In her autobiographical piece, “Reflecting on Loss as a M/Other and a Feminist Sociologist”, Gayle Letherby cites her early academic work on the construction of motherhood:
All women live their lives against a backdrop of personal and cultural assumptions that all women are or want to be mothers and that for women motherhood is proof of adulthood and a natural consequence of marriage or a permanent relationship with a man…Social attitudes and institutions support the assumption that women’s ultimate role is motherhood and women who do not mother children are still expected to mother others; either vocationally as a teacher or a nurse or within the family as a sister, aunt, daughter or wife/partner (Letherby 2010).
Essentially, she is saying that the social script for women is to experience motherhood in the sense that they themselves birth a child and parent it. If somehow this script is underwritten, society dictates that they seek out mothering options through other vocations. So strong is this social code that women who deviate from this plan are looked upon as suspect by peers, as we see in the video clip, “Childfree Woman vs. Mother” (Angel Stardom 2012). In this short video, a woman condescends another woman who has clear, well thought-out, and rational responses to her inquisition as to why she does not plan on having kids. Somewhat aggressively spiraling out of control, the attacker’s line of questioning becomes less and less rational. It is if to say, we pressure women to subscribe to society’s expectation that they become a mother, but when presented with real, tangible, and valid opposition to this, the rationale for why this pressure exists disintegrates.
This expectation for women to become mothers is part of what Lauren Berlant describes as the “life plot” in her essay, “Intimacy: A Special Issue.” In this piece, she describes the singular life path that is socially reinforced.
I learned to think about these questions in the context of feminist/queer pedagogy; and how many times I’ve asked my own students to explain why, when there are so many people only one plot counts as “life” (first comes love, then…)? Those who don’t or can’t find their way in that story – the queers, the singles, the something else—can become so easily imagined, even often to themselves (Berlant 1998).
This passage demonstrates that the path that is socially engrained for us – to find a partner, get married, have and raise children – makes it so that the people who do not subscribe to this one, single life plot are considered illegitimate. This life plot is so deeply acknowledged in our society that any other lifestyle model is analyzed from a deficiency model. That children should have two parents, a mother and father, is so transcribed in our social DNA that if either of these figures are lacking/absent, we are quick to point out the social costs (children’s behavioral/adjustment issues) without controlling for other societal factors (Marsiglio & Pleck). It leads to declarations as to what a mother is. The Huffington Post article, “Why Men Can Be Mothers” comes from the perspective of a gay father raising kids with his partner. He demonstrates the way that he and his partner provide nurturing support to their kids, asserting that they, too, can “mother” children (Ball 2012). But if motherhood is a social construct, then so, too, is fatherhood. And in a family with two fathers, they would presumably be able to re-write the script.
But as Berlant suggests, re-writing the script would mean overthrowing a hegemonic institution that is so deeply engrained in our social script.
Rethinking intimacy calls out not only for redescription but for transformative analyses of the rhetorical and material conditions that enable hegemonic fantasies to thrive in the minds and on the bodies of subjects…To rethink intimacy is to appraise how we have been and how we live and how we might imagine lives that make more sense than the ones so many are living (Berlant 1998).
Even someone like me, who recognizes that my life is driven by this social script, still feels compelled to follow it. As I wrote in my biography, I cut my teeth in a helping profession as a domestic violence service provider. I am now in a direct caregiver role as a nanny, knowing full well that this is what society has prescribed for me. So, the question remains as to whether, in the advent of marriage equality as a declared right for all Americans, we are getting closer to rethinking this “hegemonic fantasy”. Given the facts that we are not actually changing the script of the institution of marriage but just extending the right to more individuals, and science has enabled us to select precisely the kind of family and children that we envision for ourselves (Katz Rothman), it would seem that our recent efforts are only furthering it.