Our Mother’s Day Gift to You! Let’s get scholarly, and let’s think and thank.

10 May 2018

By, Mike Potter

The Etymology of Motherhood in Post Modern American Society

Have you ever considered the etymology (origin and changing meaning over time) of the word “mother”? Consider the following two definitions provided by Fine Dictionary:

  • Mother Received by birth or from ancestors; native, natural; as, mother language; also acting the part, or having the place of a mother; producing others; originating.
  • Mother To adopt as a son or daughter; to perform the duties of a mother to

With such broad and inclusive definitions, why has our Western society bound the definition of motherhood to such a narrow aspect of biological linkage? The answer can be found by looking into the Scientific Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries.  In a deliberate rejection of theology, and those who abused it during the Middle Ages, Western societies began to rely on science as the definitive truth on all that we know.  For something to be considered true, it must be proven through scientific experiment.  With the advances in genetic testing, DNA is regarded as self-evident and impartial, and future breakthroughs in science can redefine what kinship was all along, regardless of cultural or experiential definitions.

Today’s popular culture inundates and reinforces the notion that kinship through biology is the only legitimate way to define self. An example of this media blitz is the Ancestry.com commercial where American Kyle Merker tells the story of growing up celebrating his German lineage through repeated rituals indicative of his German culture, only to realize through DNA testing that he was not Germanic but instead 52% Scottish and Irish.  The commercial ends with Kyle curiously “trading in (his) lederhosen for a kilt”, as if the sum of his identity through life experiences, family traditions and cultural norms were delegitimized by a DNA test.  This seems to conflict with all that we know about worldviews, which are the deeply rooted beliefs defining societal knowledge and point of view.  Worldviews are the control center for how we see the world, interpret inputs and make decisions.  Worldviews are shaped and reinforced by our patterns of behavior, myths, beliefs, rituals, morals, material culture, social systems and history.  Simply put, worldviews are deeply rooted beliefs which are difficult to change.

The idea that Kyle Merker could, as an adult, fully release one worldview and attach himself to another is seemingly impossible, unless his worldview on kinship is subjugated to a belief in biogenetics. The unconscious bias and prejudice of this rationalization through science subordinates all other definitions of motherhood to biology.  Cultural anthropologist, David Schneider, noted that this lawlike biological definition is an American cultural conception, and does not reflect the many other facets of motherhood recognized by other cultures around the world.  Thus, our American worldview prejudices our worldview under the myopic scientific rules that “facts” derived through scientific inquiry are higher ordered than “values” gained through life experiences.

The evolution of the social-historical context of the American definition of motherhood has culminated in a meaning of the word “mother” that prizes biology at the exclusion of other, more meaningful factors in a child’s life. This biological reductionism in American culture not only disenfranchises a significant portion of our population who are entirely deserving of the title: women who love, protect, clothe, feed and nurture children, but also discounts the feelings of the children who love them and consider them moms.   A 2016 Huffington post article titled “The Definition of Motherhood” defined motherhood as “an accumulation of …raw emotions, experiences and our hopes and dreams for our children”.  A noteworthy omission to this definition is DNA.  Consider the following examples and ask yourself if these people are fulfilling the duties of motherhood or not:

  • An adoptive parent
  • A foster parent
  • A gay couple raising a child (biologically related or not)
  • A woman who marries a man with children from a previous relationship
  • A woman who used a gestational carrier for her embryo (i.e., did not deliver her own baby)
  • A woman who adopts an embryo which she carries and delivers and then raises
  • A woman who used a surrogate to have a child

If you are still unconvinced, consider the situation of a chimera mother who carries multiple sets of DNA. Chimera is possible if two or more zygotes join in the womb allowing a future mother to be born as a single person with multiple blood types and DNA.  In a 2002 precedent-setting court case in Washington, an American chimera mother, Lydia Fairchild, was being accused of fraud by the State for not having matching DNA to the child she was claiming.  She happened to be pregnant at the time with another child, and a court appointed witness to the birth and DNA testing proved that she was not a biological match to her children.  The court case was dismissed, and with it the determinism of biological testing to be infallible in validating motherhood through science.

Is the objectification of motherhood to a physical state all there really is to motherhood? To allow biogenetics to be interrogated alone and separate from the person, the physical state becomes decoupled from the personhood, and we lose who we are and what we are doing.  Does anyone really think that how you perform as a mother is less important than sharing DNA?  Legal precedents over functional parenthood are changing these deterministic biogenetic assumptions, but we each need to look deep within ourselves to recognize and challenge our own unconscious bias.  Words matter.  They matter to women who mother children who do not share a biological connection, yet share a maternal bond through love, stability and safety – arguably far more important to the wellbeing of the child, which is necessary for the stable underpinnings of our society.

**Please reach out to Us at lisa@wearefamilies.org for References



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