Birth/Rebirth: From the Backlist: Motherhood Versus Womanhood

Wordle of the speech, "Are we not all mothers?" by Sheri Dew

Wordle of the speech, “Are we not all mothers?” by Sheri Dew

Our plans for a series with the theme of birth sparked an interesting discussion among Exponent bloggers.  Birth can be a difficult topic; not all women have the opportunity or desire to give birth and rhetoric equating womanhood with motherhood can have some damaging side effects.

Amelia: I spent too many years suffering—sometimes very literally so—because of my upbringing to think of myself primarily as a future mother, fighting with the equation of womanhood with motherhood, birth, and childrearing.

A lot of the rhetoric around reclaiming birth, natural parenting, breastfeeding advocacy, can really push my buttons.  It just feels like the other side of the coin the church has handed out to women for years—which I fully acknowledge is problematic on my part.  These things are part of what it can mean to be a woman for most women.  But too often even the feminist treatments of these topics feel reductive to me, finding something essential to womanhood in them.  I reject that entirely.  I do not believe that womanhood at its essence is about giving birth, carrying a child, breastfeeding, caring for children.

Maybe the capacity to do those things has something to do with what it means to be a woman.  But even that is something I’m not fully willing to grant.

Kelly Ann: I personally love birth stories. If I had gone to medical school, I wanted to be an ob-gyn. Being at my stepsister’s delivery a couple years ago was a wonderful experience. It was like a perfect combination of spirit and science. I have spent a lot of time reading birth stories and am fascinated by every one.

But personally I don’t know if I will ever have kids. I would kind of like to in principle but in practice I don’t know if it will be an option. Relationship wise. Time wise. Biology wise. But I am truly fine with whatever happens. It is interesting though, when I talk to people who hear this perspective, they say I am giving up too early. That’s not my intent. But it annoys me when people try to project that I should really want it to happen and that I won’t be happy otherwise.

Spunky: I deal with my issues of womanhood—and find it to be perfectly separate to motherhood.  That is me, and it has not been an easy decision with the brainwashing of Mormon culture.

Though I have only officially been a mother for two months, I have already been demeaned twice as a “not real” mother because of biology. Both times it was by Mormon women. The non-Mormons I know seem to have no issue in the least, which has shocked me because I thought the opposite would happen.

I accept that the nurturing chemicals that are within me and stirred within my body are biological and my spiritual connection for the girls is real. This is not birth or womanhood. But it is motherhood. On my terms. In my way. It is NOT womanhood. I was a woman long before this.

And yet, the darkness that can stir within me, and the crushing pain of being excluded based on reproductivity has created scars within me that I am sure only Christ can heal in the next life.

I have heard some Mormon women describe childbirth as a type of priesthood. (Boys turn 12 and girls give birth? What the??)  I have other women decry that they are “real” and have some type of authority because they are a mother (compared to a female non-mother, also known as a woman.)

Here are my thoughts:  All mothers are women; not all women are mothers. Ergo, no matter what instinct-inspired drivel may come from the mouths of some (NOT ALL) women, womanliness can never, ever be a perfect match to motherhood.

As you said, traditional birth and birth stories are relatable and important to most women. I cannot relate to it. I do not seek to relate to it anymore. For me, only a handful of close friends asked me about the adoption story—most people did not think to even ask for the adoption story, but it is important to me.

Melody: Because my experience of womanhood is linked so strongly with motherhood (I became a mom at 20-years-old—never had time to be a woman without being a mother), I’ve rarely considered the points raised by Amelia and Spunky.

Also, my very conservative, almost fundamentalist, Mormon upbringing, equated womanhood with motherhood. I believe that for many LDS mothers it is difficult to fully separate those things, especially women like me who became mothers at a relatively young age.

But with menopause approaching, and with the freedom of an empty nest, I have begun to feel the power of Womanhood in ways I haven’t before. Your response helped me identify what I’ve been feeling–a sort of power that is purely tied to being a woman—not to being a mother. Could I still feel this power without having been a mother? I don’t know.

Although empty-nesting has been liberating, it’s also a little unsettling. Because the experiences of childbirth and motherhood contribute foundationally to my identity as a woman, I’m facing new identity challenges as a woman without “children.” They are adults now. I think many Mormon women go through this as children leave home.

Both my daughters enjoyed womanhood before they moved to motherhood. My oldest daughter began her family at 26 and my youngest turned 25 this year, has been married for three years and isn’t ready to have children yet. They both tend to gasp and look on with awe and horror whenever they talk about my having my first child at 20. Kudos to me for raising daughters who are free to choose in ways I never was.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at

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3 Responses

  1. Kristine A says:

    My relationship with my diagnosed unexplained infertility is at the root of my feminist awakening. After 10 years of being so converted to gender roles that every amount of energy was spent on trying to create the ideal life that fulfilled the role . . . I took a break.

    And I found so much more peace in my life than I’d ever imagined. It’s like HF was waiting for me to let go of my testimony of gender roles so I could realize that was not the path He had for me. I wasn’t listening to him. And so I have a desire to communicate to others how my belief in gender roles actually made it more difficult for me to find His will in my life.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have an IVF daughter, and I cherish that role. In fact it’s the other huge reason I’m a feminist: because I care so passionately for her experiences in life. And yes I’m supposed to love others as a mother would and help them on the path back home — but isn’t that more just charity? Being Christlike?

    I find my womanhood isn’t found in motherhood or in wearing skirts. My femininity isn’t found in the ways others typically define it. And that’s okay.

    • spunky says:

      “My femininity isn’t found in the ways others typically define it. And that is okay.”

      I celebrate this sentence with you, Kristine A. It is perfect and brilliant!

    • EmilyCC says:

      Kristine, I love your mini-Birth/Rebirth post right here. “I find my womanhood isn’t found in motherhood or in wearing skirts.” Amen!

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