What defines a mother?

A great point was raised in my bereavement doula class today. Another student mentioned the disservice we give bereaved mothers when we repeat the phrase “when a baby is born, so is a mother”. The (of course unintended) implication being, motherhood is defined by the birth of a live baby. It was suggested that perhaps a better alternative would be “when a baby is conceived, a mother is born”. Which is a beautiful sentiment, shared with nothing but kindness in mind. But I had to disagree. Conception does not make a mother, identity does.

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One case study in my training featured a mother who chose therapeutic abortion for a very sick fetus. When I listened to her words I noticed something immediately. She used the words “my baby” and “my child”. She is a mother. A grieving mother. She identifies as part of the mother/baby dyad. Her baby was not born alive, but a mother was most certainly born. On the flip side, I’ve known many women who do not equate their abortion with motherhood in any way shape or form. Who am I to imply they were locked into the identity of a mother the moment an egg was fertilized? No one can claim the title of mother for anyone but themselves.

What of the many different ways a family can grow? The mother whose baby is conceived not in her body, but in a lab, who still considers herself very much the mother of each and every embryo. The mother walking the path of adoption, who may not even know her child exists at conception, or at birth. She is as much a mother as any other. What of the families with two mothers, one who won’t conceive or birth, but may feel a deep connection as a mother from the moment her partner’s pregnancy test turns positive. What of the surrogate? The bio parent? The pregnancy loss? The chemical pregnancy, the fertilized egg that was never detected? The women who don’t claim motherhood though conception, or birth?

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What about culture? There is no one size fits all here. No binary with “life begins at birth, motherhood begins at birth” on one side and “life begins at conception, motherhood begins at conception” on the other. In my own cultures, half believe life begins at the moment of conception, and the other believes a neonate is not truly a child until 31 days after birth. Both sides are sure. Both sides rest their identity as parents on what they believe to be absolute truths. There are mothers out there, mothers like me, who float along a continuum. Who gradually adopt the identity of mother. Who begin at a place of “I’m a pregnant person”, ease into “I’m going to be a mom”, and burst through to “I’m a mother, this is my child.”. How can I pinpoint the exact moment that motherhood became valid?

A mother is not born with the birth of their baby, no. But they aren’t born at conception either. A mother is not defined by a fertilized egg or a baby in her arms. A mother is born the exact moment a woman looks in the mirror and sees a mother standing in front of her. Not a moment before, not a moment after.

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