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Opinion

No lesser women

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

May is the month that we write about mothers, and while it may have been overshadowed by the national elections here – and while Mother’s Day this year has come and gone – it is still important to have these regular conversations about mothers. Not just because of how important our mothers are in our lives, but because of how important – and complicated – the concept of motherhood itself is in relation to women, and what society perceives women to be.

Not too long ago there was a social media post that went viral, where a husband’s remarks about appreciating his wife’s achievements as a mother was seen by some to be worded in a way that subordinated her own achievements to his own. Regardless of what was or was not intended here, the conversation that erupted around the incident illustrates in important ways how far the discourse about the role of women has come – and how much farther it has yet to go.

It is an undeniable fact that society, particularly Philippine society, has long placed women in the supportive role, the wind beneath the wings of those around her – but not one to soar towards her own destination. It is expected, if not demanded, from women that they be willing to put their family’s needs ahead of their own, and this becomes particularly oppressive when the needs of the husband are equated with the needs of the family, but those of the wife are not. That more women can see this as an expression of systematic inequality rather than as a part of an immutable natural order is important and laudable progress.

There are women who will choose to sacrifice their own dreams and ambitions for the sake of their family and this remains a valid decision to make – but it must be a choice freely made, with an understanding that it is not the only path open to them, or choice made for them solely because they are women. Being a wife or a mother does not rob them of the right to aspire to do things for themselves and their individual fulfillment. As I’ve written before: A woman does not cease to be a woman when she becomes a mother. In fact, when she becomes a mother may be the time when she most keenly feels the norms imposed by society on womanhood, the things that are expected of her, the things others take for granted about her.

When I became a mother, I felt that society had so much to say about how I took care of my daughter and my role in the family. I felt the pressure to put my ambitions aside in order to take care of my daughter. I am glad that I stood my ground and showed them that a mother can pursue her professional goals without sacrificing her responsibilities to her family. It seems that some still think that the two are mutually exclusive.

It is also important to remind everyone, particularly during this month when motherhood is celebrated, that just as a woman does not cease to be a woman when she becomes a mother, so too does a woman not need to become a mother in order to be fulfilled as a woman. Motherhood was the right choice for me, and it is the right choice for many other women – but it is not the only choice. The consistent societal pressure faced by women to marry and have children, particularly before reaching middle age, is something that many take for granted. It is a common joke that family reunions will involve young women fending off questions about either their weight or marital status, but while many of these comments by the older generation come from a genuine place of concern and love, that does not mean they do not do harm. Society will not change if it is not taught, and elders are not exempt from learning to change harmful behavior.

Many continue to see childless women as somehow incomplete. For those who find it impossible to conceive of a woman making this choice, they undermine the woman’s agency and make inferences regarding the woman’s desirability or morality. Others find them to be an object of pity, with nothing but regret in their future, and whatever achievements they have are dismissed as merely attempts at compensating for the lack of children in their lives. Not only do these views refuse to take women as beings with agency, subjects and not objects, they also discriminate against women who are simply incapable of having children, including trans-women.

As to whether or not these views are patriarchal or misogynistic, one need simply ask whether men face any stigma for remaining childless throughout their lives. The answer should be abundantly clear. Single men can be successful, fulfilled, complete, even if they’ve never been in a relationship nor have ever evinced a desire for children. They are not asked if they regret choosing to pursue their ambitions rather than settle down and have a family, nor are they asked if their success makes them intimidating to prospective partners. Men are seen as complete in and of themselves – and women are entitled to be seen the same way.

Women are more than their ability to make children, and a woman’s value should not be any less in the eyes of society (or herself) if she is unable to have children, or chooses to remain childless and/or unmarried. May is the month when we celebrate mothers, but the best way to celebrate motherhood is to make sure that it is a choice and not a standard. By decoupling the value of a woman from the ideal of motherhood, we take another step towards a more equal, more free society. That is something which I feel, as a woman and as a mother, is something deserving of celebration.

MOTHER’S DAY

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