What Is a Mother?

Roe v. Wade taught Americans that the value and even acknowledgment of the fact of motherhood lies not in motherhood but in one’s attitude toward it.

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If I were Ketanji Brown Jackson, I’d be glad to be sitting on the Supreme Court, no longer being asked tough questions like defining what a woman is. Her unmemorable response was, “I’m not a biologist.” The title of my essay is intended to be another tough question, one that undoubtedly will pose another puzzlement for some Americans.

When a number of retailers sent out emails in late April inviting women to unsubscribe from Mother’s Day promotional materials, they justified them so as not to be “triggering.” The eventual logic settled upon to justify the opt outs was that some women have either lost children or can’t bear them, so celebrating Mother’s Day is painful for them.

But I’ve argued that explanation is not likely the whole story. Apart from the grief of some women who look at motherhood as something they’ve lost or cannot have (which means they recognize a value in motherhood), I contend there’s another factor fueling the “opt out” movement: the idea that celebration confers a value on maternity it inherently does not and should not have. Honoring “Mother’s Day” means saying motherhood in and of itself is something good and valuable.

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That has not been the message of the past half century.

Roe v. Wade taught Americans that the value and even acknowledgment of the fact of motherhood lies not in motherhood but in one’s attitude toward it. If one wants to be a mother, fine. But if one doesn’t, then babies become “blobs of tissue.” And while an occasional lapsus linguae admitted, “I don’t want to be a mother” (which indicates you are), the preferred language was “I don’t want to be pregnant” (as if pregnancy and maternity were divisible).  

In light of the Roe ethic, unqualified valuation of motherhood necessarily bludgeoned the right to “choice” because it suggested there was some objective reality that could measure that choice, an obvious blasphemy. Remember that the Court repeatedly told us (a claim repeated by the dissenters in Dobbs): women’s socio-economic advancement is impaired by non-disposable motherhood.

So, for those who want to cancel Mother’s Day, I ask: Is it about “feeling your pain” or denying the mother-child bond? So, for those who want to cancel Mother’s Day, I ask: Is it about “feeling your pain” or denying the mother-child bond?Tweet This

Is a mother a woman who is pregnant or only a woman who wants to be pregnant?   

And what, really, is a mother?  

The Essex Westford School District in Vermont, in the name of being “inclusive,” now replaces woman with “a person who produces eggs” who, in this brave new world, might “identify” as a “man.” So, what’s a mother, at least in northern Vermont?  

Is it a person who produces an egg that has been fertilized?

If so, does the place of fertilization affect the title “mother?” Is a person equally a “mother” if the egg she/he/ze/xe/wee wee wee produced was fertilized intra-corporally (in her/his/gee-whiz Fallopian Tubes) or extra-corporally (in a lab)? Does the person cease to be a “mother” if the person wasn’t physically there when fertilization took place, i.e., if a petri dish substituted for a Fallopian Tube?

Is a mother a person who bears an egg that has been fertilized?

Is that person a mother if that egg was not produced but “merely” gestated by that person, i.e., she carries somebody else’s egg? Does it matter if that gestation is undertaken for that person’s sole use or if done for another? Does it matter whether the doing takes place for pay, for expenses only, or gratis?

Is a person who neither produced an egg, carries, nor gives birth to that fertilized egg a “mother?” Is that “motherhood” affected by exchange of money or effected by registration? Is it honest to list as a “mother” (or even “parent one”) on a birth certificate (as opposed to adoption documents) a person who didn’t give birth? (Once upon a time, that was called an adoption.)

Which fertilized “egg-producing/bearing/raising” person is a mother? All of them? Some of them? The genetic? The gestational? The social? Whoever gets to the registrar of vital statistics first? Whoever pays the most?  

More importantly: Which one(s) get the Mother’s Day card? And which one(s) might want to opt out?

And given what Jennifer Lahl has called the “Wild West” of Big Reproduction, will the American response be, “It depends.” Depends on what?

Is “motherhood” in fact a dispensable part of “parenthood?” Are conceiving and/or carrying a baby merely “technical details” that do not inherently establish parenthood (at least in any socially or legally significant sense)? If so, is even speaking of “motherhood” inherently “discriminatory” against “parenthood” by imposing on the latter an “unnecessary” sexual differentiation (aka the dreaded “gender binary”)?

These are the questions affecting motherhood in America today. Compared to this babble of confusion, deciding whether to receive a Levi’s “20% off for Mother’s Day” coupon in your inbox is a piece of cake.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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