Analysis: The Portrayal of Mothers
in Simone de Beauvoir's Writings
philosopher, existentialist writer, and social commentator, Simone de
whose main bodies of work deal with the secondary position of women in
societies from the late 1930’s on, deals in greater detail with
motherhood in two of her works, The
Second Sex and The Women Destroyed.
Although the former is a nonfiction treatise
on the position on women in 1940’s
is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” begins the second book of The Second Sex.
According to de Beauvoir, up until what she
describes as the “second weaning,” when boys are encouraged to shun
and emotion, boys and girls are essentially the same.
From the point of the second weaning on, however,
boys and girls are socialized in such a way that by the time a girl is
adult, her life is defined by marriage and her relationships with men. As de Beauvoir says: “…celibacy – apart from
rare cases in which it bears a sacred character reduced her to the rank
parasite and pariah; marriage is her only means of support and the sole
justification of her existence” (de Beauvoir, 427).
In other words, in this time period in
Implicit in the terms used to describe marriage at the time (and indeed still today) is the idea of a women being “given,” usually by her father, to the husband in marriage. Inversely, however, the man is said to “take” a wife. The woman is expected to take the last name, the religion and friends of the husband. In this way, de Beauvoir likens marriage to a “career” for women. The woman gives services to the man: she provides sex; she cooks, cleans and provides the man with children. In exchange, he supports her financially. The reason that this is so acceptable to men as well as to women is that this “career” is relatively easy and well paid in comparison to the few other jobs that are available to women. De Beauvoir says that the woman “ is naturally tempted by this relatively easy way , the more so because occupations open to her are often disagreeable and poorly paid; marriage, in a word, is a more advantageous career than many others”(de Beauvoir, 431).
women are typically not seen as adult until they marry (especially
given the financial
burden that they impose on their father), they are more eager to marry
they believe that this will give them freedom, at least sexually. As de Beauvoir says: “if she wishes to take a
lover, she must first get married” as even adultery was legal and more
After marriage, the only logical thing for a woman to do, to further her “career” was to become a mother. This so-called “mothering instinct” as de Beauvoir shows, is not really an instinct at all, but rather a set of uncontrollable circumstances that color a woman’s feelings for her children. Motherhood was often not a choice for women at the time, especially for women of the lower classes, which de Beauvoir refers to as a “class crime.” Women of the bourgeoisie not only had knowledge about birth control but had the financial means to get it. Also, if they did inadvertently become pregnant, having the child would not put such a financial strain on them. Lower-class women, with little access to birth control suffered more unwanted pregnancies, each one much more of a financial burden than an unplanned child would be to a bourgeois family. Abortion, de Beauvoir quotes from a physician at the time, “performed by a competent specialist in a hospital, and with the proper precautions, does not involve the grave dangers asserted by the penal code” (de Beauvoir, 485). However, the “lack of skill on the part of the abortionist and the bad conditions under which they operate cause many accidents, some of them fatal” (de Beauvoir, 485). Abortionists were prosecuted instead of “undertaking to reform that scandalous institution known as ‘public assistance’…society closes its eyes to the frightful tyranny of brutes in children’s asylums and private foster homes” (de Beauvoir, 485). She goes on to ascribe the strange obsession that some men have with preserving the life of a fetus, and making a woman have a child against her own will, to the fact that these very men are the ones most eager to send adult males off to die in wars, a viewpoint eerily reminiscent of some politicians today. As further punishment for women who received botched or partial abortions, those who did manage to make it to the hospital (who on principle the hospital was obligated to accept) were refused painkillers.
For those women who either chose, or as in many cases, were forced to have a child, the attitude that they had towards the conception was often a precursor to how they would treat the baby in life. For women who were more ambivalent about their pregnancy, a certain feeling of peace starts to be felt towards the end. For the first time in their lives they can be indulgent because “everything they do for their own benefit they are doing also for the child” (de Beauvoir, 501). The woman is now important on her own accord. She is no longer seen as a sex object, but an “incarnation of her species” and even showing one’s breasts in public, once frowned upon in all other situations, can be “freely shown, for it is a source of life; even religious pictures show the Virgin Mary exposing her breast as she beseeches her son to save mankind” (de Beauvoir, 496). Similarly, once the baby has been born, many women feel a disconnection from the child that is remedied once they are able to begin breastfeeding. Like the pregnancy itself, breastfeeding allowed women to be selfish, thinking about no other chores but that of keeping the baby fed.
This selfless giving of the mother to the child makes a
woman feel needed: “her existence is justified by the wants she
Beauvoir, 513). On top of this, men give
women much praise and adulation for “selflessness” in caring for the
child. Sadly though, this idea of the
mother is expected to be upheld by women even though they themselves
excluded from public affairs and “masculine fields”.
How can they be expected to raise a happy,
well-rounded child when they have had few experiences in the spheres of
world only occupied by men? The result
of this is that women often project their needs onto the children. In the case of boys, women often attempt to
both live through them as well as dominate them. If
they have had bad relations with men in
the past, their son is the perfect way for them to enact revenge
against man in
his “childish” form. Women often see
daughters as their own “double” and project their self-image upon the
daughter. The mother wants the daughter
to have both the same opportunities that she had as well as those she
has not. The mother will often have a hard
when the daughter tries to assert her own identity, and when “this
comes to be affirmed, the mother feels herself betrayed” (de Beauvoir,
517). If a woman is fulfilled in her job
and life, these problems are not likely to befall her; however, society
not allow women much choice in the matter.
Women cannot choose if they want to be mothers and only when
pregnant are their needs and wants are considered important. Also, they are expected to raise children
when they have little experience in the world beyond what they
encounter in their
own household. For the few women that do
manage to find fulfilling jobs outside of the home, there is little
the way of childcare and housekeeping.
One of de Beauvoir’s much later works The Woman Destroyed is a collection of fictional stories about three different women that employs some of her theories on motherhood and marriage. The story entitled The Age of Discretion centers on a professor of science in her early sixties dealing with the prospect of aging, her marriage, and most importantly, her relationship with her only child, a son who is recently married. She herself is happily married to a kind and supportive husband, and is semi-retired and working on a book, a follow-up to several other successes. Despite this, she is disturbed by the fact that her son has grown up and is now more loyal to his wife than herself. She explains that she went through a “wretched period” some years before, when she was “disgusted with my body; Phillip had grown up; and after the success of my book on Rousseau, I felt completely hollow inside” (de Beauvoir, 18). It is not until she begins a new book, gets her son through a tough examination and she begins working on a thesis of her own(on a topic of her own choosing) that she feels like herself again. In keeping with de Beauvoir’s earlier work, we can see how interconnected the feelings are between the mother and her child. She is also, despite her own personal success, living her life through her son.
Her husband, although kind, does not seem to share many real interests with his wife, and to many degrees she treats her son more like her partner than child. On her son’s observation that she has gained weight, she immediately seeks to remedy the situation: “I went on a diet: I bought scales. Earlier on it never occurred to be that I should ever worry about weight” (de Beauvoir, 23). She then sulks at the fact that he “scarcely seems to notice” that she is thin again. The same night, a lovely evening, she remarks that had her son had been there, they would have gone out together for a drink: her husband would be too tired, and it was pointless to ask him. She says that: “Philippe has gone, and I am to spend the rest of my life with an old man!” (de Beauvoir, 33). It is as if she wants Philippe to treat her as a partner. The reason for the main conflict in the story, which arises when Phillip decides to leave the university and his thesis to take a well-paying position with his wife’s father’s company, is because she feels that Philippe should respect her judgment the way she does his. She forgets that they are not partners, but mother and son. The most infuriating part of his decision for his mother is that he does not consult her first: “A sudden jet of anger filled me: it was unbelievable that he should not have spoken to me the moment the idea of leaving the university stirred in his mind”(de Beauvoir, 28). More than anything she is upset that his wife has come to replace her. During this conversation between the four of them, she says: “I wiped her out. I was alone with Phillip as I used to be in the days when I woke him up every morning with a touch on the forehead” (de Beauvoir, 24).
The void that women feel after the “peaceful” feeling they get at the termination of their pregnancy when they are allowed their desires, and the subsequent void they feel after birth, is also directly referred to in The Age of Discretion. The mother says:
He left me the moment he told me about his marriage; he left me at the moment of his birth, a nurse could have taken my place. What had I imagined? Because he was very demanding I believed that I was indispensable. Because he is easily influenced I imagined that I had created him in my own image, (de Beauvoir, 33).
She is saying that
child’s wants and desires have made her feel useful.
When he married, he no longer needs her to fulfill
the very desires that have given her an identity as a mother. The fact that she can influence him also
makes her feel needed and she can indulge her own ego without feeling
her love of her “alter ego.”
both The Age of Discretion and The Second
Sex, de Beauvoir brings to light the issues that plague women of
generation and class. Women are
socialized in such a way that they feel that marriage and motherhood
defines them as women. Ironically it is these very views, imposed on
them by society,
that often make it hard for them to mother their children. De Beauvoir
concludes that with such a limited worldview, it is only a matter of
before women either try to punish their children for their own
attempt to live through them to make up for what their own life is
Women Destroyed also demonstrates just how intertwined self and
as well as the sad reality that with the loss of a child or marriage,
mothers, lose much of their identity.