Women’s capacity for choice—in motherhood as in the other areas—has been, and continues to be, a choice that is easily blurred with mystifications, limited by social, economic, and legal factors outside her control. This means that for women, some choices are made on false pretenses, throwing us into a world that we are not prepared for and compromising our struggle to become authentic.
It might seem odd to look to French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir for guidance on motherhood, since she didn’t have firsthand experience of raising a child. (Although Beauvoir adopted a close adult friend, Sylvie Le Bon, for the purpose of managing her estate.) It infuriated Beauvoir that there were double standards: she was criticized relentlessly for not being a mother and she was often asked if she felt unfulfilled. She responded, “One doesn’t need to be a crow to write about crows,” and no one ever judges men for not being fathers. No one ever asked her lifelong partner Jean-Paul Sartre if he felt unfulfilled for not being a father.
Beauvoir was highly attuned to the ambiguities of maternal choices and the crucial struggle between a mother’s sense of self as an individual—with her own desires and needs—and her new-found role as caretaker to a largely helpless dependent who will require care for the next eighteen years (give or take a few or more).
A mother is very often torn between being-for-herself and being for the child. Moreover, there is inherent friction between what society expects and demands from a woman as a mother and how she sees her own role and place in society. For example, economic policies and incentives can push women into being mothers even when they would love to do something else, like philosophizing, for example.
For Beauvoir, having a child can be an authentic choice when a parent actively wills parenthood. To freely choose to parent requires freedom from mystifications about parenting, but also the freedom to make informed choices. Beauvoir didn’t consider artificial insemination, IVF, or adoption in her writing, but as long as they are actively chosen, they are authentic options within Beauvoir’s philosophy. Pregnancies and births resulting from coercion are inauthentic. The freedom to choose for or against becoming a parent is vital.
The act of choosing motherhood is what makes one a mother. As philosopher Sara Ruddick defined it, “Anyone who commits her or himself to responding to children’s demands, and makes the work of response a considerable part of her or his life, is a mother.” Beauvoir’s sentiment was similar. Because we create ourselves through our choices, being a parent is not defined by the biological process of providing an egg or sperm or giving birth. A mother and father are defined by the act of choosing to care for a child.
New parenthood can be both exciting and terrifying because every new person creates new worlds of possibilities and disruptions. Feminist and cultural critic Jacqueline Rose, drawing on Hannah Arendt and Adrienne Rich, wrote that “every new birth is the supreme anti-totalitarian moment,” because every new human represents a new beginning pregnant with the capacity for creativity.
But precisely because babies embody great possibilities, they pose great dangers to existing conditions. Arendt wrote that totalitarianism swells in response to disruptions: “Terror is needed lest with the birth of each new human being a new beginning arise and raise its voice in the world.” Some caregivers do respond to new births in totalitarian ways, and indeed huge amounts of effort are put into the world to make sure that children conform and grow into compliant cogs. For others, babies are the pre-reflective totalitarian terrors carving out new worlds, and caregivers are the minions.
For new parents, having to deal with pre-reflective totalitarian babies can feel alienating. Alienation hits when the quotidian is torn and we find ourselves in new situations or discover new perspectives in familiar situations. The tumultuousness is disorienting because we don’t always know how we will react to a new situation, what consequences our actions will bring about, what the situation will be after an upheaval, and what conventions and duties we will find upon arriving in a new paradigm. It’s one of the reasons people rely on routines and traditions: because repetition provides some comfort amidst uncertainty, even if illusory.
Newborns are thrown into a world that they had no say in creating, into the arms of caregivers they did not choose, and into absurd existences with no inherent meaning. Parents—whether they’re biological, surrogate, or adoptive—are also thrown into a realm for which little can prepare them. Adrienne Rich recalled how she would read parenting books and find the archetypal mother so far from the drama of her own lived experience that she might as well have been reading about an astronaut:
“No one mentions the psychic crisis of bearing a first child, the excitation of long-buried feelings about one’s own mother, the sense of confused power and powerlessness, of being taken over on the one hand and of touching new physical and psychic potentialities on the other, a heightened sensibility which can be exhilarating, bewildering, and exhausting.”
Some psychic crises of new parenthood are instances of clinical depression requiring medical intervention and treatment. Others are cases of extended sleep deprivation. However, most mothering experiences are a complex and ambivalent mixture of bliss and misery, elation and enervation, success and failure, choice and thrownness. The problem is that society tends to group mothers into binary categories of good and bad.
At one extreme, the ideal mother delights in her role and finds it easy and even sensual (or so I hear). At the other extreme, the bad mother is inadequate and incapable: Beauvoir cites the ancient Greek myth of Medea who kills her children and herself. Or the bad mother is cruel, as in the trope of the evil stepmother. Consider Cinderella’s stepmother and the queen in Snow White.
Many crises lurk between the extremes—the despair, the flailing in uncertainty, the overwhelming feeling of guilt because one is failing at what is supposed to be an entirely natural activity. These experiences reflect a sense of alienation because a mother ceases to exist for herself and turns into someone who is supposed to be completely for others.
Beauvoir suggested that morning sickness is part of the alienation because it is an existential, not a physiological, response. Beauvoir wasn’t joking, and she is clearly mistaken. Hormones have a lot more to answer for than fear when it comes to morning sickness. Nevertheless, it is true that having children throws some parents into a bog of existential dread. I was one of them.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint the lowest moment of motherhood, but one of the many was the morning after a largely sleepless night, just one of many sleepless nights that had come before it. My son cried and cried. My mother came over to bring moussaka and take my son out in the stroller, but they were back within minutes because he was still crying. I fed him, changed him, checked his temperature. All clear. He cried so much that he vomited all over my shoulder and onto the couch.
I carried him with me to the kitchen to fetch cleaning supplies. On the way back to the couch, screaming baby in one arm, paper towels and spray hanging precariously from my clenched fingers, I felt something warm and damp under foot. I looked down. His diaper had quietly exploded. Like lava seeping out of a volcano, creamy feces oozed down his leg, leaving a trail of brown drizzle on me and the carpet.
“Well, that explains it,” my mother said. We laughed. She picked up her bag and said, “I should go. You have your hands full. I don’t want to get in your way,” and she left me to it. My laughter was, as Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, really tears. I don’t blame my mother: my child was my and my partner’s responsibility, not hers.
I gave my son a birdbath, dressed him in fresh clothes, and lay him down on his jungle playmat where he was mesmerized by a stuffed monkey that played music as it swung from the arc above him. I stripped off my own clothes and wiped down my sullied skin. The monkey stopped its swinging. He cried again. I cried again. Naked, I knelt down on all fours and scrubbed the carpet with detergent and despair, disgusted with my failure to overcome feelings of self-pity and abandonment. The image of the ideal mother that I so desperately wanted to be smeared into the carpet.
The existential condition has never been more apparent to me than at that moment: my son didn’t choose to be born and certainly didn’t seem to want to be born, and I felt alienated, alone, guilty for making this choice for him. My partner worked long hours and slept solidly all through the night while I was awake with the slightest noises, even with earplugs and different rooms, albeit in a small apartment.
I was part of a mothers’ group but they all seemed to be handling everything exponentially better than me—or at least they said they were. I wondered: How could I have got it so wrong? My cousin Claudia told me that when she had a child, she realized why she was put on this earth. Why didn’t I feel that way? Where was the beautiful, happy, and fulfilling experience that I had been expecting?
Existential therapist Naomi Stadlen wrote that she knew procreation was a completely normal process and, “I thought my difficulties meant that there must be something radically wrong with me.” She pointed out that so much has been left unsaid about mothering because it’s so hard to describe, and describe precisely. Mothers tend to be not only physically isolated but also isolated from meaning about their experience and it’s difficult to cobble together the words to communicate it.
Perhaps the so-called “baby brain” isn’t because hormones stifle intelligent capacity, but the opposite: the experience stretches mothers into realms beyond anything they’ve ever learned. One of Stadlen’s clients, a mother of a six-month-old, said of her experience at a dinner party, “I couldn’t talk about the only things that mattered to me. And even if I had, no one would have understood me.”
I felt the same way, and was confused by the fact that I had chosen to be a mother but reality sucker-punched me. Child-rearing is so all-consuming that mothers—and some fathers—are called to sacrifice much of their own lives. It’s one of the reasons Beauvoir never had a child. When she was in her sixties, she felt lucky to have dodged it. “I am genuinely glad to have escaped that,” Beauvoir said, “I congratulate myself every day on it.”
“Forcing women into motherhood—and caring for others in general—is a scam”
Motherhood is dangerous, Beauvoir wrote, because the responsibility falls heavily on mothers, making it a form of enslavement. Beauvoir’s analogy is insensitive because she blurs the line between slavery and sexism and she overlooks that the situation of women of color has been much more dire than for white women. With this caveat in mind—that Beauvoir doesn’t go far enough to acknowledge how much worse it is for women of color—it is still the case that motherhood locks many women into a set destiny, annihilating their freedom. It’s not that the notions concerning freedom are gendered, but the hindrances to personal liberty cut along the lines of gender.
Beauvoir argued that one of the most dangerous mystifications is maternal instinct. Having babies might seem like a perfectly natural activity; after all, humans are animals and procreation ensures survival of the species. Beauvoir pointed out that convincing women that their natural vocation and highest destiny is to be a mother and homemaker is like a covert advertising campaign—one that has worked for thousands of years.
One of the ruses of oppression, Beauvoir argued, is to propose that the situation of the oppressed person is natural, as if we can’t deny nature. Under the guise of nature, women have been lured—if not actively pushed—into a state of being-for-others at the expense of being-for-themselves, that is, to stay home, have children early and often. Restrictions on birth control forcefully usher girls into feminine roles where onslaughts of decisions are made for them.
Forcing women into motherhood—and caring for others in general—is a scam and very little has changed since Beauvoir wrote about this. Now it’s called the “second shift,” “mental load,” or “time bind,” which are all the family tasks and project managing that’s done when a caregiver gets home from a paid job. These responsibilities tend to overwhelmingly fall on the mother.
For existential philosophers including Beauvoir, existence precedes essence, meaning that we are thrown into the world, exist first, and are then condemned to create ourselves (our essence). One implication of this is that while biology is an undeniable fact of existence, it does not define a human. What does define people are actions, how we transcend our situations, and the way we engage in our relationships. The implication of Beauvoir’s ideas about motherhood is this: appeals to maternal instincts are red herrings. So too are appeals to unconditional maternal love.
When I was pregnant, friends told me that I would love my child more than anyone or anything in the world, including my partner. I found that hard to believe at the time, but after my son was born I soon discovered that there was much truth to it. It wasn’t love at first sight, or at any sight during the first six months. I didn’t know how to love someone that siphoned so much energy and attention from me. When he fell asleep, I felt released.
Mostly I was clueless about who he was, but even so, I took the responsibility of choosing a child very seriously, and he quickly became the most important person in the world to me. He was so small and fragile, yet his wrinkles made him look so old and wise that I nicknamed him Benjamin Button. His gummy giggles and his occasional moments of recognition when he looked at me were validating. For those fleeting moments, I felt less thrown.
The problem is that society exploits these feelings—rare or not, since there are some mothers who do appear to exist in a near perpetual state of bliss and connection with their newborns—by imposing the ideals of unconditional love and quietism upon mothers. As Jacqueline Rose wrote,
“What is being asked of mothers when they are expected to pour undiluted love and devotion into their child? . . . After all, whenever love is expected or demanded of anybody, we can be pretty sure that love is the last thing being talked about. Like the injunction to be spontaneous, a state that can only arise unbidden, the demand to love crushes its object and obliterates itself.”
The obligation—that women should love and devote all of themselves to their children (and others)—is the crux of living as a woman. To be a woman is to give and love unconditionally, to be selfless, implying that an ideal woman is not a full person because she is defined by how much of her being she gives away to others.
Virginia Woolf called such obligations “the Angel in the House,” referring to a Victorian-era poem in which the male author, Coventry Patmore, idealizes femininity as domestic service, deference and obedience to husbands, and usefulness in bringing men closer to God.
Woolf found that this villainous angel—“the woman that men wished women to be . . . the ideal of womanhood”—was always shadowing her and whispering to her to be sympathetic and charming. Woolf had to exorcise the angel to be able to write freely, truthfully, openly, and without feeling the need to flatter. The murder was self-defense: if she hadn’t killed the angel, the angel would have killed her by wrenching the heart from her writing.
Killing the Angel in the House still is a challenge for women. Beauvoir’s philosophy calls our attention to similar phantoms: We have been led to believe selfless love is angelic but the requirement to love until we are completely drained is, in fact, demonic because it tugs us away from becoming authentic. A feeling cannot be demanded and the performance of love is an inauthentic farce.
Sisyphean torture is built implicitly into the mother’s job description but it can be hard to grasp what one is signing up for. Labor can be excruciating. Breastfeeding can be difficult—cracked, bleeding nipples and painfully swollen, clogged ducts, not to mention the challenges of nursing in public. At times I felt like I had been reduced to a life-sustaining mechanism by a tiny fragile tyrant.
I spent long dark hours slouched in an armchair, nursing and cuddling until my arms ached and my shoulders cramped. Like a cow, I produced milk. I could have stopped the flow, but in the Australian culture in which I lived at the time, there was a strong theme of “breast is best.” Good mothers breastfeed, so they say. The influence of attachment parenting has been stifling in the United States, too. One friend told me, “[Attachment parenting] made me feel so inadequate as a first-time mom.”
The Sisyphean rock that mothers push up the mountain daily consists of piles of dirty diapers, explosions of milky vomit, and what can feel like never-ending rivers of tiny tears.
After the baby phase, the rock turns into torrents of organizing: applying to schools; booking after-school activities; transporting to sports, playdates, and birthday parties; shopping for presents and food; planning and cooking meals; managing babysitters, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy; tidying and cleaning the home; managing clothes shortages because the laundry schedule was out of synch or there was a growth spurt which rendered clothes too small en masse; scheduling doctors’ and dentists’ appointments; planning vaccinations on Fridays so as to minimize missed school and work in the likely case of feverish bedridden days; negotiating screen time; creating bribes for leafy greens consumption and tidying up. Am I coming in to read a book to the class on my son’s birthday? Have I volunteered for the school carnival? Sending something for the bake sale? No pressure, but that’s what some parents do. All this often while working a paid job too. (See also Sarah Buckley Friedberg’s famous Facebook rant about the expectations that tear at mothers.)
A friend once said, “The first forty years of parenting are the hardest,” and certainly, the entire span of motherhood—but the first eighteen years most acutely—is a slog trying to live up to impossible standards. Motherhood is still very much a long-term condition of constant sacrifice and bouts of unhappiness and dismay. Beauvoir acknowledged that professional work can support a woman’s independence but inevitably brings with it acute fatigue.
It’s no wonder that many mothers pause their career or give it up entirely to manage anxiety, guilt, and stress, or because they are unable to juggle work without parental leave, or their job doesn’t pay enough to cover childcare. To say that the demands of having a child can be overwhelming is a gross understatement. It takes years of generosity and self-sacrifice.
In a viral 2014 campaign, American Greetings advertised for a “Director of Operations,” which demanded full-time, 24-7 on-call unpaid work without breaks, insurance, or holidays. The job description included a long list of requirements such as managing at least ten projects simultaneously with unlimited patience and a positive disposition. They interviewed a handful of candidates who, when the details were explained over video call, said things like “That’s inhumane,” and “That’s insane.”When applicants were finally told that the “World’s Toughest Job” described a mother’s role, they all nodded, tearily waxing lyrical about their amazing
mothers. The advertisement encouraged people to send mothers a card for Mother’s Day. Sounds good, right? Despite more than eight million views, it received backlash for exactly the problem that Beauvoir highlighted: it reinforces the mystification of the ideal mother, stereotyping what mothers—but not fathers—are expected to do.
Recognition between a parent and child is lopsided, and finding an equilibrium is exceedingly difficult and—even if achieved—short-lived. But mothers shouldn’t complain—ever. It is a sure sign that they are bad mothers if they do. Where does this painfully misguided idea come from? Some philosophers assert that complaining is soft, weak, and feminine, and burdening others with one’s pains is a sure way to lose self-respect as well as the respect of one’s peers.
Aristotle wrote, “People of a manly nature guard against making their friends grieve with them . . . but women and womanly men enjoy sympathizers in their grief.” The better type of person is, apparently, the one who suppresses and hides their grief. Immanuel Kant agreed with Aristotle’s sentiment when he wrote that, “No true man will importune a friend with his troubles . . . If, therefore, the friendship is noble on both sides, neither friend will impose his worries upon the other.” Aristotle and Kant both sound like terrible friends.
Friedrich Nietzsche exhorted women to shut up because he worried that knowing too much about them would spoil the mystery and allure of the ideal woman: “He is a true friend of women who calls out to women today: mulier taceat de muliere!” which means, “Women be silent about women.” Nevertheless, to Nietzsche’s credit, he also recognized the dangers of cover-ups and wrote, “Let us speak of this, you who are wisest, even if it be bad. Silence is worse; all truths that are kept silent become poisonous.”
This gendered stereotyping, which has defined much of the western philosophical canon, has put women in a double bind. Beauvoir argued that many faults that women are accused of are a direct result of their quests being blocked by men in power. Women are criticized for not investing enough in their career when they’re squashed up against glass ceilings that men build and enforce. They are accused of being lazy while being chained to the home. After having a baby, they are criticized for going back to work too soon or not soon enough. Stay-at-home mothers are perceived as doing nothing when in reality they barely have a moment to themselves. Women everywhere are criticized for complaining, and admired when they stoically resign to their suffering, their patience lauded for being a virtue.
The consequence of this silencing is not only unjust but can be lethal. People of color and women are, in general, undertreated for pain because of racial and gender bias in pain perception and treatment, and that includes mothers. Every year in the United States hundreds of mothers die in childbirth and over 50,000 come close to death—and it’s worsening over time.
When my friend Jamie was pregnant, she could not stop vomiting. “I lost twenty percent of my body weight before I was out of the first trimester. The first emergency room doctor said I should seek treatment for an eating disorder,” she said. Doctors dismissed her pain as though she were overreacting or lying. It wasn’t an eating disorder. It was hyperemesis gravidarum and she was on the precipice of kidney damage from acute dehydration.
Black women are up to four times more likely to die of birth-related complications than white women, and Black babies are twice as likely to die as white babies—primarily because of the plethora of discriminations that Black women face. Cultural critic Mikki Kendall contends that this is because there is a “paucity of care for those communities where motherhood is perceived as a sin instead of a sacrament.” In America, Black mothers are often denied the hallowed treatment that white mothers receive. Their image and legacy are still tied to awful stereotypes of welfare mothers or irresponsible parents, a negative inversion of the mystification of the ideal mother.
Dismissing pain and distress is a way to prevent mothers from talking honestly about their troubles, understanding them, and exploring ways to resolve them. Franz Kafka wrote that, “The inner world can only be experienced, not described,” but that’s lazy and potentially deadly. The ideal mother is still elevated on a pedestal, peering down on the myriad grittier experiences that real mothers face.
While complaining isn’t always a virtue, it can be, especially when it discloses and acknowledges shared experiences amongst vulnerable people and helps them to flourish. Bringing attention to shared suffering, and in circumstances that are difficult to change or can’t be changed, is a skill we can cultivate. We ought to be able to speak our truths and listen to one another without condemning others for their experiences—and doing so will help change the narratives around motherhood and shift the way society views and treats it. People can’t make authentic choices when they’re afraid of being punished or dismissed for being sincere.
Before our son’s birth, my partner would say that our lives wouldn’t need to change post-baby. I was skeptical and wondered what, then, is the point in having a child? He did his best to uphold his promise to himself: foregoing the paid parental leave that he was entitled to, working normal long hours, doubling up on sport most weekends and many weekday evenings, and sleeping through the night every night.
His reasoning was that he couldn’t breastfeed, therefore he couldn’t help. I knew he wasn’t being malicious; but I didn’t know that he was defaulting to the traditional gender norms just as I was, and clinging to a life that was more familiar and secure. “I felt pressure to be the Ideal Father,” he told me later. “Being an uber-provider and working harder seemed to be the easiest option because I knew how to do that and I knew that was useful for our family.” I’m still not sure how sport fit into that equation, but as long as the burden of child-rearing falls to women, there will be inequality between the sexes, which thwarts authentic relationships because it calls for women to subordinate themselves to the family.
Our child was a joint decision and a shared responsibility that my partner was resisting, while increasing his leisure time and reasserting his transcendence at the expense of mine. I was heading for a breakdown. I broke my silence and admitted I was not able to be the ideal mother I was expecting and expected to be. “But I have a whole team counting on me,” he protested. The statement had barely escaped his lips when he realized that his home team was counting on him too.
Sure, men can’t breastfeed, but they can do every other activity related to children. There’s a reason we only had one child: because I didn’t want to risk the abandonment and alienation all over again. I didn’t want my being reduced to my generic reproductive functions at the expense of the rest of my life. It’s bad faith to blame anyone else for one’s choices, but I had found it exceptionally difficult to reconcile my choice with the reality of parenthood.
If the grueling parts of parenting were going to fall to me and only me, I didn’t want it, and I had learned there was no one to join me in the endeavor in a way that didn’t make me feel like I had to give up being-for-myself. Some mothers told me I’d soon forget how hard it was and want more children. Despite how delightful my son is, my brain couldn’t erase the nightmare of the early phase. Thankfully I had access to birth control and could make definitive choices about the future, but many women do not have this basic right.
For parenting to be an authentic choice, it must be a free choice, free from mystifications such as the ideal mother and father, and free from manipulation about the diversity of mothering experiences. Parenthood is a commitment that, once chosen, calls for responsibility and accountability to the child. This means that people also must be free to opt out of childbearing. Unless abortion and contraception are freely available and there is social and personal support for women’s choices, a woman will face undue restrictions on her choices.
At the age of seventeen, Beauvoir was horrified that abortion was illegal. She wrote, “What went on in one’s body should be one’s own concern.” Her life’s work only further cemented Beauvoir’s opinions on a woman’s right to choose. Beauvoir thought abortion to be so important that in The Second Sex, the first ten pages of her chapter “The Mother” argues for it. Banning abortion and contraception does not stop women from using them. Prohibition relegates abortion and contraception to class and race crimes, accessible to those with money and who can travel as needed to access it. But it renders the most vulnerable women in society even more vulnerable to the danger, pain, and suffering of risky back-alley operations. After The Second Sex was published, Beauvoir’s office was overwhelmed with letters and visitors asking for recommendations for abortion services.
In 1971, Beauvoir signed a manifesto, as one of 343 women claiming to have had an abortion, that petitioned for abortion and contraception to be legally and freely available to all women. Beauvoir’s protest was personal. But the personal is also political. Her actions signaled solidarity and indignation. In a statement about why she signed the manifesto, she said it was important to change the attitude and culpability of women before the law.
Women’s legal right to their own bodies is still threatened around the world. Around 700 million women of reproductive age live in countries where abortion is banned or highly restricted. Access to abortion and contraception is being eroded in the United States. The message is that women have no right to be sovereign subjects in themselves. Women are supposed to sacrifice themselves to service others regardless of whether women want to or not. Even clumps of cells take priority over women’s health, well-being, and lives.
Contraception removes roadblocks from women’s freedom, but simply making it legal is not enough. Even with adequate contraception, women’s right to choose abortion as an option must also be respected. In post-Soviet Russia in the second half of the twentieth century, abortions were legal and widely accessible. However, the government was pro-birth and women who sought the procedure were treated horrifically.
Anthropologist Michele Rivkin-Fish described the clinics as “meat grinders,” in which women endured abortions without privacy or anesthesia. The reason, she explained, is that some doctors believed that women deserved to suffer and be punished for having an abortion. While men can be shunned and shamed in some communities for not bearing children, there is little pain and punishment when a man refuses fatherhood. This is striking considering a woman is capable of one pregnancy a year, while a man is capable of contributing to hundreds of pregnancies a year.
As long as women are punished for their maternal choices, authenticity will be compromised. All too often societies that ban abortion also leave mothers without support and with children, in a world that no longer cares for those children’s rights and interests once they’ve left the mother’s uterus. Beauvoir pointed out that the choice to accept or refuse motherhood throws a woman’s body into question, too: she was brought up to believe the ability to give birth is sacred but it becomes a curse. In many jurisdictions, if she chooses to abort, she finds herself a criminal, held responsible for a pregnancy that wasn’t entirely her choice, which is a perverse kind of morality.
Forced birth is not based on morality, but on sadism and bad faith. It’s sadism to force motherhood and unwanted children into the world, often in poverty and misery, and in Beauvoir’s view, this policy is a direct result of men’s fear of women’s freedom. Bad faith lurks within the hypocritical claims that a fetus is autonomous and does not belong to the mother, but then exalts motherhood and the sacred symbiosis between mother and child, when one publicly denounces abortion but privately encourages it, and when a man demands that a woman sacrifice her body for his desire and then punishes her for his moral and prophylactic failures. Birth control is vital to authenticity because it allows a woman to transcend her natural functions and turns parenthood from surrender and resignation into a vivacious venture.
If one does choose parenthood, authentic parent–child relationships would be possible, Beauvoir envisaged, when parents do not abandon their transcendence. When a parent doesn’t lose themselves in the role, but continues to exist for themself as well as the child. When they can choose both a child and other interests, having a child can be a freely chosen responsibility and an authentic engagement. A parent will not need to worry that by having other interests they are neglecting their child because, Beauvoir wrote, “It is the woman who has the richest personal life who will give the most to her child and who will ask for the least, she who acquires real human values through effort and struggle will be the most fit to bring up children.”
But women still cannot have it all. As Michelle Obama said: “That whole ‘so you can have it all.’ Nope, not at the same time . . . That’s a lie. And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time.” Such indicators would suggest that perhaps one step toward changing perceptions is not having children. Yet Beauvoir conceded that if a woman wants a child, then she should be free to do so.
Beauvoir also warned that it’s important to detach the decision to procreate from the decision to marry because the nuclear family is the patriarchal mechanism that exploits free labor from women. Beauvoir rightly acknowledged how incredibly difficult it is to care for children without support, but she didn’t address how single mothers often come to rely on the labor of other mothers, their own mothers, or underpaid childcare workers. And so the vicious cycle is perpetuated.
A few years after she published Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died, leaving her a single working mother of two. In a Facebook post, she acknowledged how hard it is for single parents and widows to lean in: “Before, I did not quite get it. I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home.”
My friend Jamie, now a widowed mother of two young boys, sometimes says she feels like she is going to be physically devoured by despair: “Being widowed is a horror show. Raising children who must navigate a grief they barely have words to express is a constant heartbreak.” A successful day, she says, is when the three of them are still alive. Indeed, for most single and low-income mothers who survive with little to no support, health and life can never be taken for granted and it’s a travesty that society abandons them.
For all of us to authentically choose our futures with or without spouses and children, we need a transformation in society. What if we reversed the trend in western society toward individualization and isolation of families? Beauvoir envisaged a society that supports mothers and shares children’s care with a larger group, which would help overcome the social neglect that oppresses and harms everyone but the most privileged.
A shared caregiving structure would enable parents to continue their quests for fulfillment both within and beyond their caretaking role. Maternity leave policies merely reinforce gender stereotypes, encouraging mothers to stay at home and fathers to stay at work. Parental leave policies such as those you find in Scandinavian countries are vital to opening up choices for both parents. The policies include paid carers’ leave, flexible employment laws and policies, and good options for childcare that do not create a new cycle of oppression by exploiting carers.
As my son edges toward independence, I think he has forgiven me for throwing him into the world—at least as much as an eleven-year-old can forgive. From Beauvoir, I learned to challenge my assumptions about motherhood, which gave me a footing amidst my thrownness. For many people, parenting a tween is much harder than a newborn because the fulfillment of being able to care for a baby outweighs the depression, overload, and sleep deprivation.
Having not found fulfillment in having a baby, but having found immense joy in our relationship after the baby stage, I find it hard to believe that teenage years are going to be harder. But armed with what I’ve learned from Beauvoir, I hope that I am better equipped to deal with the onset of puberty. At the very least, I can say, “So far, so good.” I hope that my son and I can navigate life in a way where we can continue to develop a reciprocal relationship and to pursue our individual quests for fulfillment together.
The possibility of authentic parenting requires greater widespread awareness, acknowledgment, and understanding of the Herculean effort that children call for, the context in which people are choosing and not choosing children, and what’s said and not said about the experience of parenting. We must, as individuals and as a society, become brave enough to talk candidly about the truth of motherhood, lest we slip into bad faith, lying to ourselves or one another, hiding the truth, or ignoring it and hoping for the best.
When partners engage more deeply in family activities, and when mothers reaffirm their sisterhood, then together, we will be able to lift the veil from the mystifications of the ideal parent and reshape our collective understanding—not only of motherhood, but of parenthood. Until then, we can’t expect any change in western society’s bait-and-switch program that promotes and idealizes motherhood without supporting mothers in any meaningful way. There are not enough social, economic, or health policies to make the so-called crucial nature of mothering accurately reflected in a woman’s daily experience.
Understanding how people are thrown is helpful because such insights counter the idea that mothers have to have it all together, and that motherhood follows a set trajectory dominated by the characters of the ideal and the bad mother. Awareness of the challenges of caregiving can help us make sense of the ambiguity of being a mother, in a way that enables mothers to own their lived experience rather than be owned by it.
Awareness can help us to understand parenting as a state of becoming that’s indefinite and that can’t be embodied in a fixed role. Instead of striving to be ideal mothers—a project that sets women up for failure—it would be better for parents to look at their task as a commitment to a loving relationship between oneself and the child. Just as there is no right way to be an ideal mother, so too is there no single right prescription for being in a parent–child relationship.
Instead of thinking about motherhood as a static ideal, we should prioritize connection. We should treat motherhood as a constantly shifting dynamic that acknowledges the parent–child relationship must be constantly created, recreated, developed, and nurtured—often in unexpected ways.
Beauvoir suggested that friendship is at the core of the relationship between parents and maturing children. In The Mandarins, the main character Anne struggles with her relationship with her teenage daughter, only to have it harmonize into friendship when they feel themselves equal. To become an authentic parent is to support a child in becoming self-sufficient and growing up to pursue their own quests for fulfillment. You don’t need to be best friends with a child, and there are dangers in forcing friendship to make yourself feel younger, but becoming an authentic parent means acknowledging the inequality of age and experience but also recognizing the child’s subjectivity and helping them to flourish.
Parenthood is a lesson in a planned obsolescence—that eventually the day will come when you aren’t central to your children’s well-being and it’s a good thing when that happens. We may not be able to fully relieve the inherent ambiguity of the experience of parenthood, but we can help one another to find more clarity amid the turmoil. For everyone’s benefit, we must acknowledge and help one another understand the existential thrownness of the human condition, and to see possibilities beyond despair. “Let us beware,” Beauvoir cautioned, “lest our lack of imagination impoverish the future.”
Skye C. Cleary
Skye C. Cleary, PhD MBA is a philosopher and writer. She teaches at Columbia University and the City University of New York, and is the author of How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment, Existentialism and Romantic Love and co-editor of How to Live a Good Life. Cleary’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Aeon, The Times Literary Supplement, TED-Ed, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other outlets. She won the 2017 New Philosopher Writers’ Award and was a 2021 MacDowell Fellow. She is an Australian living in New York City.
After dropping out of Rhode Island School of Design at age nineteen, Julie Speed (b. 1951, Chicago) spent her twenties moving around the U.S. and Canada working pick-up jobs (house painter, horse trainer, ad writer, farm worker, etc.) until moving to Texas in 1978, where she settled down and taught herself to paint. In 2006, she moved to Marfa, where, in her words, “I keep hours just like a real job, only longer, and in my spare time I drink tequila and garden.”