Motherhood and gender

Reconciling the primacy of motherhood with the rejection of binary gender.

By Elizabeth Willmott Harrop

27 April 2010

MotherhoodI have a dilemma. I believe in the primacy of motherhood as a foundation stone for society, and believe that many social problems could be eased or altogether avoided if only society esteemed the right of mothers to nurture their young fully and instinctively, and thereby create empathetic citizens.

My view of the sexes is therefore one of ‘equal but different’ and I honour the many forms in which gender expresses itself. That includes heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transgender and intergender.

My dilemma comes from seeing gender as the right of individual expression, across a broad spectrum, yet insisting on fundamental behavioral differences between the sexes as parents. Differences which only exist however, if the mother is allowed to express her biology.    A couple of examples: A mother is programmed to give a nurturant response to her baby’s cries and not to restrain herself. The blood flow to a mother’s breasts increases, accompanied by a biological urge to pick up and nurse (1). Human breast milk is low in fat and protein and high in lactose, requiring regular feeding and closeness to the mother (2).   So, despite society’s insistence that mothers and fathers (and daycare) are interchangeable, in an ideal world they are not, at least not in infancy.

Saying that, I also acknowledge the views of anthropology professor, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy when she says: “It is not preordained that the infant’s primary attachment will be to the mother. There are other options. But when you consider that the mother usually has a lower threshold for responding to infant needs, and is the first to respond to a cry of discomfort, with her face, her voice, her breasts … these attributes make the mother the likeliest prospect for her infant to form a primary attachment to. But … when the allomother is more committed than the mother, second best may be superior.”

The World Health Organization’s classification of gender helps me to resolve my superficially conflicting positions:   “Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.   “To put it another way: “Male” and “female” are sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories.” (3)    So what I am recognising is the biological difference between the sexes. However, the assignation of sex can be too rigid in the case of intergender and transgender individuals, where the medical profession ‘takes a punt’ at birth only to be proved wrong when the person develops self-awareness.

Gender meanwhile, allows for men to be sensitive and nurturing, for women to have no desire to have children, for same sex couples to love eachother. For multiple expressions of self and sexuality which defy the binary classifications of ‘go forth and multiply’ male and female.

Gender stereotypes, which are applied as soon as a baby is born and dressed in blue or pink, limit, confuse and create ill-informed judgment. The key stereotypes in our society being of testosterone fueled inarticulate men and women whose value comes from the narrowest of aspects – their sexualisation. As with all stereotyping, this serve the interests and prejudices of those who stereotype, not those who are thus defined.   As a mother, I can choose to listen to my biology as part of my expression of gender. That means surrendering to the innate urge to meet the needs of my baby 24 hours a day without heed to society’s demand that babies and infants show an independence only meant for adults.

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1. Dr William Sears
2. James McKenna, Infant-Parent Co-sleeping in an Evolutionary Perspective Sleep. Vol. 16, No. 3 (1993): 263-282
3. World Health Organization What do we mean by “sex” and “gender”?

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