Maternal Gift Giving and the Construction of Patriarchal Motherhood

This is by Mariam Irene Tazi-Preve, from her essay, “The Perversion of Maternal Gift Giving: Initiating the Matrilinear Motherhood NOW Movement,” published in The Maternal Roots of the Gift Economy, edited by Genevieve Vaughan, 2019.

At the beginning of my research on motherhood—then a young mother in my twenties myself—I realized that there is something deeply wrong with family and motherhood and the way motherhood is presented in the media and in politics. The public discourse is dominated by two subjects. One is about work and family, that is, the economic view; the other is about procreation—birthrates and their political implications. Within both debates, mothers as such do not appear …

‘Having it all’ is supposedly the objective (e.g., Sandberg) for women who want both children and work. In Europe this debate is dominated by the social democratic viewpoint and its concept of freeing women by including them in the workforce and encouraging a career. … This economic discourse is based on the concept of liberal feminism’s understanding of equality (with men) without questioning neoliberalism or its philosophy, rules, and practices.

The other subject on the daily agenda is the reproductive one—abortion legislation and practice, birthrate decline in Europe, and reproductive technologies. All these debates are dealt with in a moral and normative manner. Women’s bodies and procreative ability are objects of discussion, though not debated with women themselves. …

The low birthrates in Europe since the 1980s also brought a new incentive to accelerate population politics. The norm of the two-child family is constantly pursued and propagated in politics, media, and—not the least—by the economic demands of a higher amount of human resources. … We thus realize that motherhood is central to political and economic debates, but not so for the mother herself with her needs, accomplishments, or constant giving. Maternal gift giving is not labelled as such, and is thus nonexistent in political and economic terms. …

My thesis is that the idea of motherhood today—which I call ‘patriarchal motherhood’—is based on the historical matricide, which can be retraced in myth, psychology, science, medicine, law, politics, philosophy, and religion. The mother is still alive—as she is still required as breeder, caretaker, and worker—but the conditions and the constraints in which she is living are the result of a violent transformation. …

A key term here is patriarchy … [it] consists of the Latin term pater (meaning father) and the Greek term arche (which can mean dominance or beginning). It is the father who wants to replace the mother as the origin and creator. That is done in material form, but also by means of symbolism and myths, such as that of Zeus who ‘gives birth’ to his daughter Athena out of his head. What the historically younger version of that myth conceals is that before supposedly giving birth, he had swallowed the goddess Metis who was pregnant with her daughter. Thus, like today, patriarchy depended on absorbing maternal potency to imitate the creation of life. …

During the last decades, Michel Foucault’s postmodern approach and critical theory of modernity was applied to feminist theory and ousted feminist social science approaches. Judith Butler and others developed the theory of gender performativity, denying that there is anything natural in the female body, thus rendering it impossible to talk about women in a collective sense. Furthermore, this concept, widely accepted in academia, has caused a shift toward individualizing the ‘female problem,’ and leaving a systemic view behind. In a ‘gender neutral’ world, the collective understanding of women is vanishing and political activism against structural injustice and violence is rendered impossible.

By favouring an individualistic view and an ‘identity approach,’ ‘womanhood’ is reduced to a rhetorical problem and feminism is losing is transformative power. It may be speculation as to whether this was, in fact, the aim of the theory of gender performativity, but what we do know for sure is that this approach contributes to the patriarchal project of abolishing the mother. …

I am unable to even find a word that can describe the ‘constant weaving a net’ that women provide on a daily basis. It contains the world of emotions in which mother and child are immersed from the day of birth; the sharing of time; the process of cooking and sharing meals; and the female and maternal network that comprises mothers and friends. Maternal culture is embodied by the whole sphere of artisanal and handcraft activity by sharing circles and creating spaces by its acts of production. …

Motherhood was historically split into physical (the womb) and caring functions (which were oppressed, ridiculed, and exploited). … There is an ultimate goal, namely to get rid of the mother altogether. It is her body and her creative potency which has to be eradicated, at which time the male creation puts itself in her place, turning female creativity on its head. Her vividness is to be eradicated, and pregnancy is to be turned from a supposedly uncontrolled, wild, and unpredictable act to a calculable, controlled, and measurable one of modern technology. …

Patriarchal motherhood must be understood as an institution, as the mother’s body, her work, and her creative potency are transformed into a kind of administrative unit. By providing food, housing, and care, the mother and housewife embodies economy in its true sense. This is the shadow economy upon which the official economy is based …

The frame in which maternal life is permitted is the nuclear family, a concept created in the beginning of patriarchal times to impede woman’s free sexuality and pregnancies regardless of the father. Within marriage, procreation became transformed into a controlled and supervised duty. Since then, a non-married mother was considered to be a shame, and the married mother a blessing. The seizure of ‘illegitimate’ children was common throughout Europe until the 1970s. Over time and space, the family was normatively shaped in manifold ways, but its aim of preserving control over the reproductive process never altered.

Also the European/North American idea of motherhood and the nuclear family is an export good to non-western societies. It is communicated or violently imposed by means of religion (missionaries), economics (private property, creation of a new workforce), or political measures (introduction of paternal family name) on non-patriarchal societies—for example, the Khasis in Assam, India, or the Mosuo in South China. …

A characteristic of mothers’ lives in patriarchy is the constant state of being overworked and exhausted, not only when the mother is single, but also when she is in a relationship. Statistics prove time and time again that working mothers are usually subject to an imbalance of childcare and household work. Today paid employment is an economic necessity to maintain the household; the leftist slogan of gaining freedom through employment is and was never true. Female salaries are low and usually considered an add-on to the main income of the male, which is still considerably higher. Female employment was and is seldom self-realization, but simply a matter of survival. Thus mothers gain exhaustion instead of the promised freedom of economic independence. …

In making the burden of the constant care, responsibility, management, and raising of each child the responsibility of an individual, society rids itself of any understanding of common sharing. … Instead of sharing work with others, mothers perform their day-to-day tasks in ‘solitary confinement’ (Rich) according to detailed instructions on carrying out motherhood. … The mother is led to believe that she should not care about or prioritize her own needs, that neglecting herself is normal, and that her notion of constant failure and guilt is natural. The patriarchal mother is also unaware of the norms that make sure that she will never be able to keep up with expectations.

In this sense, the perverted mother shall follow an ideal of a heterosexual relationship that is supposedly the best place for her children and herself. It is presented as ‘natural,’ as children are conceived by a man and a woman. In this ‘natural’ pairing, men and women are kept together in a lifelong unit as a nuclear family. The patriarchal mother is made to believe that a lasting romantic relationship in marriage is the norm. The truth contradicts this all the while: the family is the most dangerous place for women and children because of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, and danger of a violent death. A lifelong loving relationship is the exception while unhappy unions, divorces, and separations are the statistical norm. …

The perverted mother has to be kept under control and under psychological, pedagogical, legal, and medical observance. She has to function within that framework and within the nuclear family. If she fails she is punished socially and legally. In other words, she represents the essential role of the family machine—a kind of family caricature, free of spontaneity and liveliness, an entity of constraints and of duty to society and nation. The world of the creative mother-child culture is belittled, devalued, supposedly old fashioned, unnecessary, and undesirable. These efforts are vilified and reduced to providing fast food, getting the children ready for school in a militaristic manner, organizing and managing them, and turning them and the mother herself into factory inmates. …

We have to become aware of our own colonized mind. We have to stop believing that mothers ought to be in an isolated state. We have to give up the idea that individual motherhood is the norm.

We also have to realize that the nuclear family is the worst place to live in peace and to raise a child. We also have to consider the next generation and not fall into the trap of raising our children with the wrong pictures of the holy and sane family that are portrayed in the media and popular culture. We have to sustain them in finding their autonomous ways to a satisfying life, raising children in community, and having a healthy personal sexual life and romantic relationships that may vary over the course of time.

What should be our model for this new understanding of a freed personal life? In fact, the solution is old and the models are still in place. The answer is matrilinearity, which has been in practice since the beginning of civilization all over the world, and in some (mostly remote) areas of the world still exists, although the attempts to patriarchalize these societies are increasing. …

Starting to live by way of matrilinearity means:

▴ Understanding motherhood as a collective caring principle carried out by many—thus the opposite of an idealized isolated mother image. Motherhood itself, from the time of pregnancy, is to be understood and respected as the embodiment of connectedness.

▴ Family and kinship is defined through the maternal line, not by marriage. Like Russian nesting dolls, the offspring of the maternal body form a linear tradition that can never be denied. Family is about belonging to and sharing with a specific group or clan. When the father tried to make himself symbolically and in reality the head of the family, he turned the logic of matrilineally completely on its head.

▴ The maternal brother is the social father of his sister’s children. He is the support of all the mothers in the family. So the maternal line also includes men, but not husbands or lovers. Sexual relationships are considered a private, very personal matter, and thus not an integral part of the familial community system. Love within the family has a completely different character and importance than the desire for a lover. For the Mosuo, who practice visiting marriages, the idea of building a life on mutual sexual attraction seems completely incomprehensible and irresponsible.

▴ Housing in a close vicinity is an important factor for the interdependence of the community and family. By forming a net of relationships, mutual support can help children grow up safely in an enduring community.

▴ Contrary to the Western concept of ego, which can only be developed by matricide, there is no need of a violent act in order to be an independent person. The idea of the ‘mature ego’ is usually equated with an attitude in which the objective reality is thought of as being radically separated from the subject. Instead of ‘cutting the cord’ as is demanded in European and North American cultures (or else risk the accusation of having failed in ‘adult life’ if you return to your parents’ house), adult children and grandchildren in matrilinear families are still connected to their maternal home by a movement of back and forth, continually leaving and returning.

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