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Literary Analysis: The Portrayal of Mothers
in Simone de Beauvoir's Writings

                   An aging Simone          

Motherhood in de Beauvoir's Writings


French philosopher, existentialist writer, and social commentator, Simone de Beauvoir, whose main bodies of work deal with the secondary position of women in Westernized societies from the late 1930’s on, deals in greater detail with marriage and 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 Paris and the latter is a novel, theories that de Beauvoir puts forth in The Second Sex about mothers, are also easily discernable in The Women Destroyed.  Despite the fact that the women portrayed in The Second Sex are primarily bourgeois housewives, and the title character in The Women Destroyed is a successful scientist and published author, we can see that when women are unfulfilled in some aspects of their lives (usually because of social conditions of the time), they project this onto their children.


“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” begins the second book of The Second Sex. The bookjacket of "The Second Sex" According to de Beauvoir, up until what she describes as the “second weaning,” when boys are encouraged to shun affection 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 a young 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 of 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 France, when bourgeois women rarely held jobs outside of the household, an unmarried woman would most likely have remained in the father’s household, living off of his income, or she would have to take a “menial position” working in a stranger’s house, presumably cooking, cleaning or taking care of children.  Because men were the sole breadwinners at the time, someone needed to take care of the household, a job which naturally fell upon women. De Beauvoir points to this as one of the reasons that society encourages marriage, along with the fact that it provides society with children. 

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.Simone and Sartre  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). 

Because 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 because 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 socially acceptable in France at the time than an unmarried woman with a lover.   Men, on the other hand, were free to take premarital lovers and were thought to be truly adult when they acquired their first real job, not when they married.  In essence, freedom and adulthood have different definitions for men and for women.  Women need to get married in order to have a certain degree of “freedom” from their parents, be considered adult, and in order to have socially sanctioned sex.  In gaining freedom from their parents, however, they now have a new master, their husband, who is the one that provides for them financially.  Men, even under the control of their parents have more sexual freedom than women.  When they get their first job they are considered adult and they do not need to be married to have freedom, financially or sexually.



     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 supplies” (de 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 selfless mother is expected to be upheld by women even though they themselves were 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 the 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 time, though, when the daughter tries to assert her own identity, and when “this alter ego 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 does not allow women much choice in the matter.  Women cannot choose if they want to be mothers and only when they are 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 support in the way of childcare and housekeeping.


Motherhood in de Beauvoir's writings:

          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 her 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 selfish for her love of her “alter ego.”



In both The Age of Discretion and The Second Sex, de Beauvoir brings to light the issues that plague women of her generation and class.  Women are socialized in such a way that they feel that marriage and motherhood are what 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 time before women either try to punish their children for their own imprisonment or attempt to live through them to make up for what their own life is lacking.   The Women Destroyed also demonstrates just how intertwined self and child are, as well as the sad reality that with the loss of a child or marriage, some mothers, lose much of their identity.