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The Divine Guilt Of Motherhood

Posted: November 9, 2013

Last summer holiday, I decided to take some days off from the domestic front and indulge in a few days with my friends in Kerala. I boarded a passenger train from Bangalore which rambled along the folklore inspired temples along the way. My fellow occupants were travelling as a family, a lively bunch. The lady of the group was eager to engage in conversation. The talk started with the predictable pleasantries. The inquiries on where I was going, when my return was due etc were duly answered.

The curiosity also hinged on my marital status, kids, and their whereabouts. Also, an attempt to find the reason for my visit was made, “must be something important to… leave the children back home?” I answered that it was just a casual visit. “My children will not stay without me”, she said, a touch of pride there. And continued that she didn’t like to leave them out of her care. Does taking time out exclusively for myself, devalue being mother? Am I being irresponsible? 

the perfect mother identity for womenThis casual conversation made me look at some choices women that I have come to know make. A newbie mother brought a nanny from her hometown, and was back to work, the third month after birthing.

As with similar instances, there was a talk on how the mother, ‘rushed back’ to work. The ‘deteriorating’ sense of motherhood was discussed at length. Many in the community mourned on profession becoming ‘more’ important than mothering, how mothers are becoming ‘irresponsible.’

It seemed that, with the onset of motherhood, it  becomes the single defining purpose of a woman, diminishing all the other facets of her personality. The notion of motherhood as the pervasive function of women after birthing needs to be refuted. It is one of the many experiences of being a woman. In comparison, nobody questions the other facets of a male, with the arrival of fatherhood. The lopsided patriarchal view judges of women who choose to return to their profession or interest ‘soon’, as being negligent of their duty.

In practical terms, birthing is a transformational phase. To the women with other interests/career, it necessitates a decision regarding the time needed to be away from those. It could range from a few weeks, months or a few years. There is no right choice per se, the focus is on the mother’s assertion and her voice playing a part in the consensus, and without the ‘guilt’ that many women say they feel.

Of late, the guilt factor has become the cause for anxiety and frustration among the working mothers who are expected to hit the perfect family-work balance. The woman is constantly evaluated on how dutiful a mother she is, and also on how good she is in taking care of the domestic sphere. The high bar set  makes woman feel deficient and guilty.

There is another friend who went back to work after a gap of 4 years. She was bogged with many ‘after’ and ‘before’ comparisons. Comments abound on how she was more attentive to children then, and now, not exactly being so. There are a few things deferred, some short cuts in cooking, add to it being “impatient”. Why is there an ‘evaluation’ of this sort on the female? Resolutely, the domestic role is ingrained in the social psyche as the role of the female, that should she adopt it as her only priority, questions are hardly asked. But, by being a professional woman, it seems, she just added something more to the domestic role. Right there comes the golden standard of the family-work benchmark…with a healthy dose of being a ‘good’ mother.

Two female colleagues of my sister, turned down promotion citing stress, ‘managing children  and profession’ as the reason. Many women fret that they simply ‘fall short’ of what they should be, and feel guilty about it. And hence, it is easier to forgo promotion and settle for something lesser. I recall an instance where the wife had gone out of town for a job requirement, and the husband had to take care of the kids, and of course his work. She was telling me about how the well wishers were sympathising with the husband and being impressed by his graciousness. She did make it a point to reply that it was something that she had done before. But,she confided, that at some points, she felt that it was a wrong decision from her part. The self doubt did get to her.

This anxiety/frustration has a lot to do with the romanticized version of motherhood. Recall the sea-of-benevolence ‘good’ mother characters in films and serials, the kind, ever patient, always-putting-herself-last, types. Such behavioural norms are perpetuated in the patriarchal hegemony, so much so that women continue to ‘measure’ themselves according to the glorified definition. The unnatural reverence of motherhood does more harm than good by setting unattainable goals.

Many a times, women find themselves caught in apologetic and defensive explanation of their choices. The feeling of ‘guilt’ is unfounded. Women need to stop being harsh on themselves, and reject the unsolicited ‘evaluations’ of their ‘performance’. It is essential to debunk the myth of the perfect mother and reject the need for approval from patriarchal definitions. The neat ‘order’ that comes within the mystified perception of motherhood serves only as an utopian ideal. The family dynamics need to be renegotiated in the private sphere. The woman should assert her intellectual aspirations, the many facets that make her personality and engage in interests that nourish the spirits, even if it gets chaotic or ruffles some feathers.

Deepthi is back to the academic world for an M.A English Literature after a brief career in teaching pre-primary classes. She is interested in reading and exploring the plurality of voices which reflect the present social scenario. Particularly loves long walks and a good game of badminton.

Pic credit: Kiki (Used under a Creative Commons license)

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  1. I worked before I became a full time mom! Well, the guilt part I don know but hats off to all the working moms…I don know how they manage kids, work, husband, house, maids and other innumerable things!!!!

    Hope when I get back to work, I have super mom attributes!!

  2. If a woman can’t care for her newborn full-time for up to first three years of the child, then she better not make the ‘choice’ to have a baby at all. I am sorry if this sounds ‘whatever’ism you love to hate, but I am talking about a baby’s right to be nurtured by his/her mother -and yea, now don’t tell that it can be outsourced to your mom, mom-in-law or a nanny.

    • You are taking motherhood synonymous with parenthood.Thats exactly the problem..the nurturing is expected only from the mother.

    • Bang on! Why is motherhood synonymous with parenthood? Fathers need to plan an active role in nurturing the child. Its not all about breastfeeding. What about changing diapers, bathing, making the baby sleep, or just playing with the baby? Lazy fathers would make all these the mother’s responsibility. If fathers think they are working for 9 hours a day, mothers work 18 hours or more!

    • I’ve seen families where mom takes care of the kid 3 days a week, dad does it for 3 days and grandma does it for a day. That way everyone bonds with the kid and everyone has a career too. The kids enjoy all the attention too.
      If the mother leaves her job for 3 years, no company is willing to take her back. Maybe u can start a company to hire women who take off for 3 years and then want to join back!!!

    • The child absolutely must be cared for,no question about that. It mustn’t entirely be on the mother’s shoulder,and compromises and negotiations should be done in the private realm of the family than going with the traditional set up of only the mother as the care giver.

    • Companies provide at best a 3 month maternity leave. So what arrangements will you make for caring for the infant? I hope you realize that your absence from baby due to your profession can’t be equated with your husband’s absence. After all you have to provide the most basic care to the baby because you are a woman and it’s a biological imperative. All the support from others in your family cannot make up for your absence. All I was saying is that if your job is so important, then you have the choice at the very outset to spare yourself of all this trouble.

    • Mohan,I am not denying the benefits of breast feeding.Having said that it’s not imperative for a woman to breast feed.How long to carry on with breastfeeding,using other alternatives,breast milk extraction etc should be discussed with the partner and consulted with the child’s pediatrician.But I am extremely sure that no doctors would say the mother(only mother..how about father?) should stay with her child for 3 years,at home.My point is ,quit seeing her as the womb and it’s high time fathers share in as active parents.Come on,it needs two to make a baby.And my write up is not just about the first year..what happens after that ? There are paradigms for the mother..the glorification of the so called ‘maternal’ attributes..which i’ve mentioned.The ‘guilt’ is not being a mother..it’s the guilt and anxiety that creeps in when she cannot conform to the conditioned expectations.Parenthood should be a shared experience,rather than only the woman’s.If there is mutual respect for aspirations(career,interests,or otherwise) there is nothing that can’t be worked out.

    • Well said Deepthi. This is not about the first 3 months, or even about the 1st year. As for what women can do to enable breast-feeding, the answer lies in supporting them with better maternity leave that society as a whole pays for (if we believe children are important). There are other options like flexi working for the first 6 months, and breast pumps too. The answer does not lie in “sacrificing” as you want women to do.

    • Yes, of course, we need a know-it-all male to come and tell us how babies are nurtured. Thank you.

    • Know-it-all male! Yes, I had it coming 🙂

      As far the women who convert the “divine gift” of motherhood to “divine guilt”, here’s some more to put up with – Babies who are not breastfed sufficiently often suffer underdeveloped brain and cognitive abilities. Lack of bonding with mother during infancy can have to long term psychological impact.

      Here are a couple of links of some research you can deny:


    • Yes, you did have it coming with your condescending lecture. Women certainly don’t need men lecture them on breast-feeding, nor is anyone denying the benefits of breast-feeding. However, most mothers do not breast-feed until the child is three, irrespective of whether they are working or not. Different women find different solutions until they want to (and can) feed, your one-size-fits-all solution is not needed.

  3. No doubt not an easy decision to make, but for me, seriously….whatever decision you come up with make sure it’s what will make you whole. No kid would want a mother with him who would despise him at some level because she feels like she ‘sacrifice’ too much. Motherhood is very tricky indeed, but I never doubt the capabilities of mothers who are choosing to work instead of staying with their young ones 24/7. Honestly, I think they must really have such a huge and strong heart to do be able to do that. Kudos to all working moms out there!

  4. Love what you have written. Absolutely agree.

  5. Parenting should always be shared. When both parents and grandparents (wherever possible) contribute to bringing up a child, the kid grows up to be more adjusting and more adaptive, and will also learn to deal with different kinds of people early in life. Personally, I feel like laughing at mothers who proudly say, “My kid can’t live without me.” You don’t expect your kid to be tied-to-your-pallu for the rest of your life. You’ll do your kid a great favor by teaching her/him to be independent and make the right choices.
    That said, the guilt factor will affect you, only if you let it affect you. If ‘you’ know you’re doing a good job bringing up your child, then you really don’t need to bother about what others say.

  6. Excellent views!

    Fully agree with you..

    Its a daily never-ending battle to convince people around me that i am so much more than being a mother…the latest matrimony ad is a nice one where the husband tells his parents that his wife works because she likes to work…

    I recently attended a Convention and met some of my classmates after almost a decade..some of them had left their kids under the care of their husbands and traveled to Chennai…it was nice and refreshing to see women chasing their dreams!

    • The new ad indeed is a welcome.It has got much positive response,as i understand.Having some exclusive time for oneself puts a lot of fresh breath in you, i believe.

  7. Prapti Ryan Rajput -

    Hey i really appreciate your thoughts!! Motherhood is an experience which surely cant be equaled to anything else under the sun , its Our Biological privilege i say. But a lil time off for my own self is my fundamental right too…..its a necessity for specially us woman. Why do we at all have to take this guilt, a full time mom deserves a break from her mundane routine just as much as a corporate who slogs his/her self for 5/6 days a week. YOU ARE DOING YOUR JOB I M DOING MINE.

    I know a lot of men who would make a joke of us woman multitasking….but if it was not for us ,these men would not have been as organised in their lives as they are. What i particularly dislike is the fact that once you are a mother you are put on this pedestal , where you are expected to be always giving and never complain.But what actually people around you are trying to ensure is that you dont ask for any help and they rather make it like a pride issue for new moms, hence the guilt.There is this constant pressure to perform.

    So i as a new mom ( my son is a year and a half old) have always made sure that i keep myself happy first only then will i be able to keep my lil one happy too. Some people in my family like it and some don’t, but Hey!! why should i bother this is my life we are talking about.

    • Hi Prapti, very well written. Especially the second paragraph. My husband said to me “I am the mother, so I HAVE TO work 24/7 !!! I said why? I’m a human being too! I feel tired, exhausted and frustrated just like you do. According to him just because I am a stay at home mom I should take care of our baby single-handedly and not bother him! How unfair! He gets his weekly offs and he can make so many choices and be independent. I can hardly eat my meals in peace without being bothered by my kid or even have a shower, I cannot really go out or plan my agenda without having to make arrangements for my baby first. Whereas he is free to plan his day independently. Our society has created too many expectations from mothers and women.

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