We Are Not All Mothers

So often at church, womanhood and motherhood are seen as synonyms. There’s no concept of a woman who is not a mother. The concept of a non-mother woman is so foreign that people feel the need to find ways to reassure childless women that they’re mothers, too – because if they’re not mothers, their womanhood is called into question.

Sheri Dew even gave a general conference talk to this effect, entitled Are We Not All Mothers? I say in response, no, we are not all mothers. And that’s okay. The Apostle Paul reminds us that diversity is essential to the body of Christ. Some of us are hands, some of us are ears, some of us are eyes, and all of us are needed. (See 1 Corinthians 12.)

Plus, equating womanhood and motherhood has several problematic implications:

It devalues the hard work and sacrifice of mothers by saying it’s just part of femaleness and not really anything they did. Waking up at 3 AM for weeks on end for feedings and diaper changes? No biggie – just part of being a woman. Risking death? All part of the service.

It devalues the hard work and sacrifice of non-mothers by saying that our actual lives are meaningless so in order to give our lives meaning, we have to pretend that we’re something we’re not. It reinforces the notion that only motherhood matters, so we have to call everything motherhood so it can matter because it doesn’t matter on its own. Finished a graduate degree? Ho, hum. It’s not a baby, but we’ll give you a participation trophy anyway and call it mothering. Cured cancer? Okay, but we’ll remind you that you didn’t do what you really should have done, but here’s a plant – mother that.

And, most insidiously, it prevents women who aren’t mothers but who want to be from being allowed to grieve – because we can’t grieve the loss of motherhood because we’re being constantly told that everything is motherhood. Our baptismal covenant is to mourn with those who mourn, not to tell people who are mourning that teaching primary for an hour a week is really the same thing, so they haven’t lost anything.

Words matter. They mean things. Motherhood is motherhood, and it’s valuable. Non-motherhood is not motherhood, and it’s valuable, too. We need to start believing that and saying it over the pulpit and in our classes.

Trudy

Trudy is a lawyer living in the southwestern US. She has two cats who allow her to live in their house in exchange for a steady supply of food and treats.

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19 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Great post, Trudy. Yes, the equation of womanhood with motherhood is so problematic on many levels.Thanks for articulating this.

  2. Dava Marriott says:

    I agree with everything you say here. AND, I thank anyone, be it male or female or whatever, for mothering others.

    MOTHERING | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary
    mothering meaning: the process of caring for children as their mother or of caring for people in the way that a mother does: .

  3. Violadiva says:

    So right on. Thanks for this.

  4. Crystal Legionaires says:

    Motherhood doesn’t begin or end at the rearing of your own children.

    In queer communities, we have our lesbian and trans mothers that look over our communities. Motherhood is a position of nurturing of others. Especially for queer people, our families are often chosen since our families often reject us especially in the church.

    We certainly do not all provide the space of mothering of others but it certainly goes far beyond a legal child

  5. Rachel says:

    Thank you for this. It has always been a pet peeve of mine that all women are called mothers. I have never in my life heard “all men are fathers”. I think part of the reason that all women are called mothers is because women don’t receive the priesthood. All worthy males, regardless of martial status or parenthood status, can receive the priesthood. So what is there for women? Motherhood. What if a woman isn’t a mother? Well she is still a mother by fulfilling her callings and being nurturing to everyone around her and she will have children in the next life. So then what’s special about actually giving birth and raising children?

    A solution would be to stop equating priesthood with motherhood and ordain women.

  6. EmilyB says:

    Thank you for this. I had a Beehive leader (still cringing at that title—thank you Exponent for alerting us to its nefarious “honey hole” meaning!) who was an accomplished single career woman but nobody at church ever applauded nor even mentioned her amazing career accomplishments nor the amazing service she did in the community. Instead they bent over backwards trying to make it sound like her service in the YW absolved her of her childless, marriage free life as if she had been selfishly living in sin. This sent a powerful message to me as a young woman and made me think that indeed something was off about a woman who I otherwise should have admired. It would be a couple of decades before I corrected my perspective of her on my own—a perspective that had been framed by all our ward members’ treatment of her. I am so sad that I let their treatment color my perspective of this great woman for so long but I was young, impressionable, and obedient/submissive to authority and I trusted in authority figures to never lead me astray. Only recently have I come to realize just how badly I misplaced that trust.

  7. Anna says:

    I hate the rhetoric of all women are mothers because it reduces women to a role. We are no longer human with the kind of variations men have, but we are one role and we are judged not on righteousness or kindness or accomplishments, but on how well we are fulfilling the role of mother. If we are not mothers, then we are failures, no matter what else we accomplish. And if we are mothers, then that is the only aspect of our lives that is important or recognized. If we are accomplished in our career, it doesn’t matter. Like with Pres Nelson, it is still important and recognized that he was a pretty good heart surgeon. With Utchdorf, we all enjoy his airplane stories. But we also celebrate his religious accomplishments, and his fatherhood. He is more than a one dimensional role. But women, they are mothers.

  8. Chiaroscuro says:

    thank you for articulating the problems with the ‘every woman is a mother’ myth

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Why can’t I just be a person?

    Love this so much.

  10. Ziff says:

    Great post, Trudy! Thanks for explaining so well how saying “all women are mothers” simultaneously minimizes the work of women who are mothers, and the grief of women who aren’t but want to be. And it seems like it’s probably also not helpful to women who don’t want to be mothers, as it equates a role they don’t like with their very essence. It’s bad all around. Thanks for calling attention to this!

    • I was coming here to say this–how many women in the church are not suited to motherhood, but can’t even contemplate the possibility? It certainly can’t be admitted out loud. The only viable path is staying single. There is absolutely no space in the church for a childless couple. I’m single, I’m content with my childless status, and I’ve stopped attending classes where the topic is families–I haven’t walked out of sacrament meeting yet, but I just can’t deal with the discourse we’ve developed any more. I very much value my family–I have great relationships with my parents, siblings, in-laws, and nieces and nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles…. But when we talk about “family” in the church, we’re really talking about getting married and procreating. I can’t even count the times over the years that I heard “when you have a family”–completely erasing the family I ALREADY have.

      • Elizabeth says:

        amen to this…

      • Rachel says:

        Yes! I never had an innate desire for motherhood and I always felt like there was something wrong with me.

      • Cameron says:

        Yes! Single woman here. It was a few years ago in sacrament meeting when someone said something about “when you have a family of your own,” and the thought blazed into my mind, “What about my family is not my own??” I am proud to be a daughter, and a sister, and an aunt. These roles matter to me! They are not the same as being a mother, and they are important in their own right.

    • Rachel says:

      Yes! I never had an innate desire for motherhood and I always felt like there was something wrong with me.

  11. Heather says:

    I really enjoy your writing-both content and style. Thank you.

  12. Emily says:

    Thank you for this. I am one is who not a mother and who never wanted to be a mother. When others call me a mother, or tell me how sure they are that I have a dozen spirit children in heaven waiting for me, or try to force Mother’s Day chocolates on me, I feel so much condescension and pretense. I believe that most of the time, they are simply trying to make me feel included or assure me that I am not less than, but in making those comments, they achieve the opposite affect. When they call me a mother, the falsity of it rings brightly in my soul. I am not a mother, but I am many other things.

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