The Construction of Parenthood in A Frozen Woman and The Awakening
It has been argued that both men and women in a patriarchal system are oppressed due to ideologies and gender performativity. This article aims to reveal further oppression in terms of parenthood, discussing the roles of mothers and fathers in two novels, published almost a century apart than the other. The first novel is The Awakening by Kate Chopin which was published in 1899 and second one is A Frozen Woman by Annie Ernaux published in 1981.
Until the 1970’s, married couples were expected to reproduce as this was considered the norm. This ideology, and indeed it was and still is, was considered to be wholly natural in order to deceive men and women into believing that they must bear children, pressurising them into fulfilling their duties as citizens. Elisabeth Badinter quotes an anonymous author stating, ‘the desire for children is universal. The urge comes from the depths of our reptilian brain, from the reason we are here in the first place, to continue the species’. However, one is aware that this belief is not a natural fact but an ideology which society has enforced upon its subjects so that men and women play their expected roles in order to maintain their oppressed position within the social order. However, married couples without children are now freely accepted within society, illustrating this ongoing ideological downfall due to an overall change in perspectives regarding the necessity of childbirth.
Yet in the late 19th century, when Chopin wrote The Awakening, this ideological belief was still strongly and steadfastly followed which is reflected within the novella. Edna Pontellier has borne two children whom she cares for with the nurse quadroon. Yet she is barely seen to care for them permanently as she takes full advantage of the quadroon nurse’s presence. During the second half of the novella the children are completely absent as they have gone to stay with their grandmother and so their lack of presence disables a major role played within the narrative. However, Edna feels oppressed by her children; she understands that ‘they were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul’ (p.116).
Overall, Edna ‘was not a mother-woman’ (p. 8). She never bore the maternal instinct which every woman was believed to have felt. Due to her feelings toward her children, it begs the question as to why Edna had two children when she felt no desire to do so. Due to societal pressures toward reproduction, Edna felt that she must bear children in order to fulfil her expectation of a wife; it was her ‘duty’ as a woman, displaying her lack of autonomy over her reproductive system. This pressurisation of childbirth, which women felt compelled to follow, gives society control over women’s reproductive organs; Edna has no control over her body, thus highlighting her oppressive stance within society.
Similar to Edna’s oppression, Adele Ratignolle is oppressed through the expectations of motherhood. Mrs Ratignolle is illustrated as the perfect subject as she dedicates her life to her children and husband and has successfully subsumed her entire identity toward her family. Adele Ratignolle has three children, with a fourth child not yet born. ‘She was always talking about her “condition”. Her “condition” was in no way apparent, and no one would have known a thing about it but for her persistence in making it the subject of conversation. Adele constantly discusses her pregnancies, suggesting her ‘condition’ ultimately defines her.
Louis Althusser defines interpellation as the process of ‘recruiting” subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all)’ . Adele, then, has been successfully interpellated as not only does she subject herself to the ideology of childbearing, but she believes that this is a natural, maternal instinct which every woman experiences. She is unaware of her oppression and dedication toward societal acceptance as the interpellation which she experiences does not make itself known. She is an always-already subject, oppressed before she enters the world as state ideologies precede her. Adele’s life was already mapped out for her due to the enforcement of societal ideology, thus causing greater difficulty in deferring from the social norm.
In addition to Adele’s condition of pregnancy, there are a myriad of studies debating whether the maternal instinct, which she feels, is innate or a social construct which is implemented to enforce women to reproduce. Badinter in The Conflict discusses the maternal instinct, offering both sides of this argument. She presents that paediatricians in the 1970’s believed the maternal instinct theory to be a facticity as women ‘are mammals, equipped with the same hormones for mothering as other mammals: oxytocin and prolactin’ (p. 44). One cannot argue with science however, there are many women in society who do not feel maternal, like that of Edna Pontellier and Ernaux’s narrator in A Frozen Woman.
When the narrator of Ernaux’s novel discovers that she is pregnant, it is apparent that it was not planned. However, she decides to keep the baby for multiple reasons, one including ‘the obscure belief that one must live one’s femaleness in its entirety to be “complete” and therefore happy’ (p.145). This shows that the narrator is unable to pinpoint why motherhood would equate to life fulfilment yet she follows through with her pregnancy, affirming her interpellation like that of Edna Pontellier and Adele Ratignolle. Furthermore, her reasoning reveals her belief that in order to be fully accepted as a female, one must become a mother, implying that reproduction defines a woman which is yet another ideology at play here as this is not the case.
Ivy Schweitzer argues in one of her paper , ‘motherhood, like the fictions of romance, IS a discursive function of a certain ideology, here a bourgeois ideology which makes femininity and maternity inseparable … but incompatible with female desire, autonomy, or independent subjectivity’. Here, it is evident that in order to be feminine, one must reproduce, subsequently evading any notion of autonomy or independence. Many women in the 21st century are choosing to not bear children, which is now more of an acceptance, again revealing cracks within this ideology as the roles of women in the western world are continuously changing as they become more independent within their decisions.
However, from the narrator’s negativity toward her pregnancy in Ernaux’s novel, written in the previous century, one sees that these ideologies have not yet fully reformed. Due to her bitter tone, the narrator does not enjoy pregnancy, nor motherhood: ‘I know I’ll be stuck for months in a life revolving around baby bottles and diapers … and as for dreaming, what a laugh’ (p.145). She wants to avoid childbirth, wanting ‘to hand on to [her] last months [of pregnancy] as a woman who is only a woman, not yet a mother’ (p.147).
Clearly, she does not experience any maternal instinct therefore refuting scientific postulations. She believes that her autonomy and her future have been charred due to pregnancy, thus supporting Schweitzer’s statement. Her lack of maternal instinct is further rectified after the child is born when the reader is unable to learn his name. He is referred to as Kiddo, implying a delimiting mother-child relationship as she is unwilling to share his identity, further illustrating her lack of ability to identify with her son. It is important to note the translation from French to English as in the original text the child is addressed as ‘le baby’ which in literal translation is ‘the baby’. ‘Kiddo’ is a more colloquial term, emphasising the lack of bonding between mother and son. Furthermore, he is referred to as ‘the annoying baby’ (p.159), further illustrating the narrator’s lack of motherly love.
The role of the father, on the other hand, is different to that of the mother’s. Whereas mothers are expected to child-bear and nurture, fathers are expected to work and earn money in order to financially support the family. However, as men are forced into work so the family can live a comfortable life financially, this disrupts the relationship between father and child as the father is unable to care for the child as much as the mother can. If the father does, however, become unemployed, this is ‘always considered more detrimental to the family than an unemployed mother, and at the same time, child psychologists kept coming up with new responsibilities for parents that seemed to fall to the mother’ as Badinter says in in her book (p.3).
From Badinter’s argument, one can see that the father is somewhat pushed out of the family circle from society as he is pressurised into work. The pressure of work takes its toll on the father, as is shown in A Frozen Woman. As a student, the narrator’s husband was able to ‘share the mothering’ (p.152) which seems natural to both him and the narrator: ‘he knows as well as I do how to wipe the milk delicately from the sticky mouth and check the bottle’s temperature by shaking a few drops onto his bare arm’ (p.152-153). This illustrates that both men and women do have the capability in sharing parenthood however, due to the pressurisation of the societal ideologies, the father must somewhat neglect his fatherly duties in means to earn money.
Moreover, child professionals help to push the father away even further through their advice of how to look after children which is predominantly aimed at mothers. The narrator receives a leaflet from her husband titled, ‘I’m Raising My Child’ (p.166), aimed at mothers alone, ‘everything you need to know about “the job of being a mama”.…A voice saying terrible things: that no one could ever take care of Kiddo as well as I can, not even his father, who has no paternal instinct, just a paternal “streak”’(p.166). Yet this can be refuted as the narrator previously illustrated that her husband can be as good a father as she can a mother; they were once equal until her husband graduated and joined the workforce in order to pay for his family’s upkeep.
Even today, mothers receive nine months paid maternity leave whereas fathers receive two weeks paternity leave, a significant difference in the time off which is offered, thus further enforcing the mother to play the role of primary caregiver whilst fathers must enter back into the workforce. This further highlights how society oppresses and enforces mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, into playing roles which reflect their gendered expectations, that being the constructs of femininity and masculinity, where woman are supposed to care for the child and men are expected to act as breadwinner.
However, Judith Butler discusses how cracks are revealed to expose that gendered expectations are in fact a construct. She uses the example of a transvestite. If a transvestite is on the theatrical stage then this creates entertainment and acceptance as one realises that this is an act; there can be a distinction drawn between the act and reality. However, if the same transvestite was sitting on a bus, as Butler argues, this would produce feelings of anger, fear and possible violence as one is unable to distinguish the act from the real. Yet, the transvestite is able to not only show the distinction between sex and gender, but s/he is able to challenge it. Butler claims:
If the “reality” of gender is constituted by the performance itself, then there is no recourse to an essential and unrealized “sex” or “gender” which gender performances ostensibly express. Indeed, the transvestite’s gender is as fully real as anyone whose performance complies with social expectations (‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’. In Literary Theory An Anthology Second Edition. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Published in 1988 by Blackwell Press, p.907).
Gendered ideologies, then, like that of the role of mother and father, are socially constructed. This is evident in Ernaux’s A Frozen Woman as the narrator’s parents do not play the typical roles of mother and father: ‘until [her] adolescence, it doesn’t strike [her] as strange that [her] father washes the dishes and [her] mother lugs around bottle-racks’ (p.65). It is clear that the roles of mother and father in this household are reversed and yet successful. However, due to nonconformity, the narrator’s parents are seen as strange and are therefore unaccepted. When the narrator’s friend sees the narrator’s father cooking, typically a woman’s job, she is shocked, ‘the horrible astonishment of her pointed question: “You’re the one who does that?” Strange animals in a zoo, from another planet’ (p.79). Even though this role reversal illustrates cracks within the ideology, her parents are still alienated from an interpellated society who believe otherwise.
Furthermore, if one looks into the history of the role of the father it is apparent that before the industrial revolution the father was the primary caregiver. Barclay and Lupton in the book Constructing Fatherhood documents that fathers ‘were considered as more important than mothers in the caring, raising and education of children …At least until the early decades of the eighteenth century it was the father who was considered to shape the child, to be the “natural parent”’ (p.37). Yet when the industrial revolution drastically transformed society, it needed a labour force to maintain its constant demand for manufacturing. This, in turn, forced men into the workforce whilst mothers were, and still are, left to bring up the children. From this, it is clear that the roles of mother and father in these texts are a social construct where subjects are enforced into in order to be accepted within society.
Photo Credit- Bridget Coila (Flickr)