Motherhood Is a Political Category — And you’re not wrong to feel disenfranchised by it
May 10, 2019
There’s a word I love, “matrescence,” which describes the psychological process of becoming a mother. Psychologist Aurélie Athan brought it into the mainstream after discovering anthropologist Dana Raphael’s work; both women had seen the need for research about a mother’s interior state when functioning as a person, rather than only as a carer for a child.
What I like about the word is that it teases out the fragile, private metamorphosis of self from the glom of “childbearing” and “mothering” and “motherhood” that takes up so much psychic space. My child is nearly seven; every cell in my body is supposed to have regenerated since I gave birth, but I still feel in transit, like a planet or a bus.
At the same time, the world seems to trundle along. Despite a wave of books about the challenges of motherhood crashing on the shore of publishing these past few years, little seems to have changed materially for the mothers I know. And the more I talk to people, the more unyielding the challenges appear to be. The self may transform, but the system stays the same.
You meet your child and you are entranced by the smell of their neck, their tiny ears. Without knowing it, you step over the threshold of a thing called “motherhood,” and it will govern your life from now on—the way it governs the mothers around you who live in a vast invisible world of the utterly mundane, which you with your new eyes can now see.
Suddenly the architecture of your neighborhood is hostile to you. The women have disappeared from the workplace; the higher income-earner returns to work. Strangers comment on your baby or your body or anything but your mind, which is presumed missing, and everything is bathed in an aureole of sentiment. The baby never sleeps, and you tell yourself it is just the adjustment period. It is your matrescence. It is a change in yourself.
If you don’t go mad, it is because you have found a way to make yourself smaller, or to disappear.
Motherhood is a feminist issue. It cuts across race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, migration status, the home, the workplace; its difficulties are compounded by the same.
It’s as though motherhood—in an economically unstable, fearful decade—has become what the housewife was to feminist activist Silvia Federici: a generative system of unpaid labor that props up capitalism, which would no longer work without it. Now that the middle-class single-income family is no longer the norm, mainstream cultural anxieties have turned to the mother, who must bring in a wage while simultaneously performing the role vacated by the housewife, particularly her role raising and caring for children.
This means that one-half of the workforce must be coerced into performing domestic labor in addition to waged labor and assimilating that labor as love. It is no wonder that motherhood is so pressingly marketed as feminine. It’s the feminization of any work that allows us to pay lip service to its importance and then ignore its material conditions completely.
Motherhood is a political category because it puts its workers at an automatic disadvantage, which is almost always steepest among those who are already oppressed. Feminization, in the form of the supposed unique capacity of cisgender women to care for others, is a shim that props up an unstable system. Untethered from gender, we can begin to train our eyes to see the enormity of this care, made invisible and unwaged, and we are told it is something we must cherish and excel at.
Motherhood is janitorial work. It is health care. It is elder care. It is care for the environment, rapidly choking under industrialization. It is working against the carceral system as it rips families apart.
When my own child rocks his baby doll to sleep. When I read about children being taken from their parents at the borders. When Serena Williams nearly dies in childbirth, but the media spends more time discussing outrage about her black catsuit than her questionable medical treatment. When trans women might not live long enough to see their own babies born. When suicide is a leading cause of maternal death during pregnancy and the first year of a child’s life in some countries. All of these things, too, are motherhood. It is an exquisite pleasure and a wonder and a privilege. It is also, by every metric, just a fucking raw deal.
My child is big now. I no longer have postpartum depression. I just have regular, unfathomably entrenched depression. This is a part of motherhood for a purported one in seven women. When I cite that statistic I know that it is wrong, but I need to use it to differentiate it from the mental illness experienced by men, which is one in ten. Because apparently there are just these two categories, woman and man, and we are organized by them and our illness is organized by them.
When we first started talking about sex and reproduction, my son was devastated to learn he doesn’t have a uterus. “It’s not fair,” he said, feeling cheated. He didn’t want to grow up into a woman, he told me. He just wanted to carry a baby in his uterus, like I did. “But why?” was the constant refrain. Even now he asks me from time to time, hoping the answer has changed.
“Do you know anyone who is a man who was born with a uterus?” he demands, and I say yes. I pull a book off the shelf and flip it over to show a photo of my friend Quinn, tattoos flashing as he runs his hands through his hair.
“This is a friend of mine,” I say. “I went to university with him. He had two babies from his uterus; they’re a bit older than you. They both call him Boy Mama now.”
“Boy Mama,” says my son, softly. “Oh, I think that’s lovely.”
The childbearing is work. And it is astonishing how often the workers are referred to as women. Though so much of feminism has been about overcoming gender essentialism, within the realm of motherhood, you are treated as though you are, necessarily, a woman. You are assigned female at birth, at your child’s birth. This doesn’t seem like a mistake.
Childbearing is physical work, like sex work—of the body, in the body, at the behest of somebody else, but remunerated and acknowledged mainly in cases of surrogacy, when the extent of the labor is given money-weight. Otherwise the physical work is downplayed. Childbearing is supposed to be natural and therefore interpolated into our desires.
Black and queer mother-theorists have long extended the idea of mothering outside female biology, construing it instead as a social practice. Mothering is the place where spiritual nurturing begins, where adoptive parents bind children to them with little shoots of love and joy.
If childbearing can be done be a person of any gender, requiring only a specific biology and if mothering can be extended to any loving person, why is the door marked “motherhood” painted so saccharine-pink? And why do so many people seem to disappear once they have walked through it? No matter how wary we think we are, how informed, we fall into the trap of motherhood because we have been socialized not to see the enormity of labor it entails—or to see it only when bathed in a rosy glow.
To look at motherhood through a gender-agnostic lens is to part ways with romance. It gives me a pang, which is how I know how deeply I have been socialized to think of my own motherhood as an innate part of my womanness. But the association of mothering with feminine biology is a double bind, tying women to domestic and caring labor and excluding other people from participating in motherhood and so shifting its meaning and its weight.
My son knows that I take medication daily. He doesn’t know yet how severe the crash was, how all-encompassing the suicidality. At one point he will want to read the book I have written about postpartum depression, and we will negotiate that together. I don’t think either of us is ready yet or will be for a long time.
Still, I want my son to be a mother someday, if that is what he wants. I don’t know if he’ll ever have a uterus, but if he is a mother, however he becomes one, I hope that he is on the other side of a great social matrescence. I want the political condition he inhabits to be a site of resistance—one that is visible and made visible by love and power and fury.