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A new book is a multi-layered exploration of the complex identity issues that motherhood stirs up.
What is motherhood? How does it shape us? How much power do we have to shape it? A new book asks some profound questions about the assumptions, expectations and reality of motherhood.
Pragya Agarwal’s (M)otherhood: on the choices of being a woman is, she says, “about the relationship women have with their bodies” and about the extent to which they have autonomy over the decisions they make about their bodies, how intersectional issues such as race, class, sex and sexuality affect these, the extent to which women’s fertility has been controlled in a variety of different ways and how workplace policies and practices often make the choice to be a mother harder.
Most particularly it is about how motherhood affects women’s sense of identity or identities and the book argues strongly for the diversity of mothering experiences.
Agarwal emphasises that motherhood is not just about giving birth. She charts her own experience of rejecting gender stereotypes, rejecting motherhood, then finding herself pregnant at a young age and, following a traumatic birth, falling in love with her daughter and discovering that motherhood is her “biggest gesture of defiance”.
Agarwal’s rich, multi-layered book is a passionate exploration of what one critic calls “ambivalence”, of the fact that so many aspects of life are not black and white, but variations of grey. As an immigrant Agarwal, for instance, feels both a racial outsider and an insider in many other ways. She talks about abortion – where, she says, “relief and regret can co-exist” and where harking back to some mythical golden age where things were simpler is not only false memory, but ignores the experience of many people who have been historically marginalised.
Agarwal writes powerfully about IVF and the exclusion of black and brown women’s experiences in articles and books about this and the added stigma they face. She talks about negative attitudes to infertility, about guilt – that perennial of the motherhood world, about colonial and patriarchal attitudes to reproduction, about the need for more ‘feminist’ pregnancy tests that make it easier for women everywhere to find out early if they are pregnant, about miscarriage and about the many conflicting emotions that women have towards motherhood and towards being ‘a good enough mother’.
There is a long section on surrogacy, on the power dynamics involved, on attitudes towards surrogacy and lack of regulation. Agarwal, who has two children as a result of surrogacy, writes: “We have tried to do everything as rigorously, and as above board as possible. But we worry. Guilt remains, and now this guilt has taken on a huge life of its own for me. Guilt for my infecundity; guilt for my entitlement. Fruitless. Futile.”
She describes feeling eternally grateful and yet resentful of her surrogate and of feeling like a failure and an imposter.
And she writes passionately about how gendered attitudes about motherhood might affect trans men. Although she interviewed trans men for the book, she feels she cannot speak for them, but notes how the loss of self many feel on becoming a mother can be even more acute “when it conflicts with the gender identity of a person, with their morphing body not seeming like their own any more”. She asks: “Is motherhood only shaped by our hormones and our biology or is it shaped by love?”
For Agarwal, motherhood and all the expectations attached to it – from society and from ourselves – can box women in. But deciding not to have children is not easy either. “Motherhood, or the choice to be a mother, is a vast landscape. Barren, fertile; blooming, fecund. Crisscrossed with mazes, teeming with opinions. It can be a lonely journey, while we are paradoxically never alone at any step; our bodies held accountable with every choice, pushed into crevices and nooks left vacant by women gone before us. Motherhood is constructed from a patriarchal idealisation of women’s selfhood.”
She argues that only when motherhood shifts away from biology and towards attachment can we have an honest conversation about it and perhaps reimagine it as “a woman’s choice rather than their destiny”.
This is not to deny the absolutely enormous impact of becoming a mother on a person’s identity – something Agarwal describes as ‘transformative’. She writes: “I resisted motherhood, avoided it, capitulated to it. But in the end, it was being a mother that has been my saving grace, allowing me to reconcile all my different selves. And suddenly, just like that, I don’t need to search for a place to belong. I belong to myself as much as these children belong to themselves. I see my whole history stretching out behind me holding me close and safe. And in some ways it is a relief…”
What matters, she says, is that girls are able to have more autonomy in future and to truly shape their own lives. She writes: “Although I have worried about my right to be [her daughters’] mother, all that truly matters is their right to be their own person. Their bodies; their privilege. No external gaze; no scrutiny. No shame imposed; no transformation wrested. No elegies to lives unlived, and life unfulfilled. No one carving out a life for them; they carve themselves.”