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In the early 1970s, a woman moved into my Brooklyn commune. She was older than us, in her thirties, relocating from the Midwest after breaking up with her husband. She stuck to herself; we figured she was getting over the divorce. Then one night in the kitchen, she opened up to a few of us. She had started out conventionally, she said. Straight job, straight partner, and one after another, three kids. Then feminism happened. She realized she was suffocating. “I abandoned my children,” she said, almost in a whisper.
I had already decided not to have a family. I didn’t think I could manage writing, politics, an erotic life, and kids all at once. A part of me felt that this woman should have thought family life through beforehand, as I had. But I had the advantage of youth, a feminist adolescence. For this reason, another part of me admired her. What courage it must have taken to throw off the patriarchal burden of kinder and kuchen! Mostly, though, I was stunned. Sure, men leave their children all the time. But what kind of woman does this?
Many of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s characters are that kind of woman. “In Ferrante’s world, mothers regularly walk out on their children, neglect or forget about them in favor of writing and/or sexual passion; love and hate, protect and resent, guide and thwart them in equal measure,” writes Jacqueline Rose in Mothers (2018). One of these mothers is Leda, protagonist of the 2006 novel The Lost Daughter, recently adapted for film by Maggie Gyllenhaal. While on vacation at a Greek beach, Leda (played with vulnerable froideur by Olivia Coleman) finds her attention magnetized by a beautiful young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), who is engaged in languorous play with her young daughter. This intimacy, both enthralling and claustrophobic, throws Leda back twenty years, when her own two daughters’ ceaseless demands for attention and touch overwhelmed her every attempt to think, read, or even masturbate. Leda leaves her husband and children to pursue an academic career and a love affair, returning after three years. “Children,” Leda tells Nina’s pregnant sister-in-law, “are a crushing responsibility.” Only in the end of the story does she confess her maternal crime. “I’m an unnatural mother,” Leda says, without explanation or excuse.
Not everyone has loved “The Lost Daughter,” but almost all agree that its content is shocking and Gyllenhaal was courageous in making it. The Atlantic’s review is headlined: “The movie that understands the secret shame of motherhood.”
What is the shameful secret? Jeannette Catsoulis answers in the New York Times: the “raw, and even radical . . . notion that motherhood can plunder the self in irreparable ways.” Ferrante agrees. “The risk Leda runs seems to me all in that question,” she writes in an essay. “Can I, a woman of today, succeed in being loved by my daughters, in loving them, without having of necessity to sacrifice myself and therefore hate myself?” Another question might follow: can a woman like Leda choose herself over her children and not be hated?
“The Lost Daughter” is what Ann Snitow called, in a 1992 piece on feminism and motherhood, a “demon text.” Written by white feminists between 1963 and about 1974, this handful of books were in fact more demonized than demonic. Their offense? Imagining that we might “break the inexorable tie between mothers and children” and that a woman’s life could be meaningful without children. Such writing vanished as quickly as it had appeared, Snitow wrote, yet “we have been apologizing ever since.”
The first “demon text” was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan’s exegesis of “the problem that has no name”—the frustration, depression, and anger of women squashed into fulltime “homemaking” and childcare—sparked millions of women into feminist consciousness.
It also bulldozed millions more. Friedan was homophobic: How could women aspire to a career, she wondered, when the only models were “the old-maid high-school teachers; the librarian; the . . . woman doctor . . . who cut her hair like a man”? She was drearily bourgeois. For lack of inspiring mentors, she wrote, too many young women “retreated into the beatnik vacuum.”
But the gravest failing of The Feminine Mystique was its erasure of the people bell hooks called, in 1984, “the silent majority”—the Black, brown, and poor women “most victimized by sexist oppression [and] powerless to change their condition in life.” Presuming to describe the universal condition of Woman, Friedan’s “‘problem that has no name’ . . . actually referred to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle and upper class, married white women,” who longed for fulfilling careers. But who, hooks asked, would mind the house and children when these women were liberated? Friedan’s solution to “the problem” often boiled down to “get a maid”—or, more decorously, a “cleaning woman.” A third of women were already in the workforce, hooks noted. How fulfilled were the babysitters, factory workers, or prostitutes?
Friedan did not acknowledge the status her subjects enjoyed “within a racist, sexist, capitalist state,” hooks wrote. Her denunciation, comprising the first pages of Feminist Theory: from margin to center (1984), became the iconic critique not just of The Feminine Mystique but of the strain of privileged white feminism it helped to bring about.
Friedan’s “new life plan for women”—essentially access to subsidized higher education and daycare—aimed to push the stay-at-home suburban mom onto the commuter train with the men carrying briefcases. But this vision was pro-family: happy wife, happy life. A happy mother herself, Friedan had not an unkind word for motherhood.
The demon texts that followed Friedan’s were far harsher in their portrayal of motherhood, depicting it as a kind of malady. In the first edition of Our Bodies Ourselves (1970) the Boston Women’s Health Collective called pregnancy a “life crisis with tremendous growth possibilities.” Post-partem, they wrote, “the physical changes . . . are enormous. Although they are considered ‘natural’ they closely resemble the pathological.” Germaine Greer’s 1970 blockbuster The Female Eunuch diagnosed the family as a sick organism, with Mother at its “dead heart.”
The most famous, and vilified, of the second-wave texts is Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970). The book evinced outright revulsion toward biological pregnancy and childbirth. “Pregnancy is barbaric . . . the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species,” she pronounced. “Moreover, childbirth hurts and it isn’t good for you.” She quoted a friend who’d been through it: having a baby was “like shitting a pumpkin.”
For Firestone the mother-child tie was a chain-gang shackle: “The heart of woman’s oppression is her childbearing and childrearing roles.” Maternal fury is inevitable, she claimed, but this fury can be a source of revolutionary zeal. She explained: “The mother who wants to kill her child for what she has had to sacrifice for it (a common desire) learns to love that same child only when she understands that it is as helpless, as oppressed as she is, and by the same oppressor: then her hatred is directed outward, and ‘motherlove’ is born.”
How could this bondage be broken? End Nature! In vitro fertilization, “test tube babies,” and “even parthenogenesis—virgin birth—could be developed very soon,” Firestone predicted. Yes, reprotech, like warcraft, could be deployed to enforce patriarchal power. But the feminist revolution would seize the weapons and turn them on the oppressor. Compared with Friedan’s reformist white paper, The Dialectic of Sex is a cyborg’s “Bread and Roses,” singing in the death of every kind of labor. “The double curse that man should till the soil by the sweat of his brow and that woman should bear in pain and travail,” proclaimed Firestone, “would be lifted through technology to make humane living for the first time a possibility.”
Yet even as Firestone and other feminists were deconstructing the ideology of biological destiny, others still were repurposing it to build a utopian “gynocracy.” In 1974 Weather Underground fugitive Jane Alpert disseminated “Mother Right: A New Feminist Theory.” In it she declared that “the capacity to bear and nurture children” is not just the root of women’s oppression. It is “the basis of [their] powers,” whether or not they reproduce. The same mother-child bond that Firestone would smash to free human potential Alpert glorified as the promise of a humane future. “The paradigm for all social relationships is the relationship of a healthy and secure mother to her child,” she wrote. In the manifesto that would galvanize pronatalist “cultural” feminism, Alpert exhorted “Womankind” to “worship” the “Mother.”
The feminist idealization of matriarchy was compatible with the patriarchal Christian “family values” that swept Ronald Reagan to power in 1980. Together they had the muscle to keep the demon down in its hole; the “postfeminist” retraction soon began. No one seemed readier to repent than Friedan. In 1981 her book The Second Stage decried the “feminist mystique” that rejected family and motherhood. In the commencement speech she gave at her alma mater that year, she urged Smith College graduates to be nicer to men.
There is now no shortage of books about motherhood. In the Paris Review in 2018, Lauren Elkin praised a new “crop” for “their unerring seriousness, their ambition, the way they demand that the experience of motherhood in all its viscera be taken seriously as literature.” Can any of these be classified as demon texts? After I’d ordered a few, Amazon kindly offered me a screenful of recent motherhood-agnostic texts. Some guide readers on deciding whether to have kids; others guide them not to (for example, No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children (2009), by Corinne Maier; and Jen Kirkman’s I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids (2013)). The subtitle of Amy Blackstone’s Childfree by Choice (2019) trumpets a “movement redefining family and creating a new age of independence.”
A movement? A movement implies collective action; not having kids is neither collective nor active. There is, however, a community, much of which lives on social media. The “Childfree” sub-Reddit has 1.4 million members. The “I Regret Having Children” Facebook page has over 44,000, almost entirely women; other women have gathered at the markedly unladylike “Lady No-Kids.” The mommy blogs have roiled with rebellion since the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns began. Under a video of Boston mothers screaming profanities in a field, blogger “Scary Mommy” comments that the event looks funny, but its meaning is not: “We’re not tired, we’re done. We have nothing left to give.”
If one can attempt to generalize about the scores of posts, it seems the regretful moms are looking for solace, while the “child-free” are spoiling for a fight. On Facebook, “Dual Income No Kids/Single Income No Kids” (“DINK/SINK,” boasting 13,800 members) features endless photos and cartoons of musts-to-avoid (baby puke, household chaos), as well as shiny rewards-for-avoiding (poolside cocktails, diamond ring). Pugnaciousness may be the predominant tone of social media, but these people seem to be daring outsiders to find the childless distasteful.
If there is one justification for childlessness that may be popularly accepted, it is art. Art, like childbirth, is productive; the childless artist or writer cannot be accused of sloth. At the same time, artists—or I’ll speak for myself, writers—are geniuses at getting nothing done, which is not a good skill for parenting. This is the subtext of the essays in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (2015), try as both the contributors and editor Meghan Daum do to come up with something else. Not incidental, of course, is the fact that childcare is still mostly women’s job; of the sixteen writers in the collection, twelve are women. Sigrid Nunez catalogues the great ones—Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf—who did not have children. Colette neglected her unwanted daughter. Doris Lessing left two kids in Africa to return to London to write. Nunez quotes Alice Munro, who’d “bat” her two-year-old “away with one hand and type with the other.” Like Leda, Munro is rueful: the child understood herself to be “the adversary to what was most important to me.”
Some in the collection, including Michelle Huneven, had traumatic childhoods and don’t trust themselves to mother well. Laura Kipnis doesn’t cotton to mothers, “a strange and unenviable breed: harried, hampered, resentful.” Several take pains to establish themselves as the cool aunt or preempt charges of child-hating. “There’s no question that I would have loved my child with a kind of love I’d never know otherwise,” announces Daum. Tell that to the 44,000 members of “I Regret Having My Children.”
A few take it upon themselves to consider the larger social implications of their decision. Lionel Shriver frets about the Global North’s indolent birth rate while “elsewhere”—she names Niger, Yemen, and China—they are reproducing like fruit flies. In short, Millennials (presumably white ones) are shirking their eugenic duty. Shriver interviews Gabriella, who comes from “generations of academics, historians, diplomats—thinkers and doers”—her “genetic inheritance,” Gabriella calls it, without which she believes “the world will be a poorer place.” Another interviewee, Nora, has similar misgivings about the waste of her superior genes. But like Gabriella, she can’t be bothered: “Devoting my whole life to promulgating my ethnicity is a big ask,” she says. Ick.
Only the men in the collection joke freely. After all, this is not really their department. Geoff Dyer skips briskly from the deference paid the seven-year-old pashas in his posh neighborhood to a cheerful existential nihilism. “Of all the arguments for having children, the suggestion that it gives life ‘meaning’ is the one to which I am most hostile—apart from all the others. The assumption that life needs a meaning or purpose!” he exclaims. Tim Kreider describes parenthood as “noisy and toy-strewn, pee-stained and shrieky.”
Among the demon novels I read, the majority also feature artists or writers struggling to produce anything besides breast milk. At the beginning of her barely fictional autofiction I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness (2021), Claire Vaye Watkins has a sane and gainfully employed husband, a few-months-old baby, and a bang-up case of postpartum blues. Unable to “feel any feelings beyond those set to music by the Walt Disney Company,” she’s stopped writing or even caring about writing. A child of high desert hipneck poverty and daughter of the guy who procured young girls for Charles Manson, Claire has reason to be disinclined toward family life. When a friend of a friend urges escape—“Don’t fetishize marriage and babies. Don’t succumb to the axial tilt of monogamy. . . Travel! . . . Even shitty, shitty St. Patrick’s Day in Vegas is better than the best day at home with an infant”—Claire cannot argue. She quits hubby and baby, retraces her parents’ wanderings, consumes heroic amounts of intoxicants, and sows a truckload of wild oats. Occasionally she’s tickled by wistfulness for what she left behind, and she is charmed by her daughter when they eventually meet again. But she doesn’t return to the cocoon.
The Shame (2020), the brief, artful first novel by Makenna Goodman, also begins with a mother’s flight. The main character, Alma, drives from her homestead in Vermont to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the middle of the night. In Vermont, while her husband teaches at a nearby college, Alma tends sheep, cans vegetables, patches pants, repairs the woodstove—and mothers. She mothers actively, conscientiously—though not excellently, in her own estimation, and with waning verve. “‘Cherish it,’ a woman told me at the market, smiling at the kids. I wanted to punch her in the fucking face.”
Alma is also an unpublished writer. She begins a story whose narrator is herself, only better. Then she discovers the character’s model on a mothering site. “Celeste” is a single mom and ceramicist leading a hilariously Instagrammable life. Celeste travels to Bali, plays the harmonium, “ate raw clams with cranberry horseradish relish at the MOMA.” “Her handbag was a cube of Oaxacan palm leaves.” The story fades away, but Alma continues to follow Celeste obsessively online. Finally, she takes off to Williamsburg to find her. When she does, Alma witnesses her idol shoving a croissant into the face of her hysterical toddler.
The Shame is about ambition, envy, consumption, and the difficult, exhilarating search for a writerly voice, among other things. But, like the other demon novels, it is mainly about the ways that motherhood can plunder—or cleave—the self. “Motherhood had cracked me in half. My self as a mother and my self as not were two different people, distinct,” writes Watkins. “Someone else had written [her books], elves-and-shoemaker style.” Alma laments, “I was being stretched to my limit when it came to mothering. I tried to access a feeling of selfhood from small bouts of writing, daydreaming, and painting.” The work goes nowhere; the chores are “daunting,” the children “parasitic. . . I had no idea who I was anymore, or what I liked to do.” Only when the fantasized self is revealed as false—the celestial is brought to earth—can Alma become whole, artist and mother.
Two other books literalize the metaphor of the split self. In The Need (2019), Helen Phillips’s highly praised novel, Molly, a paleobotanist with young children Viv and Ben, is pursued by Moll, the embodied ghost of her negative alter-life. Moll longs for the children she lost to a suicide bomber—the children Molly has and is going bats caring for. In the end Molly incorporates Moll—good mother and bad, “one shadow.” In the haunting of the lucky mother by the grieving could-have-been mother, one might see a pale allusion to Toni Morrison’s Sethe, among the greatest tragic mothers in literature, who is haunted by the ghost of the beloved child she kills to save from the atrocities of slavery.
Nightbitch, of the eponymous 2021 novel by Rachel Yoder, is a conceptual artist trying not to be consumed by motherhood. Her son “was her only project. She had done the ultimate job of creation, and now she had nothing left,” she tells herself. “To keep him alive—that was the only artistic gesture she could muster.” But the restless, ruthlessly desiring artist refuses to be displaced by the compulsorily giving mother. Ferocity transforms woman into dog: Nightbitch. Self-integration begins when Nightbitch trains her boy to be a puppy. Having never gone to sleep without endless snacks and stories, he beds down happily in a dog crate. And when, unable to contain her canine instincts, Nightbitch kills the family cat, the child is giddy, and suggests they eat it.
A striking aspect of this body of work is its whiteness. The contributors to Selfish are well established, well enough off, and almost all white. The white parents in the novels are heterosexual, married, and middle class. They live in private homes. Except for Molly, who depends on Aunt Norma for succor and babysitting, the families are nuclear: the wives responsible for the kids, the husbands offstage, pursuing careers. These moms do not solve their problems by organizing community daycares or marching for universal basic income. At best, they demand that the fathers chip in.
Duke University Black feminist scholar Jennifer C. Nash mentions this whiteness in a 2018 review essay called “The Political Life of Black Motherhood.” The field of maternal studies, launched by the 1976 publication of Adrienne Rich’s seminal Of Woman Born, was “fundamentally shaped by the intellectual and political labor of black feminists,” Nash writes. She cites hooks, Dorothy Roberts, author of the massively influential Killing the Black Body (1997), sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, literary critic Hortense Spillers, and essayist-poet Audre Lorde. Yet maternal memoirs, which also proliferated after Rich’s book, are overwhelmingly white. And not only white, they also tend toward the demonic (a term Nash doesn’t use). The genre, she says, “roots itself in mapping white maternal ambivalence, in treating motherhood as a space that takes—perhaps even steals—from women.”
Like hooks, Collins links these women’s problems to whiteness. In Black Feminist Thought (1990), Collins argues that white assumptions about motherhood—the nuclear, private family household, the mother as sole caregiver economically dependent on a man—have historically been alien to African American women. With roots in African tribal cultures and the wrenched-apart families of slavery, as well as the exigencies of ongoing poverty, a collective approach to raising children is common in African American communities. A bloodmother cares for her children within a web of aunts and grannies, neighbors, othermothers, or “fictive kin” who take in children orphaned by the sale or death of their parents in slavery or whose parents cannot keep them due to destitution, illness, or incarceration.
Collins stresses that “in woman-centered kin units . . . the centrality of mothers is not predicated on male powerlessness” or absence. Yet this was the charge made by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”—a charge that lives on in welfare and child-protective practices.
Overly powerful Black mothers, not white supremacist policies, produced a “tangle of pathology” resulting in violence and social disintegration, Moynihan claimed. “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.”
Snitow called the Moynihan Report one of the real anti-mother demon texts of the 1960s. I’d nominate it a contender for all time. But Moynihan was neither the first nor the last to characterize Black motherhood as pathological. After his report came the mythical “welfare queen” and the depraved (also mythical) “crack mother.” Meanwhile, in these same decades, an image of the Black mother was emerging on the other side of the mask. In media as diverse as TV sitcoms and Black Power leaflets, she was a warrior-mother, both victim of the trauma of African-American life under white supremacy, and also its iconic resister.
Nash explores another “now-dominant,” more flattering though equally flattening, picture of Black motherhood. Here it is “a site of spiritual and psychic renewal” and a revolutionary, transgressive practice, “always upending prevailing heterosexist, patriarchal, antiblack, and misogynistic norms.” In The Atlantic, Leah Wright Rigueur opens a piece with a scene of her laughing uproariously at the birth of her third child—a Madonna of Black Joy. “Celebratory joy felt particularly appropriate for the occasion given the reality of Black mothers’ experiences in America,” she writes. Even white cultural feminists of the 1970s plucked from Blackness to draw the blueprints of their matriarchal utopias. They looked, for instance, to the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler, in whose futures the populations are brown and the mothers, while fierce and ornery (and sometimes male), are world-shapers.
Is the demon text white because Black and brown women have more serious worries than the binkie buried in the back seat of the SUV? Are they preoccupied by problems of survival, such as disproportionate rates of maternal and infant mortality, environmental racism, and surveillance by “child-protective” services? Are maternal resentment, rage, and indifference White People Problems? Like the men in the Selfish anthology, at least one Dominican-American male novelist skewers this notion. The mother of the protagonist in a Junot Díaz story wonders why a young neighborhood woman has no kids. “Maybe she just doesn’t like children,” he suggests. The mother replies: “Nobody likes children. . . . That doesn’t mean you don’t have them.”
Nash agrees that maternal ambivalence is not the exclusive province of white people. She asks why Black feminist scholars “steadfastly refuse to document the violence of motherhood apart from the threat of state violence.” She is not interested in supplanting one dominant image with another but rather, wishes for complexity. “Is there space for maternal unhappiness in the black feminist theoretical maternal archive, space for accounts of motherhood that find mothering profoundly unradical, perhaps even tedious, exhausting, or upsetting?” Where are the childless-by-choice, the careerist, the just-going-about-her-business Black mom? Portraying the Black mother as the apotheotic revolutionary not only eclipses a vast range of everyday experience, says Nash, it also “shores up a singular notion of radical black female subjectivity: motherhood.”
An outlier in this landscape is Alice Walker, a writer-mother who has wrestled publicly with her dual identity. But just as Snitow looked back on the demon texts of the 1960s and ’70s and found them less demonic than all that, Walker’s “One Child of One’s Own,” published in Ms. in 1979, is remembered as a treatise on maternal ambivalence, whereas it is much less ambivalent about motherhood than it is enraged about what Cherie Moraga later summed up regarding social justice movements of the 1970s: “All the women were white, all the Blacks were men.” Toward that one child, Rebecca, Walker is tender; she speaks of the pains of motherhood, such as worrying about the child’s illness and the racism she will face, but she appreciates how those pains opened her to worlds she would not otherwise have known. The piece ends with a poem listing the obstacles various women writers faced—Woolf her madness, Austen her lovelessness—and “You [Alice] have Rebecca—who is/ much more delightful/ and less distracting / than any of the calamities/ above.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of Alice Walker’s chief demonizers is Rebecca Walker. In an interview with NPR, the daughter described the Ms. piece as “extremely ambivalent about motherhood.” Alice, Rebecca recalled, “talked about how you should really only have one child, because if you had more than one child you would be enslaved to your children, and you wouldn’t be able to be creative, and you wouldn’t be able to be free, and you would lose your independence and your peace of mind.” Nor had she forgotten that Mom called her a calamity. Rebecca has gotten her revenge; quite publicly she renounced Alice. Still, the poetic symmetry does not escape her. The NPR interview marked the release of Rebecca’s own memoir Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence.
We can improve motherhood: we can make it less onerous and more egalitarian, stop criminalizing “bad” mothers, and quit pressuring people who do not want kids into having them. But these are incremental reforms. They will not solve the real problems of motherhood, which, as the demon texts plainly show, simply adapt to the times. Like capitalism, motherhood will always find ways to screw mothers.
The only solution is to abolish mothers.
That, in essence, is Shulamith Firestone’s vision in The Dialectic of Sex. It is also Sophie Lewis’s in Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (2019). Like Firestone, Lewis is uninterested in reform. She is a utopian. She wants to break not just the inexorable tie between mothers and children but the links between mothers and gestation, gestation and family, family and capitalism, and capitalism and human life. “Let’s prefigure a way of manufacturing one another noncompetitively,” Lewis writes. “Let’s hold one another hospitably, explode notions of hereditary parentage, and multiply real, loving solidarities. Let us build a care commune based on comradeship, a world sustained by kith and kind more than by kin. Where pregnancy is concerned, let every pregnancy be for everyone. Let us overthrow, in short, the ‘family.’”
In the meantime, Lewis argues, those who perform gestational labor—commercial surrogates—must have workers’ rights and autonomy. The book’s through line is a journalistic investigation of an Indian surrogacy facility called the Akanksha Fertility Clinic and of its owner and manager, Dr. Nayana Patel. Earning wealth and social cachet off the low-paid, highly controlled workers’ backs, Patel fashions herself a feminist and rescuer of the downtrodden poor. But Full Surrogacy Now is not an exposé, and the surrogates’ own testimonies complicate any villain-victim narrative. Rather, Lewis uses commercial gestation as a lens through which to interrogate the gendered, economic, and sentimental presumptions about “natural” baby production and family-making.
Whether unpaid or commercial—a labor of love, obligation, or livelihood—gestation is work, Lewis insists. Calling it work does not “dignify” surrogacy, however, or imply a demand for wages for parenting. Rather, it positions gestation as a site of resistance to the capitalist commodification of everything: “What if we reimagined pregnancy, and not just its prescribed aftermath, as work under capitalism—that is, as something to be struggled in and against toward a utopian horizon free of work and free of value?”
Periodically, the press announces that the artificial womb is just around the corner—within two generations, a scientist recently told the BBC. In that documentary, as in all the others, the brows on the talking heads furrow over ethical issues and democratic input. Then they unfurrow, as they celebrate the coming marvels for preemies and joys for the uterus-deprived—in this piece, a handsome gay couple (no ecstatic biotech shareholders are pictured).
Firestone saw the baby machine as the engine of revolution, redefining “our relationship to production and reproduction” and leading to the end of class and the family. Lewis notes that we don’t even need the incubator. “Since the perfection of IVF techniques enabled a body to gestate entirely foreign material,” she writes, “living humans have become the sexless ‘technology’ component of the euphemism Assisted Reproductive Technology.’” This is not a reason to ban the practice, the high-moral goal of some feminists and human rights activists, says Lewis; surrogacy, like abortion, will continue whether it is legal or not. “When everybody is announcing calamity and dystopia, it is very important to notice that, with surrogacy as with so much else, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” she writes. “But equally, and far more excitingly, there is this: the more things stay the same with surrogacy, the more people force them to change.” What will be forced to change ultimately includes not just gestation, but everything: parenthood, childhood, care, community.
Might Lewis’s full surrogacy and mutual human remaking offer a way out for the mothers of the demon novels? In the penultimate section of The Need, Molly has reluctantly capitulated to Moll’s entreaties to spend time with the children. Soon, she comes to depend on this mothering surrogate—because, really, what mother doesn’t need at least one? The women set up an alternating schedule: one hides in the husband’s basement studio while the other tends to the kids. But Molly’s guilt and anxiety compel her to lurk, then to appear, during Moll’s shifts.
One evening Molly and the children become ill and fall into a fevered sleep together. When she emerges from the bedroom, she finds them recovered and bathed, at the kitchen table with Moll. “Hi, other Mommy,” says Viv casually when she spots her “real” mother. Ben barely notices her. Later, Molly and Moll will press together into one, an enlightened, renewed individual. Could they have continued “manufacturing one another noncompetitively?” A mother has awakened from the sleep of reason, and her world is transformed. Yet there are no monsters here. Just a woman and a couple of kids, eating snacks in their pajamas.
Judith Levine is the author of five books and countless articles exploring politics, policy, and public emotion, especially at the intersection of sex and justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and a small town in northeastern Vermont.
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