Royal Baby, Royal Motherhood?
He’s not yet two days old, only weighs 3.8 kg and doesn’t even have a name. Yet Baby Cambridge, third in line to the throne and pronounced beautiful by his doctor, is currently occupying the world’s attention. Kate, it seems, has done her job.
Throughout British royal history, the existence of the heir and the spare has been of the utmost importance. Queen Victoria may have presided over the industrial revolution, but she was also celebrated for being a mother of nine. Henry VIII divorced and beheaded two wives and divided the church all because he wanted a wife to give birth to a son. As the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I’s failure to marry and procreate plunged the political classes into crisis mode.
But whereas once the lack of an obvious heir put the country’s future stability at risk, that’s hardly the case today. The Queen is head of state, but her duties are ceremonial; uncertainty about the next monarch would not send the markets into a spasm. Theoretically, had William chosen to stay celibate, it wouldn’t have mattered (except to legions of wannabe-princesses): The royal line would have gone in another direction, but the U.K. would have been just fine. But that’s only in theory. We all know that had Kate not done what every pundit and gossip magazine had demanded since the first slice of wedding cake was snaffled — had a child, stat — she would have been seized on as a failure, not quite guilty of treason, but not far short.
Regardless of her being an educated, not noticeably imbecilic graduate in a time of female leaders and businesswomen, and despite the overriding view that women can achieve the same as men (possibly provided that they “lean in”), all along it has been about Kate becoming a mother.
To the public, her entire purpose up until now has been to produce the heir (and then the spare). Going forwards, her only concern is to raise him in a fitting manner. If he is an inquisitive child, she will be praised; if he follows in his uncle Harry’s footsteps and is one day photographed in Nazi uniform or in the buff, you can be sure it’ll be her fault.
It’d be ridiculous to criticize Kate for conforming to expectation — she may have been required to have a baby, but I can’t imagine she sees it as a negative. Nevertheless, the nature of the coverage — the focus almost singularly on Kate rather than William in the past nine months; the media surrounding the hospital for days; the number of live Royal Baby blogs — signifies the continued centrality of motherhood in public life.
And it’s true of Jewish life, too, a matrilineal religion where motherhood is often held up as the holy grail of Jewish womanhood. In the strictly Orthodox community, it’s pretty much the only expectation, but even in less devout Jewish circles where we emphasize academic and professional success, we rarely do so at the expense of motherhood.
For all that, it takes two to tango. As newlywed Jewish women will testify, they, not their new husbands, bear the brunt of questioning about when they will start a family. If not wanting children is seen as unusual for a woman in the wider world, in the community it is generally viewed as an aberration. How many jokes have the Jewish mother as a punchline? Can you think of any that riff on the Jewish father?
And yes, communal life is arranged around the domestic, which historically was the preserve of the Jewish woman. But it goes deeper: Biblically, women may have been strong role models, but they were often depicted through the prism of motherhood, not least Sarah, who allowed Abraham to take another partner because she herself has failed to reproduce. The megillah Ruth ends with us learning she has given birth to the line of the future King David. As for Hannah, mother to Samuel, I remember learning about her in Hebrew classes, my teachers clearly implying that childlessness was the worst fate that could befall a Jewish woman.
Obviously, much like hereditary royalty, Judaism will survive only by its members producing the next generation of “the firm” — and women are kind of crucial to that. The madness surrounding Kate’s pregnancy is — maybe for ardent royalists — survivalist; in Judaism we obsess about motherhood because we care about the fate of our people.
Still, is this elevation of motherhood — because it is motherhood specifically, not parenthood — a necessary part of that? Is it healthy, in 2013, when women can achieve in any area, to place quite so much emphasis on whether they will fulfill their duty to give birth? And, at least in the Jewish community, will we ever view producing the next generation as quite the joint responsibility it is?
Even as we strive to declare Judaism’s modern, forward-looking credentials, when it comes to maternity we are really no different than the overexcited crowds around Buckingham Palace, waiting for our women to do her duty. Perhaps we haven’t changed since biblical times as much as we’d like to think.
Jennifer Lipman is a writer living in London, who tweets at @jenlipman.