women who are also trying to know themselves.

Contemporary fiction, especially Scandinavian, has been looking at different new reasons why mothers leave their families. It is no longer so much about the need for gender equity or pursuing a career. Women in these stories feel hemmed in by the demands of a nuclear family, or by societal pressure to have children. A 2018 study, ‘Killing Family Joy: Mothers on the Run in Twenty-First Century Swedish Literature’ (bit.ly/3vEDuCW) by Jenny Bjorklund of Uppsala University, Sweden, analysed 25 mothers in more than 20 Swedish novels published between 2003 and 2020.

Except for a few of the books – where the mothers leave because of lack of gender equality – the rest deal with women who resist different ideals. One group resists motherhood and parenthood, a category that Bjorklund calls in her 2021 book, Maternal Abandonment and Queer Resistance in Twenty-First-Century Swedish Literature, ‘the bad mothers’.

The conventional idea of motherhood is that to be a ‘good parent’, one has to put children’s interests first. ‘But Swedish mothers may not be too self-sacrificing. Though they are expected to want to be with their children as much as possible because they love them,’ writes Bjorklund. At the same time, they are expected to make the time to exercise, to socialise, and hold a meaningful job. So, to be an involved mother is very stressful indeed. Which is why there are women who are not interested in becoming mothers – not because they are not ‘good’ persons but because they are practical and honest.

Closer home, Ashapurna Debi‘s 1964 novel Prothom Protishruti (The First Promise) explores the myths and expectations related to women as mothers and individuals. How women see themselves and how others see them are largely determined by social constructs and cultural circumscriptions.

But with the world getting transformed at a faster pace than ever before, and societal limitations crumbling, it is but natural for old ideas to give way to new ones, even if it means busting the myths of the holy grail of motherhood.


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