Karl, Ph.D. and a lecturer at MIT, bore him both children – and despite being the one with the bump, he was routinely asked to wait outside while nurses cared for his (not pregnant) wife. People could not, he says, see both a man and a pregnant body; as a result, Karl became a “fat man” rather than a pregnant person. Despite being assigned a female at birth (AFAB) and possessing a uterus and breastfeeding glands, Karl was not – not even in the eyes of the medical staff – mother. Charles considered himself Pope; other transgender parents choose more androgenic terms, mainly because of the way motherhood is interpreted. At best, says Karl, unconventional pregnant parents cause “complete gender confusion” even among doctors, but at worst it results in trauma, violence and injury, in trans men who do not receive first aid during abortion, in trans women who are treated as pedophiles, and non-binary identities are completely erased.
Still woman and mother they are not, nor have they ever been, synonymous. In fact, no concept has an objective reality at all.
Motherhood, like gender, is a social construct; “It exists because people agree it exists.” We create constructs as a means of organizing the world and trying to control it. They are useful for organizing our thoughts; they become extremely dangerous when we replace them with reality. Some commentators go so far as to suggest that a trans woman’s pregnancy “reverses” and distorts “unchanging biological realities.” But motherhood is not immutable and is not (necessarily or completely) biological. In recent decades, scientific technology has come closer to providing fertility to everyone, from those struggling with infertility due to conditions such as endometriosis or low sex cell counts to those born with Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome, a rare disorder in which AFAB women are born without the uterus or the upper two-thirds of the birth canal.
The concept of “motherhood” must be actively detached from its exclusive association with “femininity” or we risk devolution into a society that punishes, imprisons or commits violence against future parents or their children. We have constructed this notion and imbued it with meaning, and we can also change it, and perhaps deprive it of its divinity and its demons.
Adrienne Rich, a a poet and essayist, she once described the “two threads” of motherhood. One is experience, and the other is a political institution in which all women are perceived primarily as mothers; all mothers are expected to experience motherhood non-ambivalently and in accordance with patriarchal values; and a woman who is ‘non-German’ is considered deviant. ” These restrictive assumptions do more than limit opportunities for women; restrict access to health care for those who would become mothers but who do not fit into the traditional concept of motherhood. (Recent draft decision of the Supreme Court on Roe v. Wade makes these omissions even more apparent, as transgender people with uteri are constantly left out of discussions of reproductive rights.)
Today’s gender-biased assumptions about motherhood are largely inherited from the rise of the middle class. Among the poorer strata, men, women, and sometimes children worked to support families; among wealthy or aristocratic women, nurses and governesses often took care of children. But wealthy 19th-century families, who could afford free time, needed only one parent to leave home for work, and it became a sign of pride if a man could keep his wife at home. The new middle class merged wife, wife and mother into one social category. The image of the submissive housewife and mother was reinforced in the June Cleaver tropics of the 1950s and ’60s. According to Pew’s time use studies, in 1965, dads spent only 2.5 hours a week caring for their children. That it was a woman’s work, even if “motherhood” as a woman’s social role was a recent invention.
The social constructs that surround motherhood have always limited experience to very specific and patriarchal sanctioned groups. Class, level of education and race were used at different times to deny the right to a mother. In the 20th century, more than 60,000 people (mostly colored women, people with disabilities, and those on lower incomes) were sterilized against their will in the United States. In California, female prisoners were forcibly sterilized back in 2010. Immigration and customs teams have been accused of forcibly sterilizing detainees for the past five years. All these procedures were performed on persons who had reproductive organs for childbirth and who considered those who had their organs removed to be “women”. With all the emphasis on motherhood that belongs only to people who have two X chromosomes and who were given a female at birth, there are those who are willing to take it by force as soon as it suits political goals. It is therefore clear that no term is immutable.
Similarly, trans women are often excluded from the category of motherhood in various ways. For some, their children, and even the judiciary, have been denied the term “mother,” but the threats to transgender parenting don’t stop there. As Mya Byrne, an American singer-songwriter, actress and trans activist, explains, a heteronormative society considers trans women to be “problematic” parents. They are presented as “insecure” near children through deeply sexist and genderist rhetoric [Trigger warning: Linked transcript contains abusive language toward transgender persons]. “If a child came to my door, I would receive it and pick it up,” Mya tells me; “If you adopt, they are your own children. [Queer people] create a family. We create parenting. And whether we reproduce through pregnancy or not, we can be parents. ”