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.