So I’m working on the fourth chapter of my dissertation, which focuses on motherhood. (Not that I’ve drafted the other three yet; I skipped ahead for reasons that aren’t relevant here.) One of these days, I’ll explain my project on this blog as it actually relates in interesting ways. But for now, this work on motherhood has been difficult. I vacillate between acceptance of this new state of being, and a terrible ache for all I have lost. And I can never (or I couldn’t until now) tell if immersing myself this way in the study of motherhood has been helpful to me, or if it has made things worse.

But today, tonight, I was sitting here in the midst of a tornado watch (the same weather that brought us Emmett Ever) reading Diana L. Gustafson’s Unbecoming Mothers: The Social Production of Maternal Absence. Gustafson writes about what it is to “become” a mother (a regulated process that involves, of course, conceiving and giving birth to biological children, and instilling in those children beliefs consistent with “white, middle-class, Judeo-Christian family values” (26), among other things). Failure to “reproduce” these values is, of course, a mark of bad mothering. And there are a dozen ways one can be automatically positioned outside of motherhood proper (so, always already marked a failure): being poor, not being white, being a lesbian, adopting (and not making) your children. Gustafson writes:

The cultural priorities of blood relations, family preservation, and family autonomy create the underpinnings for our social policies on child welfare. In spite of significant diversity in the composition of family-like groups, a limited definition of the family still persists – a definition that treats traditional heterosexual marriage and biological offspring as the paradigm of the legitimate family. Numerous constituencies find themselves shuffled outside of this cultural definition, including adoptive families, gay and lesbian families, homeless families, stepfamilies, foster families, and kinship care families. (179)

The women of these “constituencies” will always fall short of the guidelines for ideal motherhood. To which I thought: FUCK THAT.

WHY am I allowing myself to be this destroyed because I am once more removed from a system I already see through?** A system that treats adopted children as second best. A system that quietly, insidiously, treats women whose children are not biologically related to them as less than mothers of children who are. A system that insists that my wife and I are inherently less qualified to parent than a heterosexual couple. No amount of struggling is going to make me fit in that mold.

And it isn’t like me to try. 

And why have I always wanted to?

Last night, my beautiful wife told me that sometimes she gets scared that I see Rabbit River as a back-up plan. And it’s true: if E had been okay, this new being wouldn’t be with us. But I don’t, not for a second, love him or her any less than I loved our little girl, and it broke my heart to hear that J ever – even for moments – doubted that.

I have been indulging in the sadness of this, and that’s okay. I’ve needed to. And I’m not naive enough to think that the process of grieving my fertility is over (nor will the process of grieving our daughter ever end). But I feel myself unbecoming the kind of mother that this society wants me to be, and the freedom in that is thrilling. I don’t accept those mandates. I don’t cede to the perpetuation of a status quo that my entire working life is set against.

In place of the person who always wanted to give birth to a healthy child because that’s what would make her a woman, I feel a new person emerging. One who knows absolutely that her children are hers and does not need bloodlines to prove it. One who actually (not only in words, but in practice) challenges the entire notion of the patriarchal family model. And when I feel her starting to take over, I feel stronger than I ever have. And more certain of my role as a mother.

I will fiercely protect my family, and part of what I’ll protect it from is the notion that it is any less a unit because of the beautiful complexity with which it emerged. That baby growing inside of my wife? God help the people who imply that s/he is anything less than wholly mine.

It feels indescribably great to be this sure of who I am. (I would say “again,” but I sense that this kind of clarity is a whole new thing.)

** Obviously, I’m speaking here about my struggles with infertility. There’s no question in my mind as to why I’m still devastated about E being gone, or why I always will be.


4 thoughts on “unbecoming

  1. I just found your blog last week and have really enjoyed reading it. I love what you said about this new paradigm. It gave me chills. And more importantly, it eloquently put words to how my wife feels about her own experience mothering a child she didn’t birth and being adopted herself. Bravo! So glad you’ve reached this place.

  2. I am deeply honoured that you have felt affirmed by reading my edited collection, “Unbecoming Mothers”. I suspect that your journey and your courage in sharing it will be similarly inspiring to others. Be well. Be strong. And my best wishes for the successful completion of your doctoral research – an other significant and ultimately rewarding journey.

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