Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution reveals the trials and tribulations of mothers everywhere and across time through the voice and experiences of its author, Adrienne Rich. This classic piece of feminist literature is an exceptionally relevant work even after the thirty years since its original publication. Motherhood, as described by Rich, is a "Sacred Calling" with a healthy dose of irony. From this description it is not entirely clear the depth of Rich's personal experience and perception of motherhood. In reading the book, though, her message of motherhood as a skewed institution becomes entirely clear.
Rich describes her experiences in motherhood as being fairly forgettable save for the exception of "anxiety, physical weariness, anger, self blame, boredom and divisions within" herself. These feelings seem to sum up the experiences of many mothers and, yet, we also often hear of the fine points of mothering, as well. We hear of the joy in hearing a child's first words. We hear of the fun in taking a toddler to the park for exploration.
Even the trials we hear of regarding the trouble-making teens seem laced with a subtle but happy sentimental reflection. Rich's reflections on motherhood, though, only seem to fixate on the loneliness, fears and negativity associated with the difficult occupation of motherhood. Readers are not privileged to the enjoyable aspects of her motherhood experiences. In fact, readers are made to believe that, perhaps, all motherhood was for Rich was the trials and tribulations.
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The view of motherhood that readers get from Rich's descriptions is that she feels put upon, oppressed by the institution of motherhood and a part of a culture (motherhood) that is undervalued and under-appreciated. Yet motherhood is perhaps the most vital institution of all. So while the integral components of this institution, the mothers, must embark on the grand journey for which they received the sacred calling, they are not justly rewarded but, instead, penalized for participating. Therein, perhaps, lies the biggest irony of all: motherhood is the institution that keeps civilization running and, yet, this multifaceted position has become one of the least valued.
Throughout history, as Rich sees it, mothers have not received the admiration they are due. Instead, they have been oppressed and treated as though their roles are to be expected but not appreciated. In addition to this hegemonically accepted perception of motherhood, women have been made to feel as though their main function as a human being is to reproduce. Thus, women have been made to feel as though they are only true women through the act of bearing and raising children.
At the time of the book's writing, the Women's Movement was in full swing and the sad state of the institution of motherhood had become even more pitiful. Although women were entering the workforce more and more, mothers were still being treated as second class citizens who were expected to maintain their roles of mother over all else. But, the situation was becoming even worse. Now, women were elated to be welcomed (or somewhat welcomed) into the workforce and, yet, they were soon to be expected to take on everything in addition to motherhood!
Things have progressively gotten worse for women in the institution of motherhood. With the Women's Movement and its combining with the established role of motherhood, women have bought in to the ideal that they are, in fact, expected to take on everything. Women have been allowed to work the long days just like men, but something is different between the sexes: women are still expected to tend to the children and the household just as much as the pre-Women's Movement days.
So, really, women are taking on the jobs of at least two people and being sold on the idea that this is the best of both worlds. Rich's trials took place in the confines of her own household without the added trouble of trying to incorporate her working life. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Rich sounds most bothered, in her motherhood experiences, by the boredom of her life and the lack of outside outlets available to her. That is, Rich's story appears to be one of a bored mother with only her children to focus on. For someone like Rich who had career aspirations and maybe didn't necessarily even possess the drive to have children, the institution of motherhood only served to hold her back and push her down.
The institution of motherhood is one that is certainly oppressive. I believe it is, as Rich suggests, a means by which patriarchal influences have maintained control over womankind. However, part of being a mother is the desire to want to mother. I believe that times have changed somewhat since the time of the writing and more and more women are seeing that they do not have to bear and raise children out of obligation. Of course, there is the new problem that women feel the need to be Superwomen and do it all, but at least the weight to bear children is a flexible one that can be lifted if desired.
Hegemonic ideals will always dominate, but personal choice can have a greater influence if we have faith in ourselves and our roles in life. Although the institution of motherhood may always be tainted by the facets that serve to oppress mothers everywhere, personal choice can ultimately dictate our place in the world, individual roles of motherhood and the ability to enjoy that role if it is ones true chosen path.
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