“You’re a life worker,” my child recently said to me. We were jogging along a sidewalk when he said this, out for the hour of exercise that became our daily routine after the Covid-19 pandemic closed his elementary school. I asked what he meant and he said, “You make food for me and you go outside with me and you take care of my life. You’re a life worker, like a teacher or a doctor.” He had heard about “essential workers” in the news, I realized, and he was telling me that, from his point of view, I was an essential worker.
I would remember this term, life worker, months later when I saw video footage of the Wall of Moms in Portland, women who were leveraging the symbolic power of motherhood in support of Black Lives Matter protesters, chanting, “Feds stay clear, the moms are here!” In her 1986 introduction to Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich warns of a tendency, particularly among white women, to idealize motherhood, to conflate motherhood with moral authority, and to participate in the kind of thinking once used to justify a “separate sphere” for women. But the mothers of the Wall of Moms were doing what some people once feared women would do if they were given the right to vote. And their protest suggests the potential of motherhood to radicalize mothers, which is what it did for Rich.
I felt the first stirrings of that potential over a decade ago, when my child was an infant. Shortly after he was born, I was walking in a park when a passing jogger stopped to ask me, “Are you a mother?”
It was a strange question, and one I had never been asked before. For most of my life until then, I had not wanted to be a mother. I had always feared what becoming a mother might do to me, and even after having a baby, I feared losing myself to motherhood. Matrophobia is not a fear of mothers, as Rich observes, nor is it a fear of your own mother. Tellingly, matrophobia is a fear of becoming your own mother.I didn’t want to enter the institution of motherhood. But I was already in it, and I had been raised within it.
“Are you a mother?” the jogger asked again. He was a graduate student, I would learn later, who was working on a theory that involved comparing motherhood to the hospitality industry, a theory that reduced mothers to hotels. I had no interest in being a hotel. I didn’t want to be a mother, either, but I wanted a baby. And there he was, the evidence that I was a mother, in the stroller that I was pushing through the park. The jogger changed his tack. “Is that your baby?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered, in relief.
Back then, I didn’t fully understand my resistance to calling myself a mother, but I understand it now, and all the more clearly after reading Of Woman Born. What I was resisting was becoming a role, rather than a person. I didn’t want to enter the institution of motherhood. But I was already in it, and I had been raised within it. Day to day, what I felt then about caring for my baby was exactly what Rich recorded in her journal when her children were young: “A sense of insufficiency to the moment and to eternity.” I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. Within the institution of motherhood, I felt every emotion Rich noted feeling fifty years before I became a mother—ambivalence, weariness, demoralization, powerlessness, and rage.
“I became a mother in the family-centered, consumer-oriented, Freudian-American world of the 1950s,” Rich writes. By the age of thirty, she had published two books of poetry and given birth to three children. Her husband was willing to “help,” but it was understood between them that the work of caring for the children was her work, and that his work as a professor was the only “real” work in the household. “I understood that my struggles as a writer were a kind of luxury, a peculiarity of mine,” Rich writes. “My work brought in almost no money: it even cost money, when I hired a household helper to allow me a few hours a week to write.”
I am two generations removed from Rich’s experience, and my understanding with my husband is that my work is as real as his. Still, as a new mother I struggled to do the unpaid work of mothering and the mostly unpaid work of writing while also doing the paid work of teaching, which subsidized my other work. And now, with childcare unavailable during the pandemic, I am once again struggling to do my work as an artist while doing the work of mothering. Rich’s predicament, as a mother who was also an artist, remains a predicament today. And what she did with that predicament, what she did with her rage and frustration, remains deeply instructive. Of Woman Born lays bare the cultural and medical and economic practices that define motherhood, and exposes how our everyday experience of mothering is shaped by this enduring institution.
The institution of motherhood, Rich writes, is superimposed over the potential of motherhood. This is the potential relationship women might have to our reproductive powers and to children. The institution of motherhood limits the full range of possibilities, and limits our ability to imagine them. “There are ways of thinking that we don’t yet know about,” Rich writes, quoting Susan Sontag. And so it is difficult to conceive of mothering outside of motherhood.
Motherhood, Rich writes, has no symbolic architecture. Other institutions—including the government, the military, the church, and the academy—are embodied in buildings like the White House, the Pentagon, the Vatican, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But motherhood has no central location. “Motherhood calls to mind the home,” Rich writes, “and we like to believe that the home is a private place.” But the home is shaped by public policies that govern housing costs and access to abortion and welfare payments and maternity leaves and child support. The home is sometimes dangerous, sometimes crowded, and sometimes full of discord. With offices and businesses closed around the world, the home is now a workplace for many people. But the home has always been a workplace, particularly for women.
The conditions of that workplace are determined in part by the institution of motherhood, which is upheld by an economic system where the work of caring for children is almost always unpaid or low-paid. The institution is upheld by traditional gender roles in which housework and the work of caring for other people is women’s work. By laws that restrict access to birth control and abortion. And by social expectations that burden mothers with the primary responsibility for the education, health, nutrition, safety, and overall well-being of their children.
Women’s lives are defined by motherhood whether or not we have children. This is not true for men. But men who have children find themselves illegible within the institution of motherhood. In an essay about raising a child with his husband in Berlin, the writer Ben Fergusson notes that most people who see them out in public assume that they are helping an absent mother. “How do we know?” he writes. “People tell us all the time.” Both men are caring for the child, but neither man is understood as fulfilling the role we reserve for mothers. Within the intertwined institutions of motherhood and heterosexuality, men are not expected to do “real” parenting, only to play a supporting role. This hurts fathers, but it also helps them. When Fergusson adopted an infant, he expected to receive a barrage of criticism and unsolicited advice that never arrived. “What I hadn’t realised,” he wrote, “was that it isn’t parents who are on the receiving end of this opprobrium, but mothers.”
Motherhood is policed, both informally and formally, by mothers as well as people who are not mothers—by joggers and judges and bystanders and actual police officers. I was once threatened with arrest while walking my child home from first grade. He was six years old and walking half a block ahead of me, a distance that a passing police officer considered unsafe. “This is neglect,” the officer said, pointing his finger in my face. My son began to cry as the officer shouted at me, and I was afraid. My certainty that I had not committed neglect was undermined by my certainty that I was guilty, in myriad ways, of failing the expectations of motherhood. When I asked, “Am I under arrest?” the officer said, “You could be.”
He was right, as my research into the question later revealed. In the state of Illinois, a child under the age of fourteen was considered “unattended” and potentially neglected if they were out of the sight of someone over fourteen, and my son was briefly out of my sight when he turned the corner onto our block. Such laws allow ample room for interpretation. And, given a police force prone to racial bias and excessive force, such laws are particularly dangerous for Black parents. I am white and middle-class, and the officer who threatened me with arrest walked away after I asked him for his name and badge number. I was free to return to my desk, where I then read newspaper reports about Black women in Chicago who had been arrested for similar offenses and had lost custody of their children in the process.
The institution of motherhood affects everyone, Rich argues, though it affects us differently. Black and white, gay and straight. Nobody escapes it, even those who do not have children. And everyone who cares for children, their own or others’, does work that is devalued by the institution.
Motherhood, when looked at as a set of laws, traditions, religious practices, and economic structures, appears to be designed to produce the highest number of new humans at the lowest cost. “The labor of childbirth has been a form of forced labor,” Rich writes of the centuries during which European women had no means of preventing pregnancy. Childbirth remains a form of forced labor anywhere where birth control is unavailable, unaffordable, or restricted by the state or the church. This “anywhere” is increasingly here, as state after state passes restrictions on abortion and a long-standing federal policy prevents Medicaid from covering abortion.
For many women, the forced labor of childbirth is followed by years of unpaid work, which is nothing new. In Britain in 1915, the Women’s Cooperative Guild published a collection of letters written by the wives of manual laborers. These women had five to eleven children, along with several miscarriages. “The women were not only pregnant for much of their lives, but doing heavy labor: scrubbing floors, hauling basins of wash, ironing, cooking over coal and wood fires which had to be fed and tended,” Rich writes. These women wrote of feeling depleted by childbearing, of struggling to care for their families, of finding that sex was becoming an unwelcome chore, and of wanting desperately to limit the size of their families.
“Procreative choice is for women an equivalent of the demand for the legally limited working day which Marx saw as the great watershed for factory workers in the nineteenth century,” Rich argues. In the United States today, where the right to a legal limit on the forced labor of childbearing is not guaranteed, women routinely face inadequate maternity leaves and the economic necessity of returning to paid employment after giving birth. A woman caring for a newborn infant at home is still not understood as being “at work.”
The work of motherhood remains largely invisible as work, and the economic contribution women make to society also remains invisible. “If American women earned minimum wage for the unpaid work they do around the house and caring for relatives, they would have made $1.5 trillion last year,” Gus Wezerek and Kristen R. Ghodsee wrote in the New York Times this year. Globally, women would have made $10.9 trillion, which is more than all the money made in 2018 by the fifty biggest companies in the world.
That was before the pandemic. Now, data from eighteen countries shows that women are doing even more unpaid work at home while many women are losing or leaving their paid employment. This is in a world where women were already spending, on average, three times as many hours as men doing unpaid care and domestic work. “Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector,” the United Nations reports. “They have less access to social protections and are the majority of single-parent households.” This is the lasting legacy of the institution of motherhood.
In her 1986 introduction to Of Woman Born, Rich writes, “I would not end this book today, as I did in 1976, with the statement ‘The repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers.’ ” Women are workers and workers are women, after all. And our claim to our bodies, Rich writes, must be made hand in hand with other claims that have been denied for centuries: “the claim to personhood; the claim to share justly in the products of our labor, not to be used merely as an instrument, a role, a womb, a pair of hands or a back or a set of fingers; to participate fully in the decisions of our workplace, our community; to speak for ourselves, in our own right.”
By 1986 she had arrived at an understanding, informed by the Combahee River Collective, that sexism and racism and classism were all interconnected. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes that the women of the Combahee River Collective were “inspired by the national liberation and anti-colonial movements, from the Algerian struggle against the French occupation to the Vietnamese resistance to the American war. The C.R.C. saw themselves as revolutionaries whose aspirations far exceeded women’s rights: they aspired to the overthrow of capitalism.” Their struggle was, and is, the struggle.
In conversation with Black feminists, Rich’s grasp of the dimensions of feminism expanded. Rich wrote Of Woman Born at midlife, and it is the document of someone still in the process of learning and changing, the document of someone who was, as Rich put it, giving birth to herself. The book offers a remarkable portrait of self-interrogation, of an older woman correcting the assumptions and expectations that she accepted when she was younger. “I did not then understand,” she writes of her early years performing the duties of an academic wife, “that we—the women of that academic community—as in so many middle-class communities of the period—were expected to fill both the part of the Victorian Lady of Leisure, the Angel in the House, and also of the Victorian cook, scullery maid, laundress, governess, and nurse.”
Sexist hierarchies, as Rich observes, are akin to class structures. “Engels is correct in his famous statement that in the patriarchal family the husband is the bourgeois and the wife and children the proletariat,” she writes. “But each is something more to each, something which both cements and can outlast economic bondage.” Mothers are more to our families than just workers, and that is the bind. We are lashed to this institution by our own attachments and our own desires. The emotional experience of mothering is among the richest possibilities that motherhood offers. But everything we feel for our children—the tenderness, the awe and delight—can become entangled with everything we feel about the institution of motherhood. That institution is so diffuse, so widespread, so lacking a central office, so without an identifiable authority, that the rage we feel about being trapped within it is sometimes directed, for lack of another outlet, at our own children.
“Every mother has known overwhelming, unacceptable anger at her children,” Rich writes. I’m grateful to her for recognizing this anger, and for knowing that it is shared. What Rich gives us, as mothers, is a model for understanding our own anger in context. Once we understand this anger, it can become useful. “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being,” Audre Lorde says. One of the uses of anger, she suggests, is undoing the conditions that produced that anger.
“When I think of the conditions under which my mother became a mother,” Rich writes, “the impossible expectations . . . my anger at her dissolves into grief and anger for her.” Here I recognize my own anger and grief, my mother and myself. And I recognize how easy it is to blame a mother for what motherhood has done to her. “Easier by far,” Rich writes, “to hate and reject a mother outright than to see beyond her to the forces acting upon her.”
I have, as a mother, hated myself. I’ve hated my own barely suppressed desire to perform the role perfectly, to outdo my own mother, to somehow transcend my real limitations as a real person. I’ve hated my anger and frustration. I’ve feared that I will burst into flames, and that my rage will burn my family or scar my child. I’ve been ashamed of my rage, and I’ve regarded it as something that I must dampen and stifle, or at least limit to a controlled burn.
“Most women have not developed tools for facing anger constructively,” Lorde observes. This might be particularly true for white women. Lorde speaks of the symphony of anger that women of color are raised within and how “we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart.” Anger, like any other instrument, must be practiced and mastered if it is to be played well.
Rich’s embrace of rage, like Lorde’s, is liberating. She writes openly about the violence women are capable of doing, of mothers who have taken butcher knives to their own children, but she does not condemn our anger as mothers. She insists, instead, that we follow our anger back to its source, so that we can harness its transformative power. “Female anger,” Rich writes, “is a threat to the institution of motherhood.” If we want to destroy the institution, we cannot deny ourselves this anger.
“To destroy the institution is not to abolish motherhood,” Rich clarifies. “It is to release the creation and sustenance of life into the same realm of decision, struggle, surprise, imagination, and conscious intelligence, as any other difficult, but freely chosen work.” In Of Woman Born, Rich reveals how fundamental this struggle is. We want, as mothers, to be real people, with real choices. And we want our work to be real work. It may be dispiriting that this struggle, undertaken by our grandmothers and women before them, is still ongoing. But Rich encourages us to remember “all that we have managed to salvage, of ourselves, for our children, even within the destructiveness of the institution.” We are, after all, life workers.
From Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution by Adrienne Rich, with an introduction by Eula Biss, available via W. W. Norton.