Explorations and Art by Aster Woods
What is Monomaternalism?
Monomaternalism, as defined by Shelley Park in her 2013 academic work ”Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood: Resisting Monomaternalism in Adoptive, Lesbian, Blended, and Polygamous Families” is essentially the pervasive notion that a person can have only one mother; it also privileges the bio-essentialist belief that only the birth mother is real. This notion naturally marginalizes the existence of adoptive parents, lesbian parents, transgender parents, inter-generational parenting (such as a mother-daughter team raising a child,) extended/blended families, and polyamorous families.
Let’s Unpack it!
As Shelley Park explains:
“Monomaternalism, as an ideological doctrine, resides at the intersection of patriarchy (with its insistence that women bear responsibility for biological and social reproduction), heteronormativity (with its insistence that a woman must pair with a man, rather than other women, in order to raise children successfully), capitalism (in its conception of children as private property), and Eurocentrism (in its erasure of polymaternalism in other cultures and historical periods)”
Monomaternalism’s patriarchal ethos has increased the pressure on mothers as they attempt to take care of their new baby within a vacuum, often devoid of support and under an overwhelming amount of pressure. While we are seeing a slow trend towards an even balance of parenting duties within nuclear families, society still has a skewed view of the responsibilities of the mother versus the father. The work being done, intellectually and culturally, to balance family dynamics will need to continue for several decades before a true equilibrium can be achieved.
Additionally, these parental gender roles can replicate in queer couples, with one partner bearing the weight of “motherhood” particularly if that person has physically given birth. Monomaternalism distances the non-birth-giving partner into an unreal and devalued form of parenting much closer to outdated archetypal fatherhood than traditional or contemporary motherhood. Additionally, we see withi8n monomaternalistic views the belief that the child themselves will suffer in a non-traditional environment; that only the straight, middle class, Eurocentric nuclear family is capable of raising a child successfully, and all other forms of child-rearing are to a greater or lesser extent covert forms of abuse. This particular belief is extraordinarily short-sighted as a large proportion of global cultures utilize an extended system of adults in order to raise children. The closed nuclear family is an outdated and relatively short-lived concept, as intergenerational households containing a number of different relationships and structures have been consistently the norm for much of our human history. I am also curious to see if, in the developed western world, we are likely to see a return to this family living structure as economic instability reduces the residential options of young couples, along with our improving healthcare and nutrition extending the average lifespan. It may become more normal for individual households to become communal, intergenerational extended and flexible arrangements, sharing childcare between them, as in other contexts.
Essentialism is a sociological theory that reduces a person to their biology, causing unsupported, widely erroneous claims.
“Antecedently convinced of biological essentialism, the romanticization of the biological mother-child bond shapes one’s phenomenological experiences of biological motherhood; those experiences then become “proof” of the essentialist hypothesis, making it a difficult hypothesis to dislodge.”
i.e. if a person is already convinced of biological motherhood being the only valid form of motherhood, the idealised view of the bond between mother and child forces that person to experience motherhood within that limited parameter (i.e. the biological bond is sacred and mystical) which then “proves” the original hypothesis, making a circular argument that is difficult to break. However, we have, as a society, a wealth of qualitative research and anecdotal evidence that proves that a mother-child bond can be profound to the point of sacredness in fathers and non-biological mothers.
What are just some of the negative consequences it has on families?
Competition among women for maternal status
This is especially prevalent when views differ on childrearing techniques, or best practices. At its most toxic, this can develop into a situation where the child’s autonomy is reduced and they are used as a pawn in a game they cannot understand. This situation can also play out inside a child’s mind, for instance after learning they have been adopted. It can cause significant emotional damage.
The erasure of many women’s childbearing and childrearing labors.
A lack of attention to the ways in which women might— and sometimes do—mother cooperatively.
Much of the raising of children is devalued as only the biological mother’s input is seen as being true and valid parenting; although every adult who consistently interacts with a child has an influence on their wellbeing and development, this invisible labor is termed “babysitting” even when the adult in question has a societally valid link to the child (for instance, a grandmother or aunt.)
The treatment of children as private property.
This is a capitalist idiom that erases the rights of the child as an independent and autonomous person. Often used as a means of control within the context of punishment.
“I am your mother and you will do what I tell you to.”
The separation of children from mothers (and mothers from children)
A lack of imagination concerning ways in which laws, policies, and practices could be transformed to better serve both women and children.
If a form of motherhood or parenting is not seen as legitimate it can have impacts far beyond the social; legal practices governing adoption and custody overwhelmingly privilege biological mothers and take little account of non-biological parenting. These have knock-on effects into child protection policies, family preservation policies, social welfare policies, tax incentives, census bureau definitions of family, school policies, hospital policies, employer benefit policies, and (in the case of diasporic families created through transnational adoption or by some other means) even foreign policy.
The maternal grief and guilt often suffered both by those who relinquish custody of their children and those who come to bear full responsibility for them.
Park, S. M. (2013) Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood : Resisting Monomaternalism in Adoptive, Lesbian, Blended, and Polygamous Families. Albany: State University of New York Press.