by Mimi Khúc
My 2-year-old daughter started nursery school last month. As we were gearing up for this transition, this big milestone, other parents asked me: Are you ready? My response, always: FUCK YES! Get this toddler out of my house!!!
This is not a popular response.
At the orientation, the teacher mentioned that one of the parents wasn’t coming but that’s ok because they have 6 kids and are well-oriented with the school already. 6 kids! We all gave appropriate exclamations, amazed head-shakes, murmured awe. A mother of 2 said: “Sometimes just 2 seems like too much!” Soft chuckles around. I added: “Sometimes 1 is too much!”
In these two moments, I found myself beyond acceptable limits of motherly griping, beyond the bounds of good motherhood. And even in writing these two stories, I had to resist adding the phrases that would temper my transgressions: “But of course I love my daughter!” or “But of course it’s all worth it!” These phrases are the echoes of societal disciplinary tactics that constrain and shape motherly feelings and expression, that dictate what (good) mothers are allowed to say and feel and do. I hear them echoing across the small and big screens, in (the lack of) maternity leave in the workplace, in the appalling cost of childcare, in marriage and divorce law, in punitive social welfare policies. They are also the literal echoes out of other people’s mouths, even other mothers. People finishing my sentences for me by adding those corrective phrases. After every complaint: “But it’s all worth it, right?”
Hidden in that sentence, behind its celebration of children and child-raising, is the systematic devaluation of women, of mothers, of mothering. Because in always pairing the hardships with the joys, the complaints with the gratitude, as if those cancel each other out, we erase the labor, the struggles, and most of all the needs of mothers. We define motherhood through endless sacrifice and martyrdom, not allowing mothers to demand things for themselves, as mothers, as women, as whole people. We don’t allow mothers to need.
Motherhood can be joyful. It’s also fucking hard. And we should be allowed to say so, without equivocating, without apologizing. Most of all, we should be allowed to need — and get — support.
These disciplinary tactics, these definitions of good (white, middle-class, straight, monogamous, nuclear, self-sacrificial) motherhood hit me in the first year of my daughter’s life, contributing significantly to my experiences of postpartum depression. Good mothers love their children above all else, good mothers sacrifice everything, good mothers stay at home, good mothers feel grateful, good mothers love mothering, good mothers find it all worth it. Good mothers don’t cry all the time, don’t feel completely overwhelmed, don’t want to run away, don’t resent their children, don’t hate their lives, don’t want to kill themselves.
BGD is a 100% reader-funded, non-profit project. DONATE today and help amplify marginalized voices.
But the crazy thing is I’ve gotten a fairly blunted form of this discipline, softened by resources and significant access to ways of performing good motherhood: I’m married, to a man, femme, straight-passing, middle-class, seemingly able-bodied, “respectable” in the ways I speak and dress, able to make fairly flexible choices around childcare and being at home/working outside the home. My struggles to articulate how difficult motherhood is for me are just the tip of the iceberg of disciplined, policed motherhood. Follow the invisible lines and we end up at the structural violence embedded in standards of motherhood and womanhood that systematically undermine women at their most vulnerable.
What this disciplining, this undermining, looks like for many other women, especially poor women of color, single mothers, disabled mothers, women with mental illness, mothers in non-nuclear family formations, queer families: structural and legal violence that withholds support, that pressures women to marry, that humiliates and punishes “incompetent” mothers, that takes children away. Women of color in the U.S. have particularly had to fear the family welfare state, with its appalling history of intervention to “save” children from their own mothers, a long-standing form of cultural and actual genocide. Acknowledging the very real issues of domestic violence and abuse, we can still critique the state for the ways it readily reads mothers of color as bad mothers, and approaches compromised mothering as an individual pathology to be remedied by punishment and the extraction of children (and placing those children in the compromised, often abusive, system of state care), instead of as a condition of “living under siege” within violent structures that consistently work to undermine that very mothering. In the private sphere, women of color, especially immigrant women (sometimes “imported” directly from other countries), take on the labor of displaced mothering, as low- or no-wage nannies to care for wealthier women’s children, to make enough money to support their own children whom they now cannot mother. This, all this, is the systematic undermining of motherhood, often in the name of children, or “the family,” or even women themselves.
Who “deserves” to be a mother and to have support in their mothering — and who gets to dictate these criteria? What happens to mothers who cannot perform good motherhood? What happens to how they feel about themselves, their mental well-being, their relationships with their children, their relationships with any co-parents? What happens to their support systems? In turn, what happens to the viability and safety of their families?
If we really love children as we say, if we really think mothering future generations is one of the most important contributions to society, one of its critical social labors, then what would a societal support system look like that truly embraces mothers, mothering, and child-raising? It would require acknowledging the real, back-breaking, heart-breaking, soul-crushing work that is parenting, to not erase these things when we celebrate the ways parenting is life-giving, breathtaking, meaningful, and transformative. It would require expanding parenting into a social concern, a social good, because one woman cannot and should not do it all. In this way, child-raising becomes a community responsibility — and mothers, parents, the leaders of community child-raising. It would require creating structures that enable mothering in all its forms, and, most of all, enable mothers to be full people. Being a full person is foundational to being a good mother; we need to see and nurture the full personhoods of mothers. We need to love mothers as much as we love children.
This is what it really means to support mothers and children, to be “pro-life” in an expansive form. A step further: this is the beginnings of what it means to queer family structures, to think about family and child-raising and parenting — indeed, community-building — outside the privatized nuclear family, to create community that, in radically supporting women and children, defines its members’ commitments and ties to each other in new ways.
I love my daughter. So fiercely, it borders on pain. A fire that consumes me, that I want to consume the world with. One that generates possibility and life, revelation and revolution.
I love myself just as fiercely. Now I need the world to love both of us that way.
Mimi Khúc is a qwoc Viet Am writer, scholar, mother, doula, and foodie, based in the DC area. She is the East Coast Regional Editor for Black Girl Dangerous and loves curating work as much as writing her own pieces. Follow her regular contributions here, and if you’re on the East Coast, hit her up any time at mimikhucBGD at gmail with fabulous ideas for new pieces.
All work published on BGD is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not republish anything from this site without express written permission from BGD. For more info, go here.
Get BGD creator Mia McKenzie’s debut literary novel, The Summer We Got Free. It’s the winner of the Lambda Literary Award.
Follow us on Twitter: @blackgirldanger
LIKE us on Facebook