By Aster Woods
Shelley Park in “Queering Motherhood” discusses her personal experience with being both a birth-giving mother and an adoptive mother in an extended family. She considers her children’s own perspectives on the way in which she mothers them; her adopted daughter in particular is resistant to her claim of motherhood, screaming “You’re not my real mother!” at her through a slammed-shut door. This leads Park to consider:
“ If child’s affective psychology might be queered to allow “room in her mind” for two (or more) mothers.”
Which begs the question, how do children absorb and interact with monomaternalism as it intersects with the heteronormative hegemony? This is the “teleological script – mythological life script” It is the pervasive system of indoctrination to the idea that a nuclear family is the only worthwhile family. It is tempting to see this as an outdated concept – and it is – and yet it remains with us, a shadow cast by our confusion and doubt. This concept of a perfect family is flawed in so many ways; as Park says, it:
“Ignores historical realities of genetic families divided by poverty, war, and slavery. It is further contested by the now common forms of family created by adoption, divorce, and remarriage, and new reproductive technologies such as surrogacy and in vitro fertilization (IVF)”.
Intuition is arguably an infant’s most profound sense of ability. Babies have no other reliable sense, no way of understanding the things they do perceive, but they can intuit accurately and consistently from birth. Furthermore, as a child begins to learn about the world around them, they are devoted to classification and organizing systems; particularly child-friendly systems such as color-coding. Have you noticed the extent to which we classify children’s gender? Before they have any concept of it their clothing, toys, books, games, and TV is telling them exactly what they are and how to behave based on that. This is compounded by what they mirror from the people around them (predominantly parents, although teachers and extended families play a huge role also) their intuition leading their development in a subtle but insidious way toward conformity. The “unlearning” of this comes in fits and starts later and throughout life; girls of 7 or 8 will ritualistically destroy their barbies, disavowing simultaneously their child-ness and their female-ness. Young boys have less permissivity in their experimentation of rejection; in a world where femalehood is seen as defective, a young girl aping boyhood is seen as unproblematic whereas a boy rejecting boyhood is cause for serious concern. The teenage years, with their turbulent uncertainty, are often marked with a return to gender norms which are then re-negotiated in emerging adulthood.
And so, to revisit Park’s question – How to “queer a child’s affective psychology” to refute the heteronormative one-mother fallacy?
From an adopted child’s perspective, these two frameworks are irreconcilable; loyalty to either script requires the child to be disloyal to someone in her life. Hence, as I suggest here, neither script’s notion of a “real” mother is adequate and the adopted child—indeed all children with multiple mothers, including children of divorce and remarriage, children of lesbian partners, and children birthed with the aid of new reproductive technologies and relationships—need to learn to deconstruct the nature/culture dichotomy that gives rise to these notions.
The nature vs nurture debate leads to some difficult ideological areas. One argument supporting genetics and privileging gestation and birth as the only valid path to motherhood, can be uncovered as problematic when you consider the child is a person in their own right, who cannot be owned or controlled unless ethical structures are seriously breached. However, are children blank slates? I don’t believe so. Genetic and epigenetic factors aside, how much do we pass on to our children?
As Uma Narayan (1999) states, perhaps the most ethical form of parenting holds “the virtue of privileging a child’s interests above those of competing parents, treating children more as ends-in-themselves than as objects of property-like disputes between contending parents.”
Furthermore, by rejecting the teleological, monomaternalistic and heteronormative life-script we are able to engage again with other historical and cultural forms of child-rearing, which involve:
“maintain[ing] as many . . . parental connections with adults who wish to maintain these bonds as is . . . feasible in any given case”
And, when done responsibly and ethically, have been proven to be beneficial for the health of all children and adults involved.
Park, Shelley M. Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood. State University of New York Press, 2013.
Petrella, Serena. 2005. A geneology of serial monogamy. In Geneologies of identity: Interdisciplinary readings on sex and sexuality, eds. Margaret Sönser Breen and Fiona Peters, 169–82.
Narayan, Uma. 1999. Family ties: Rethinking parental claims in the light of surrogacy and custody. In Having and raising children: Unconventional families, hard choices, and the social good, ed. Uma Narayan and Julia J. Bartkowiak, 65–86. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.