The title of the recent opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, “Motherhood Isn’t Sacrifice, It’s Selfishness” sure caught my eye. Was Karen Rinaldi going to get into pronatalism? Sort of…
Sacrifice and Glorification
Out of the gates, Rinaldi, a mother, speaks to how her mother’s comment, “Motherhood, it’s the hardest job in the world. All sacrifice!” got her thinking about how this mindset is not a good thing. In fact, how the ‘job’ point is not even true.
While she does not use the word pronatalism, Rinaldi subtly takes it on when she criticizes how the “assertion of motherhood as sacrifice comes with a perceived glorification.” The idea of motherhood as sacrifice means a mother will give up other things like her ambitions, and even more important, her sense of self to “a higher purpose, one more worthy than her own individual identity.” A mother, valued as martyr, gives up these things for the “larger social contract” of the continuation of the species.
What force underlies the continuation of the species? It’s the same force that keeps pronatalism in place to promote reproductive conformity: dominance – the keeping and continued growth of power.
Perpetuating pronatalist norms in our society guarantees that power structures like government, the church, and businesses will continue to flourish. Government wants to encourage reproduction so tax bases will grow, which ensures its survival and continued power. The church wants its members to cherish childbirth and parenthood so that it can continue to gain more followers, which ensures its survival and continued power. And business push the exaltation of parenthood because it supports the growth of product and service demand, which brings big profits. So through a pronatalist lens, mother as selfless martyr supports keeping the larger power contract in place.
It’s not a ‘Job,’ but a lot of Skin in the Game
Rinaldi makes the case for mothers to push up against this contract, and get beyond the “false accolades of martyrdom.” Doing so would “do more to empower all women.” So would copping to the truth about motherhood being the most important “job” in the world. Technically, she writes, it is not a “job”; in a job, “an employer pays for services an employee agrees to perform. And there is a boss to whom the employee reports.”
She also wants society to cop to the fact that choosing motherhood is a selfish choice. While I agree, I do for different reasons. Rinaldi writes that continuing to believe the notion that motherhood is selfless “implies we have no skin in the game.” The way I see it, “selfless” conjures up the martyr again – the mother who gives all of herself to her role as mother. It seems that giving all of oneself to motherhood means having a heck of a lot of skin in the game.
Beyond Automatic Right
I respect Rinaldi’s thesis that we need to reframe motherhood, and see it as a privilege, not a sacrifice. To her, “only when we stop talking about motherhood as sacrifice can we start talking about mothers the way that we deserve.” To me, seeing motherhood as a privilege means society being fully invested in helping women be as ready for this role as possible. It means moving away from the pronatalist assumption that everyone has the right to have children whether they are ready or not (and all the costs to children and society that come with this), to one that promotes motherhood – and fatherhood – as a privileged right.