Biology is no longer destiny; motherhood should be a choice

Friday February 27 2015

The Last Taboo: Saying No to Motherhood by Rosemary Agonito. PHOTO | DANA SIEDENBERG

The Last Taboo: Saying No to Motherhood by Rosemary Agonito. PHOTO | DANA SIEDENBERG 


Motherhood is a sacrosanct subject. Even in the most enlightened feminist circles, it is social suicide to confront the biblical command to go out and multiply.

The claim that all women love children and want to be mothers is written in stone. Or is it?

With half the world’s pregnancies unplanned, thousands of abortions, babies abandoned to orphanages or worse, the time is now to re-examine motherhood.

In her book, The Last Taboo: Saying No to Motherhood, Dr Rosemary Agonito frames “centuries of cultural conditioning” in the wider context of two time bombs threatening to annihilate us all — excess population combined with global warming.

With poor planning and few imaginative public policies on offer — including such timely measures as the excellent Chinese one-child/one family programme — to demand accountability from world leaders, Pope Francis included, any serious consideration of global population reduction will advance at a glacial pace.

Although this work targets American women, here too, in East Africa, this last taboo needs to be interrogated.

Debunking biological maternal instinct is heretical, yet there are near daily press reports of “bundles of joy” found in pit latrines or rescued from forest dump sites. Suffering from post-partum depression, large numbers of mothers offload their children to long-suffering grandmothers.

In families where ambitious women have exciting work needing full attention, children come a poor second. If that were not the case, why, in middle-and upper-class homes, are their offspring more often than not offloaded to ayahs and domestic workers and later made to reside — at a distance — in boarding schools?

If women’s primary functions — as breeders and child-care supervisors — were not self-evident, the deadening, soft power of television advertising and marketing offers a steady diet of the glories of marriage and motherhood. Why? Although selling spaghetti and nappies may be more to the point, for Agonito, being a mother, even a stigma-attached single mother, proves women’s self-worth and to society, women’s significance.

The award-winning American author’s delicate demeanour belies her steely resolve to free women for the more selfless work of caring for the planet’s underserved humanity and wildlife. With eight works of scholarship to her name, the author, a pioneering PhD in philosophy specialising in gender equity, is a low-key fire-brand with a radical vision for people-centred social reform. Her latest offering is a daring meditation on motherhood that is surprisingly free of academic ostentation or mere rant.

But is anyone ready to listen? Although her sharp insights and on-target observations have earned her some speaking engagements around the US, the sanctity of motherhood is still non-negotiable, and even her own agent proclaimed: “No one will ever publish this book!”

Agonito’s work is a multi-pronged attack on the many myths that channel women into conventional middle-class marriage-and-motherhood trajectories, and highlights the actual physical and emotional impact of having children on them and their relationships.

How, Agonito wonders, with so many marriages on the rocks, failed families and broken homes that may produce psychologically disturbed children, is it that many young women continue to have such “idealistic expectations” of their own future experience of motherhood?

Citing recent research, the author suggests that the motivations are not as simple as they look. Many women may desire to make amends for their own disappointing childhood, while, on a deeper level, the expressed desire to nurture is really about the desire to be nurtured, to be loved.

Quoting outspoken feminist Naomi Wolf’s “conspiracy of silence,” the author finds that contrary to storybook expectations, much of childrearing is “drudgery,” and “not fun.”

It’s hard, demanding, exhausting, draining work. It’s work done in a child’s world, not an adult’s. It’s work that is downright boring most of the time, involving as it does repetitive, endless menial tasks.

Far from experiencing the empty-nest syndrome when children leave home, Agonito says couples in marriages that do survive experience “renewed marital bliss.” She advises: Children do eventually leave. “They certainly do not build their lives around their parents — a point we should remember when we’re tempted to centre our lives around them.”

Perhaps worse, women’s view of themselves changes. For her, motherhood defines her core identity. For him, work rather than fatherhood continues to define his identity.

Many women consulted lamented their “wasted lives.” That instead of moving up in their professions as their husbands had done, they often had to abandon brilliant careers and drop out of sight. Often she writes, although the decision was thought to been the woman’s own choice; it was really about the impact of tradition and thousands of years of patriarchal brainwashing.

Agonito’s weightiest chapter examines the intersecting nature of population excess and climate change. To the 7 billion plus people already on the planet, every year 131.4 million babies are added. By 2050, we can look forward to the frightening prospect of 9.3 billion people.

As long as motherhood is the defining characteristic of women everywhere, socially constricted “centuries of cultural conditioning” will continue to shape women’s lives and our world. Yet what was considered unspeakable yesterday such as racially mixed marriages, same-sex partnerships, religious and ethnically integrated neighbourhoods and communities reveal how once powerful ideas can be dead wrong.