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The construction of the maternal ideal

Updated: May 9, 2022

Before the 18th century in the West, motherhood was viewed very differently than it is today. At that time, as soon as children gained independence from basic care, usually at the age of 7, they entered adult life: they worked, dressed, and were treated as such. With the lack of the concept of childhood that we have today, motherhood was limited to pregnancy and the help of basic care in the first years of the child's life. For the upper classes of society, breastfeeding was not even part of that package – it was seen as savagery.

With the Enlightenment came the concept of motherhood as a universal female characteristic, making it seem like an instinctual and purely biological feeling. Love becomes the basis of the relationship between mother and child. At the end of the 18th century, the framework of the “maternal ideal” was established with the magnification of the mother's instinct and love. If breastfeeding was seen as savagery before, now it was seen as a woman's act of submission for the good of her child. Mothers begin to be compared to something pure, with only noble feelings of support and chastity. This comparison to purity led to parallels between a good mother and holiness, characterised by sacrifice and reclusion. The church's speech made it clear that breastfeeding and motherhood were a woman's duties and therefore a sin if not fulfilled.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, when economic and political conditions forced men to leave home, mothers were given the responsibility for the home and children. It resulted in mothers assuming the role of educator and, thus, it gave them a social role. Gradually, this myth of maternal instinct begins to dominate women from childhood. The result is the maternal image that still exists in our society today. The idea that motherhood is a very rewarding phase and the happiest moment of a woman's life. That everything will fall into place “naturally”: the desire and unconditional love for the child will be present from the beginning, breastfeeding will be easy, the so-called “maternal instincts” will magically kick in as soon as the baby is born, making mothers capable of handling so many tasks despite the tiredness. The perpetuation of this image is so strong that even science has neglected the study of women's mental health when they become a mother. We know every detail of the fetal developmental stage, but very little about the transition to motherhood, what anthropologists call “matrescence”.

According to psychiatrist Daniel Stern, giving birth to a new identity can be as demanding as giving birth to a baby. The puerperium is a delicate period, where women face physical, psychological and social fragility while the body recovers from childbirth and hormones plummet, negatively affecting the mood. At the same time, there is a rearrangement of the environment to guarantee the wellbeing of the child. The lack of social support from the father, family or work can make this process even more difficult. The reality shock can lead mothers to feel guilt and shame for not being happy, as if it were a sign that they were failing within the maternal ideal. Thoughts like “what have I done with my life?” are ignored and never revealed, as it would be a sign of defeat.

Baby blues, mild and shorter symptoms of depression, can develop from the difficulty of dealing with all these factors. This condition affects 70% of postpartum women. When these symptoms (constant feeling of emptiness and melancholy, loss of motivation and pleasure) become more severe and for a longer time, it can develop into postpartum depression disorder, which affects one in five women . In this disorder, there may also be a lack of interest in the child or a feeling of incapacity.

That's why it's important that society discusses motherhood in a realistic way, without the idealistic framework that was imposed on us many years ago. It is necessary to normalize the immense and varied difficulties of this phase so that new mothers do not feel the guilt and shame that mothers have felt until now. Thus, society can serve as support for mothers rather than a demanding, imposing and judgemental factor.

Reference e inspiration:

TOURINHO, J. G. A mãe perfeita: idealização e realidade - Algumas reflexões sobre a maternidade. IGT na Rede, v.3, n. 5, 2006.

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