“Natural” vs. “Unnatural” Women: Motherhood as Woman’s Duty

From the editors: Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal explores cultural expectations of motherhood she faced and resisted with the support of her mother (pictured with the author). 

I do not have children of my own, and, in fact, prefer the company of the young of other mammals, such as puppies and kittens. That may not sound unusual out here in the U.S, but it was seen as extremely odd when I was a young woman growing up in India, as most countries from the developing world tend to be extremely supportive of women as mothers, and dismissive of those women who are “barren,” and either unable, or unwilling, to produce offspring.

It is a far cry from the sane attitude of some other animal species such as elephants, where the role played by “aunt” elephants are as critical for the wellbeing of the herd as those of the mothers.

The good side of traditional societies is that no eyebrows are raised if a woman decides to discreetly feed her infant in a public place, and women there are adept at doing so. Here on the contrary, it is astonishing to see the brouhaha over this very natural act of a mother. Society appears to have forgotten that the function of the mammary glands are not to titillate the male species, but to feed the infants of the species.

But the bad side of traditional societies is that women are expected to yearn to become mothers from the time they are little girls. They are gifted little dolls for this very purpose, which they proceed to treat as their own infants. This is of course, a worldwide phenomenon and not just specific to my culture. However, what is specific to my original culture is the obsession that families have with parenthood. The pressure placed upon young couples by the husband’s parents is astonishing. From outwardly innocuous remarks like the jocular “Any good news? “ (accompanied by a knowing smile) to the more obvious and semi reproachful query, “When shall we hear the patter of little feet?”

In fact, young couples are pressured to feel that it is their duty to provide children / grandchildren for the aging parents and grandparents. This attitude leads to immense psychological pressure upon couples who are unable to perform their duty and produce offspring upon request. And of course it is expected in most communities, regardless of religion, class or caste, that the first born be a boy.

No doubt all these attitudes led to a reaction on my part as a rebellious young woman not to have children of my own, or rather, biological offspring. Any man I chose to spend time with would therefore be regaled with this decision. Small wonder then that most took to the hills. After all, who would want a wife who was not just an “uppity woman,” but “an unnatural” one, to boot?!

I recall the very hurtful comments made by a close male friend back in the days when my biological clock was supposed to be ticking: “You are an unnatural woman!”

I managed to cover up my feelings of hurt with a sharp quip, “And you, being a man, know what it feels like to be a woman?!”

But deep inside, I was hurt, very hurt. At weak moments I even asked myself, was it somehow strange of me as a woman not to feel this apparent universal urge to produce offspring? Did it even, in some way, make me a bad woman? When I came upon Simone de Beauvoir’s ruminations on the societal construction of womanhood I began to feel much better about my decision. But how many women of my generation back then had access to such literature in the first place? Most have access only to the sexist dictats of Manusmriti, the infamous Codes of Manu, the Lawgiver of ancient India, which were enforced by society in general, through the entire extended family, teachers, astrologers, the works!

In my case a casual visit to the family astrologer ended in disaster when the man concerned pronounced judgment upon my decision to stay single with a sneering accusation,”how selfish of you! You do not care for the suffering of your aging parents!”

My polite response that the parents concerned were not suffering but in fact were quite content to let me make my own decisions was met with horror. What kind of woman would behave this selfish? And how dare I wait so long and refuse all these offers of (arranged) marriage that had come my way? A sure sign of great arrogance! As to the lax attitude of my parents, no doubt this poor upbringing had contributed to my willful behavior.

As the years went by and I focused on my career and took up what appeared to be a permanent abode on the proverbial shelf, my mother stopped collecting items for my “Hope Chest,” (Or trunk, if you will, where jewelry, crockery and sundry other items would be collected by mothers for their daughter’s marital homes). The aforementioned “Hope Chest” became the family joke as “The Hopeless Chest!” Any conversation about my getting married or having a child was long dropped, to my great relief.

My mother even reassured me once, when I was in my late 30s with a pithy comment: “Marriage is not the be-all and end-all of life, my dear!”

It is only now, looking back on it, that I realize what an unusual woman she was of her generation, or even of generations to come, to possess such an unorthodox attitude towards life. For women in traditional South Asian society are usually led to believe that it is their bounden duty to get married and then produce children, preferably male.

I did eventually fall in love with a man who I went on to marry, once I had finished graduate school in the U.S. But we chose not to have children, partly because both of us travelled a lot, and rearing children under those circumstances would prove difficult, and partly because we were not eager to become parents. I am fortunate to have been born into a liberal and supportive family where a woman’s life is not equated to motherhood, but it is not the norm in my society even today.

However, I will add this caveat: I have discovered that society’s expectation of women is not that different even in the “modern, progressive West,” and not just in the developing world. Let us not forget that it is not just in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR that women were forced into motherhood, to produce good Aryan babies for God and the nation. That was the case in the U.S too, where, forget abortion, even contraception was banned right into the second half of the 20th century. The position of many world religions too has been that woman’s duty is to become a mother, and produce as many offspring as possible at that.

We do live in a brave new world where women are not forced into motherhood, overtly, that is. But what about the covert message of the mainstream media? Indeed, as numerous television serials and Hollywood films continue to show, women who are content with their careers and other pastimes rather than yearning for motherhood are portrayed as unnatural (yes, that word again!) Yet, somehow the most unnatural woman is redeemed eventually when she goes ahead and births a child. Although there is little support for either the mother or the child once she has gone ahead and had it, with working mothers reporting huge levels of stress trying to juggle work and home without much access to childcare in most jobs. But that is a different story.

Women who have abortions are still represented in a negative light in Hollywood films in this day and age. Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown may have incurred Dan Quayle’s wrath in the 1990s, for being a single mother. But she was a mother nevertheless, not a woman who had resolved to remain childless, and, moreover, a content childless woman at that. Even films that masquerade as progressive such as the Indie film Juno (2007) have a dark side when they enforce the hegemonic view that woman’s natural calling is to be a mother. And God forbid that a popular television series show a woman reject the role of motherhood and get an abortion.

We may seem to have come a long way since the dark days of The Feminine Mystique (1963), when Betty Friedan wrote of the oppressive standards that women were expected to uphold within American society. Women in this part of the world today can do anything, take up any profession, be whatever they want to be. And yet, as our television serials never cease to remind us, the one thing we deeply yearn for, regardless of all our outward posturing, is to be mothers. Small wonder, then, that women who have postpartum depression or parental ambivalence even years later feel abandoned by society, as they are made to feel they are not “normal.” Because, isn’t it “normal” to feel complete as a woman only when one has become a mother?

Perhaps East and West are not so different after all…

Shoba Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal x received her Ph.D. in Media Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Spring 2003. She moved to the East coast to take up a position as the Coordinator of the then Women’s Studies Program at Westfield State University and is currently in charge of the Women and Gender Studies Minor in the Department of Ethnic & Gender Studies, where she teaches courses that focus on gender issues and religious extremism in South Asia. She has worked with colleagues across campus and helped develop an Asian Studies Minor at the university. Dr Rajgopal traveled widely across Asia and Europe in her previous avatar as a broadcast journalist and reported for the Indian networks and for CNN International from various international locations.

2 comments

  1. T.J. Hall says:

    A wonderful story that gave a depiction of the interconnections of gender roles in the eastern and western hemispheres!

  2. Usha Sreevalsan says:

    Mum says she was agreeably surprised to read about her role in ur decision not to opt for the usual path. And she thought that you had expressed your thinking on this matter very eloquently. She became what she is because she had a free thinking father who encouraged her during her growing years, to step out of the mould. Thats why she was , I think, the only girl in her family, who did not marry a cousin!. You were always a trail blazer! You made it easier for Preethi to take the unconventional route. I personally feel that our old system of “Marumakkathaayam’, was the best. Every child was looked after though not necessarily by his or her mother. So no one needed to feel guilty of not being maternally inclined. Its all in the genes. Either you have it or you dont. It cannot be forced on you. Just because the majority think so, it need not be right. But nature compensates by seeing to it that most women have the drive to support and look after their off spring. Its only humans who try to enforce their opinions on others. Long live Aunt Elephants! In our family especially, we need them.

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