Where Did We Get This Idea?
I am writing this series is because I want you to think differently about the things you take for granted. Motherhood and womanhood are often thoroughly intertwined, but we sometimes fail to realize that the two are not synonymous.
Many women struggle with this problem, “I am a woman so I should want to get married and have children,” or my favorite, “My biological clock is ticking, I should get married and have kids soon.” But what if she doesn’t want to do either of these things? What if she wants to get married, have kids and maintain her own life? Men do this all the time. I have several male friends who are exceptional single-dads yet their identity is not wrapped up in their children, and no one expects this from them.
Outside of actually giving birth, there isn’t any natural, biological, or mythical reason that makes women better caretakers. It is just “understood” and “expected” that women will stay home and put their lives on hold for their children.
Two weeks before my son was born, I maintained that birthing a small human would not change my life, college plans or how I viewed the world. I was wrong. The moment my son was born it was as if a rabid she-wolf took my place. Back then, I did not understand how hormones worked, nor did I comprehend that the possessive-obsession I developed with my new baby was part of evolutionary adaptation.
Women, when around infants for an extended amount of time, are essentially seduced by the sweet scent of a baby’s pheromones. This is how nature ensures that parents do not abandon their demanding, squalling, indecisive, helpless, bundles of “joy.” As a result of this self-preserving essence, those who spend the greatest amount of time with babies, tend to become the most attached and ferociously protective- usually women. Interestingly, men who spend a lot of time interacting with their newborns can also be “infected” by their infants, becoming strongly attached to their progeny, yet because of how society is structured, men usually work outside of the home rather than taking a significant role nurturing the little ones.
This is not man-bashing. Instead, this is just an observation about the way things are in our society. And a way that I believe is wrong and should be changed. Women get more leave time for having a child than men. In many countries’ men do not get any paternity leave and have little opportunity to spend time with their newborns. What I want to explore is how the concepts that women are better parents are based on assumptions that we take for granted. Consider the following:
One might argue that evolutionarily speaking or in indigenous societies, women were the primary caretakers. I imagine it would be extremely challenging for a pregnant woman to chase after some wild beast, especially if there were other little ones in tow. For the sake of argument, we can accept that the men would go out and hunt for meat while the women would stay “home” and gather the daily sustenance for the village. But if you do a small amount of research, you will realize that men didn’t bring home the bacon all that often, because wild game is hard to catch! You would also find that women were responsible for the majority of the group’s food and without the women’s “gathering,” the tribe/village/clan would not eat a regular meal. The other part to note is that these women were not living alone in their hut with their children, they were active in daily communal work, and valued members of their society.* Most importantly, their jobs were not put on hold so they could take on motherhood, it was an integral part of their daily living, children were cared for by the group, and not the focus of a woman’s life or, one could argue, not their primary identity.
We no longer live in this sort of society. If you are reading this piece, it is highly unlikely that you live in this sort of environment, so the Hunter/Gatherer gender norms do not apply to you, your spouse or children.
Once upon a time, men got full custody of the children in the event of a divorce. Women, like the children, home, land, and livestock, were property and he was able to do what he liked with said property. Divorced females did not have any rights, and no one considered that she might (or might not) be the better parent. It was merely a transaction of ownership. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that it became apparent, that women may have some positive impact on their offspring. Even then, women could only have custody up until the child was seven years old.**
After a time, the pendulum swung in the other direction, and for another hundred years or so, women were able to get full custody, with fathers’ getting “non-custodial custody,” or “visitation.” Leap forward a few more decades, and soon there was, “joint-custody,” allowing both parents to be involved in their children’s lives. Yet, in spite of these extreme changes, we still have this lingering thought that women are the better caregivers. What is worse is the idea that women are naturally better caregivers and thus are held to higher, stricter, standards than men. I could likely fill a book with examples to the contrary, but what is most important is how we narrow the potential of women who want more than just being Mother.
Legal rights do not indicate who is the better parent. Laws do not always reflect the individual needs of children or the parents who care for them. Fewer women are forced into marriage these days, with this change of autonomy and choice it would follow that divorces would reduce if women are not pressured into a role that may not suit them.
A Glitch in the Machine
A woman’s place is in the home, but during WWI and WWII, the US sent many men overseas and jobs at home needed to be filled. Women were encouraged to join the war effort by filling these jobs until the war was over and then it was understood that women would go back to their homes, care for the children and leave the positions to the men again. The propaganda that encouraged them out of the home and into the world of employment attempted to coerce them back home. It was during this time the “stereotypical” homemaker was born, (e.g., Leave it to Beaver,) along with the rise of “Mommy’s little helper,” (Valium) to help women suppress their desires and aspirations. Generally speaking, women were not allowed to hold jobs that men were able to do, often resulting in a woman being fired after she got married (it was legal!) But women were paid less than men so businesses would keep female employees as it improved their bottom line.
The outcome of this was that women realized they could balance home and work. They bucked the status quo and social norms of the era. This rebellion caused a rift, a change of perspective, the self-perceived value of being female was changed in the minds of many women, they wanted more from life than just the status of, “dolly domestic.” Society changed the “rules” for a short time to feed the needs of the war, but they didn’t expect women to want to remain in these roles. We fight these stereotypes to this day.
A change of perspective
As humanity evolves and changes its view on gender roles, we must stop and ask some critical questions. Can women really be better parents if they are restricted to a limited definition of their full potential? Can a human be their best in any capacity if they are limited or relegated to one limited definition of self? How healthy is it for women or their children when the boundaries between the two are blurred?
We no longer believe in women wearing corsets (except by choice), or that they are unable to become highly educated, (women earn more college degrees than men these days.) We scoff at outdated ideas for many things, yet we still have this entrenched idea that female is the only gender that is geared towards child rearing.
*I am not stating that women were prominent members. Indeed there were and are hierarchal levels of each society and women didn’t always have a lot of power, if ever. The point of this section is to help explain why women might not have been biologically able to go hunt.
** this varied by country and I will admit here I did limited research, focusing only on England and the U.S. I would love to hear if anyone knows the history of child custody in their country or country of origin.
Interesting link on parenting in other countries here!