For more on reimagining motherhood, check out our special edition.
Is there an identity more loaded in our cultural conversations than “mother”? When does motherhood begin? Who gets to become a mother, and whose decision is it to make? Is there any difference between caregiving and mothering, other than traditional gender norms?
Defining the boundaries of motherhood is high-stakes politics that cuts across race, across gender binaries, and across physical and cognitive abilities. It cuts across family status and income levels and the very definition of family.
Conservatives have turned motherhood into a kind of super-soldier for the zeitgeist, a weaponized identity deployed to protect and defend very specific notions of whiteness and power. This reached a fever pitch last fall in the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who conservatives promoted based in no small part on the perceived strength of her identity as a white Super Mom.
We will likely see Justice Barrett deliver on these conservative notions of motherhood later this year when the Supreme Court issues a ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that has, at its very heart, the question of who is a worthy caregiver—who, essentially, can call themselves a mother? In that case, conservatives are arguing that taxpayer-funded social service organizations should be able to refuse to place kids in foster or adoption care with LGBTQ couples. With Fulton, conservatives are trying to legally mandate “traditional” family and caregiving structures and, with it, an understanding of who can be a mother. And she (and lets be very clear—for conservatives, motherhood is definitively female) certainly can’t be queer or transgender.
Nor can she be a person who requires actual support to parent and thrive. Over the course of the pandemic, media outlets have published thousands of pieces on how our society is failing moms. But this isn’t anything new—we’ve always failed moms. In 2019, long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, 50 percent of working mothers, versus 39 percent of working fathers, said being a working parent made it harder to advance in their careers. The pandemic has only exacerbated those existing inequalities.
And a mother certainly can’t be someone who has had an abortion, even though for the 59 percent of abortion patients who have already given birth, abortion and childbirth are part of their motherhood journey.
Imagine if we talked more about how abortion makes parenting possible. Conservative lawmakers frequently invoke “protecting the life of the mother” when legislating against abortion rights, but they’re referring to the life of the person gestating a pregnancy (who may or may not be a woman, and may or may not be a parent). Even then, “motherhood” is really more of an afterthought for conservatives as they center their regressive legislative efforts on the fetus. Anti-choice lawmakers prioritize the “life of the mother” in abortion restrictions not because they believe in protecting mothers, but because they believe pregnant people have a duty to deliver a healthy baby to the state. That’s it.
As conversations shift toward celebrating—or not celebrating—Mother’s Day, we thought we’d ask a basic question: What would it look like to reimagine motherhood by centering abortion in its reality? And what would it look like if our policies reflected this reality and these mothers? If we reimagine motherhood to include abortion as part of its journey, what other ripples of freedom can follow? How expansive can we make the frame? How supportive the community?
What happens to all of our social systems if we reimagine motherhood?