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Why Eliminating The Word ‘Mother’ Eliminates Motherhood Itself


At some point in our lives, we all hate our mothers. They can be a real nuisance, whether because they overdo motherhood or don’t do it enough. But does that mean we want that relationship deleted from language and thought? This is the question raised by some recent changes enacted in the United Kingdom and France, wherein the word mother will be replaced with other words meant to signify some kind of mother-adjacent relationship.

In the United Kingdom, in the spirit of self-ID laws that allow individuals to change official documentation to reflect an identity in conflict with their biological sex, transgender persons who give birth can be listed as father instead of mother. Presumably the mother box would stay blank, since we are not yet a species that can mate with itself.

France has its own version of mother erasure, but they’ve thrown fathers in there as well and dispensed with defining gendered relationship at all. Instead of mother and father, school districts will now refer to parents as Parent 1 and Parent 2. Presumably, it was confusing or perhaps hurtful for single-sex pairs to navigate their children’s schools with the painful reminder that mother-father families are considered the norm. Ouch. I’m sure the Parent 1-Parent 2 dichotomy won’t get confusing at all.

The Words We Use Define Our Thoughts

The language we use to define our relationships is what gives us the context to understand their relevance to our lives. When we use the term mother, we invoke a shared perspective on what that word means, what it represents, what it looks like. Whether our mother was brilliant or rotten, loving or cruel, we can envision a shared ideal of a mother precisely because we have a shared history of the concept of mother.

If we don’t have the word for mother, will the concept still exist? If so, for how long? If the word for mother falls out of fashion or is pushed out of language entirely, will our thoughts still be able to form the idea of mother without the word? Will the mother-adjacent words that we’ve created take the place of the thought of mother as well as the word? Do the words we use to describe relationships matter? Can we have the thought of mother without a word to express it?

The question of whether thoughts can exist outside of language is not a new one, but our era continually polices our language and thoughts to make sure they conform to fabricated, egalitarian notions of fairness. It is under this guise that the word for mother is being questioned. The fear in continuing to use the word is that it will make some people feel bad. But how much worse will we feel when we have no mothers at all?

‘There Can Be No Thought Without Language’

In a conversation between John McWhorter and Stanley Fish last summer at the Institute of Art and Ideas’ philosophy and music festival, the two discussed the question “Can we think outside of language?” Can there be coherent thought outside of the words we use to think them? In answer, McWhorter said, “I do think that there can be no thought without language. Language does not decorate thought. Language is constitutive of thought.”

If language is what constitutes thought, if language is not just the expression of thought but the essence of the thought itself, then what does it mean to edit our language to remove this word mother? It means that we are editing from our thoughts the concept of mother itself.

We could say that the mother relationship is so seminal, essential, and necessary, given the reality of human reproduction, that it cannot be erased. But if that is so, then why are we trying to erase it? What good will come to a humanity that has erased the concept of mothers? Will it really be better for schools, governments, hospitals, and individuals to lose the word, and the relationship it defines?

Whether we imagine Claire Huxtable or Donna Reed, Wilma Flinstone or Joan Crawford, we all have an idea of what is meant by the term mother. It signifies a relationship with the individual who gestated us in water until we were ready to breathe air. It reflects our feeling about a woman who cared for us, whether she was the origin of our DNA or not. Our collective imagining of mother brings to mind a woman who cares, nurtures, loves, sacrifices.

Eliminating the Word Eliminates the Relationship

If we remove the word mother from this relationship, we will find that the relationship itself is maintained through mothers’ practical application to the task of mothering. However, as time speeds on, we will lose the term and therefore the concept of mother entirely to designations that are less personal in nature, and less reflective of the lived relationship we wish for every mother and child. As human beings move further away from natural reproduction, and deeper into reproduction aided or facilitated entirely by technology, the concept of motherhood, without words to identify it, will begin to slip away.

The concepts of mother and father were not an invention of the state. They are simply the reality of human experience. Now state agencies are attempting to alter concepts such as parenthood, mother, and father. Such agencies would have us conceive of our own power and agency differently, and give much of it over to state control.

This includes not only our actions, but how we express ourselves, and therefore how we think of and imagine ourselves. The result is that these changes effectively give more control over children to state agencies, and less to parents. This means that the parental relationships themselves will be policed by external factors that are meant to weaken and monitor it.

It may sound paranoid to fear for the loss of motherhood, or absurd to think that defining both parents as “Parent” instead of mother and father will affect the relationships of parents and children. But if the language we use to define our relationships is what gives us the context to think about what they are and what they mean, and we dispense with the language that allows us to do that, we dispense not only with the word but the definition.

It would be a mistake allow the thought police to take away the word, the meaning, and the relationship of mother. Mothers aren’t always what we want them to be, or present, or anything other than a concept we use to ground our origin story, but even at its worst, the concept of mother is a necessary component of human thought.