Published May 10, 2013 for Oaxaca Weekly, Culture, Politics and Gender
* The selfless mother stereotype infringes on women’s freedom
* In Mexico the idea of motherhood as a mandate for women persists
Anel Flores Cruz/ Photo: Amairani Gudelia Chacón Ramón
Translation: Layla Meerloo. Oaxaca weekly. All rights reserved
Mexico has celebrated Mother’s Day since 1922. In its honor school festivities are organized, there are promotions in restaurants and shops selling domestic appliances, clothes, shoes and cell phones amongst other products. In general the celebration improves sales considerably in the formal and informal retail sectors throughout the country.
Despite the celebration being considered a Mexican tradition the majority of the population does not know that the day’s origin was founded on the suppression of a social movement that started in Yucatán in the early 1920s, when a group of women published the leaflet “The Home’s Compass” promoting family planning.
Conservative groups described the leaflet, which provided advice for women about how to avoid unwanted pregnancies as “immoral propaganda.”
In response to this subversive act the then Secretary of Public Education, José Vasconcelos, with the unconditional support of the national newspaper Excélsior, promoted the creation of a commemorative date to silence liberal ideas which had ”broken the hearts of Mexicans.” He proposed paying homage to the givers of life, prizing their sacrifice, affection and domestic work.
The Stereotype of the Mexican Mother
In Mexico representations of motherhood have changed over time. It is particularly notable that the pregnancy rate has gone down nationally over the last decades; from1960 to 2009 it reduced from 7 children to 2.4 according to INEGI (Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography).
Nevertheless, motherhood continues to be represented from a religious context with the Virgin of Guadalpue in the imagination of the majority of Mexicans. Also with popular characters from Mexican television, even women from more than a hundred years ago, like Sara García. The idea of women sacrificing their life for their sons and daughters is emphasized, completely invalidating their identity as people.
Marian Moreno Llaneza, graduate in Hispanic studies and consultant on coeducation in Latin American and European countries, explains that in general the stereotypical mother is promoted as the perfect women: loving, dedicated, selfless, out of the public eye, always attentive of the home, affectionate, a minor in terms of politics and the public world, someone who is always there for others but not herself. In this context being a “bad mother” can represent anything.
Without doubt Mexican mothers’ realities vary according to their social and economic context; however, the majority shares a double or triple workday. According to data from INEGI nearly all mothers carry out domestic activities (96%) to which they dedicate on average 35:29 hours a week, in contrast to 11:04 hours for men. Interestingly, the women who live with partners are those who dedicate most time to domestic duties with 51:35 hours a week on average.
The double workday that many employed women face means that they dedicate 80 hours a week to paid work and unpaid work in their homes, 15 hours a week more than men dedicate to both activities, as indicated by INEGI.
In this context, according to the data collected in interviews with more than ten women (carried out for this article), the majority indicated that a mother’s situation can improve if, firstly, men are more involved in caring for children and the household chores. Secondly, if working conditions improve in terms of opportunities and wages, and thirdly, if there is better childcare with longer hours available.
It is important to mention that the majority of women interviewed have completed higher education and hold paid jobs.
The majority of interviewees relate motherhood to ideas of love, tenderness and kindness. However, motherhood also involves a level commitment and responsibility, which are rarely mentioned. “It’s an enormous responsibility, which never ends, it doesn’t give you space even to breathe, but it is a beautiful job because it gives you the opportunity to educate a human being in all senses of the word,” says one of the interviewees.
For the majority of interviewees it is not appropriate to label women as “good mothers” and “bad mothers.” They consider that motherhood should be understood as a process in which many mistakes can be made, however often they are unfairly pointed out. “I don’t think there are good or bad mothers, I only think there are different women who react according to their own life story,” one interviewee expressed.
On the other hand, when asked about motherhood myths, the majority coincided on the idyllic idea of pregnancy and motherhood as an easy job.
Motherhood as a Mandate
According to data from INEG, in Oaxaca 71.9% of all women 15 years-old and above have had at least one live birth, therefore, the remaining percentage (28.1%) is either undecided or has decided not to be a mother. The choice of becoming a mother is diminished by a series of prejudices around the naturalness of the maternal role. The majority of women do not ask themselves if they are going to be mothers or not as the question is considered to be pointless, it is assumed that at some point in their life they will have children. To decide the opposite is considered to be suspicious, demonstrating a series of assumptions that violate a woman’s autonomy. Marian Moreno Llaneza states,
“Society as a whole takes it for granted that as a woman you will be a mother, and if you are not they make you seem like an incomplete women.”
Moreno Llaneza explains that this is learnt from the moment in which girls are given toys, which in general promote looking after babies, cooking for the family, cleaning and settling for a secondary role in terms of professions and personal projects outside the family environment. The media makes continual reference to these ideas.
According to interviews held with more than ten women over 30 years old who do not have children, the majority stated that they felt social pressure coming from their families, male and female friends and unknown people regarding the decision whether or not to be mothers.
The most frequently heard phrases by women without children are: “Are you happy?” “Maybe you’re too demanding,” “Instead of children you’ll have grandchildren,” “Women who don’t have babies have tumors,” “Your husband will leave you,” “When you want to you won’t be able to anymore,” “You’ll regret it.”
The great fear of solitude is used to defend motherhood. In the case of women with partners and who still have not decided whether or not to have children, the idea of maternity becomes a feeling of compassion similar to that which is expressed by women who are pejoratively called “singletons” but in this case its not because of the absence of a man, but because they are going to loose the “divine” experience of motherhood. This idea undermines the freedom of women to decide on a different path.