An Exploration of Institutional Motherhood through Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born

Note:  Please do NOT be offended by this post, especially if you are a friend or a family member.  This is my best attempt to summarize an academic book for future use on my comprehensive exams for my Ph.D. and to make sense of what has been a difficult and confusing role for ME to handle.

In 1976, poet Adrienne Rich explored motherhood in her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Institution and Experience.  She explored her own experiences as a mother, the institution of motherhood as reinforced by patriarchy, and possible solutions to this type of motherhood that doesn’t seem to treat women as people.

I read excerpts of this book as part of my culture and politics of motherhood class, and finished the rest of it over the break between semesters.  As I read parts of it to my husband, he listened thoughtfully and then said, “When was this written?”

I confirmed its publication in 1976 and its reprinting in 1986.

He said, “This could have been written in 2012.  Nothing has changed.”

He’s absolutely right.  Women are still experiencing motherhood as institution, as a set of rules and regulations imposed by outsiders.  “Institutionalized motherhood demands of women maternal ‘instinct’ rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realization, relation to others rather than the creation of self.  Motherhood is ‘sacred’ so long as its offspring are ‘legitimate’” (p. 42).  Children are only legitimate if they have a man’s name and if that man legally controls the mother.  In general, motherhood is not praised or held sacred when it isn’t white, middle-class, and patriarchal.

of woman born cover

Here’s what Rich suggests should take the place of this controlling nonsense: “The mother’s battle for her child—with sickness, with poverty, with war, with all the forces of exploitation and callousness that cheapen human life—needs to become a common human battle, waged in love and in the passion for survival.  But for this to happen, the institution of motherhood must be destroyed” (p. 280).

Rich also explores the theme of ambivalence. I know I have felt that.  I often wonder if other women are happier than I am as a mother or more skilled at it.  Do they have more patience, more capacity for selflessness, and more of a sure sense of who they are?  I suspect that even the women who tend to cling to institutional motherhood have those same feelings of ambivalence at times.

I appreciate how Rich explores this ambivalence against the backdrop of anger and tenderness.  She wrote, “It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness” (p. 21).  I experience that on a daily basis, and as a mother who wants to be “good” and loving, these feelings are confusing and depressing.  Am I doing it right?  What is right?  How do we reconcile those feelings when they occur simultaneously?

Rich’s children later told her: “You seemed to feel you ought to love us all the time.  But there is no human relationship where you love the other person at every moment” (p. 23, emphasis in original).  Yet, Rich knows what her son doesn’t, that “women—above all, mothers—have been supposed to love that way” (p. 23).

The other issue is the fact that child-rearing is so heavily placed on women.  With that comes guilt and blame.  I see a solution to this as equal child-rearing, a family in which the mother and father cared for their young and in which children would come to depend upon both parents for love, affection, validation, direction, discipline, and care.  I see that as a balanced approach to parenting, one that relieves this enormous pressure on mothers to be perfect and to be blamed for anything that goes wrong with their children.

Rich wrote nearly forty years ago, yet currently we see motherhood as being high pressured and intensive.  If a woman must participate in what is called new momism (24/7 motherhood in which moms are responsible for everything and everyone and all of the consequences of their children’s actions; helicopter parenting is a close cousin), what else is left?  What energy would she have to actually love her children and enjoy them?  How would she find time to contribute to society or to find personal fulfillment in order to model such a balanced life for her children?  How would she have anything left to give, when her well is dry?  The new momism holds women to impossible standards and teaches our children that women are not people but servants or imperfect beings who tried but failed.  What kind of message does this send both our young boys and girls?  It says that women are responsible for everything when it comes to child-rearing and will ultimately fail.  It says that men should hold women to these impossible standards and that women should grow up believing that they will never be good enough.  It’s ridiculous!

Rich also attends to mother-son and mother-daughter relationships in respective chapters.  For sons, she explains that mothers are often seen as holding back men or as the vessels of death for men.  She recounts this idea, of women as pitfalls or temptresses responsible for man’s downfall, in nearly every culture, briefly citing the examples that reinforce this notion.  Rich is the mother to three sons, and realizes how much she loves them, but rejects some of the cultural ideals that inform the mother-son relationship and, in essence, ruin it.

She advocates changing culture to benefit our sons, as well as our daughters.  She wrote, “If we wish for our sons—as for our daughters—that they may grow up unmutilated by gender-roles, sensitized to misogyny in all its forms, we also have to face the fact that in the present stage of history our sons may feel profoundly alone in the masculine world, with few if any close relationships with other men” (p. 207).  Sociologist Michael Kimmel studies this problem with our culture in his book Guyland, which I reviewed here.

Kimmel explores how men have no guidance from older men, but instead from others of their same age.  In other cultures and historical times, men were guided into adulthood by other adult men.  This seems logical to me.  Rich echoed this sentiment in her chapter on sons with, “The pain, floundering, and ambivalence our male children experience is not to be laid at the doors of mothers who are strong, nontraditional women; it is the traditional fathers who—even when they live under the same roof—have deserted their children hourly an daily . . . most of our sons are—in the most profound sense—virtually fatherless” (p. 211).  I see this as something that has changed since 1975 as well, but maybe not enough.  Maybe our economy needs to change to allow fathers to participate in the rearing of their own children.

She ends this chapter by realizing that changes for men will be hard.  “We infantilize men and deceive ourselves when we try to make these changes easy and unthreatening for them” (p. 215).  She suggests that “we cease treating men as if their egos were of eggshell . . . It means that we begin to expect of men, as we do of women, that they can behave like our equals without being applauded for it or singled out” (p. 217).  I like this idea, and I like that some of this has happened since original publication of her book in 1975.  Yet, we can still do better.  We can still expect more of men.  I have many work experiences in which I was treated as less than or as an object (sometimes a sex object) by men.  This isn’t right, and although we now seem to collectively realize that it isn’t right, it still happens.  It needs to stop.

For daughters, she emphasized the importance of women modeling womanhood for each other.  She wrote, “A mother’s victimization does not merely humiliate her, it mutilates the daughter who watches her for clues as to what it means to be a woman” (p. 243).  She goes on to use the example of the woman who cures her depression through a shopping trip or by rewarding herself with something (like chocolate) for being a “good” wife and mother. This behavior only covers up the problem.  (I guess I’d better get rid of my hidden chocolate stash.)

I also appreciated Rich’s exploration of limits and how to model something differently for our daughters.  I wrote about my efforts to do this for my own daughters in my post “Five Things I Want My Daughters to Learn about Feminism,” on my blog here and published on another blog here.  Rich said, “The most notable fact that culture imprints on women is the sense of our limits.  The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities . . . It means that the mother herself is trying to expand the limits of her life.  To refuse to be a victim: and then to go on from there” (p. 246, emphasis in original).  We can refuse to be victims.  We can refuse to collude in our unhappiness and oppression.  This is true in any situation, whether it’s institutional motherhood, patriarchy, or just plain old face-to-face relationships with our family members, neighbors, and friends.

The book ends with the horrific story of a mother of eight in the 1950s (yes, that golden era of “family values” that saw a high rate of depression and subsequent alcohol use among women) who butchered her two youngest children in the front yard with a knife.  Rich analyzes what happened and shows how the newspaper reports reveal the pressure this mother was under in having had eight children and in being left alone with them day after day.  After her third child, she said she did not want more, but her husband refused to get a vasectomy, and birth control then was less than safe or effective.  So, she continued to have a child each time her husband met his needs with her.  She fell into severe depression and even psychosis, having her family report that she had been talking to herself and began pulling away from them.  She also spent long periods on the couch unable to move or speak.

Adrienne Rich, images from Wikimedia Commons
Adrienne Rich, image from Wikimedia Commons

Now, I’m not advocating that it was okay for this woman to kill her little children.  But I do agree with Rich that this situation could have been prevented through care for the mother as a human being.  She could have been given a respite from so many children.  She could have sought medical help before the incident occurred.  Her husband could have spent more time at home helping her with the eight children he helped to create yet seemed to feel no responsibility for.  It’s a tragedy, much like the more recent Andrea Yates case, during which many women came out in her defense.

Mothers are not perfect, and the institution of motherhood does not help with this perception or the pressure women put on themselves and feel from culture and country.  Rich suggests “that women take seriously the enterprise of finding out what we do feel, instead of accepting what we have been told we must feel” (p. 269).  I agree.

Here are some other noteworthy quotes from the book.

“Most of the labor in the world is done by women: that is a fact” (p. xviii).

“Yet from birth, in most homes and social groups, we teach children that only certain possibilities within them are livable; we teach them to hear only certain voices inside themselves, to feel only what we believe they ought to feel, to recognize only certain others as human.  We teach the boy to hate and scorn the places in himself where he identifies with women; we teach the girl that there is only one kind of womanhood and that the incongruent parts of herself must be destroyed” (p. xxxii).

“‘[P]atrivincialism’ or ‘patriochialism’: the assumption that women are a subgroup, that ‘man’s world’ is the ‘real’ world, that patriarchy is equivalent to culture and culture to patriarchy, that the ‘great’ or ‘liberalizing ‘ periods of history have been the same for woman as for men, that generalizations about ‘man,’ ‘humankind,’ ‘children,’ ‘Blacks,’ ‘parents,’ ‘the working class’ hold true for women, mothers, daughters, sisters, wet-nurses, infant girls, and can include them with no more than a glancing reference here and there, usually to some specialized function like breastfeeding” (p. 16).

“But, it will be said, this is the human condition . . . But the patriarchal institution of motherhood is not the ‘human condition’ any more than rape, prostitution, and slavery are” (p. 33).

“Not only have women been told to stick to motherhood, but we have been told that our intellectual or aesthetic creations were inappropriate, inconsequential, or scandalous, an attempt to become ‘like men,’ or to escape from the ‘real’ tasks of adult womanhood: marriage and childbearing” (p. 40).

“The mother bears the weight of Eve’s transgression (is, thus, the first offender, the polluted one, the polluter) yet precisely because of this she is expected to carry the burden of male salvation” (p. 44-45).

“For mothers, the privatization of the home has meant not only an increase in powerlessness, but a desperate loneliness” (p. 53).

“There is nothing revolutionary whatsoever about the control of women’s bodies by men.  The woman’s body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected” (p. 55).

“[G]uilt is one of the most powerful forms of social control of women; none of us can be entirely immune to it” (p. 206).

“When asked with hostility the implication is that a feminist must be man-hating, castrating; that ‘all this’ must of course be damaging to my children; it is a question meant to provoke guilt” (p. 207).

“‘You can be anything you really want to be’ is a half-truth, whatever a woman’s class or economic advantages. . . . ‘You can be anything you really want to be’—if you are prepared to fight, to create priorities for yourself against the grain of cultural expectations, to persist in the face of misogynistic hostility” (p. 248, emphasis in original).

“Any woman who believes that the institution of motherhood has nothing to do with her is closing her eyes to crucial aspects of her situation” (p. 252, emphasis in original).

“To accept and integrate and strengthen both the mother and the daughter in ourselves is no easy matter, because patriarchal attitudes have encouraged us to split, to polarize, these images, and to project all unwanted guilt, anger, shame, power, freedom, onto the ‘other’ woman.  But any radical vision of sisterhood demands that we reintegrate them” (p. 253).

“It is improbable that a problem which affected as many men in the sensitive genital area, as contraception affects women, would be considered solvable by methods so dangerous, even deadly, and so undependable” (p. 265).

“The absence of respect for women’s lives is written into the heart of male theological doctrine, into the structure of the patriarchal family, and into the very language of patriarchal ethics. . . . where ‘humanity’ and ‘humanistic values’ are concerned, women are not really part of the population” (p. 270-71).

“To seek visions, to dream dreams, is essential, and it is also essential to try new ways of living, to make room for serious experimentation, to respect the effort even where it fails” (p. 282).


29 thoughts on “An Exploration of Institutional Motherhood through Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born

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  1. Wow. You had me at “The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities . . . It means that the mother herself is trying to expand the limits of her life. To refuse to be a victim: and then to go on from there” (p. 246, emphasis in original). We can refuse to be victims.” Thank you for taking the time and having the courage to open up this sensitive subject.

  2. Emily,
    You are so amazing! I have been thinking about this for a while now. I wonder how much the motherhood expectations are magnified in Utah (because we live in our happy mormon bubble). There is so much pressure to be the perfect mom, to have perfect kids, but let’s be honest, it is not possible, and the sooner we, as mothers, can get rid of that idea, the better off we would all be.

    1. Yes, yes, and yes! This is certainly a national “problem” / “expectation,” but it is magnified in certain cultures or among certain groups. I think what I gain from this is not the idea that motherhood is bad, but that sisterhood is important too and that there’s always room for improvement when it comes to the way we treat and think about our women and children.

  3. My grandmother told me my job is to teach my children to live happy, productive lives without me. Her words helped me – on numerous occasions — to give them the freedom they need to do just that. Is that too simplistic??

    1. No, it’s wonderful. I think we need to return to that, rather than feeling like we failed if we didn’t teach our children to roller skate, play basketball, play violin, speak and dress perfectly, and eventually win the Nobel Prize. Simplicity is good, for everybody!

  4. Emily, this is very good. As I read this, I kept thinking two thoughs. A working mother is the hardest job in the world as it is two jobs. I also was thinking of how women are being victimized outside of our country. Progress has been made here, but we still have a long way. Yet, I see where women are treated as possessions in too many places outside the US and it is both criminal and not very smart, since women are at least half your intellectual capital and work hard, if not harder than men. Well done. BTG

    1. BTG, thanks for sharing your insight. I love how you mention other countries, because they count, too. Yes, working women essentially work two jobs. That second shift at home is what really has to go, and a great way to start would be for shared household chores. I guess for single women, as we discussed on your blog earlier, that just isn’t an option to begin with, even if you could convince the men to help. I must say, though, that my husband is fabulous at helping and sharing the responsibilities, as are many wonderful men.

      1. Sounds like you have a good man. You made me remember an old quote which you might appreciate – “A man will never be shot while doing the dishes.” Take care, BTG

  5. I am in awe. I have never been quite able to express my feelings on this subject, especially to family members who feel the only place for a woman is in the home. Would it be offensive to print this and hand out copies at my next reunion? =) I watched my own mother experience loneliness, isolation and depression as she raised 10 children. I’m curious what she might have thought of this blog had she read it in the midst of her child-rearing years. I think she would have found it as empowering as I just did.

    1. You should read the book! It is even more empowering. I am glad it did that for you, and feel free to hand out copies at the next reunion! Let me know how that goes, too. 😉 And I just love hearing stories about your mom. Keep on sharing.

  6. That WAS pretty accurate for 2013! However, I agree with Cyndi A., blogs are so empowering for we women who stay home with kids all day nowadays. I would be soooooo much worse off as a stay at home mom without blogs. Just checking one or two (or twenty) during the day helps me keep going because I know I’m not alone.

    That said, I still feel pressure to love mothering. I decided just today that I like being a mother but I don’t love being a mother. And it feels good to acknowledge that. I do feel like an alien feeling that way sometimes because motherhood is so glamorized and gushy (the downside of all those blogs I check) that I wonder if I’m missing some gene that everyone else seems to have. But I’m pretty sure it’s just because I’m realistic and practical and am interested in one billion things outside of motherhood that makes it so I can categorize mothering as something I have chosen to do that is very important but it will never be my everything. Also, nobody expects my husband to say he loooooooves his job.

    My heart goes out to women who had/have too many kids, for whatever reason. I think about Octomom all the time, as well as many Mormon women past and present, as well as women in the news like Andrea Yates. I had a friend who said her mom kept adopting children because she loved the praise she got from other people telling her she was a saint, but in reality was a crummy mom. It’s all just so sad.

    1. You’re right that it is sad, and I think the saddest is the social and cultural pressure we put on each other. I see this especially with other women. I know not everybody or every situation is like this, but it seems that women are especially hard on each other and we tend to police each other into this institution (and others) that in reality oppress and control. I love your point about your husband’s job, too. And I think that is Rich’s point in saying that ambivalence (anger and tenderness) are a very real part of the job of mother and that her sons were surprised that she thought she needed to love them fully and fiercely all of the time. Thanks for the great comments, as usual!

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