Motherhood as an institution is fully developed and discussed in Adrienne Rich’s powerful examination of motherhood in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (W.W. Norton, 1976). Rich defines institutions in general as “the ways in which power is maintained and transferred behind the walls…the invisible understandings which guarantee that it shall reside in certain hands but not in others, that information shall be transmitted to this one but not to that one, the hidden collusions and connections with other institutions of which it is supposedly independent” ( 279-280). A system of power, it is continuously at work, co-opting with other institutions to manage and dominate those it believes to be weaker and serving a specific purpose in upholding that institution’s power. She believes that motherhood is sustained in part by patriarchy and in part by the women it uses to maintain their secondary value under the regime of patriarchy.
Rich argues that the institution of motherhood is more difficult to see and touch because it is not made up of buildings or domes, concrete or bricks. It is silent and defined in such a way that most do not view it as an institution or a prison. To see motherhood as imprisonment, a patriarchal mechanism designed to restrict the very individuals it holds to higher moral and cultural standards, is not a lens through which most men and women want to look upon the mothering of society’s children. But it is an institution, and the women who choose it do so because they have been conditioned to believe they have no value if they are not mothers. They are not good if they don’t sacrifice for their children. They are not real women if they go against the grain of expected feminine roles assigned to their gender.
The institution of motherhood, suggests Rich, is made up of the following mechanisms of control that keep women bound to motherhood and compliance, imprisoning them without their cognizance, and reverting them to powerless victims:
marriage as economic dependence, as a guarantee to a man of ‘his’ children; the theft of childbirth from women;…the laws regulating contraception and abortion;…the denial that work done by women at home is part of ‘production’: the chaining of women in links of love and guilt; the solitary confinement of ‘full-time motherhood’; the token nature of fatherhood, which gives him rights and privileges over children toward whom he assumes minimal responsibility; the psychoanalytic castigation of the mother…that she is inadequate and ignorant…all these are connecting fibers of this invisible institution. (281-282)
Rich’s point in this is how weakened the role of the mother has become under this institution, how rigid its rules are, and how menacingly women can react when they suffer in silence and agony under the institution’s laws. Mothers are held to artificial, man-made, and moral standards that no human being can achieve without some cost to her personal well-being and to the well-being of her children.
As much responsibility and veneration with which mothers are endowed, historically and in the present, men continue to devalue women’s role in mothering while at the same time glorifying the significant role men play as parents, even if they do nothing more than go to work. Rich’s book is essential in that it grounds motherhood within a historical framework that examines how women came to be where they are in terms of the subjugated, silenced, and easily mollified maternal figure. She points out that women were once worshipped for their fertility, but because men began to fear what women could achieve through their biology, feared them for this power of life-giving, they deemed it a necessity to be in command of women.
They also needed sons to carry on their name and to act as heirs to their earnings as much as they needed to know that these sons were of their own blood. The only way to direct who the sons belonged to and how many sons to have, women had to be restricted and made accessible for impregnation. Thus, marriage and motherhood were born as institutions that secured men’s desires and alleviated their fears. To make them feel as if this control was good for them, women were given the most important job of their lives: caring for the children’s moral and emotional well-being. Men felt secure in going to work while their wives took care of their home and children. The men were happy; the children secure; and the women were socialized into believing that motherhood was their calling.
As Adrienne Rich posits, the only way to stop this domination of what rightfully belongs to women is to destroy patriarchy and reclaim motherhood. Women can hold onto motherhood, reshape and redefine it, but they need to destroy the institution and “to release the creation and sustenance of life into the same realm of decision, struggle, surprise, imagination, and conscious intelligence, as any other difficult, but freely chosen work” (286). This is a “common human battle” that everyone needs to embrace and fight for, but before it even becomes a global issue, according to Rich, each woman must begin the change in her own home by asserting her rights over her body, her voice, her children, and her mothering.