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How women are related to nature has always been an interesting subject, discussed by various parties from various perspectives, including two articles published by The Jakarta Post “Time for women to be aware of nature’s higher value” (Giovanni Comparini and I Nyoman Sri Aryana, June 6, 2012) and “Whole women in tune with men, in peace with own nature” (Giovanni Comparini, July 7, 2011).
What is natural for women is by definition limited to their biological-reproductive roles, which are pregnancy, giving birth and breastfeeding. The fact shows that the definition is often extended to other roles considered as “natural” as well, such as taking care of children and the elderly, as well as doing day-to-day domestic chores, which are in my opinion misleading.
Being a wife and a mother with the roles as previously described is also socially constructed as a woman’s destiny”.
Based on the black-and-white dichotomy, those who confront this fate, for example women who consciously choose not to marry or not to have children, and working mothers who leave their children under the care of others, easily become the targets of blame.
They are accused of not only defying nature, but are also perceived as bad women and mothers.
The question is, Does conducting “natural” duties automatically bring women happiness and peace? The answer is neither yes nor no.
Even the biological-reproductive roles of pregnancy and giving birth do not automatically bring happiness and peace to women.
The availability (or lack) of parental support, fair (or unfair) shares of domestic responsibilities between husbands and wives, supportive or not so supportive working environments and the general social-economic-political situation are factors that may lead women to either happiness or grief in carrying out their “natural” roles.
For some women, pregnancy is about poor health and fear. It is then followed by giving birth, which for some is about long, painful labor. For others it is a bloody experience, which causes trauma.
Some women have to undergo a caesarean, which means that they need longer to recover. The fact is that these women are the only group of people who — after such major surgery — are required to toil at night and do the 24-hour job of taking care of newborn infants, right after they return from hospital.
With the high maternal mortality rate in developing countries including Indonesia (228 deaths per 100,000 life births), the “natural” biological-reproductive roles of pregnancy and giving birth are also a matter of life and death.
Naomi Wolf (2002) in her book Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood, writes that “birth is [often] viewed through a softened lens of pink haze: the new baby and radiant mommy in an effortless mutual embrace, proud papa nearby, solid and supportive, but just slightly out of the picture”.
To my knowledge, I never found advertisements or prenatal information about dealing with the strenuous, continuous care of newborn infants. For mothers, this is also about fatigue and slow recovery from birth as social norms often dictate that mothers are the ones responsible for such care, while in fact they themselves actually need to be taken care of.
Another question is how natural is natural?
Other than pregnancy and giving birth, tasks directly relating to taking care of newborn infants such as changing diapers, bathing and feeding, are not necessarily natural.
Neither are other domestic tasks such as taking care of old people, cooking, cleaning, washing or doing the laundry. The reality however is different, as these tasks are still largely regarded to be women’s “natural” duties.
With so many tasks, no wonder women — regardless of their working statuses — feel overburdened. The tasks are no lighter than those who have just given birth, which lead them to depression and difficulties in conducting other “natural” duties that immediately follow birth, such as breastfeeding.
Depressed, exhausted mothers often face problems with breast milk production, which also jeopardizes their babies’ well-being. There is little room for women to complain. Their “natural” duty becomes their battle-cry, their problems are hidden as if everything is fine, but at women’s expense.
Still, for many women, having children and being a mother gives meaning to their lives, though borrowing ideas from Wolf (2002), motherhood is a tough journey, underestimated and under-supported.
A wife and a mother myself, I am neither against marriage nor women who become both wives and mothers. By unveiling these problems — secretly hidden in the private domain of families — we can provide better support to mothers. Healthy and happy mothers will bring sunshine to the whole family.
The writer is a lecturer at Parahyangan Catholic niversity’s School of Social and Political Sciences in Bandung.