Karl, a Ph.D. and lecturer at MIT, gave birth to his two children – and despite being the one with the round belly, he was regularly asked to wait outside while nurses tended to his (non-pregnant) wife ). People were unable, he said, to see both a man and a pregnant woman’s body; as a result, Karl became a “fat man” rather than a pregnant person. Although he was designated female at birth (AFAB) and had a uterus and glands to breastfeed, Karl was not, even in the eyes of medical personnel, the mother. Karl considered himself a PaPa; other transgender parents choose more androgynous terms, largely because of how motherhood has been interpreted. At best, says Karl, unconventional pregnant parents cause “utter gender confusion” even among doctors, but at worst it leads to trauma, violence and harm, among trans men who don’t receive emergency care during miscarriages, in trans women who are treated as paedophiles, and in fully erased non-binary identities.
And yet women and mother are not, and never have been, synonymous. In fact, neither term has any objective reality.
Motherhood, like gender, is a social construct; “it exists because humans agree it exists.” We create constructs as a way of ordering the world and trying to control it. They are useful for organizing our thoughts; they become extremely dangerous when confused with reality. Some commentators go so far as to suggest that the pregnancy of a trans woman “inverts” and distorts “immutable biological realities.” But motherhood is not immutable, and it is not (necessarily or entirely) biological. Over the past few decades, scientific technology has come closer than ever to providing fertility to everyone, from those struggling with infertility due to conditions such as endometriosis or low gamete count to those born with Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome, a rare disease. a disorder in which AFAB women are born without a uterus or without the upper two-thirds of the birth canal.
The concept of “motherhood” must be actively decoupled from its exclusive link to “femininity” or we risk degenerating into a society that penalizes, imprisons or commits violence against future parents or their children. We have constructed this term and given it meaning, and we can also change it, and perhaps strip it of its divinity and its demons.
Adrienne Rich, a poet and essayist, once described “two parts” of motherhood. One is an experiment, and the other is a political institution in which “all women are considered above all as mothers; all mothers are expected to experience motherhood unambiguously and in accordance with patriarchal values; and the “non-maternal” woman is considered deviant. These limiting assumptions do more than limit opportunities for women; they limit access to health care for those who would like to become mothers but who do not fit the traditional concept of motherhood. (The Supreme Court’s recent draft decision regarding Roe vs. Wade makes these omissions even more glaring, as transgender people with uteruses are continually excluded from discussions of reproductive rights.)
Today’s gendered assumptions about motherhood were largely inherited from the rise of the middle class. Among the poorer classes, men, women, and sometimes children worked to support the family; among wealthy or aristocratic women, nurses and governesses frequently took care of the children. But wealthy 19th-century families, who could afford leisure, needed only one parent to leave home to work, and it became a mark of pride if a man could keep his wife at home. The new middle class merged woman, wife and mother into a single social category. The image of the housewife and submissive mother was reinforced in the June Cleaver tropes of the 1950s and 1960s. According to Pew Time Use Studies, in 1965 fathers spent only 2, 5 hours a week looking after their children. That was a woman’s job, even if “motherhood” as a woman’s social role was a recent invention.
Social constructs surrounding motherhood have always limited the experience to very specific and patriarchally sanctioned groups. Class, education and race have all been used at different times to deny motherhood. In the 20th century, more than 60,000 people (primarily women of color, people with disabilities, and low-income people) were sterilized against their will in the United States. In California, female prisoners were forcibly sterilized until 2010. And Immigration and Customs Enforcement teams have been accused of coercively sterilizing female prisoners for the past five years. All of these procedures were performed on people who possessed the reproductive organs necessary for childbirth and were considered “women” by those who harvested their organs. Despite all the insistence that motherhood belongs only to people who have two X chromosomes and were assigned female at birth, there are those who are willing to take it by force right away when it serves political purposes. It is therefore clear that no term is immutable.
Similarly, trans women are often excluded from the category of motherhood in various ways. Some have been denied the term “mother” by their children and even by the legal systems, but the threats to transgender parenting don’t stop there. As Mya Byrne, singer-songwriter, actress and trans activist, explains, trans women are viewed as “problematic” parents by heteronormative society. They were presented as “dangerous” around children through deeply sexist and gendered rhetoric. [Trigger warning: Linked transcript contains abusive language toward transgender persons]. “If a child came to my door, I would take them in and raise them,” Mya tells me; “If you adopt, they are your own children. [Queer people] create a family. We create parenthood. And whether or not we reproduce by gestation, we can be parents.