Rereading de Beauvoir 21: The Mother

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 6. The Mother. (537-584)

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

As noted in the previous post (“The Married Woman”), SdB opens this chapter noting that it is through motherhood “that woman fully achieves her physiological destiny; that is her ‘natural’ vocation … But we have already shown that human society is never left to nature.” Or, I guess one could say, who gives a crap about one’s “physiological destiny”. That’s for the birds — and other non-human animals…isn’t it?

If a Google image search for "motherhood" is anything to go by, mythologising mothers is not going away anytime soon. Ugh!

If a Google image search for “motherhood” is anything to go by, mythologising/idealising mothers is not going away anytime soon. Wow!

I’ll say from the get-go that this chapter is one of my favourites and is of much more interest to me than some others because as a non-mother by choice, I very much notice (what I think of as) the societal mandate/pressure to have kids and the (related) mass media mythologising of motherhood. Also, as a pro-choicer, I have spent some years trying to understand the myriad hyprocrisies that surround female reproduction. But I’ll save any personal rants for now…just note that SdB never had (not wanted, it seems) children either. She did sign her name to a famous newspaper ad “I had an abortion”, it’s not clear whether or not she did. An abortion isn’t mentioned in her autobiography, so far as I recall, and she might have signed as an ally. Anyway, moving on…

She begins by pointing out that for more than a century, give or take, contraceptive methods have meant reproduction hasn’t been entirely a chance affair. And, yes, I think, this about sums it up:

“There are few subjects on which bourgeois society exhibit more hypocrisy: abortion is a repugnant crime to which it is indecent to make an allusion. For an author to describe the joys and suffering of a woman giving birth is perfectly fine; if he talks about a woman who has had an abortion, he is accused of wallowing in filth and describing humanity in an abject light…” (537)

And despite our notions that we’ve moved on since then, nah. It’s still the same, just dressed in slightly more modern clothing. We’re still not able to talk about abortion in anything other than hushed tones lest we be considered callous, gauche, etc.; abortion is still wildly common, but treated as exceptional; as an outlier. Let’s see if SdB tries to get to the bottom of this curiosity. How much of hostility to abortion is about “life” as claimed by its opponents, and how much is a complicated soup of pro-natalism, control of women especially their sexuality, patriarchal resentment (over which sex gets to ‘create life’ or at least gestate it), the societal need to perpetuate motherhood mythology (or fewer women might want to do it, though I doubt that) …

SdB here (538, for example) makes many of the pro-choice arguments still being used today, which is perhaps depressing in that we haven’t come up with anything new; or not in that there’s nothing new to come up with because it’s the same old shit. Though one phrase she uses re abortion restrictions that I rather like here is “masculine sadism” (539).

There’s the hypocrisy of the church (anti abortion, anti contraception, happy to send soldiers off to war to kill, and, think Spanish Inquisition…); the callow ‘seducer’ who wants to shield himself from her disgrace (the pregnant had nothing to do with him, of course).

Abortion Ambiguities … or Nuances

SdB touches on perhaps some of the difficulty the pro-choice side faces in noting that “even if abortion is not murder, it cannot be assimilated to a simple contraceptive practice; an event has taken place that is an absolute commencement and whose development is being halted”. (544) And she acknowledges “some women are haunted by the memory of this child who did not come to be.” (544) Some, of course, feel liberated by it. And there’s the rub: it’s experienced differently by everyone. It’s a pity the issue is so toxic now that we can’t talk about any of these nuances.

And here SdB gets into some of the questions raised above in discussing how abortion, for a woman, means repudiating her (societally mandated) feminine values.

“From childhood  woman is repeatedly told she is made to bear children, and the praises of motherhood are sung; the disadvantages of her condition — periods, illness, etc. — the boredom of household tasks, all this is justified by this marvelous privilege she holds, that of bringing children into the world. … Even consenting to and wanting an abortion, woman feels her femininity sacrificed.” (545)

Cool, but then she ruins it by talking about denial which, when taken to its extreme, leads some women to “become homosexual after the trauma of abortion”. Nothing against becoming a lesbian, but I’d like to think I went to the pub after mine, but I can’t remember…  OK, but then she makes up for it with this:

“Men universally forbid abortion; but they accept it individually as a convenient solution.” (545)

Ditto with anti-choice women, by the way. And I think there’s something really interesting in her comment here that with abortion, the woman “embodies man’s fault in a concrete and immediate form, in herself; he commits the fault, but unloads it onto her…” (545) ; she is the one who is made to see herself as a criminal — if not against the law, but against ‘nature’.

Oy… now am I going to have to rethink all the mean things I’ve written about Stekel. SdB quotes him thus: “Prohibition of abortion is an immoral law, since it must be forcibly broken every day, every hour.” (546, and, yes, this quote is from his Frigidity in Woman)

This, too, would warrant more discussion as, again, it touches on the complexities of reproduction/procreation:

“Pregnancy and motherhood are experienced in very different ways depending whether they take place in revolt, resignation, satisfaction or enthusiasm.” (546)


There some Beauvoirian analysis of women’s relationships with the fathers of their children that seems, as is often the case IMHO, a bit too anecdotal (with examples) so not worth recounting in any detail. (You know…if she’s already mature, she might not want a male involved past sperm donorship; if she’s infantile she can only devote herself “joyously to a newborn if a man devotes himself to her” (550)… and so on. I find these cases passages not terribly useful. Well, except when they describe someone I know, then it’s ‘ooooh, yeeeaaaah, for sure, right on…’)

“But pregnancy is above all a drama playing itself out in the woman between her and herself. She experiences it both as an enrichment and a mutilation; the foetus is part of her body and it is a parasite exploiting her; she possesses it and she is possessed by it; it encapsulates the whole future and in carrying it she feels as vast as the world; but this very richness annihilates her, she has the impression of not being anything else.” (551)

Pregnancy: Wanted or Unwanted

Ahh, that’s the kind of writing I wait for — it always sparks lots of questions, thoughts. In this particular case, thinking about how the same state can be experienced so utterly differently depending on whether the pregnancy is wanted or not. As someone who only ever experienced pregnancy as unwanted, it was a horror and a fear (and ‘yes’ to the parasite idea). And then, out in the world, the unwanted pregnancy is felt as a silence and a secret in the face of others trumpeting theirs to the skies and being showered with smiles and congratulations. It’s almost as if the two different ‘pregnancies’ have no relationship to one another at all. I, for one, simply cannot imagine the ‘wanted pregnancy’ — or can only imagine it at a distance. (Or, as SdB puts it, “the meaning of pregnancy is thus ambiguous” 554.)

SdB goes on to note that what is unique about the pregnant woman is that at the very moment “her body transcends itself … it no longer exists  for itself alone”. (552)

Also, in motherhood, a woman is no longer “an object subjugated by a subject…Her body is finally her own… Society recognizes this possession in her and endows it with a sacred character.” (552) Yes, indeed, society has a complicated relationship with pregnancy and motherhood — so complicated, so stuffed full of hypocrisies, it’s impossible to unravel, and partly because there’s so much we can’t talk about, so much that’s taboo. On the other hand, what issue aren’t we hypocritical about?

She discusses the different stages of pregnancy and the related changing relationship the woman has with the fetus…from ‘imaginary’ fetus (early pregnancy) to vomiting to the two ‘adapting’ to one another… and somewhat later (excuse jumps), after discussing varying attitudes to newborns, she writes:

“These examples all prove that there is no such thing as maternal ‘instinct’: the word does not in any case apply to the human species. The mother’s attitude is defined by her total situation and by the way she accepts it. It is, as we have seen, extremely variable.” (567)

And, yes, of course SdB and any Existentialist would scoff at the notion of instinct with respect to a human being. And I take this not to be about whether or not we, as animals, have such a thing (whatever it is… hard-wiring?) but the fact that as soon as we are a species able to override ‘instinct’ (because we are ‘free’, get to ‘choose’, are rational…or at least can employ reason) then ‘instinct’ doesn’t exist. To put it the other way around, it’s only an instinct if it’s inescapable, and if it’s not inescapable then it’s something else. Maybe an urge?

And SdB is not all negative, in case you were wondering. She adds that if the circumstances are not unfavourable, “the mother will find herself enriched by a child”. (567)

Also, she several times discusses a category of women she calls ‘breeders’, (at least in the English translation… and I only have part 1 in French so I can’t look it up in the original…). These are women who just want to be pregnant, or gestate and “lose interest in their child as soon as it is weaned, or as soon as it is born” (568)… then those who are almost the opposite, and only take an interest when they see a ‘person’ in their child.

Religion of Motherhood

“Mystification begins when the religion of Motherhood proclaims that all mothers are exemplary. For maternal devotion can be experienced in perfect authenticity; but, in fact, this is rarely the case. Ordinarily, maternity is a strange compromise of narcissism, altruism, dream, sincerity, bad faith, devotion and cynicism.” (570)

SdB goes on to discuss the great risk for the infant in the mother being
“an unfulfilled woman” — per previous discussions of her place in society, her Otherness etc., — something she may try to compensate for through the child.

“[The] cruel aspect of motherhood has always been known; but with hypocritical prudishness, the idea of the ‘bad mother’ has been defused by inventing the cruel stepmother…” (571)

And, again, there are myriad case studies of good, bad and indifferent mothers that follow. And with that, a few ‘aha’ moments in recognizing mothers-one-has-known. How true these — are they archetypes…not really — ‘types’ are I don’t feel like I can tell. And, of course, as a not-mother, what would I know? This has been said to me more than once by more than one, and it’s probably true. On the other hand, if you can only know what you know first-hand, you’re left with a pretty limited store of available knowledge. Still, mothers do guard their status from opinionated non-mothers.

Here’s something that seems a bit unusual for SdB (or maybe not?):

“Such an obligation [the moral obligation of having/raising children] is not at all natural: nature could never dictate a moral choice; this implies an engagement. to have a child is to take on a commitment; if the mother shrinks from it, she commits an offence against human existence, against a freedom; but no one can impose it on her.” (580)

Seems kind of harsh, especially given that motherhood is frequently imposed on her. True, the relationship “must” be freely chosen, as SdB says, except it often isn’t. She goes on to point out the bad faith involved in all the restrictions (especially in the 1950s) faced by women re careers, options, liberties, rights at the same time as they are entrusted with “the most delicate and most serious of all undertakings: the formation of a human being”. (581)

She doesn’t really delve much into how much societal pressure ‘forces’ motherhood upon women, if it does at all. Indeed, how could one know?

The last two pages of this chapter are great, and worth reading. Nah, I won’t reproduce them here, but they propose a hopeful account of the benefits to woman, child, man — humanity — in women’s full participation in society, which would likely help bring with it something of a demythologizing of motherhood. That’s because the myth is needed at least partly to convince women who are otherwise subjugated (see above) that they become man’s equal through motherhood, when we all know they don’t. (582-3)

NOTE: So it’s the 28th. Of December. And I promised to finish this by year’s end. But I am definitely finishing this before the end of bloody January — there are only 200 pages to go. Excuse No. 57: I got some paid work so that’s kind of eaten into my time.

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