Zelophehad’s Daughters

Are All Women “Mothers”?

Posted by Lynnette

I’ve heard it said that all women, regardless of whether they have children, are mothers. (Sheri Dew’s oft-quoted talk on the subject a few years ago is a well-known instance of this point of view.) While I appreciate the inclusive intent behind it, I have some serious reservations about such a claim.

First of all, I think the term “motherhood” gets so broadened in this approach as to lose any substantive meaning. I have enormous respect for what mothers do. But I’m simply not going to pretend that the term applies to me, too. To claim that I, in my single childless grad student life, am as much a “mother” as a woman who is raising her children, is to devalue the specific character and importance of what she’s doing. If the aim is to point out that women can act caring and nurturing and serve others regardless of whether they have children of their own, why don’t we simply speak about that in terms of the call to follow Christ (which, incidentally, applies equally to women and men)? Why appropriate and re-define the term “motherhood?”

In addition, I don’t like the way in which “motherhood” and “womanhood” get collapsed into each other in this way of thinking. Motherhood is one role which a woman can take on; I do not however believe that it is constitutive of what it is to be a woman. Women also function in a variety of other roles: sister, wife, daughter, teacher, priestess, etc. But surely what it is to be a woman (or a man) goes far beyond any particular role that she or he might fill.

My sense is that this kind of argument arises from the inflated discourse about motherhood, the tendency in LDS thought to place it on a pedestal. Once that’s happened, it becomes awkward to deal with the fact that there are numerous women who don’t have the chance (or perhaps even the desire) to be mothers. But where did this rhetorical elevation of motherhood to the highest of all callings come from in the first place? I would guess that it’s largely the result of an attempt to make sense of the restriction of the priesthood to males. This is why fatherhood doesn’t get talked about in the same kind of idealized way, and why no one feels the need to say that all men are in some sense fathers; as priesthood-holders, their value is already clear.

I don’t think that the priesthood/motherhood parallel works, for a number of reasons. And I wonder whether if it were dropped, it would be easier to back away from overblown claims about motherhood. I see it as far more meaningful to talk about motherhood not as some abstract, almost mystical quality possessed by women everywhere, but as a concrete and vital service which many (but not all) women perform. If we want to honor mothers (whom I certainly think are worthy of recognition), let’s honor mothers; if we want to honor women, let’s honor women. But let’s not talk as if the two were identical.

26 Responses to “Are All Women “Mothers”?”

  1. 1.

    I was happy to read your post, because I don’t like the ‘all women are mothers’ line either, but feel somewhat churlish saying so because I know that some women who are _not_ mothers really like the idea.

    Two places where I think I might disagree with you, tho:

    (1) Most Saints believe that all women will have the opportunity to be mothers in the next life if not in this, so it might make sense to think of all women as either future mothers or current mothers. If ‘all women are mothers’ were restricted to that kind of thinking, I would be OK with it. (But this isn’t quite the same as ‘whatever a woman is doing now means she is a mother.’)

    (2) I don’t think the elevation of the motherhood rhetoric is a post-hoc apologetic for women not holding the priesthood; I think it is a recognition of the fact that motherhood is the most godlike role any person can take on in mortality.

  2. 2.

    I think the term “motherhood” gets so broadened in this approach as to lose any substantive meaning.

    Nicely said. So often we do that sort of thing.

    So, even though all women will have the opportunity to be mothers in the next life if not in this, so it might make sense to think of all women as either future mothers or current mothers we need some way of thinking that without making the word meaningless at the same time.

  3. 3.

    the tendency in LDS thought to place it on a pedestal

    I also have a tendency to place the equation 2+2=4 on a pedestal as one of the foundational principles of mathematics. The reason I do this is because it’s true.

    Some people are offended or feel awkward by this for reasons of their choosing (as we all decide whether or not we wish to be offended by anything). This does not diminish the reality of the divine nature of motherhood.

    You call it inflated discourse. I would suggest however that the greatest of all discourse would still be an inadequate encapsulation of righteous motherhood. It would be sad if we chose not to celebrate (or to diminish our celebrations just for the sake of those who are not mothers (whether by their own choosing or by other extenuating circumstances.)

  4. 4.

    Ryan, I think you make a great point, but I think there’s a difference between celebrating something and putting something on a pedestal. When we celebrate something, we honor and respect it in all of its wonder and beauty. When I think of something being put on a pedestal, I think of idealizing something in such a way that misrepresents it. For example, when you put a person on a pedestal, you typically have an image of them in your mind as a perfect person. Inevitably, the person you’ve placed on the pedastal demonstrates that they are all too human, and you have to take them off that pedastal because it was an inaccurate representation of who they really were.

    I agree with the need to celebrate extensively things that deserve celebration (one such thing being motherhood). However, I think we need to be careful about idealizing roles in the same way that we need to be careful about idealizing people–it misrepresents the true nature of those roles.

  5. 5.

    Lynnette, thank you. If I’m a mother just by virtue of my biology, why then would I contemplate spending $20,000 on in vitro fertilization? This kind of misuse of language waves an invisibility cloak over infertility. Not to mention some uncomfortable structural inequalities between men and women.

    Julie, I entirely agree that, theologically, it makes sense to consider all women current or future mothers. But then, it makes sense to consider all men current or future fathers. And it makes sense to consider all people current or future siblings, even if they’re only children in mortality. We don’t speak of fatherhood or sisterhood or brotherhood as something inherent to the person even if he or she isn’t a father, sister, or brother in this life. (If my husband were to introduce himself as a father, we would consider that a misrepresentation–quite simply, he’d be lying. But according to some current strains of church rhetoric, I both am and am not a mother.)
    We’ve rewritten motherhood as an intrinsic quality of women rather than as a particular relationship of which women are capable. The resulting problems are legion. ;>

  6. 6.

    Thank you for this post, Lynnette. Many (most) women have the capability to be mothers, but being/becoming a mother is not some natural transformative consequence of being a woman. Bearing and raising children should be a conscious choice that every woman has the right to make for herself.

  7. 7.

    Ryan: “I would suggest however that the greatest of all discourse would still be an inadequate encapsulation of righteous motherhood.”

    You could be right. Equally so, the greatest of all discourse would still be an inadequate encapsulation of righteous fatherhood.

  8. 8.

    One of the interesting differences between the priesthood and motherhood is that a person must qualify himself for the priesthood through personal worthiness. In contrast, a person qualifies herself for motherhood by being fertile and having sex (or adopting). So a 14-year-old prostitute can attain motherhood, whereas we can assume an “amen” to the priesthood of her male equivalent. On the other side of the coin, many worthy and fantastic women never become mothers in this life; no worthy male is denied the priesthood. It seems to me that by claiming all women are mothers, as Lynnette points out, we’re essentially trying to turn motherhood into a calling that can genuinely serve as the complement to the priesthood. (And we’re tying ourselves in linguistic knots in the process.)

    I move we start referring to everyone as “parents.” As in, “some parent just checked out all the books I need,” or “look at that cute baby parent!”
    ;)

  9. 9.

    Thanks for the interesting comments, everyone!

    Ryan, I hope I didn’t come across as not seeing motherhood as something worthy of recognition. I appreciate S’s clarification about the distinction between between celebrating something and idealizing it; my concern is definitely with the latter. Obviously I don’t have personal experience to draw on here, and I’d be interested in hearing other points of view on this, but my observation is that idealized rhetoric isn’t necessarily all that appealing even to mothers. I’ve always found it interesting that many mothers skip church on Mother’s Day, because it makes them feel guilty or inadequate.

    And as others have nicely articulated, I don’t like talking about motherhood as if it were the most core, essential aspect of what it is to be a woman, and as the lens through which all female activity should be viewed. I don’t think, to give one example, that young women should feel the need to justify getting an education solely in terms of potential future motherhood.

    I’m also not sure what to do with the idea that motherhood is the most godly service one can perform in this life when we’re at the same time referring to God as our Father. Like Kiskilili, I’d like to hear more about the parenthood of both sexes (in talking about God as well as in talking about human beings.)

  10. 10.

    I’m a mother of two small boys, and the “all women are mothers” bothered me yesterday a lot. Because honestly, if I can be a “mother” and get all the inflated rhetoric that goes with it bestowed on me without going through all this hassle and inconvenience of actually caring for these very demanding little people, some days I might just take it. I was a little grumpy yesterday, so forgive me.

    But there was a young woman who spoke on this very topic, of how there are so many women who have mothered her, and I found it a little more convincing coming from her in that stage of her life. I can imaging in adolescence another woman having potentially more influence on her than her own mother. So it might just be this stage of my kids lives that makes the idea of everyone “mothering” seem odd.

    I continue to struggle with the equation of my motherhood and womanhood. Perhaps that is why it is important for me to be a mother now, so somehow I’ll understand how they are the same. Mostly now, it makes me feel inadequate and frustrated, which might not be a bad thing in the long run.

  11. 11.

    I think we don’t talk about “all men being fathers” because men who haven’t been able to have children don’t typically cry or get upset about Father’s Day sacrament meeting. Come on, you know it happens, and some thought had to be given to what to do about it, when every year the same meeting is torture for the same women. And I think it is true, even if we don’t say it about men, that if you are a righteous man, fatherhood is a substantial part of your eternal identity, as motherhood is for righteous women.

    I had to give the Mother’s Day talk last year, and I just shuddered at the thought, because of all the nit-picking and also all the hurt feelings the topic provokes. “I hate it when they say all women are mothers”. “I hate it when they glorify women for doing something any prostitute can do.” “I hate it when they talk in glowing terms about mothers.” And my personal pet peeve, “I hate it when I have to listen to 25 minutes on what a fabulous mom Brother X had.” You just can’t win giving a talk on this day.

    Here’s an analogy I used, for what it’s worth: In an eternal sense, motherhood is part of our identity and destiny. We are here in mortality to begin to learn what that means. It’s like we are in college, and our Father in Heaven has devised an individual course of study for us to get our undergraduate degree on our way to eventually getting our PhD in Motherhood. Our daughters are just beginning their courswork as they learn to be loving memers of our families. Some of us are taking general courses as we care for othes, form friendships, serve in our callings at church, and develop our talents. Some of us are in the middle of on-the-job training for a few years. Some women are experienced undergraduates, serving as teaching assistants while they wrap-up their coursework. But we are all students learning how to be mothers. Just because you don’t have the opportunity to get the “lab experience” of actually raising children in mortality, it doesn’t mean you are less on your way to being a mother in eternity than anyone else, since even for those of us who have children, the experience will be temporary if we fail the course.

  12. 12.

    I think there’s a difference between celebrating something and putting something on a pedestal. When we celebrate something

    Well said. Which way do you think we are better off erring – insufficient celebration or honoring in excess?

    So a 14-year-old prostitute can attain motherhood

    Maybe by the most base definition. But is Mother’s Day really a celebration of all the 14 year old prostitutes or is it actually a day set aside to honor those we love who have mothered us?

    But I think I am digressing the thread from Lynette’s original point which I think was pretty succintly restated thus:

    I don’t like talking about motherhood as if it were the most core, essential aspect of what it is to be a woman

    I still disagree with you in that I feel that Fatherhood is likewise the most core essential aspect of what it is to be a man.

    Again, I know the implications can be harsh once extended to those who cannot have children in this life. But consider this:

    Every truly responsible accomplishment I have in my life has been preparing me to be a good father. I went to school so I could have a good job and care for my family. I went on a mission (and other callings) to prepare myself to be a better teacher of the gospel to my children, I married my sweet wife in the temple so that the two of us could start a family together.

    Sure, there are lots of other fulfilling, exciting and challenging experiences that life has had to offer which have contributed to “me” and if I never have children while on the earth will that make my life a waste since I didn’t “put one in the oven”? No of course not. The scriptures teach us that all we learn in this life will make us that much better off in the next.

    I think that men and women do themselves a disservice when they deny that the measure of their creation is to have joy and rejoicing in their posterity.

    I’m probably wrong though since I am just spouting off my opinions and haven’t cited much by way of authority :)

  13. 13.

    …and apparently Kristy and I were writing the same thing at the same time, only she was writing it better than I was. Sorry for being repetitive.

  14. 14.

    Ryan, if you hadn’t noticed, we specialize here in spouting off opinions without much authority. ;)

    I agree with you that motherhood and fatherhood are core, essential roles, though I’d still leave room for other roles being perhaps equally core– in LDS theology, being a wife or a husband seems quite fundamental, and I personally hope that sisterhood is also a basic, eternal relationship. But particularly given the parenthood of God (though of course that’s the role we know God in; we don’t know what else God might be doing), I can see how you could make the case that parenthood is the top of the ladder, so to speak. I don’t know that we’re all that far apart in our views on that.

    In Church discourse, however, we don’t hear much about fatherhood and motherhood as the core, essential roles of men and women; at least in my experience, the latter is hugely emphasized and the former not so much. Sheri Dew doesn’t talk about motherhood as being complementary to an ineffable male quality of “fatherhood;” she specifically relates it to the priesthood. And that’s the source of a lot of my uneasiness with what I’ve referred to as inflated rhetoric about motherhood– that it so often gets used as a justification for excluding women from other spheres of authority, and that women get defined in terms of their roles in ways that men generally don’t.

  15. 15.

    No, Ryan I like how you put it, and I agree with you. I’m just surprised that several people don’t seem to think fatherhood is an essential part of what it is to be a man. I know both my parents believe that; I would not have married my husband if he had not believed that as well.

  16. 16.

    Kristy, I don’t think anyone is contesting that fatherhood is an essential part of being a man, or that motherhood is an essential part of being a woman. The issue is that motherhood is talked about as being the essential characteristic of women.

    Men are talked about in the church as filling many different roles (priesthood leader, provider, father, etc.), while women are discussed as filling only one role: mother. This happens to such an extent that, as Lynette and others have observed, we end up talking as though woman = mother. But we never talk in a similar way where men are concerned because it’s obvious that we expect men to be able to act in lots of different roles.

  17. 17.

    My sister, one of her friends, and I all seriously considered declining to stand up and take a flower on the grounds that we decided we didn’t want to be mothers. Considering flagrantly and pointlessly disrespectful demonstrations in church is such a fun thing to do while the YM/YW are trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing.

    Ahem, anyway, I’m a Primary teacher and sometime tutor and friend to a dozen or two people who are young enough that they could, technically, be my children, and yet I still see and feel very clearly that they are not, every time I interact with them. I’d like it much better if we retained all of those helpful, distinct verbs and adverbs like “nurturing,” and didn’t conflate them all into one word that doesn’t fit me very well right now. Especially since all of their mothers are doing a good job, I think.

    To be blunt, though, I’d also rather if they gave all women the day off on Mother’s Day, and let the bretheren run the church by themselves. That way I could curl up with the war chapters of the Book of Mormon and avoid everything to do with the observation entirely (WOOT, a day where I DON’T have to dwell on the fact I don’t have a husband!!) Plus have a day off – anyone notice that there really aren’t any of those around in our church, except for Christmas and Conferences? I don’t feel nearly so bad about wanting a get-out-of-church-free day when I think about those occasions — there’s no Sacrament on those weeks, and unless you get there three hours early, you’re going to have a seriously lousy and uncomfortable seat, and likely as not fail to hear anything that’s said.

    Come to think of it, I think that’s my new crusade. Give all females over the age of 18 the day off from Church on Mother’s Day, and have the bretheren do everything, including the carpools to get the Primary and Youth to church. Who’s with me? All mothers and anyone sick of whatever goes on in church on Mother’s Day ought to be.

  18. 18.

    I was thinking this week, I’d love it if they talked about the many roles and opportunities of being a woman and how women can be heroes and examples in many ways, even though they are imperfect and human. But then, of course, we wouldn’t be celebrating “Mother’s” Day, which I agree deserves its own, distinct definition and celebration. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we celebrated International Women’s Day–even had institutional support for it. IWD to be equal to ‘Restoration of the Priesthood Sunday’ and Mother’s Day to be equal to Father’s Day. Yes?

  19. 19.

    I really like that idea, Artemis. It would be a way of avoiding the motherhood-womanhood conflation while continuing to celebrate motherhood, and it would be great to have a day to talk about the numerous roles in which women might serve.

    Sarah, I have to confess that I’m also partial to any idea which involves sanctioned staying home from church. ;)

  20. 20.

    Amen also, Artemis!

    My dh spoke this Mother’s Day and talked about HM and about Jesus’ use of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood as symbols for the Atonement. Wahoo! God bless him.

  21. 21.

    Lisa B, that is such a cool talk idea. I’m going to have to look into that one.

    Artemis, that’s a good idea, but how about a R.S. Birthday Sunday to offset Priesthood Restoration Sunday? Maybe it isn’t as fun as Internation Women’s Day, but the Priesthood Sunday isn’t about all aspects of manhood, just men’s role in the church. So R.S. Birthday might be more equivalent, plus someone could have an excuse to bring up all the interesting (and controversial) things women did in the early days of R.S. Of course it probably wouldn’t fly, the women wouldn’t give up that enrichment night dinner.

  22. 22.

    Kristy, good point. Let’s do a RS Sunday, complete with laudatory sacrament meeting speakers, and work in how the RS helps women develop in many different roles (don’t let’s get stuck in the wife/mother/housewife rut). And we can have the dinner too, why not? (Though, I confess, I’ve never been….)

  23. 23.

    OK, sure thing, we can keep the dinner; I quess the men get a Sunday *and* a camp-out, so we should get Sunday and a dinner. I’m just kind of tickled at the thought of the men having to sit through a Sunday where they learn the history of the Relief Society.

    Ziff, I see the distinction you make between “the essential characteristic” and “an essential characteristic”. However, I re-read the thread, and in Lynnette’s original post she stated that “Motherhood is one role which a woman can take on”. Eve said “We’ve rewritten motherhood as an intrinsic quality of women rather than as a particular relationship of which women are capable” and “We don’t speak of fatherhood or sisterhood or brotherhood as something inherent to the person even if he or she isn’t a father, sister, or brother in this life.” Elizabeth said “but being/becoming a mother is not some natural transformative consequence of being a woman. Bearing and raising children should be a conscious choice that every woman has the right to make for herself.” None of these comments seem to even think motherhood or fatherhood is *an* essential characterist, let alone *the* essential characteristic.

    Lynnette has clarified her position, that she does think motherhood and fatherhood are core, essential roles, but as you stated, they aren’t the only essential characteristics.

    I know that in mortality people can chose not to be parents, or are prevented by various circumstances from being parents. So parenthood isn’t uniformly, absolutely, essential to righteousness in mortality. But eternally, I think it is. Exalted men and women will be parents. God’s work and glory is parenting. And I think that eternally, whatever level of “essentialness” parenting has for women, it will have for men as well.

  24. 24.

    My dh spoke this Mother’s Day and talked about HM and about Jesus’ use of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood as symbols for the Atonement. Wahoo! God bless him.

    That’s great! Mother’s Day does seem like a rather appropriate time to at least mention HM.

    Kristy, I think the quotes you cited (at least as I read them) weren’t so much addressing the question of whether motherhood is or is not essential, but noting that it’s not a quality like intelligence or a sense of humor; rather, it’s a particular relationship which women choose. That’s why talking about “motherhood” as something which women somehow inherently possess doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. But I nonetheless see it as “core and essential” because I think that we are relational beings, which means that our various relationships are necessarily essential to who we are.

    I do hope I haven’t just confused things further. ;) In any case, I very much agree with this:

    And I think that eternally, whatever level of “essentialness” parenting has for women, it will have for men as well.

  25. 25.

    I dislike the “all women are mothers” rhetoric for a very selfish and personal reason. My patriarchal blessing promised me I would be a “mother in Israel” in mortality. As the years passed and I remained unmarried with no prospects, I held on to that promise tighter and tighter. Then I heard the idea bandied around that all women are mothers whether or not they have children.

    I felt like I’d been sucker-punched. So that was how God was going to weasel out of that promise. He’d let me pretend to mother children who belonged to other people. Not good enough, in my opinion. I wanted kids who belonged to ME, not just a kid who I loved and then sent home to his real mother.

    Anyway, it turned out God wasn’t going to welsh out on his promise with some feel-good all-inclusive Special Olympics type idea that everyone’s a winner, oops, I mean mother. I’m going to be an old mom, but the baby is due in three months. :)

    I know lots of single women find the idea that all women are mothers to be very comforting; I didn’t. I hated it. I thought it was patronizing, condescending, and waaaaay too politically correct to actually reflect a gospel truth. God didn’t tell Rachel that she was just as much of a mother as Leah was, even if Leah had seven kids and Rachel had none. He sent her a couple of sons. I wanted the real thing too.

  26. 26.

    Melinda, congratlations! For what it’s worth, my two cents: I think that the concept of motherhood can have many meanings, not just the literal giving birth or raising children meanings. I have children, but there are other roles I play in life that I can think of as a type of “mothering”, and I also do feel that motherhood is central to female identity and purpose.

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