Myth of Motherhood and a Feminist View on Women’s Situation in Turkey


Turkey is one of the countries that overemphasizes and promotes the motherhood. There is no doubt that the role of the patriarchal system, which is less broken than in developed countries, is effective. We see in the Turkish culture that this system directly affects critical and sensitive issues like parenting while maintaining its own existence and power. Just as the idea that genders are culturally constructed and the controversial debates in this framework has still weak impacts on our everyday practices, the debate over whether parenting is a biological phenomenon or a cultural construction is so weak in the same way. Discussions on these issues that directly affect women are still inadequate in our society to provide an improvement in the status of women. Therefore, although parenting implies the notion of motherhood first in our minds, we cannot still say that this position has broken its connection with "sanctity" and "the idea that heaven is laid under the feet of the mothers", and obviously we will not be able to say that for a long time.

On the other hand, the notion that the masculinities should now be questioned against increasing male violence in our country has come to the surface with the support of academic studies. Similarly, traditional fatherhood that is not abstained from violence changes its form. However, when we look at the effects of these developments on the position of women, their "frailty" or what they wear and what they do at that time is still a matter of debate in discourse and everyday life. Or the idea that mothers are instinctively closer to the child and have to play a primary role in child care is still accepted and they are labeled as a "monster" if they do not comply with norms. In other words, any change or critical approach on masculinity that can be thought of as positively affecting the position of women in society is unfortunately not enough to break the conservative views on women. We cannot say that this is surprising, of course. The masculinity and paternal roles and the inquiries on their roles in the societies are moving in such a way that men do not threaten their superior position and do not provide clear improvements in women’s position.

But then, it would be unfair to feminist movements to draw a totally negative picture for our country. Feminists are at the forefront that criticize this distinction and provide slow but positive progress. We can say that we owe so much to the feminist movements that question the “sanctity”, draw attention to the oppressive role of traditional and long-suffering motherhood in all fields, and emphasize and try to destroy the cultural construction which is thought as a natural necessity.

However, motherhood is not an issue that can be discussed and shelved after a certain time. Particularly when considering that there are different maternities as well as a dominant pattern of motherhood, the discussions are also very deep, diverse, complex and often opposed to each other. In this article, I will go through two basic questions that are related to each other and can be established through two arguments with normative value in the patriarchal system: (1) Why is it thought that motherhood needs a genetic link, and (2) why is it that every woman should be a mother? I will try to think of these questions with a feminist approach, both in the literature and in the current situation of Turkey. In this debate, of course, for me, motherhood is not just a genetic link, nor should every woman be a mother. However, what is imposed on women by the system and internalized by cultural nourishment is exactly the opposite, and therefore motherhood is sometimes incomprehensible.

Is the person who best takes care of a child is the one who gave birth to it? No doubt that when we ask this question, there will be many opinions about the fact that the most precious person is the person who raised the child. But while it is not denied that we can talk about many different forms of motherhood, it is also inevitable to talk about the dominant perception of motherhood prevailing in societies and cultures. According to this dominant perception, the "best" woman is the "best" mother and this "best" mother is the mother who both gives birth and raises her child well within the cultural values. Therefore, the same perception throws mothers who reject it or cannot succeed out of the system, and unfortunately they are exposed to various sanctions.

This does not mean that denying the biological motherhood completely will provide liberation for all women. In fact, feminist theorists who argue not to reject biological motherhood offer important ideas in feminist history again in the framework of women's emancipation and with the arguments against traditional motherhood. Seeing that there are different approaches to motherhood among radical feminists, we can be aware of the fact that we cannot talk about a single perception or model about motherhood as mentioned. Feminists, both who offer ideas that support biological maternity and who reject it, leave mark on the period after 1960s, which is considered as the second wave of feminism.

One of the most important names supporting the biological motherhood is Adrienne Rich. According to her, the real problem is not that women are condemned to give birth to children, but rather that the patriarchal system takes over all this motherhood process and keeps it under control. In other words, the main problem that isolates women from social life is not to have children but to manage this process through a power mechanism with a male point of view and ideology. For example, midwives are replaced by male gynecologists today; or male doctors tell women how to treat during pregnancy; or how women should feel is imposed by the system; or the time of having sex is programmed by others; and thus it creates alienation for women in the whole process. Rich argues that women can do this in a different context, rather than rejecting the biological motherhood, if they can take their own control.

Ann Oakley and Shulamith Firestone, on the other hand, are radical feminist women who reject the idea of biological motherhood. Considering motherhood as a myth, Oakley questions the system by saying that motherhood is based on a triple belief system. According to her, this belief system imposes the idea that (1) all women should be a mother, (2) all mothers need their children, and (3) all children need their mothers. Oakley advocates that this myth should be overthrown, and draws attention to the fact that the motherhood instinct is culturally stimulated and the motherhood ability is learned.3 Similarly, Firestone notes that women are also involved in a socialization that imposes them to regard their mother as their cause of existence. This is an important political imperative because as long as it is not imposed as a feeling of fate and duty, the pain of giving birth and childrearing may come to a situation that women will never prefer.4 The remedy according to these feminists is to reject a biological reproduction which women need men.

The common point of both perspectives is, of course, the idea that the problem comes with patriarchal system which oppresses women and pushes them to secondary position. As emphasized in the analysis of socialist feminist Jaggar, this position imposed on women with all sorts of ideological devices brings alienation for women. Jaggar, who works on a unified- systems theory5 that re-conceptualizes the reciprocal relations of patriarchal system and capitalist system and argues that they are neither separate nor the same, underlines that every woman is alienated from the whole process. Jaggar adapts Marxist analysis of the workers' alienation in the capitalist system to women and argues that women are alienated from sexuality, from maternity, from reproduction, and from themselves within the patriarchal capitalist system.

Such discussions in the feminist literature on motherhood can be varied. The idea that the normative value of motherhood is a myth provides an indirect or immediate consequence of all these discussions. One of the evidences that support the justification of the opponents' ideas about the fictional form of motherhood is undoubtedly the changing meanings of motherhood that we see during the history. For example, the period that the meaning of motherhood is opposite of today is also mentioned. This period, which Badinter emphasized in her extensive study of motherhood, ended with a major change in mindset that coincided with the second half of the 1700s. Before these years, it was not needed to be a mother; motherhood roles were ordinary; and children were worthless.7 In other words, today's perception was invalid and the myth of motherhood had not been created yet.

We should not ignore the spatial change of perception and roles of motherhood as well as the historical change. As we can talk about the different motherhoods which are constructed in the same historical period, we can say that these different constructions are particularly influenced by cultural diversity. On the other hand, it should be emphasized that such differences and changes do not always point to a sharp and opposite position as in the case of Badinter's example. For example, when we look at our country, it is possible to say that traditional roles of motherhood are changing in the direction of becoming modern. However, it should not be forgotten that these modern changes cannot remove the traditional. Here we can remember the discussion in Akşit-Vural's article about the motherhood as both traditional and new, and how it can be together. Akşit-Vural tells us a thought technology which combines the traditional and the new for the perception of motherhood, especially with the nineteenth century. This technology suggests something new for motherhood, while it also gives reference to the old one.8 Hence this motherhood is a kind of hybrid form and it is "partially new". In this hybrid form, the part of the traditional is unfortunately still with the idea of "sacred" motherhood, and still outweighs the new one.

This (un)changing perception of motherhood can also be adapted to the issue of incompatibility between culture and conduct in the fatherhood literature. The concept of "new fatherhood" discussed in Western Europe and the US in the 1950s implies the changes in the roles of fatherhood. However, there are two different concepts in which one does not match up with another: culture of fatherhood and conduct of fatherhood.9 It means that the main change is in the culture of fatherhood, but when it comes to performance, the influence of traditional roles is inevitable. For example, in Turkish society, the meaning of fatherhood now includes that fathers should spend more time with their children and not use violence towards them, and this perception has become widespread. But when we look at the studies focusing on conduct of fatherhood, we can see that the practice of fatherhood comes from the back of this idea, and father-child relationship is still dominated by power and authority. We can say that this incompatibility between theory and practice, which is used in the literature, is also valid for the discussions on motherhood. It is perhaps now possible to talk about the necessity of change on the form of motherhood in which the mother devotes herself to the children, spends her life just in the house and has limited public spaces required by the needs of the home life. But when we look at the practice, it will not be easy to see the permanent effects of this change on every field.

These overvalued roles of motherhood and the fact that women are forced to realize themselves only through maternity creates inevitable effects for both women and children. It is automatically difficult to talk about the acceptability of a mother who is in constant conflict with her child(ren) in a culture where the women have normatively the greatest and sacred duty. Mothers who disagree with their child(ren) or cannot influence them and then cannot raise a "good boy" lives with constant guilt as Bilge Selçuk stated. The major reason for this feeling of guilt is about the extreme exaltation of motherhood in the society that is impossible for women to handle.10 Effects of these overvalued roles of motherhood often result in children failing to develop themselves for many years. Because "sacred" values of maternal roles can result in extreme interventionism of the mothers who struggle to achieve these roles and this brings to light the discussions about "helicopter mothering" today. When the overvalued roles of motherhood are combined with the value of the children and the parental authoritarianism in patriarchal system, it creates a form of motherhood that is self-sacrificing but leads their children, controls them, and gives all the decisions themselves. This situation can bring many problems for both the mother and the children in their social life. In this sense, we can say that what Betty Friedan has found out in her important research, which stimulates the second wave of feminism, is not a coincidence. Friedan, for her book Feminine Mystic (1963), has interviewed the women who are housewives and considered as an "ideal spouse" with their high-income husbands and healthy children in the suburbs of America and discovered that almost all women use antidepressants. The biggest reason for this was that a happy family and being a good mother could never be enough for women. So Friedan says that these women suffer from an unspoken problem, and argues that they should go out of the house and participate in the work life.11 Although Friedan is criticized for not having made an emphasis on the need for men to be involved in home life while advocating that women should be involved in working life, the critical point in her analysis is to show that the idea of being a good mother and a good wife could cause severe psychological problems. So to put it simply, the wealthy husband and the healthy children seemed to provide happiness only in theory. In practice, the situation was just the opposite.

Unfortunately, we cannot limit Friedan's findings just to housewives in high-income families who live in the suburbs of America. This kind of motherhood which has been going on for many years has power on all women regardless of class, religion, race and so on. Of course, when the constructed roles of motherhood are thought with different intersectionalities, they are separated at many points. For example, we cannot say that a working-class motherhood and a bourgeois motherhood are the same. However, it is possible to say that the same myth works for all women by means of different legitimizations or by different values, and these differences change just the extend of effects on women.

Finally, we can ask those questions: What does rejection of this myth allow us? How feasible is it to reject the motherhood ideologically? The system is so powerful, hence refusing to be a mother becomes a strong political attitude while it is actually a simple choice. This is because it implies a rejection of the existing system and this preference gains a revolutionary value. In fact, it is not just for rejecting being a mother, but for raising children without normative roles and values. This is what I mean by ideological rejection. The "other mothers" in the language of the dominant system. It's actually a new, opponent and liberating model of motherhood. It is not a helicopter mother and a child who cannot grow up, but a model that defends the interconnectedness of mother and child who can fly freely everywhere.

But unfortunately this model is still open to interpretation as an example that the practice cannot reach the theory again. One of the women Friedan interviewed says: "As long as I am pregnant or the children are small, I am an individual, a mother. But then the kids are growing up and I'm in a fix. I cannot always give birth to a child... "12 In a system that establishment of women's identity through their children is dictated, it is inevitable for women who have no (small) children to live with a feeling of deprivation. The system, which oppressed women who have been mothers centuries ago, makes the same thing to those who are not childless today, and also gives clues that it may change in the future. But it also makes people forget to ask this question: “Why is it not possible to have a position for women that is not judged by the existence of the child?” However, we have no choice without thinking about this question. Not just for women, but for everyone.

Atilla Barutçu