Becoming a Woman through Motherhood

Editor's Note: Today we welcome Danielle Toppin, writing from Jamaica. She has experience with gender and development, and will be covering reproductive health issues in the Caribbean and Latin America.

On November 4, 2004, I discovered that I was pregnant. In that moment, my life began to change. The ways in which I saw myself; and in which society perceived me shifted. It was as though I had finally fulfilled my role as a woman. I had proven my worthiness.

In the Caribbean context, ideas of motherhood are inextricably linked with ideas of womanhood. In Barbados, meanings are attached to fertile and infertile female bodies; with value being attached to those women who reproduce, and withheld from those women who, either by choice or by nature, do not. Mothering has become synonymous with "becoming a woman", achieving an almost mythical status as the natural path that women's lives should take.

It is in this perceived naturalness of women as mothers that our lives often become complicated. Women are all at once privileged in their roles as mothers, yet negated in their everyday lives within patriarchal societies. This treatment of women is particularly evident in the ways in which the state has traditionally dealt with women's bodies as it relates to maternal health care.

Within the English-speaking Caribbean, state policy has typically conceptualised women in line with their roles as reproducers of the population. This oversight ignores the centrality of these reproductive activities to social and economic development. In this gap, women's experiences are often lost in data that focuses solely on quantifiable outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates.

What do we, as women, have to gain through state policy that places us at the centre? In order to answer this, let me take a step backwards to the journey that commenced on November 4, 2004 and ended in June of the next year: my passage to motherhood. As a pregnant woman, I wanted health care for myself and my child that was safe and efficient; but that also acknowledged that my pregnancy extended beyond the life within my uterus. I wanted access to a health care system that was responding not only to the physical, but to the spiritual and emotional aspects of my pregnancy. I wanted to be cared for, not solely as a patient, but as a person.

State maternal health care (MHC) policy that benefits women helps to build healthier and more confident parents. While the MHC targets highlighted within the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) are key steps towards safeguarding women's lives, there is still room for growth; to expand our vision of MHC into one that centralises women's experiences with their bodies.

This shift however becomes complicated given the economic, societal and resource limitations that countries face. Many countries have not yet met the MDG requirements and furthermore aren't able, or ready, to incorporate an experiential component to their policies. Change however comes with conceptual shifts.

The philosophical expansion of what we consider as "successful" pregnancies, to include the psychological, spiritual and emotional health of mother, father and child, can take us a far way towards creating what we claim we desire: balanced and healthy societies.

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  • invalid-0

    fascinating thoughts…interesting perspectives…

    as a man living in barbados i can see some of what you have said.

    do you think that this policy was created or was significantly influenced by the transatlantic slave trade? the british colonial experience? and any thoughts about the experiences in the non english speaking caribbean?

  • invalid-0

    I live in Jamaica, and the example given for Barbados captures our experience here as well. As a 31 year old ‘unmarried and childless’ woman, I have to constantly ignore the society’s assumptions about the reasons for my ‘state’. In their eyes, I must be “one of those women with their newfangled ideas” (read: a misguided woman who has let her further education put crazy ideas of not ‘needing’ a man or children, into her head). I think the assumption that a woman’s role is to have children is the main reason why the policy referred to is lacking. A woman is expected to want a child; and is expected to have a child. Why then should much time be spent on developing a policy that considers a woman’s overall well-being while pregnant? Why make the process enticing and comfortable? A woman will want; and will have a child, regardless. This is the mindset that produces still-born policy.

  • masimba-biriwasha

    It's certainly paradoxical that society expects a woman to give birth, yet it is not prepared to meet the costs that ensure the good health of both the woman and the baby. A woman's pregnancy symbolizes life – the propagation of a race. But there are political, economic and social costs to this role that women have in society, and there's a need to bring these issues to the center of the agenda.

    Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.

    – Martin Luther King Jr.

  • invalid-0

    Thoroughly enjoyed that.

  • invalid-0

    Looking forward to your next piece, from Samantha in London

  • danielle-toppin

    Coming out of the enslavement period, women of colour were definitely valued for their reproductivity, as actual financial value was placed on the products of their wombs. Undoubtedly, one of the main outcomes of colonisation has been the colonisation of the bodies of women from developing countries.

    Although these links exist, I think that patriarchy as a global system has helped to shape the value system that equates maternity with worthiness. So while there are undoubtedly damaging nuances in the experience of women in the Caribbean – and other developing countries – women worldwide can no doubt relate to the pressure that is placed on them to reproduce in order be considered truly a woman.

    Kinda vague, but does it answer the question at all?