Opinion

Whom Does a Mother’s Body Belong To?

When my first child was a few months old, a man shouted at me while I stood in the snow with my sleeping baby slung over my shoulder, partially covered by a worn blanket. We lived in upstate New York, it was winter, and she had fallen asleep on me during a rare outing. As I impatiently waited for my husband to fetch our car, I must have looked disheveled there on the side of the road, trying to hold my baby up and keep her warm. “What kind of mother are you?” the man yelled out his car window. My arms went numb and hot.

When I was pregnant, strangers touched my stomach and lectured me on my purchases at the grocery store, so I was familiar with public expressions of ownership over my maternal body. A mother’s body apparently belonged to vague patriarchal laws I couldn’t always identify and therefore needed to be taught, many of which rested on the assumption that a lack of autonomy was simply part of motherhood.

In most cases, the question posed by the man in the car was easily answered. I was the kind of mother who constantly accidentally transgressed the moving goal posts of good parenting. In a strange twist of logic, I only felt full authority over my body when I did something wrong. Even at home alone with my baby, I felt stuck in the snow with a man pointing at me, moralizing my behavior. I breastfed my first child for many years, both as penance for the imperfections in my moods, which I was told could irreparably damage her, and because of cultural pressure and advice. But I also nursed so long because I found it, most hours of the day, intensely pleasurable.

Breastfeeding was an intimate bond I shared with my baby, a tie that bound us, a time when the man in the car fell away. Soon, however, this sense of belonging to my baby left me isolated. I seemed to belong nowhere else. I lost friends. I gave up professional ambitions, not because I wanted to but because I wanted to do right by my child, or I didn’t feel like I had any other options. Many mothers told me to let it be, to give in. This period would go so fast.

My husband became an outcast in our own home, second fiddle to me, the primary source of nourishment and comfort, but also to the institution of motherhood, to which my body also now belonged. I sensed hisdisappointment because a mother, too, is meant to belong to her husband. But I frequently found myself “touched out,” a phrase I absorbed from other parents of my generation, which named well those frantic flashes when all the requirements of good motherhood overwhelmed me and I wanted to be alone to sort things out.

My single mother experienced her own moments of overwhelm when I was young, triggered by losses of control she felt in her own life. Wanting to feel the power I had over her when it seemed I’d lost it, when I was a teenager, I dumped her liquor down the kitchen drain. I wanted to belong to her, but now that I am a mother, I understand that she was often looking to belong, if only for an instant, to herself.

Today, when women speak of feeling touched out in motherhood, they cite this phenomenon — a sense that their body no longer belongs to them. Mothers belong to husbands and children, and when they seek their own respite or pleasure it’s understood as narcissistic, selfish or immoral. We have come to accept that parents will experience an extreme lack of autonomy for many years. This is a trick, though, of patriarchal power, which has convinced many Americans that women parenting all alone without support or community is just the way things must be, and that a loss of ownership over one’s body is a biological inevitability rather than a political, economic and social problem.

On social media, the hashtag #touchedout creates recognition for parents, primarily straight married women, to commune around the sensory overwhelm of parenthood, but also around losses of identity, questions about marital sex and the confusion that arises when old traumas resurface in parenthood. Often in online spaces, the lethal cocktail of intensive, individualistic parenting and America’s failing social services and lack of affordable child care appears disconnected from a misogynistic culture that objectifies women’s bodies, as well as a political climate that is robbing people of reproductive freedom. But there is a certain continuity between the rape culture in which my generation grew up, which normalized sexual violence and left many girls and women feeling reduced to nothing but a body, and the loneliness and isolation so many women feel when they become parents.

I don’t mean to imply that women pushing their children away are inherently political rebels. But the psychic and physical overwhelms mothers experience at home in America are evidence of broader issues with the conditions in which we parent and illustrate how our daily lives both echo and resist a culture of male control. These are not just messy moms who can’t get themselves together. The act of clarifying a limit around touch and access to one’s body can be a form of domestic resistance for women.

Inmany states in America today,new restrictive abortion laws beg further the question of whom the pregnant body belongs to when reproductive freedom and health care are under the control of governmentallawmakers, medical professionals attempting to interpret careless, imprecise laws that will no doubt kill pregnant people and, in some cases, other citizens.

Conservative lawmakers are on the defensive when they claim that women fighting for reproductive justice are unlovable and lonely, belonging to no one. From this perspective, there is no belonging outside the heterosexual family unit, which requires women and pregnant people to perform at all costs a version of feminine self-sacrifice that at best leaves them depleted and without a sense of identity beyond their maternal role. At worst, the idea that motherhood requires a loss of autonomy continues to fuel the current wave of regressive health care laws that put pregnant people’s lives at risk.

What kind of belonging might we all experience if we thought more expansively about child-rearing as a practice to be done outside the home, in the community, by many bodies together rather than just one?

Amanda Montei is the author of “Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent and Control.”

Source Photographs by Ed Freeman, LumiNola and Camille Tokerud/Getty Images

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