Even as International Mother’s Day is nearing, it would be salutary to remind ourselves that cutting across the East-West divide ‘child free’ women are increasing all over the developed world. Indeed, the 2012 session of the Population Association of America dwelt on the low birth and death rates in the developed nations, the resultant international migration of labour and its socio-cultural repercussions. Ironically, unequal gender relations, traditionally blamed for the high fertility of ‘third world’ women, emerged as the core issue affecting the low fertility in women in the developed countries.
In a steadily evolving world, women are gaining access to higher levels of education and employment both because of pro-equity governmental policies and the effects of competitive capitalism. A significant section of these empowered women seem to be slowly losing interest in motherhood. While women are advancing in terms of education and outlook, men and societies in general are not changing their attitudes and expectations to keep pace with them. Housework and childrearing are still largely perceived as women’s responsibilities so that working women who choose to marry and be mothers end up with too much work and high levels of daily stress. Clearly, domestic gender relations have not evolved the way it has to in order to keep motherhood — or even marriage — a viable option for independent women.
In India we are still not facing an appreciable lack of interest in motherhood among women. But how much of our women’s apparent interest in motherhood is real and how much of it is determined by spousal and familial pressures, societal expectations and their own internalisation of the cult of motherhood is anybody’s guess. Indeed, an Assocham survey conducted last year revealed that educated young women across the country do not consider motherhood as the most significant aspect of life and would rather choose a satisfying career over marriage and motherhood if they cannot reconcile the two. In the absence of pervasive and adequate gender equity, the costs of motherhood are being perceived by many women as too high. And the prospect of children being caregivers in old age is also steadily dimming.
Instead of merely glorifying a tough and lonesome job, however ‘fulfilling’, efforts have to be made — by individual men and by nation states and societies — to make it practically viable for the woman and compatible with the other pursuits of her life. In other words, the productive value of motherhood for a country and, ultimately, for the world needs to be recognised more fully; and the professional and human costs of this production have to be borne equitably by men and women. We have to work towards achieving the kind of domestic gender relations that would make motherhood less of a burden for the educated working woman.
Motherhood is glorious, but only when it is freely chosen and enjoyed by the mother. In this sense, the more we can empower women to say ‘no’ to motherhood and the more we can make it enjoyable for them the more respect we would be showing to the mother-child bond.
Suparna Banerjee is the author of the forthcoming book, Science, Gender & History: Mary Shelley & Margaret Atwood
The views expressed by the author are personal