What do these people have in common? All have been accused of the worst crime a woman can commit: that of failing to live up to the ideal of the perfect mother. In the first part of an exclusive serialisation of her new book, Aminatta Forna argues that, when it comes to motherhood, women have nothing to lose but their chains
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ON A DAYTIME chat show about teenage rebellion, a woman seeking desperately to explain the behaviour of her adoptive daughter apologised over and over again: "I know I'm not her real mother, but... " During the OJ Simpson trial in 1995, prosecutor Marcia Clark fought simultaneous battles to win a conviction in the trial of the decade and to keep her children. Her ex-husband was trying to win custody on the grounds that she was working too hard to be a good mother. When the toddler Jamie Bulger was murdered, I recall reading that his mother had received hate-mail blaming her for looking away for an instant! After the second royal divorce, on what did the press blame the British royal family's misfortunes? Not their own constant intrusion but on the notion that the Queen was a cold and distant mother. Then there was the firestorm of criticism that greeted the announcement of Madonna's pregnancy. Comment on her unsuitability as a mother led to the dismissal of the child's father as a "sperm donor", followed, naturally, by speculation after the birth that the state of motherhood would change the singer, a woman who is herself the mistress of image manipulation.

The motherhood myth is the myth of the "Perfect Mother". She must be completely devoted not just to her children, but to her role. She must be the mother who understands her children, who is all-loving and, even more importantly, all-giving. She must be capable of enormous sacrifice. She must be fertile and possess maternal drives, unless she is unmarried and/or poor, in which case she will be vilified for precisely the same things. We believe that she alone is the best caretaker for her children and they require her continual and exclusive presence. She must embody all the qualities associated with femininity such as nurturing, intimacy and softness. That's how we want her to be. That's how we intend to make her.

The ideology which accompanies the myth of the perfect mother can only conceive of one way to mother, one style of exclusive, bonded, full-time mothering. Despite the changes in the working and family lives of millions of women, despite the talk of an age of "post-feminism", attitudes towards mothers are stuck in the dark ages. Thirty years on from the start of the second wave of the feminist movement, we are still debating the effects of daycare on the children of working mothers and blaming never-married or divorced mothers for their children's problems. This vision of idealised motherhood still permeates every aspect of life, from the division of labour at home, to our employment laws, policies and legal rulings, and it drips down continually through popular culture, books, television, films and newspapers.

Beliefs about motherhood are passed off as "traditional" and "natural", as though the two words had the same meaning; and, as both traditional and natural, these beliefs have become unassailable. Yet, as any historian will tell you, the most enduring of these ideas is not more than a few hundred years old. There have been periods in history when women appeared not to care much for their children at all, routinely sending new-borns away to wet-nurses and using infanticide as a means of family planning. The current maternal ideal is simply the product of a particular time and place, and at its height lasted no more than a few years from the end of the Second World War until the early Seventies. It just happens to be the version that was in place when most of the people who are now running the country were born, and comes to us washed with the sentiment of nostalgia.

Nothing exemplifies the paradox of motherhood as a state which is both revered and reviled, natural and yet policed, more clearly than the issue of breastfeeding. Bottle-feeding is frowned upon and the pressure on mothers to breastfeed is immense, yet there are still very many people in the UK who regard the sight of a breastfeeding woman as obscene. This contradictory response to motherhood is evidenced in other ways, too. A woman announcing her pregnancy will be offered congratulations, will find herself treated as though she has done something very special, but the display of a pregnant body inspires a degree of repulsion which is not properly explained by the suggestion that such images are merely indecorous or inappropriate. When Demi Moore appeared on the front cover of Vanity Fair naked and pregnant, some newsagents insisted the magazine be sold in an opaque wrapper. Mothers should not be seen. Neither should they be heard. One rarely hears mothers complain, and then never in public. Their compliance is bought or ensured in three ways: by glorifying aspects of motherhood; by making women who don't feel or do what is required feel guilty; and finally, as a last resort, by punishing mothers considered actually deviant.

The ideal mother is everywhere in art, poetry, fiction, film. She is the dream for whom Peter Pan searches, a beautiful memory to Cinderella and Snow White whose stepmothers are cruel to them. She is there on the cover of Good Housekeeping and Family Circle, in television programmes such as Happy Days and Little House on the Prairie. In more contemporary depictions like The Cosby Show, a nod to modernity has allowed her a job. Working alongside the idealised depiction of motherhood is the second tool of enforcement: guilt. Guilt has become so strongly associated with motherhood that it is often considered to be a natural emotion. It is not. Guilt is not a biological, hormonally-driven response. Women feel guilty because they are made to. Mothers are told that every failure, every neglected task, every dereliction of their growing duties, every refusal to sacrifice will be seared upon their child's psyche, will mar his or her future, and damage not only the mother-child relationship but every subsequent relationship in the child's life. That is, if the mother who is found to be wanting doesn't create a juvenile delinquent or a fully- fledged criminal.

In the Nineties the accumulated results of the hailstorm of advice and threats is a hyperconsciousness about mothering, particularly among middle- class women, many of whom work and have children in their thirties. The current pressures on mothers mean that such women embark on motherhood with guilt built in from the start, and they approach the role with an enormous degree of anxiety, determined to do it right, determined not to be criticised. A lack of support from the wider polity means they are like trapeze artists, flying without a safety net, unable to afford the luxury of a single mistake. They become control freaks. Everything is sublimated to the needs and wishes of the child.

On the flip side of the coin are those mothers society views as so wicked and unnatural that they have to be forced into taking responsibility. In America women are being prosecuted and imprisoned for taking illegal drugs while they are pregnant; forced into having caesarean sections against their wishes; or hospitalised by court order for failing to follow a doctor's orders. The notion of "foetal rights", which underlies many of these convictions, is burgeoning and is rapidly being exported to the UK. In contrast to the over-anxious mother who is generally white and middle-class, these "unnatural" mothers are usually poor. In Britain, women are being charged and imprisoned for leaving their children at home alone. For those women who deliberately harm their children, society reserves a strength of hatred unequalled for any male killer.

Nothing provokes the fear that motherhood, as we know it, is under threat more than the new reproductive technologies that have made mothers of older women, lesbians, even virgins. Such births, because they appear neither "natural" nor "traditional", are a blatant challenge to an accepted view of what motherhood should be. The policymakers' answer, which is to try to limit these women's access to the science, says it all. Technology has dramatically challenged the most basic assumptions around mothering. Take the simple verbs "to mother" and "to father". How they are defined reveals an abundance of meaning. "To father" just means to beget, an act of procreation; but "to mother" means to nurture, to rear, to feed, to soothe and to protect. Today, techniques enabling human egg retrieval and donation mean that women, just like men, can be the biological parents of children they never see and to whom they do not give birth.

At the same time, growing numbers of women are rejecting motherhood altogether. Women individually now have fewer children and fertility levels are at an all-time low; women leave starting a family until as late as possible, often into their thirties; and many have opted not to have children at all.

Ideas about "maternal instinct" have resurfaced with a new vigour. While most scientists will give a cautious nod to the notion that some form of instinct is at work within all of us, few would venture to try to describe precisely how instincts manifest themselves in behaviour in any predictable way. The real question is, why is it so important to label these feelings instinctual? A clue to the agenda that lies behind the enthusiasm for notions of "instinct" is evidenced by the delight and satisfaction which greet the news that a woman previously considered a "career woman" (particularly a high-profile woman) has given up her job to have children. Such a woman is perceived as having bowed to the inevitable, given way to nature and fulfilled her true destiny. In short, women are made to be mothers not managers and here is the proof.

The facts are that a great many policy decisions rest on our accepted views of motherhood. The new determinism offers a neat solution to complicated policy issues relating to the family and women's position within and outside of it and the flexibility of the workplace. If it is accepted that women are biologically programmed for motherhood, some would argue, many things follow. Social commentator and columnist Melanie Phillips, for example, has argued that the biological differences between men and women mean that men should have first call on jobs. In The End of Order, Professor Francis Fukuyama argues that women's entry into the workplace (and dereliction of the duties of good motherhood) is responsible for the breakdown of the social fabric. For both Phillips and Fukuyama, motherhood means stay-at-home motherhood.

In every society there is a tendency to assume that there is only one way to look after children, and that is the way it is done in that culture. Anthropologists and sociologists, however, have demonstrated that motherhood is a social and cultural construct which decides how children are raised and who is responsible for raising them. There are places in this world where motherhood has been differently forged; where a mother is not alone in her responsibility to her child and no one would expect her to be so; where men are far more involved in the lives of their children; where there is no conflict for women between having children and going to work; and where mothers are not made to feel guilty for the personal choices they make.

The insistence that a certain style of motherhood is "natural" leads women to question every aspect of what they do, think and feel and to measure their own experience against an impossible and rigid standard. Every one of us assesses our own mother's record, picking over her failures and all to easily forgetting her accomplishments. Collectively we judge the mothers around us personally and through our institutions. The myths around motherhood are seductive traps which set up women in the cruellest way. My book traces the origins of those myths and examines how they continue to control and manipulate women.

'Mother of All Myths' by Aminatta Forna is published by HarperCollins on 20th July at pounds 16.99