I am a believer in the power of words, so I listened when Kim Cattrall said that being called “childless” was problematic. According to The Independent, she said “It was the ‘less’ [word] that is [so] offensive – childless – it sounds like you’re ‘less’ because you haven’t had a child.”
Cattrall, 59, asserted that there are many ways for women without children to express their maternal side and behave in a parental way. Of course this is true. Behaving in a nurturing manner, or giving advice in a parental way is something many of us do for siblings, neighbor’s friends, relatives, and even something teachers often do for their students. Is this actually mothering? Well, yes and no.
Cattrall is quoted as saying “There is a way to become a mother in this day and age that doesn’t include your name on the child’s birth certificate. You can express that maternal side very clearly, very strongly.”
As students in my “Families and Social Change” class at Manhattan College know, there have always been many ways to mother.
Those who married in early America in the 1600 & 1700s formed what today’s sociologists would call co-provider families. Essentially, the household was a place of production. Each [family] member’s labor was valued, as it helped to sustain the family. Families commonly took in “strangers”—boarders, hired hands, or servants; other people’s children hired as apprentices; or people for whom institutions had not yet been invented, such as orphans, the ill, and “ne’er do wells.” (A Brief History of the American Family 36). Native Americans had an entirely different family structure and relied more heavily on the “collective” experience rather than privatized family structure.
The point being, that even definitions of “family” and the ideology of family can change with the times. What defines our world and what defines our definitions is socially constructed, meaning we have collectively invented these meanings. Therefore, logically speaking, we should (theoretically) be open to considering redefinitions at any point along the way.
According to the Cattrall article, “The Sex and the City star said that while she may not be a ‘biological’ parent, she was ‘a parent.’ Cattrall admits that she ‘didn’t change nappies,’ but says she instead helped her niece though medical school and sat down with her nephew when he was ‘having a really tough time’ joining the army.” Okay, so do we let her get away with it, or do we call her out on her definitions of motherliness?
A friend of mine responded vehemently on Facebook declaring “I am an AUNT not a MOM.” She feels “very strongly Regarding Kim Cattrall’s comments about being childless. Kruck is “Childress by choice.” She goes on to say “I too have mentored, I have nieces and nephews that I have vacationed with, helped make college/career decisions, been the first to meet a new love, apartment hunted made Halloween costumes and I have even been vomited on – but I am not a Mom – I am an aunt and wear the title as a badge of honor bestrode on me by my brother and his wife.”
While we cannot just invent definitions without some kind of thoughtful consensus or collaboration sociologically speaking, we can at any time, as a culture, embark on change; something I would argue, many Americans are already doing as they wrestle with situations like the one in KY where gay couples are being refused the right to marry.
The more we educate ourselves, historically-speaking, the more we learn just how fluid and ever-changing definitions of family, both on the global front and here in America, have always been. It is hard to see the forest through the trees without doing a little wandering.
In 1989 Sara Ruddick argued in her seminal text Maternal Thinking that “men could mother” and indeed this year (2015) hospitals in NY offered paperwork that allows for a person giving birth to identify as male or female. I believe in this day and age that a flexible use of the word “mother” and “father” best serves the conversation.
That being said, pick and choose the words that best fit you. Words have power. So, choose the ones that most accurately reflect your identity, truth, and integrity.