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What is Motherhood? A Letter to the Class of 2017

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What is Motherhood? A Letter to the Class of 2017

Class of 2017 before Opening Convocation

Class of 2017 before Opening Convocation

Class of 2017 before Opening Convocation

Class of 2017 before Opening Convocation

Anna Clarke Harrison

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This piece, written by AC Harrison, was turned in for her AP Literature class as an assignment after reading Beloved by Toni Morrison. The piece includes a personal message to her classmates. 

To whom it may concern (a.k.a, the senior class at Harpeth Hall),

Let’s talk about motherhood.

Motherhood surrounds us. Everyone is a daughter and everyone has or had a mother at some point. From a young age, girls are given dolls; in an attempt to teach the act of nurturing. Girls often babysit or nanny as they get older. There are more women working in the teaching workforce, especially with children ages 10 and under. The day that girls are able to bear children, they are called “women”, even if that girl is only 11. I wonder why that is. Why are we considered women the moment we are able to be mothers? Why is womanhood defined by our ability to reproduce?

No one ever says motherhood is bad. No one says “I’m sorry” or “That’s a shame” when a woman says she is pregnant. Instead, gifts are bought and congratulations are in order. Everyone says being a mother will change you. But no one says in what way.

After reading Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, motherhood doesn’t seem so grand. Morrison’s main character Sethe is deeply affected by the concept of motherhood. Sethe gets married when she is 14. Motherhood and womanhood are forced upon her simultaneously. In the world that Sethe lives in, her whole purpose is to be a mother; her job is to produce more slaves for her owners. But the concept of motherhood is skewed in Sethe’s mind.

Sethe’s own mother threw out all of the children she gave birth to before Sethe. And Sethe never knew her mother outside of remembering a foreign language and an idea. How could she then be expected to be a mother without ever have been given an example? How could she be expected to go from a child to a mother in a matter of seconds? How are we supposed to know how to take care of others?

Everyone says motherhood comes naturally; that as soon as the baby is born, you will know how to take care of it. But is it really that simple? Is it really that motherhood is natural and everyone knows how to do it? Morrison leads me to believe that’s not.

Sethe has a hard time with motherhood. She feels such great pressure to be the perfect mother to these children that it cripples her. The immense pressure that Sethe feels to be the mother her children deserve and to raise them right ends up leading her to crack under the pressure. Paul D says it plain and simple, “Your love is too thick,” (Morrison 164). Motherhood becomes Sethe’s only will to live.

Sethe sends her children away to freedom, and from that moment on, everything is about the milk. The milk that will sustain her children. The milk that is her gift to her children. The milk that is being spilled as she treks to freedom. The milk, a.k.a motherhood, becomes Sethe’s addiction. Her love for her children becomes, like Paul D said, too thick, and it begins to smother both her children and her. This thick love leads Sethe to actually kill one of her children and attempt to kill the other three.

Why is it that our society prompts mother to put their own lives behind their children’s? Why is it that a woman is not fulfilling her destiny if she isn’t having children? It is frowned upon when a couple decides they don’t want children, and a woman is shunned if she says she dislikes kids or the idea of being pregnant. Everyone says pregnancy produces a glow; the idea of being a mother radiates joy. But no one brings up that fact that pregnancy causes vomiting, fatigue, and sometimes even death. Is it worth it? Society seems to say it does.

I wonder if you would get the same answer from someone like Sethe. Is it worth it to be seen as crazy and to lose yourself in your obsession to nurture others? Sethe’s child, the one who slowly ate away at her until she was just skin and bones, the one who gave her a second shot at getting motherhood right, she was Sethe’s “best thing,” (272). This human drove Sethe into deep depression and caused her to give up on really living and pushed her away from all the people who loved her, how is it that she was the best thing that ever happened to Sethe? It seems that Sethe’s addiction to what society has told her her purpose is blinded her to reality.

Would someone who suffered from extreme post-partum depression say it was worth it? Would a man whose wife died in childbirth say it was worth it? Studies show that married couples are happiest before they have children and after their children leave their home. How can society look at these things and still say that being a parent is the best thing that will ever happen to you?

I believe Morrison shows us how motherhood can be detrimental to others, despite what society might say. So, as I sit here and ponder the concept of motherhood, I feel compelled to tell everyone to “screw society.”

Don’t base your worth off of what society tells you. Don’t place all your feelings in something just because society tells you to. Take everything with a grain of salt. Feelings of doubt are okay. Questioning is okay. Figure out what something means to you before you engage in it. Look at the positives and negatives before you decide. I can’t state enough that it would break my heart to see anyone of you spiral into depression or manic behavior because you placed your worth in something that society told you to.

If you love children, then have children. If you want to be a stay-at-home mom, be a stay-at-home mom. If you want to focus on your career and don’t want kids, then do that. No one but you should get to decide what you can and can’t do. And I wish wholeheartedly for you to know that.

In a world built around rules and expectations, it’s hard to see past what we are supposed to or are expected to do. It’s hard to say no when everyone else is shouting yes.  But you can do it. You can break the cyclical nature of a society addicted to the idea of motherhood. You can be a mother who puts herself before her children. A mother who cares about her own wellbeing as well as her children’s. Or you can be a mother in the unorthodox sense. You can nurture friends or your parents. Or you don’t have to be a mother. Our futures aren’t certain; our lives aren’t scripted. So, take that freedom that you have, and use it to be the woman you want to be. Don’t feel trapped by your gender, the expectations others have, or your abilities. Do what you want to do. And I promise, even if society won’t, I will support you every step of the way.

With love from a girl who feels the pressures just like you

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