Is Motherhood a Sacrifice or a Privilege?

In my recent Sunday Review piece, I addressed the question of whether motherhood is a sacrifice or a privilege, whether it is selfless or selfish. I made the argument that we would go a long way to empowering women and mothers by reframing the way we think and talk about mothers by refusing the badge of martyrdom and by heeding the language we use when we talk about motherhood. By insisting on calling motherhood a selfless sacrifice, we take agency away from her.

The responses have been varied and illuminating from all sides of the argument. Most of the men and women who have reached out to me personally have been supportive and grateful for pointing out that raising children is a joy and privilege for both men and women. I’ve received an outpouring of support from women who particularly relate to my point about the way in which mothers become the purview of the public, which feels it has the right to dictate what a mother should and should do or be and how she should or shouldn’t raise her children. This is true for women in every socioeconomic status.CreditVivienne Flesher

Clearly, the piece rankled some. One friend said, “You are the only person I know who can throw elbows to the right and the left at the same time!” This made me laugh out loud because I wrote the piece with no politics whatsoever in mind.

Many of the critics point out — rightfully — that I am writing from a place of privilege and therefore project that privilege on the subject of motherhood. Commenters also asked why I didn’t address the issue of lack of support for single mothers and or for those without access to birth control. The abuses that women around the world sustain is unquestionably a more urgent problem that concerns us all. My piece was necessarily focused on a finer point only because all of these issues deserve more attention than I can address in my original short essay.

This comment by Janice Nelson captures another facet of the kind of hardships faced by women in general, and not necessarily mothers:

I love being a mom. I sacrificed nothing. The joy it has brought my life is unbounded.

But I will say this: as a nurse working in Homecare/Hospice, women do sacrifice the most when caregiving is needed. I am not talking raising children like this article alludes to, but managing to care for chronically ill children and aging parents, and many times both at the same time. I see this over and over, almost daily in the course of my work. These women sacrifice their jobs, their health, their own well-being to become caretaker. Our society is not set up, including Medicare, to offer help. They often go it alone. Many times silently. They do not take weeks at a beachouse or even a short respite to dine with friends…

I would not argue with the fact that I have had great fortune, but I do not mention hardships in my own life because they are not relevant to the point, even though some of the issues mentioned above are not outside the realm of my personal experience. I do write from what I would agree is a privileged place, as it is the only one I feel the right to write about.

Understandably, for those mothers who became mothers not by choice, and for those who lack a support system to help them, the notion of mothering as a self-directed privilege would be far from their reality. But I strongly believe that the language we use and the stories we tell ourselves can be very powerful — for better and for worse. And the language of powerlessness, sacrifice and selflessness helps to keep women in a disempowered place. I agree wholeheartedly that there are not enough policies in our country to support those who can’t afford it themselves. But I hoped that by shedding light on the language we use, it would contribute in some small way to forging better policies. This has further implications in a point I make below about artificial intelligence. The comments about what one reader, ae, called “false dichotomies” bring up a good point. This one rings loud and clear:

Why can’t motherhood be both a sacrifice and a privilege? A job and a choice? Selfish and generous? We don’t expect truth to be so black and white in other areas of our lives….

Why can’t motherhood — parenthood, for that matter — just be a part of life’s choices? It should be socially supported — because parents are raising the next generation, and we all benefit from that — but let’s leave out the false dichotomies and just let women live their lives.

I agree that duality thinking is the cause of so much dissonance, and I take the criticism to heart. I do not mean to encourage reductive thinking — that we are either only selfish or only selfless — since life is so much more nuanced than to classify experience as only one thing and not another. However, I do believe that women are held to different implicit cultural biases and vernacular corollaries and my point was meant to express how important it is to be aware of these complacent tags we put on women and mothers.

Part of what inspired my essay was a study I read about how artificial intelligence is learning from our use of language and programming itself with inherent biases. So, for example, “women” and “family” are closely correlated on the one hand, and “men” and “career” are as well. These biases exist for racial issues as well (but with different tags). As more and more of our lives are driven by automation cued by bots watching and listening to everything we do, these biases only get stronger. The way we are targeted as consumers, future social policies, job searches and fulfillment, education — all of this will be influenced in some way by AI. I bang on about language where it counts the most because it reflects back on us in ways that are not always obvious.

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In my original article, I defined “sacrifice” to explain why I take issue with it as a go-to qualifier for what motherhood is: The assertion of motherhood as sacrifice comes with a perceived glorification. A woman is expected to sacrifice her time, ambition and sense of self to a higher purpose, one more worthy than her own individual identity. This leaves a vacuum in the place of her value, one that others rush to fill.

Further to the point about how women are held to a different, tougher standard than the men who love or hate us — whether she is a writer, a mother, or a woman who is neither of these things — kas nailed it:

I love this. As a young mother, I always try to reject the martyr hat.

Yes, as others point out below, this writer is coming from a position of privilege. OK, so what? This is a common refrain now. Does the fact that a writer’s POV not apply to every person in existence somehow nullify their experience? These commenters always come out of the woodwork in pieces relating to women, too. If this were a piece about upper middle class fathers trying to take advantage of parental paid leave, or something like that, no one would be griping about privilege.

For those who remain frustrated by what may be conceived as my privileged optimism, I would like to share a thought. It was an Epictetus quote paraphrased, but I found it particularly meaningful because it was told to me by someone suffering from advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, but whose spirit was not broken: “We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control our reaction to it.” The optimist in me believes, in turn, that our reactions to harmful biases can change what happens for the better.