If You Want to Honor Mothers, Give Women a Choice

Mother’s Day is a fantastic opportunity to thank the women who have sacrificed so much of their time, energy and very bodies to bring us into existence, nurture us and prepare us for the world. As the new father of a four-month-old baby girl, watching the struggles and sacrifices of her mom has brought into sharp focus the degree to which the efforts of even the most conscientious dads cannot begin to compare to the struggles and sacrifices of pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and other care. Even for both sexes, raising a new child provides an opportunity to re-examine the contributions of our own mothers and the profound commitments they made to us that we all too often take for granted–if for no other reason that our physiology and brain chemistry leaves us unable to remember our earliest years when we were most vulnerable and needed the greatest love and care.

But it’s also a day to honor the choice these women made in becoming mothers. Certainly fathers also deserve credit, as the financial and emotional commitments of fatherhood are no laughing matter. But they pale in comparison to the physical emotional toll of motherhood. Pregnancy is a literally life-threatening proposition, and even the most perfect experience involves enormous amounts of struggle and pain.

It seems beyond obvious, morally, that no woman who does not want to undergo this grueling process and the decades of commitment that follow it should be forced into it against her will. The decision to become a mother is one of such profound personal gravity that it should only be undertaken with a corresponding measure of joy and celebration mixed with conscious, deliberate intent.

The miracles of modern science mean that at long last the decision to become a mother can be separated entirely from the decision to have sex. Birth control and abortion aren’t new in human history, of course, but the invention of scientifically reliable birth control and medically safe abortion mean that human beings can now enjoy the magical spark and endorphin rush of physical intimacy untethered to the weighty decision of whether to become a parent. No longer do young lovers need to delay sharing a physical bond out of fear of making a 20-year commitment to a child and to one another at the expense of their personal, educational and professional development. This is a wonderful development in human history. It is also a crucial tool for enhancing the rights of women, both mothers and non-mothers alike.

Men have used their physical power over women to enforce patriarchal control and domination since before recorded history. This physical power includes not only brute strength enabled by sexual dimorphic muscular structure, but also the fundamentals of reproductive biology. If a woman must fear that every sexual experience could lead to dangerous pregnancy and the commitment of rearing a child, then they are essentially at the biological mercy of any man with whom they might have a fleeting encounter. The constant threat of rape makes the situation even more traumatic. The fact that simple societies prior to complexification organize themselves by kinship rather than profession gave men not only a personal but social incentive to maximize control of women’s reproduction, leading to repressive constructs around female sexuality and nearly universal global conditions of gerontocratic patriarchy. With the development of civilization and hierarchy, taboo became religion, social kinship incentives were replaced by inheritance incentives under rule of law, and the watchful eyes of the village elders were reinforced by the watchful eyes of God commanding women to be pure, chaste and subservient to men at all times.

Civilization is a double-edged sword for women’s rights. On one hand, it can maximize oppression with all the horrific weight of institutional force. But it can also create conditions in which brain is valued over brawn, where urban living incentivizes smaller families over larger ones,  and where philosophical principles of moral justice can lead to intentional efforts to equalize opportunities for all humans regardless of sex or gender. Technological advances in family planning serve to reinforce that.

Unfortunately, patriarchy does not accept these changes without a fight. Men fearful of women’s liberation are reluctant to give up millennia-old forms of control. Men continue to physically abuse women, of course, but too many also fight desperately to perserve the link between sex and forced motherhood. They do this in the hope that fathers will continue to be able to control their daughters’ romantic and sexual choices, and that bad husbands can continue to compel their wives to continue in unhappy unrelationships for fear of being shunned for “loose” behavior and becoming mothers to children from multiple fathers. We still see this sexual double standard at play today when Donald Trump can become president of the United States in spite of his serial abuse, assault and infidelity, even as conservatives of all stripes condemn the women with whom he had his affairs as being of subhuman moral caliber for having the temerity to have consensual sex on camera. There is nothing defensible about any of this.

A confluence of technology and complexification have given women a greater opportunity than ever to decide to their own fates, to design their own lives and to make their own mark on the world however they wish, to enjoy the pleasures of world as they see fit just as men have done, and to make that solemn choice to become a mother (or not) at a time and with a partner entirely of their own choosing.

On Mother’s Day, the best way men can honor their mothers and partners is to renew our commitment to preserve and strengthen these advances against the regressive forces who would snatch them away.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.