Back in 1976, Adrienne Rich described what she called the “institution of motherhood.” When biological motherhood was turned into a social and historical institution, she explained, the potential reproductive power of women was brought under men’s control.1 Three decades after Rich’s analysis, it remains so. Every day brings new reports of violence carried out in the name of this institutionalized American family: tearing infants away from their mothers on the US–Mexico border, cutting welfare programs that support childbearing and -rearing, shuttering women’s health clinics, forcing women to carry fetuses to term against their will, rolling back the rights of LGBTQ parents. Pregnancy and motherhood become prime sites for patriarchy to exercise its power over women.
But the fact that patriarchy so aggressively targets pregnancy and motherhood in all forms suggests that perhaps there is a subversive potential in there somewhere: a progressive politics of motherhood that would oppose detentions and budget cuts and support the choice to decide if and when to bear children. A politics that could even celebrate the exquisite joys of mothering, without binding it to biological sex, citizenship, or family structure; without asserting motherhood as the natural duty or religious mission of women.
This progressive politics, though, is hard to articulate. About a year ago, just finishing my first trimester, I walked into the local feminist bookstore to find books about pregnancy and motherhood. All sorts of privilege freed me to spend early pregnancy engaging my ambivalence about what it all meant. I couldn’t stop worrying that the famous performance artist who was coming to speak to my class would take one look at me and find me deeply uncool, retrograde even.
The store owner couldn’t recommend anything published since Rich’s Of Woman Born. She asked a young coworker who had recently finished college with a degree in women’s studies. The recent graduate responded, “We didn’t ever talk about pregnancy or motherhood in my classes.” In the section on pregnancy and parenting, all of the books appeared to be guides to “natural” childbirth and childrearing. These guides doubled down on the same biological determinism that undergirds conservative attacks on women and LGBTQ people.
Can mothering have a place in the feminist bookstore? Can something that seems so linked to biology become part of a politics that is not based on a gendered subject and her natural role? Is a politics around mothering per se reactionary, heteronormative, ecologically dangerous? Following Rich’s call to challenge the “dangerous schism between ‘private’ and ‘public’ life,’” the most recognizable move in feminist works about motherhood has been to reveal the overlap of the personal and the political.2 Three recent books follow this trend, using varied approaches—sociological, historical, and economic—to shift how we think about the labor of motherhood today.
Darcy Lockman began her book, All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, as a personal project: to uncover how partnerships like her own—middle-class, heterosexual, supposedly egalitarian marriages—quickly become so radically unequal once a child enters the equation. The problem is not simply that changes within the home have not kept pace with changes in the workforce. Lockman’s argument is that the increasing equality of women outside the home has resulted in a retrenchment of inequality within the home.
Focusing on interpersonal dynamics in heterosexual marriages, Lockman tracks the success of male resistance against implementing an equal division of domestic labor, as well as how women have come to collude in their own subordination. It is not so much that men are forcing women to do the dishes, Lockman explains. It is that the dishes are left sitting there until women just go ahead and do them, resenting their husbands while also feeling guilty about everything from formula feeding to working late to sending their kids to school with store-bought cupcakes.
So how did this thing called mothering come to be about guilt and self-sacrifice rather than pleasure and power? One way to see the work of mothering differently is to unearth the history of the devoted, self-sacrificing mother, an archetype that has become central to our cultural imagination. In Mother Is a Verb, Sarah Knott proposes three intellectual genealogies that, together, resulted in this idea: “Victorian sentimental fantasies of exclusive maternity that depended on domestic servants for everything else,” “theories of mother-baby attachment that have overlooked the presence of other householders,” and “rare historical periods when economic prosperity and a single family wage seemed like a norm.” Together, these three ideas produced today’s narrow view of motherhood, valorizing a particular race, class, and family structure that has been dominant for so long it is seen as natural. Knott traces diverse practices of mothering across a range of different communities, revealing how aspects that we today take to be natural—like breastfeeding your own child—are historically contingent.
Who was breastfed, and by whom, in Europe and North America historically had everything to do with class and race. From before the start of the 17th century until the mid-18th century, wet nursing was an important source of income for rural women, who would take others’ infants into their own homes, thus replacing their wages as farm workers while caring for their own children as well. In the mid-18th century, with the rise of Victorian sentimentalism, wealthy women began to keep their children at home; along the way, wet nurses became domestic servants, often forced to leave their own family to someone else’s care.
Part of the ideology of the Victorian mother was racial: that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants felt the sentiments of mothering in a way that, to their minds, Irish and black women did not. In the United States, enslaved women relied on each other to help raise children: developing networks of “mothering beyond kin,” inventing recipes for formula to feed infants whose mothers were forced to leave their babies in order to serve as wet nurses for white families. What became constructed as natural motherly devotion was, in fact, deployed to divide working-class and enslaved women from their own infants.
Each of these books is about the labor of mothering, though in each account it is valorized differently.
Only in the 20th century did the idea of breastfeeding one’s own child become intertwined with the idea of good mothering. Over the past couple of decades, breastfeeding has also become the focus of widely popularized studies claiming that it significantly improves a child’s long-term health and life chances. The expansive benefits attributed to breastfeeding include (but are not limited to!): fewer colds, infections, allergies, and gastrointestinal disorders; lower risk of SIDS, diabetes, juvenile arthritis, meningitis, pneumonia, childhood cancer, UTIs, Crohn’s disease, obesity, and asthma; and higher IQ.
It is one thing to learn how ideas about mothering took shape, another to figure out how to live your life. Is it really ideology all the way down? Or will using formula actually damage my child’s health? Emily Oster’s Cribsheet offers a third way to understand and challenge some of the more oppressive ideas about mothering. A health economist, Oster systematically reviews recent scientific literature to parse the evidence for and against various parenting practices. As it turns out, many of the popularized studies about the long-term benefits of breastfeeding are not very good science. The studies that linked breastfeeding with higher IQs, for example, did not control for the education or income of the mothers.
Perhaps most striking, though, was the health claim for which Oster did find significant evidence: that breastfeeding for a year lowers a woman’s chance of breast cancer. After I had read many books and (let’s be honest—internet forums) about the benefits of breastfeeding to the baby, this was news to me. In revelations like these, Oster stresses the value of women’s labor (breastfeeding is not “free”) and accounts for women’s health in ways that are disappointingly rare in parenting books.
Before reading Oster’s first book, Expecting Better, about studies on pregnancy, I never would have guessed that a work by an economist with the term “data-driven” in the subtitle would be my primary guide to parenting. But these two books are the only parenting guides I’ve encountered that avoid sickening sentimentality, biological determinism, and deeply problematic references to the practices of “primitive peoples.”3 Just listen to Oster’s description of how to weigh the relative merits of work away from children: “Let’s start by just framing this not as ‘What kind of mom will you be?’ but ‘What is the optimal configuration of adult work hours for your household?’” No primordial drives or natural parenting, no moralism or sentimentality, just the nexus of economic calculation.
Each of these books is about the labor of mothering, though in each account it is valorized differently. For Lockman it is the drudge work that women get stuck with while oblivious husbands drink beer on the couch. For Knott this labor is bound up in feeling and leaves few archival traces but is immensely meaningful, and its pleasures link generations. For Oster it is a series of choices that call upon expertise and skill at reading and understanding the strength of varied research methods. In focusing on the labor of motherhood, though, these works stop short of elaborating a politics of motherhood.
Of course, some would say that attention to private labor is its own politics. These books are all, like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Angela Garbes’s Like a Mother, and Rich’s Of Women Born before them, of mixed genres and bring together the personal and the political: theory and research combined with anecdote and memoir. But maybe there’s something more to be said than rehashing what we all already know: that the personal is political, that the way power and labor are distributed within the home is linked to the way power works outside the home.
When Rich describes the human condition as being “of woman born,” she unintentionally echoes a writer with a very different understanding of the relationship between the personal and the political. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt writes that natality—“the new beginning inherent in birth”—is at the root of human freedom.4 With birth, there are new possibilities for action, a new story that might unfold. When people engage in revolutionary action, they are actualizing this freedom, the fact that with each new birth the world itself becomes a different place.
Our Mothers, Ourselves
In Rich’s reading, The Human Condition delineated a public, masculine realm of politics and a private, feminine realm of labor. But there is a way to read Arendt differently: natality is not private labor; it is the basis of public action.
Although birth may be a biological act, Arendt’s idea of natality allows us to posit mothering as a public, performative act. Viewed in this way, bringing someone new into the world is a public and also a continuing form of action that unfolds from day to day, each day bringing with it the small miracles of a new beginning.
More than that, all these new beginnings create the condition of plurality that defines the human condition and dictates the one hard rule of Arendt’s politics: that we do not get to choose with whom we share the world.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (Norton, 1986), p. 13. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian essay “The Diabolical Genius of the Baby Advice Industry” is an incisive analysis of the state of the baby advice field. ↩
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press,  1998), p. 9. ↩