The Curious Case of the ‘Self-Sacrificing’ Mother

“my mom sacrifices/sacrificed a lot”

“she quit her job to take care of the family”

“she has given up a lot for the sake of the family”

How many of us have heard these phrases while growing up? Well, I’d like to believe that all of us did.

While this may be a seemingly harmless acknowledgment of mothers, it does more harm than good. It symbolically glorifies and normalises a system that requires mothers to be ‘self-sacrificing’ caregivers. But, what is wrong with that, you may ask? Parenting requires some amount of sacrifice anyway in order to nurture children and mothers have been doing it for generations — so, why make a problem out of nothing? In fact, my own mother lauds herself for being selfless while bringing up my brother and I— just like her own mother taught her to.

This sentiment, however “innocent”, subliminally reiterates and reasserts ideal notions of motherhood and establishes that anything less that would not be “good enough”. A generational belief system of motherhood has been perpetuated to a point where it would be deemed selfish if a mother chooses to work full-time or hire a nanny. Sacrificial nature and suffering to some extent have become a norm in order to meet the brief of being a “great” mother. Adrienne Rich in her book Of Woman Born states how motherhood has been socially constructed. She writes,

“Institutionalised motherhood demands of women maternal “instinct” rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realization, relation to others rather than creation of self.”

Put simply — idealised motherhood dictates mothers to always view themselves in relation to their children and inhibits mothers from truly realising their individuality. Why does patriarchy want women to always assume self-denial and the majority of the burden? Now, with women pursuing individual life, careers, and profession, it has become even more imperative to reassess the material conditions associated with ‘motherhood’.

Also read: Of Duties, Dreams and Women’s Sacrifices: An Unwanted Ode

When presented with this argument to friends and family, it is often met with – “But, mothers are “naturally” built that way na…you will know once you become a mother yourself.” This always leaves me feeling unsettled and rattled at the same time. Not because I am aversed to being a mother, but because they further “naturalise” being a self-sacrificing mother. The construction of excessive caring and self-sacrificing as a “natural” order has meant that women are required to follow greater moral standards than men. This not only creates an imbalance but also enforces women to fit this mold unquestionably. Hence, naturalising can do more harm — as anything that goes against “nature” would be completely abhorrent and unacceptable.

Such an ideology has also been reasserted by religious dogmas, the media, family structures, and psychology as well, to an extent where motherhood becomes a “sacred calling” of sorts. If women choose to do otherwise, it would be deemed sacrilegious, leaving them to harbor internalised shame if they choose to pursue anything but this “calling” (profession, career, non-motherhood, etc). A “good” mother then becomes synonymous with a selfless and self-sacrificing mother. How many advertisements or movies have we seen that portray “Maa ka Mamta” to be this ever so selfless and sacrificing act?

Additionally, it has also been argued that “idealised motherhood” stems from a very classist perspective as well. According to Val Gillies (2006), poor and working-class women have often been called out for “negligent mothering” practices owing to their lack of active participation in their children’s life. If we take this disposition, working-class women will never be able to fit the criteria of an idealised mother because they simply cannot afford to. Such a class perspective lends us a lens through which we can see how these systems are grounded in class privilege — and in India’s context, caste privilege as well. Hence, such idealised notions of mothering are highly exclusionary to marginalised groups and in turn, result in the vilification of poor working-class mothers.

A feminist inquiry and critique of an idealised mother is imperative as it helps to highlight the social construction of this notion. It helps us to unpack how the fixation on the self-sacrificing nature of a mother leads women to self-regulate themselves from entering the workforce or exploring individuality. While primary caregiving is important, so is the individual life of a mother.

It would not be deviant, transgressive, or aberrant if a mother wishes to not meet the ‘self-denying and self-sacrificing’ criteria of motherhood — she would simply be a mother who embraces assertiveness, self-acceptance, self-actualisation, self-healing, and above all self-love while caring for her children.

Maithili Kulkarni is a recent graduate in Media and Communications from the London School Of Economics (LSE).

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty