Issue #21: Motherhood and Belonging

“[My mother] had handed down respect for the possibilities—and the will to grasp them.” – Alice Walker

Motherhood has been on my mind lately as about a half dozen friends have become mothers for the first time amid a global pandemic. While not a member of the motherhood club myself, I can understand the huge shift in identity. To go from woman to mother is a paradox — an acknowledge of the superhuman feat of not only creating life but also and investing in and cultivating future independent adults as well as societal invisibilizing of one’s separateness and individual needs and desires. Motherhood is an identity that calls for women to forgo belonging in their romantic relationships, professional aspirations, and even the public sphere in exchange for isolation and disconnection peppered with private praise drowned out by public critique and social exclusion.

Under the Reagan administration, politicians coined the term “welfare queens” to ostracize Black motherhood and poverty for facing economic dilemmas created by systemic racism and sexism. My mother was accused of being a refrigerator mom, not being sufficiently warm and nurturing, in the late 70s in response to what my parents later found out was my older brother’s autism spectrum disorder diagnosis of Asperger’s.

Lest this seem hollow, not all mothers experience motherhood as such. However, in many ways, to be a mother is to be blamed for all manner of sins, both real and imagined, while afforded none of the penance, love or forgiveness. Over the last decade, this facade of sweat-free plate spinning has started to erode.

In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic’s Why Women Can’t Have It All began to dissipate the smoke and mirrors that poor and working class women of color have always disbelieved about working and entering motherhood. These are antagonistic rather than synergistic aims that end in exclusion in some capacity, whether externally imposed or intentionally chosen.

Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.

I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.

This opting out or exclusion occurs even at the highest levels of education. A survey of Harvard Business School graduates first captured headlines when authors concluded female graduates were leaving director-track roles to take care of the home front. Only when looking more closely at the data did a different conclusion arise. Although roughly 10 percent of the female survey respondents who had left their jobs did so because they wanted more time to parent children, most left because their employers relegated them to unfulfilling roles with few or no opportunities of advancement.

The fundamental attribution error is a fairly foundational concept to social psychology. Wikipedia defines it as such:

fundamental attribution error (FAE), also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational explanations for an individual's observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations for their behavior. This effect has been described as "the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are".

To paraphrase, it’s the situation, stupid. Mothers don’t want to embark on a lifelong Sisyphean struggle to prove their worth and value to themselves to the world and themselves. But we constantly put them in situational dilemmas where struggle and sacrifice is the price of entry for a semblance of connection and societal validation. Former CEO Audrey Gelman of women’s co-working space The Wing became the first visibly pregnant CEO to appear on the cover of a business magazine. Former Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle traveled extensively, wearing 3-4 inch heels throughout her pregnancy to demonstrate her commitment to her patronages. And from my own family, my maternal grandmother attended college 300 miles away from her infant daughter, my mother, because it was the closest university that admitted Black students at the time. My grandmother’s college degree was key to the upward economic mobility that enabled purchase of a home and eventually all three of her children also attending college.

The fact that this is unsustainable is not new. As the Great Accelerator known as this COVID-19 pandemic persists, this equating of selfless sacrifice with motherhood as broken. Blogger Deb Perelman wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both., highlighting the unnavigable contradictions of working motherhood embedded in our economic and social systems. Rather than critiquing the idea that mothers don’t belong by design, much of the criticism centered on how this systemic critique was not new for the millions of women of color who lack access to affordable child care while suffering from the same or likely greater pay inequities.

There have been some signs of mothers reclaiming their personhood and seeking new approaches to connection and participation in social and political networks.

An ad for postpartum support products from Frida Mom was rejected by ABC for being “too graphic” to run during the Oscars. Supporters of the ad applauded the realistic depiction of the early days of motherhood as tough and messy, bucking social expectations of smiles and superhuman ease.

Social network Peanut recognized the problems of social isolation and disconnection in motherhood, creating a Tinder-like interface for new mothers to meet and connect with other mothers as friends. Even though founder Michelle Kennedy, built the app to address the disconnection from friends and community that she felt and experienced upon becoming a mother, she was still surprised at the level of vulnerability and intimacy in conversations by mothers who joined the platform.

“The conversations were much, much more personal and intimate and more related to their lives. So whether that had to do with their sex life or relationships, it was on a deeper level,” she says. “These are conversations that women simply can’t have anywhere else. Of course, they’re not happening in Facebook Groups…these are very intimate and self-reflective moments. And [women] want to do that in a private setting in a private social network,” Kennedy adds.

This apparent drive for authenticity and emotional depth certainly reflects working through the individual transformation of making sense and meaning from early motherhood in spaces free of expectation and judgment. By fostering psychological safety, Peanut has created a virtual space to incubate new approaches to motherhood that center the needs of mothers themselves.

The pandemic has also shifted and expanded the Overton window for “acceptable” emotions for mothers. Writer Minna Dubin reprised her 2019 essay on “mom rage”, examining the phenomenon through the lens of the pandemic.

Paige Bellenbaum, a group facilitator and the center’s founding director, said, “Mom rage is something we talk about all the time. Social isolation, lack of support, managing high levels of anxiety and stress — this is the new normal of being a mother, and during the pandemic in particular.”

Anger and rage are waving red flags hinting at feelings below the surface. Mothers who experience rage may be feeling alone, unheard, and unsupported, Bellenbaum said. “But it’s so much more powerful to feel angry and rageful than to touch the vulnerability of what lives behind it.”

Between stay-at-home orders, Covid-19 health concerns, financial instability (or fear of it), and police violence against Black people, it is no surprise that mothers are experiencing intensified rage above the surface, and feelings of grief, fear, and loneliness below.

So in some ways, it’s not surprising that decades of being shoved aside compressed in a pressure cooker of our current omni-crisis is prompting the hypervisibility of motherhood beyond Hallmark card platitudes. Rage is both a clarifier and energizer, causing mothers to renounce the sainthood they never requested nor needed, and turning their sights, labor and focus on changing the systems that integrate greater belonging because of rather than in spite of motherhood.

One clear example of this shift from nuclear to community family is the “Wall of Moms” in Portland, showing up in masse to protect protestors from brutality from both local and federal law enforcement.

This action bears some parallels with las Madres de Plaza de Mayo from Argentina. Since 1977, these mothers have congregated in Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires demanding to know the whereabouts of the “desaparecidos,” their children who were kidnapped and forcibly “disappeared” by the Argentinian military dictatorship. The mothers still march everyday in the plaza, donning their white headscarves, a symbol often associated with purity.

Although the hypervisibility of mothers may be a lever of systemic change, it is not necessarily so.

A group of three Black mothers occupied a house in Oakland in an act of protest against poverty, gentrification, and homelessness. Moms 4 Housing attracted national media attention, albeit with less reverence and praise than the Wall of Moms in Portland. The mothers were forcibly removed by police after almost two months, but not before advancing a number of arguments addressing the intersection of parenting and economic insecurity.

In many ways, as motherhood evolves, it channels the target of maternal labor from biological family to community as family and from economic returns to civic investments. Ultimately, motherhood cannot sustain itself in isolation from the systems and networks that it is situated in, demonstrating that motherhood is more than a calling. It calls on all of us to counter the isolation of motherhood, hold employers accountable for hiring women for good jobs, creating and sustaining safe spaces for mothers to connect with each other and feel heard, and realigning our economic and social systems to value not just economic labor but also the civic labor and care work required to transform communities.

Reader Highlight

Hello everyone! I’d like you to meet Elvia, one of the lovely subscribers to this newsletter. Here’s a bit of info about her:

Question: What's one object that you can see around you that embodies your personality?
Answer: my pencil case - it's been with me since childhood, it has lots of cool pens, and i can use it for work, for myself, to write to friends. Meaning I guess, comes from that pencil case.

Question: How about you? What's your emoji bio?
Answer: currently in Lisbon
 just started a PhD
 research focused on participatory methods that challenge the power structures that shape our world

Question: What topics would you like to see in the newsletter?
Answer: How to build from the margins.

Question: How could other readers of this newsletter build belonging in your life?
Answer: I am not sure. There is a lot of content already - I am trying to find ways of not creating new things, but re-using what already exists and working on making the connections between things.
Not sure how a collective belonging can be created by the readers...but very open to finding out :)