So, enter the Mother
by Jess Cotton
Merve Emre (ed.), Once and Future Feminist Boston Review 128pp ISBN 9781946511102 £12.99
Jacqueline Rose, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty Faber 256pp ISBN 9780571331437 £12.99
Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism against Family Verso 224pp ISBN 9781786637291 £16.99
Laura Briggs, How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump University of California Press 304pp ISBN 9780520299948 £24.95
Late last summer, at the home of a friend, another friend told the story of her desire to end a pregnancy, which had occurred directly following many years of trying to get pregnant. I was struck by hearing a story which I had not previously known, and yet which felt deeply familiar. She spoke of the desire for maternity as an absence, a prior loss, an uncertainty and then of pregnancy as a ghostly object that she knew immediately that she wanted removed from her body. It was a feeling I knew, identified with, and yet, felt disorientated by hearing it stated so directly and so clearly. These feelings of ambivalence and how they pull on questions of motherhood have found articulation in a wave of publications over the past year, and yet, if one dominant note has emerged from this insistent focus on maternity, it is the idea that there is no kind of work that one could be more uncertain about than the work of motherhood. The language of choice in which the discourse around maternity has been couched since the 1970s (however useful it has been for a feminist reproductive agenda) is entirely stripped of the forms of dependency that are non-negotiable when it comes to being a child, being a mother. What also emerges from reading across these various genres is the surreal sense that the history of motherhood has never exactly been told, and that thinking through motherhood is vital to any emancipatory politics.
Motherhood is the space of impossible choices, the space of incommensurable care. It is no wonder that the political stakes of thinking motherhood are so high and that the literary and historical forms that it engenders are fragmentary, historical, ahistorical, messy, philosophical, utopian, capacious and careful (none of these impulses should be seen as incompatible or contradictory – motherhood is the space of contradictory feelings). Writing about motherhood at this particular juncture of financial austerity, political turmoil, hard borders and imminent climate disaster is a reminder of the ways in which social reproduction is being intensified in unsustainable ways in the present. It should also be seen as part of a desire to denaturalise female generosity, to acknowledge pregnancy not as an inevitable stage of female identity. (Sheila Heti talks of how she hoped that her book, Motherhood, would tip the world just slightly so that women could start to be asked other questions.) So that we might also see pregnancy as ‘this black force blotting out my brain’, as Sylvia Plath writes unapologetically about maternity’s violences. The quietest revolution in the novel takes place when its structure is shown as not fully separable from our own. ‘If only I didn’t have this REALITY inside me’, Annie Ernaux writes in Happening, she might just have told a different story. But because that reality is there, her abortion becomes what modernist bros like to call the Event of the novel.
Much has been written about this wave of publications and whilst there are the obvious stories that might account for this interest in motherhood – the rise of autofiction, the unravelling of welfare, the mounting effects of austerity, a sense of pending political and environmental doom – the question we should perhaps be asking is why it took this long to make motherhood a subject worth telling – and the handful of motherhoods that we have been willing to recognise historically. In A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk describes motherhood as a disability, and it is no surprise that the New York Times reviews it, in turn, as ‘career suicide’, which is, of course, not incidentally a phrase that is often applied to women who become pregnant in the workplace. To wield motherhood, as Cusk does, unsentimentally, is to expose the cruelties in language, in the state, in policies that do harm to mothers and to their children (to which we can only respond by imagining Cusk as cruel). The pregnant body is so central to social reproduction – to all forms of labour – and yet so removed from the world of work, its scheduling and its optics, that when Emily Greenhouse, a newly-appointed editor at the New York Review of Books was photographed displaying her bump in a photograph announcing her as co-editor a few weeks ago, I was surprised by a feeling of rare, brief optimism amidst a landscape of otherwise unremitting horror.
To write about motherhood is to watch genres quietly break apart that have sustained themselves on ruthlessly casting out the maternal. Jacqueline’s Rose’s Mothers is guided by two central questions which she articulates with urgency and regal erudition: what is it about mothers that provokes such hatred, hostility and exploitation? And why, despite our knowledge of the impossible demands placed on their shoulders, do we still hold mothers to impossible standards? Rose approaches this question from a psychoanalytic perspective so that the fervour of reading contemporary representations of motherhood in the media and the subtlety of her reading of Medea and Elena Ferrante’s tetralogy shows us how mothers bring to the surface all that we do not wish to know about our own psychic life – how mothers are the invisible thread holding it all together. Mothers takes up this argument and it is an important one insofar as it provides us with a vital language for how mothers assume the burden of other people’s desires – and their violences – and how they shelter us from our own dependency. The book’s movement between Sun newspaper headline, Greek myth and Neapolitan novel makes for a convoluted premise, though one that has Rose’s signature seductive suggestiveness. It is strongest in its situation of the relationship between the politics of motherhood and the pandemic state of maternal depression, though it touches upon this subject only briefly. Mothers often feels too gestural, temporally and spatially jumpy (Rose is talking about depression in post-apartheid South Africa, in particular, rather than relating it to social reproduction in general) and thus evades the question of how motherhood has become central to politics and cultural production alike.
A reading that does just this is able to show – as Madeline Lane-McKinley and Marija Cetinic perceptively do – how ‘postpartum depression naturalises the mother’s body as a site of labour’ and is thus able to accurately ‘describe the social conditions of motherhood under late capitalism’. Mothers does not fully address this central question of social reproduction – of the work of motherhood – without which we are left to fall back on our desires. Mothers must be innocent of history – this is also Rose’s argument – and so bringing mothers into history, giving them a historical consciousness, is a quietly revolutionary act that reveals how maternity will expose the supposed coherency of any historical project. On the cover of Sarah Knott’s Mother: An Unconventional History is an illustration of a child bursting out of its pregnant mother’s embrace; its desire to escape her bodily hold, her desire to hold it tightly, makes the relationship seem, if anything, unnatural. Knott is a historian, who writes about the role of women in the Enlightenment and the history of revolutions, and this book combines reflections on her own experience of pregnancy with a vast range of archival material which seeks to resurrect maternal voices from obscurity. The methodology might be considered somewhat akin to how Maggie Nelson incorporates theory into her account of queer pregnancy, demonstrating how the complex questions that this deeply personal experience throws up intersect with larger political concerns. But, where Nelson seeks to position pregnancy as an inherently queer state, and thus as continuous with the theory she draws upon, Knott is interested in the ironic disjuncture between the fragmentary stories of her own pregnancies and the grand narratives that she tells about the Enlightenment in the classroom.
The book ruminates on rare sources of maternal care, pain and ambivalence across the centuries – and one section, which details Knott’s own experience of miscarriage, powerfully unpacks how the coupling of pregnancy and production complicates the ability to represent grief in narrative form in a world that contrasts successful pregnancy with reproductive failure – and which consequently fails to recognise the person who decides not to have a child or who cannot have a child as itself a form of motherhood. Knott’s record of the quiet devastation of losing a child, which haunts women through the generations, reinforces the ambivalence of pregnancy as a state. She compares miscarriage to a kind of madness (imagining something that is not there, and yet, which we know with all certainty once was). But, then she backtracks, recognising that that’s not quite true, for various cultures have spoken ‘as readily about miscarriage as they do about cabbages and kings’, and so the question becomes: what is it about our own culture that refuses to recognise miscarriage, to see it as anything other than a failure to reproduce – and where does this ghostly labour go to find consolation? Knott’s book contains lyrical passages interspersed with historical documentation, and I was struck by how writing about maternity seems to do something to language – to make it shaper, stranger, flooding it both with an illegitimacy and with an ‘honest particularity’ – to quote Andrea Brady. Reading these texts that make apparent the difficultly of not breaking under the demands of maternal care, and the ghostly forms of maternal labour, it seems that motherhood can only be understood as a kind of madness, a madness that exposes the untenability of motherhood as an ideal which breaks up the longer and the closer you look at it.
The historical documentation in Knott’s book concentrates on two main historical periods – the American Revolution, which is the subject of her research, and the 1970s, the period of women’s liberation in which her mother, ‘a shy nurse’ living in Essex, became pregnant with her. These two periods emerge in the book as two transitional moments in the history of fertility, women’s rights and state practices around reproduction, and yet, the book contemplates the impossibility of constructing such a history with such ‘small shards of evidence’. Knott wrestles with the difficulty of extracting stories about motherhood from history – and also with her own ambivalence about treating motherhood as a natural stage in her own life. The book is revealing in its interest in maternal desire – in its documentation of women’s pleasure through time; and in its thinking about how the history of sexual liberation in the 1960s has erased stories of hopes to conceive that are also a crucial part of that history. So that the book accounts for the complex and contradictory affects of desire, hope, loss and fear that are threaded through stories of reproduction. Knott is anxious not to tell another whitened history of motherhood, or which takes an individualist concept of motherhood as its default example. So that we learn not only that in 1776 the wife of a Scottish linen-draper was the first, successful attempt at artificial insemination but also that, for the kin-based world of the Miami and Potawatomi people, communal care of children was crucial to survival – and that we continue to erase these stories of collective care from our histories. The NHS documents from the 1970s are, too, revealing for the insights that they give into the untold story of mothering in the period – and, more particularly, for their representation of oral histories that frame motherhood as work. As one pregnant mother recalls about attending an antenatal clinic, it was all ‘very assembly line’.
In the 1970s, Shulamith Firestone predicted that a revolution would come with the arrival of new reproductive technologies. A utopia without pregnancy or childbearing was what she envisaged – the only way she could imagine women free of oppression was to liberate them from reproductive biology. ‘Pregnancy is barbaric’; ‘childbirth is like shitting a pumpkin’, she famously pronounced. The importance of her revolutionary vision for upending the traditional family structure cannot be overstated, and yet, her view of reproductive technology, then in its infancy, fails to account for the ways in which assisted reproduction is not free from the power relations that she wished to do away with. Once and Future Feminist, a collection of essays edited by Merve Emre, revisits Firestone’s pronouncement and considers how it holds up in the present moment. Not very well, would be the shortest and most reductive of responses. As the essays in the collection articulate, the crisis of reproduction, far from being alleviated by the emergence of new technologies, has intensified gendered relations and reinforced the existing inequalities in care work. The essays examine how forms of assisted reproduction bear on questions of gender, gestation and labour in ways that we have as yet failed to imagine or at least not yet begun to properly formulate. This revisiting of the 1970s as a kind of retrospective origin moment in reproductive politics allows for some of the presumed narratives of radical feminism and socialist feminism to be reexamined and for other stories that are often occluded from that history to be brought to light.
Clare Hemmings, in her study, Why Stories Matter, argues that the history of feminism is characterised by narratives of progress, loss and return, which prevent us from seeing the ways in which other stories might be concealed within more dominant stories of that past. For Hemmings, it is crucial to revisit these narratives, and to be aware of what is presumed in them, because in so rereading what we think we know so well, we begin to tell stories differently. What emerges in the place of narratives that are driven by repetition, and by a securing of one’s own territory, is an experimental methodology where the aim is to tell stories in a way that makes them less amenable to co-optation. The essays in Once and Future Feminist, which allow for divergence, contradiction and argumentation, reflect intelligently and innovatively on the reproductive challenges that emerged in the 1970s and considers how they are once again at the centre of our politics. Laura Briggs can pronounce that all politics are now reproductive politics because, as she persuasively argues, state support for reproductive labour was decimated with welfare in the 1990s, and because there is a direct correlation between the history of labour laws and the liability of fetuses. The trap of family values is nowhere more apparent than in the state’s implementation of labour regulation which holds women accountable for being negligent in unsafe work places by becoming pregnant. The logic of reproductive choice in a neoliberal state is embodied by the decision that Briggs documents of a state that supports women’s rights to jobs with health risks as long as they do not endanger another’s life. It is the articulation of this crisis in care and stratified reproduction that makes Briggs’ study such an important contribution to the conversation.
Where Briggs’ foregrounds the politics and economy of reproduction, Emre, who is a professor in literature, is interested in stories about – and the imaginary behind – reproductive technology, in what they tell us about the past and present of assisted reproduction – and where they diverge from official accounts and theories, revealing the complexities embedded within any story of emancipatory politics. Her introduction is an excellent primer on the subject to which the other thirteen essays in the book respond, creating, the air of a forum that puts into critical practice a feminism that acknowledges that the freedom to reproduce must be a freedom for all women. Emre’s study is interested in tearing apart the sacred ground of the natural, revered by second-wave feminists, but also with interrogating the complexity of the alternatives that open up in its place. The question of whether or not to have a child is fraught with social and political significance, but pregnancy is also, the essay acknowledges, a deeply personal experience. Emre’s narratives come, accordingly, in the form of three anonymous case studies which suggest the difficulty of untangling theory from practice and which convey the uncanniness of all gestational procedures. The essay is most illuminating in its sense of how assisted technologies alternatively alleviate and intensify gendered realities and the violence of social reproduction.
The case studies come under criticism in the essays that follow (a sample of three, made up of a university lecturer, a graduate student and a biotech worker is inevitably a small pool), but in a way that adds to, rather that subtracts from the conversation and which allows for the challenges and the contradictions of reproduction to exist side by side. What emerges from this collection is an idea of how technology shapes the real experience of reproduction, how it feeds into the current care work crisis, and how it is in every sense a double-edged sword – reinforcing existing inequalities whilst unravelling others. Rather than simply seeing assisted reproduction as a new scientific, ethical and feminist challenge, the book’s strength lies in demonstrating how these reproductive technologies expose the fantasies that are encoded in all our reproductive politics. The natural and the biological become, inevitably, the central axis around which these conversations about assisted reproduction take place. Annie Menzel responds first by calling Emre to account for positioning whiteness as the default assumption in her test studies and emphasises the need to deal more explicitly with the question of how racism has shaped the occurrence of prematurity, miscarriage and infertility more than any other factor in the history of maternity.
Menzel’s is a stark reminder that mothers keep dying after giving birth, and that these deaths are far from evenly distributed – black women are twice as likely as white women to experience infertility and infant mortality in the US. Any conversation about motherhood must address this fertility gap and the extractive economy of care labour that ensures that some women are always doing not only double but triple shifts – in the workplace, at home, and in care. Andrea Long Chu argues that these stories are not only proof that all reproduction should be assisted but are reminders of ‘just how hard it is to give up nature as an object of desire’. For Long Chu, pregnancy is not only an aberration and a madness but a kind of ‘stuplimity’ (to borrow Sianne Ngai’s irresistible phrase) – childbirth is too messy, too violent to be the stuff of politics and will, for that reason, always be the Elephant in the Room. Queer politics has historically been positioned against the desire to reproduce life but the final essay in the collection, written by Michael Bronski, is a revelatory one insofar as it offers an important historical rereading of the 1970s as a period in which the gay men’s liberation movement was invested in the communal raising of children and thus offers a vital alternative to the queer politics of negativity that positions homosexual politics in opposition to the child.
Emre’s introduction, as she concedes, does not touch on the question of surrogacy but it is a central one to any conversation about reproduction insofar, as Alys Eve Weinbaum elsewhere argues, ‘surrogacy as commodified labour power is the exceptional case that compels the redefinition of all forms of biological reproduction’. It is only by recognising the work that surrogates do – an idea that troubles various strands of feminist thought which do not wish to acknowledge women’s bodies as the site of labour – that we might begin to acknowledge the violence that is encoded in the growing professionalisation of procreation. All reproductive technologies are means of exercising power relations on the female body but gestators expose that power relation in an intensified form. And so, to miss surrogacy out of the conversation is to continue to erase the work that gestators do in propping up the smooth reproduction of bourgeois maternity. The potential for surrogacy to explode concepts of reproduction is the subject of Sophie Lewis’ brilliant new book, Full Surrogacy Now, which is a crucial intervention in the field. It both considers the exploitative conditions of surrogates and views surrogacy as a crucial lens through which we might rethink feminist politics, providing the optimism encoded within Firestone’s feminist futurity. Lewis is a geographer by discipline who is currently doing some of the most important work in theorising gestation, reproductive technology and family abolition from a queer Marxist-feminist perspective.
Full Surrogacy Now comes in the form of a demand; it is an impossible one insofar as bearing a child for someone else is always a fantasy. But it is a crucial one in that it provides an imagined form of resistance to pregnancy’s violences. The book is expertly researched and moves between a wry, intellectually rigorous and fervently revolutionary tone (‘Surrogates to the front!’), presenting an acute polemic of the landscape of commercial surrogacy that creates a ‘reproductive meritocracy’, where the wealthy reap the benefits of technological innovation that do harm to some and which are materially inaccessible to others. The abuses that women are subject to in the surrogacy industry have been well-documented and have come, unsurprisingly, under critique in the last decade as interest in surrogacy has increased considerably. The hysteria encoded in media portrayals of ‘baby factories’ is often attributed to the lack of international regulations or guidelines regarding global surrogacy arrangements, but it might also be thought of imaginatively as a fear of surrogacy’s ability to explode the naturalised image of motherhood.
Lewis offers a far more perceptive and creative response than simply asking for the abolition of the industry. Her approach which is, in her own words, ‘theoretically immoderate’, ‘utopian’ in its desire for gender abolition, and ‘partisan’ in its positioning of a conversation about surrogacy in relation to queer futurities presents a rich theoretical exploration and practical solutions to the conundrums of social reproduction today. Surrogacy is examined in the book as contemporary metaphor, as commercially exploitative labour, and as queer theory – as a crucial way of imagining a different kind of social reproductive future where children might begin to belong to themselves and the bourgeois demand for mothering-labour might be re-envisaged as a collective gestational process that embraces polymaternal practices. In reading surrogacy against the grain, Lewis seeks to recover its revolutionary possibilities – its productive web of queer care so that it might be turned against reproductive stratification. Lewis, who is also a contributor to Once and Future Feminist, sees the revolutionary possibilities of assisted reproduction where the other essays see only new forms of gendered violence. This is not to say that Lewis shies away from this violence. Far from it: she closely documents the violence of gestation, the ways in which the precarious labour conditions and the oppression of gestators is bound up with what Silvia Federici terms ‘the new division of labour’ and argues that surrogacy will have to change beyond all recognition if it is to become ethically acceptable. But Lewis also sees surrogacy as a means to rethink the gendered relations that are encoded in motherhood. If ‘motherliness’ were desirable for everyone, as she writes, quoting Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz, not just women, wouldn’t it cease to exist?
Full Surrogacy Now argues that reproduction has always been surrogate, a form of surrogacy that has been erased out of the image of the family and the history of reproduction. In this way, it exposes the inextricability of social reproduction from forms of colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism and gender, and yet, it also sees how surrogacy contains within it the seeds of resistance for a more communal form of childrearing – and in this it is a remarkable text. Lewis might be said to do for surrogacy what Donna Haraway has done for kinship, opening it up to new possible forms of imagining (though I find Lewis’s a more persuasive and materially accountable proposition). The book ends detailing a live birth that took place at Standing Rock in 2016 in which dozens of midwifes participated. In thinking about the refusal of the privatisation of pregnancy and of water alike, Lewis imagines new forms of gestation that allow us to rethink the work of mothering altogether. Most importantly, she suggests, as Briggs also does, that reproductive justice is inseparable from a no border policy. By calling for ‘more surrogacy’, ‘more mutual aid’, and more collaborative forms of reproduction, we might, she argues, centre ‘the truths of collective parenting, collective mourning, and full-spectrum reproductive autonomy –[which] are precisely the ones that one cannot make money off’. A feminism that is orientated against the family is also one that is directed towards the strikes that become possible once the politics of uterine productivities are seen as coextensive with other kinds of labour. The system ‘could never survive a mom strike’, as Malcolm Harris writes (the recent wave of ‘BirthStrikers’ is, I imagine, not exactly what he had in mind). But, it is a gestational strike, as Lewis sees it, that presents the most radical way forward.