Mother/Father, Noun/Verb

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There’s a comment posted on an earlier entry that raises an excellent point, one worthy of a bit of discussion.

I’m concerned in this blog with parentage–with who is a parent. That means who is a mother and who is a father. But “mother” and “father” are verbs as well as nouns. The way we use those verbs tell us a lot about gender and parenthood.

This is hardly a new observation, but it is worth bearing in mind here. Used as nouns, a female parent is a mother and a male parent is a father. As a verb, “to mother” a child means (according to one dictionary source) “to give birth to.” I think the second definition given is actually the more common usage of the verb: “to watch over, nourish, protect maternally.” The same source says “to father” is variously “to procreate” or “to create, found or originate.” So mothers nurture while fathers create.

It’s a commonplace now to say that men can mother, of course. I do not doubt that they can and do. What that means is that men as well as women can watch over and nurture children. (Indeed, it seems to me that mothering is generally what all parents do.)

Can women father a child? It’s not common to think so. That’s fairly odd if you think about it. Look back at the definition of “to father”–to procreate, to create, to originate. In the ordinary course of conception, does the man have more to do with the creation of a child than the woman? It hardly seems so to me. And yet the language tells us he (alone?) creates the child. We simply do not say “she fathered a child.”

Does this matter? Well, notice that fathering is a discrete and isolated act rather an an ongoing performance. It takes place at a specific time and is then concluded. You father a child by engaging in act that leads to procreation. Once you’ve done that, you are done with fathering. A man may later choose to mother a child he initially fathered, but he cannot keep fathering it. In sum, our language tells us that a single isolated act typically makes a man the father–a parent– of the child.

And women? While women obviously participate in acts of procreation, too, they do not thereby father children. They do not become fathers (or parents) by virtue of the act. Instead, motherhood is the product of long-term performance of the role of mother, typically starting with pregnancy.

All of which reinforces my conviction that parenthood is deeply gendered, so much so that it is sometimes hard to see its gendered nature. We may use the gender-neutral word “parent” to include both mothers and fathers, but when we do so we obscure significant differences between the experiences and capacities of men and women.

–Julie Shapiro (cross-posted at Related Topics)

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0 Responses to Mother/Father, Noun/Verb

  1. bob coley jr says:

    I would think the word “parent” or “parenting” serves to lessen the artidicial

  2. bob coley jr says:

    Sh-t, hit the wrong key, AGAIN! Are the differences of gender obscured by the inclusive nature of the word parent? The wish to preserve the differences seems to be contrary to the goal of gender equality. The differing experiences are the result of gender stereotyping and thus the product of inequality. Any attempt to preserve the diferences is also an attempt to foster inequality. What I’m saying is “study yes, preserve no.”

  3. Eric says:

    Though I must confess I really can’t explain why, I detest the word “parenting”. Not that I think “mothering” or “fathering” would be better. I just avoid these gerunds altogether and use other words or phrases instead. My personal verbal quibbles aside, Julie’s post addresses an important issue that anti-sexist parents confront continually.