Motherhood Has Always Been Political—Now, Books About It Are, Too

A crop of new nonfiction works are examining how historical, social, and governmental forces shape motherhood

Photo via oakenroad

America is a country that claims to love mothers and thinks they’re doing the most important job in the world, but also kind of wants mothers to just shut up about it. The effectiveness of “mom” (or, better yet, “mommy”) as a prefix for anything you’d like to label frivolous shows how little we think of actual mothers: mommy blog, mom lit, mom hair. You can buy a mug to put your “mom fuel” in at Target and carry it to school dropoff while you wear a #momlife t shirt, if you’d like to treat motherhood as personal brand or take it up as a theme in your decor. But if you start asking just why these mothers are all so exhausted, and suggest they might need help beyond coffee or wine (excuse me, “mommy juice”), you’re likely to be asked why you’re always making it political. 

But what if we assumed that mothering already is political? 

Dani McClain’s excellent We Live for the We begins with just this argument: “motherhood is deeply political.” This book, which interweaves McClain’s own experience as a journalist and mother with reporting and interviews with activist mothers of color, begins with chapters on birth, home, and family, and moves into the larger world with investigations of belonging, school, body, spirit, and power. Throughout, McClain identifies the political undercurrent in her mothering, such as when she asserts that the time she spends with her child is “a form of reparations,” a way of “claiming for myself and my child time that was historically denied black women and children who wanted and needed to bond.” McClain’s book, through its use of memoir alongside reporting, examines the political and cultural context of motherhood in a depth that even the very best motherhood memoirs of recent years can’t quite do.

Why, in a country obsessed with mothers and ‘family values,’ is motherhood just so hard?

McClain’s work feels particularly vital in our current political moment, in which the public and political consequences of motherhood have again taken center stage. At the same time as several Democratic presidential candidates are arguing for policies like improved maternal care and paid parental leave that would make family life easier, state legislatures around the country are gleefully passing the most restrictive anti-abortion laws we’ve seen since Roe. Following all this produces a familiar whiplash: the politicians who speak in the most simpering tones about the idea of mothers and babies and the imperative to protect fetuses also roundly reject policy and legislation that would make a difference in the lives of actual women and children. These politicians, advocates of “traditional family values,” seem to think that once the baby is born, the mother should figure it all out on her own, without any of the support from the state or from an employer that Democratic plans might offer, or that nearly every other country in the world provides. 

In recent months, I’ve found myself hungering for the kind of deep analysis of mothering and motherhood that the first-person account of a memoir is hard-pressed to provide. What does it mean to be a “good mother” and where do those ideas come from? How have women in the past thought about how many children to have and when—and how have they practiced family planning? How do women around the world manage work and family, and what can we learn from places where the balance isn’t quite so hard? How might mothering spur political engagement? And why, in the United States—a country obsessed with mothers and “family values”—is motherhood just so hard?  

For insight into these questions, I turned to a group of new nonfiction books about motherhood, including McClain’s We Live for the We, Kim Brooks’s Small Animals, Sarah Knott’s Mother is a Verb, Amy Westervelt’s Forget “Having it All,” and Caitlyn Collins’s Making Motherhood Work. These books merge first-person accounts of mothering with research into the historical and cultural conditions, as well as the economic and governmental policies, that have shaped the landscape of motherhood in this country. Together, these books make the powerful argument that the particular impossibilities of motherhood in America today are not the inevitable product of mothers’ biology or psychology, nor are they the fault of women wanting selfishly to “have it all.” Instead, they show, the challenges of mothering in America are socially and historically produced, the product of an American ethos of rugged individualism, which has shifted the responsibility for children to the nuclear family and especially to mothers, alongside our high level of comfort with policing women’s choices around their bodies and their families.

These books capture the wide gulf between the intensive parenting practiced by white middle-class parents and the other-mothering that’s sustained black and brown communities. Intensive mothering, first described in sociologist Sharon Hays’s 1998 book The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, has three core tenets: children require a mother as their primary, full-time caregiver; motherhood is more important than paid work or the mother’s career; good mothers will devote all their time, energy, and resources to the benefit of their own children. It’s a deeply individualistic, competitive, and consumerist approach to raising children, and it’s linked to the opportunity-hoarding well-documented among white middle class and upper-middle class families. Wealthy white parents’ willingness to extend their resources advocating for only their own children has been shown to reinforce educational inequality and contribute to the resegregation of public schools

The particular impossibilities of motherhood in America today are are socially and historically produced.

Kim Brooks’s Small Animals effectively documents how this practice of intensive mothering, which she calls “conspicuous child-rearing,” harms both children and parents. Brooks’s book follows the unfolding of an extraordinary event from her own life: a stranger called the police when she left her (perfectly safe and happy!) four year old briefly in a locked car in a Target parking lot, thereby triggering a years-long interaction with the criminal justice system after she’s charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” Much of the power of Brooks’s book stems from the research that supplements her own experience, as she interviews “free-range parenting” advocates as well as historians, psychologists, and other academics who argue that giving children less freedom actually makes them psychologically frailer. Brooks considers as well the cases of women like Debra Harrell, who was arresting for letting her 9-year-old play in a park unattended. Ultimately, she argues that our culture’s insistence on unbroken supervision, coupled with the absence of accessible, affordable childcare, effectively criminalizes the parenting practices of all but the wealthiest white families. 

The cultural pressures of intensive mothering combine with America’s individualist ethos and the lack of support for children and families to make working motherhood especially difficult in America. “Let’s face it: it’s harder to be a working mother in the United States than in any other country in the developed world” is the blunt opening sentence of Making Motherhood Work, sociologist Caitlyn Collins’s cross-national study of working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the U.S. Not only are American mothers far more stressed and overwhelmed than any of the other groups Collins interviews, but American mothers also blame themselves for their difficulties balancing work and motherhood. (Italian women are similarly stressed, but they tend to blame their government for not providing more support.) The definition of the ideal mother as one who stays at home is also a peculiarly American ideal, Collins finds, with the Swedish women she interviews seeming baffled about why a grown woman wouldn’t want to work as well as raise children. (The availability in Sweden of cheap, high-quality childcare, plus decent-paying jobs with flexible hours makes combining work and motherhood much more possible.) 

The idealization of the stay at home mother—a woman alone inside the house with her children—is also relatively new, historian Sarah Knott shows in Mother is a Verb; it’s only since the industrial revolution and paid work outside the house that women were expected to take on primary responsibility for childrearing, and that childcare was seen as distinct from other forms of work.  Sociologist Dawn Dow’s work—cited widely across these books—also shows that this ideal of the “good mother” is not a universal; for black mothers, for example, working outside the home to provide for the family is seen as an essential trait. It’s helpful, in a time when it’s often assumed that a “good mother” must be single-mindedly devoted to her children, to remember that, while June Cleaver, with her pearls and apron and after-school cookies for her children, may be a site of nostalgia, she’s also a historical anomaly; a blip in the record, not a longstanding tradition. Understand the nuances and darknesses and twists of our history feels especially important right now, particularly given the conservative longing to return to a greatness that never really existed, or at least was never truly available to anyone not white. Using letters, oral histories, dictionaries, and other sources, Knott’s Mother is a Verb recovers the traces of the lived experience of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood from eighteenth-century North America and Great Britain to the present day. She discusses the mothering experiences of white settlers alongside native women, wealthy colonists in Philadelphia alongside enslaved women in South Carolina, and in doing so, creates a complex and layered history of motherhood.

While June Cleaver may be a site of nostalgia, she’s also a historical anomaly.

The “other-mothering” described in McClain’s We Live for the We provides a powerful counterpoint to the anxiety and competition that’s often the byproduct of intensive mothering. McClain describes the efforts of activist mothers of color to improve not only their own children’s lives, but the lives of all the children in their communities. This approach to mothering is rooted in what sociologist Patricia Hill Collins calls “other-mothering,” which McClain defines as “a system of care through which [women] are accountable to and work on behalf of all children in a particular community.” These other-mothers are not necessarily biological mothers; McClain, following Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams, coeditors of Revolutionary Mothering,  uses the verb “to mother” rather than the noun “motherhood” to show that “mothering is an action done by a range of people, including grandmothers, aunts, and queer and gender non-conforming people.” For the other-mothers in McClain’s book, this practice of care for the children of a community often becomes “a launch pad for public service”; many of these mothers use their skills in political activism to successfully argue for policy changes in schools, and some create their own schools when they believe the available options won’t serve their children. McClain points as well to women whose activism as other-mothers draws them explicitly into political life, as in the case of women like Lucy McBath, who successfully ran for Congress in Georgia after her son Jordan Davis was killed by an older white man at a gas station. McClain’s rigorous reporting and the tenderness of her relationship with her daughter are both on display here, and merging political and historical analysis with her daily life with her daughter, McClain shows that mothering can be both political and also intensely joyful. 

Considering the history of motherhood reveals that much of what’s most contentious or seemingly unsolvable in our public debates around motherhood is actually the product of a specific sequence of events (often the outsized political power of a few white men), rather than the necessary order of things. Amy Westervelt’s Forget “Having it All” combines history with analysis of contemporary issues and a series of proposed cultural and policy fixes, and her book effectively unsettles many of our assumptions about motherhood as an institution. Given the current assault on reproductive rights, the historical context for reproductive choice and family planning provided by Westervelt and Knott feels particularly urgent. Early abortion was widely practiced and perfectly legal up until the early nineteenth century, Westervelt shows, with a wide range of abortifacient products sold as “menstrual regulators.” Knott documents the relationship between declining birth rates, women’s bodily autonomy, and women’s overall happiness and well-being, observing that as family size declined “women gained in health and in control over their bodies and their time.” 

Westervelt’s book also highlights several moments where America was on the cusp of providing universal subsidized childcare, something that’s frequently characterized now as a pipe dream. (Though, like so many other essential problems in American life, Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that; her Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act would ensure that no family spends more than 7% of its annual income on childcare while also improving pay for childcare providers.) Westervelt describes the childcare centers provided by the Lanham Act to women working in the war effort in World War II, which were wildly popular and served 130,000 children at 3,000 sites at their peak. Despite a strong public outcry to retain those centers after the war, they were quickly closed because the Federal Works Administration determined that the best service mothers could provide to their nation was to stay home with their kids. Congress considered the issue again in the early ‘70s and passed a bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act in 1971 that would have created a network of child care centers, similar to what’s available in Germany and Sweden; in a section titled “There’s Always a Pat Buchanan,” Westervelt describes how a childless Buchanan persuaded Nixon to veto the bill by suggesting that accessible, affordable childcare would put America on the slippery slope to communism. 

These books uncover the forces that have shaped the political landscape of mothering today. They also point the way toward something new. 

For a long time, the phrase “the personal is political” felt to me like cliché, but recent assaults on women’s bodily autonomy seem to have returned vitality to the phrase. When we elect politicians who seem to not believe that women (or trans or queer folk, or anyone otherwise not like them) are really people, when public officials are willing to jail women who seek abortions and also willing to jail families who seek to protect their children by crossing the border to seek asylum, when black women are three to four more times likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, of course the personal is political. Of course motherhood is political. When I’m feeling optimistic, I think we might be in a moment where public figures are willing to take the public stakes of motherhood seriously, whether that’s honoring women’s bodily autonomy and the access to contraception and abortion that allows women to choose when and how to become mothers at all, or developing support structures that make combining work and mothering easier. Motherhood has probably always been hard, but our present difficulties are exceptional, and they’re crushing for women, children, and families. The way it is is not the way it has to be. These books uncover the historical and cultural forces that have shaped the political landscape of mothering today. They also point the way toward something new. 

Reading these books, I found myself thinking of Autumn Brown’s essay, “Scarcity and Abundance,” in Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. Brown’s description of “scarcity thinking”—“there will never be enough of anything—love, food, energy, or power—so we must horde, or conditionally offer and withdraw, what we have”—aligns to the competitive, capitalist intensive mothering practices that cause the American women in Brooks’s and Collins’s books so much heartache. In contrast, “Abundance thinking says that together, we have enough of what we need, that there is enough for all of us if we recognize our essential interdependence.” “Abundance ignites the imagination,” Brown argues. We could all use a little more abundance, a little more imagination.

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