I am waiting on the bed under the bright lights of the surgical room, following an excruciating period fully dilated with no access to gas or drugs while my spinal tap for an emergency c-section was prepared. Numb, but ever the sociologist, I try to make conversation with the staff about their work life and conditions. One of the surgeons answers that, in fact, he cannot remember how many of these he has already done today. It has been at least half an hour since I have seen my partner, and I am starting to get anxious about how anxious he must be. One of the surgical staff notices. ‘Don’t worry, your husband will be here soon’, she says. It is the first time anyone has assumed we must be married, but it certainly will not be the last.
They finally let my partner in, cut me open and fish out our daughter Frances. The harsh lights of the surgery turn to stars in her eyes.
My partner is told that because of COVID, if he leaves the hospital for any reason, they will not let him back in. Neither of us had thought to pack him clothes in the hospital bag. Food arrives, for me only, and my partner is told that the shower is for patients only. A midwife comes in and greets us: ‘Hello Hannah and Frances…’ she glances at my partner on the other side of the room, ‘Hello man’. With every interaction we are ushered into the norms of the heterosexual nuclear family. The message is clear: as mother I am expected to be handling my newborn on my own, and my partner as father is expected to be somewhere else, or at least to get out of our way.
Frequently what is done in the name of mothers ends up compounding the gender roles that people who give birth are expected to fulfil. In July 2022 the newly elected Labor government in Australia decided to remove the gender-neutral language options on forms for new parents that were being trialled in several hospitals. The change came after a critique levelled by social media maven and trans-exclusionary feminist Sall Grover, followed by a culture-war style hounding in the Daily Telegraph. Labor readily folded, replacing the ‘birthing parent’ option with ‘birth mother’. Grover later appeared on Sky News, speaking as ‘an appreciative mother’. The confected moral outrage around the issue is symptomatic of a conservative push to wind back advances in trans rights. Yet Grover presented the issue as distinctly feminist, a battle frontier for mothers. As she suggested, ‘What has been proven this week is if more women speak up, we win. So I’m hoping that it inspires women, when they see that our language or our rights, our spaces, our sport, are under attack, start speaking up…’
Given the cloying emphasis on gendered bodies in the motherhood discourse it is no surprise to see that the transphobic views of people like Grover gain traction. This form of transphobic feminism not only dismisses the reality of gender diversity amongst birthing parents, it funnels the rage and resentment that cisgender women might feel around motherhood into a narrow culture wars focus, through doubling down on the category of mother. From this vantage there can be no critique of the nuclear family that punishes people of all genders in different ways, no critique of the narrow heteronormative framework for understanding gender, sexuality, biology, roles and identity. There can be no analysis of the system of gender relations that gives some men power while alienating them from emotions and care. Mothers are not angry because of an entrenched system of patriarchal sexism, but because their status as mothers is, apparently, ‘under attack’.
The set of assumptions around having children at play here goes like this: all birth parents are cisgender women to whom we must refer as mothers (to suggest otherwise is ‘erasure’), most partners are cisgender men, and the best way to remedy the physical and social demands that birth parents (‘mothers’) bear is to elevate the cultural status of mother as much as possible. This latter assumption acts as a kind of Pharmakon – it is both cure and poison, solution, and scapegoat. Similarly, we might think of this relation to motherhood as what late cultural theorist Lauren Berlant described as ‘cruel optimism.’ As Berlant explains: ‘when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing… when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially’.
For me birth was illustrative of how becoming parents pegs you to a whole new set of heterosexual gender expectations: there I was, the new mother, left alone to cope through pain and fear; my partner, the father, sent to another room with no information; us now understood to be husband and wife.
As the birthing parent, this shepherding into the gendered role of mother started long before labour and was exacerbated by pandemic restrictions. I was required to attend all my prenatal appointments at the hospital alone, all my scans alone, even when I had unexpected bleeding. While the public health measures were understandable, I noticed that every clinic, space, and interaction around birth was built for me not just as a birthing person, but in very specific gendered ways.
From the names of clinics (‘WUMe’ for Women’s Ultrasound Melbourne) to the pictures on the wall in these spaces (motivational posters using high heels as metaphor), the sense of birth as ‘secret women’s business’ was unshakeable. I had imagined my partner and I would venture into parenting as partners. Instead, I was frequently forced into solitude through the category of woman, left alone to navigate this huge thing to come.
In one online group that I joined while pregnant – for mothers of babies due around the same period – posts took a decidedly dark turn once everyone was postpartum. Posts detailed how much childraising women were having to shoulder alone, how much cleaning and cooking they were trying to juggle around nappies and naps, how husbands were going out with friends after work and leaving wives to deal with screaming newborns alone.
One viral image that circulated via my social media algorithms at the time was from ‘Norway’s biggest mom-Instagrammer’ Sara Emiliee, which depicted her holding her baby on the edge of a bed with her partner asleep behind them, and a sign reading ‘I don’t want to sleep like a baby, I just want to sleep like my husband’. Another highly circulated image, from ‘The Natural Parent Magazine’ on Facebook, was a drawing of a woman in her underwear, holding a tiny baby, crying and sitting on the edge of a bed on an incontinence pad, her partner turned away, presumably asleep. The caption in part reads:
if you’re out there, treading water
Buried in laundry and breastmilk
Surviving on freezer pizza and three hours of sleep
Thinking mildly unkind thoughts about the person you chose to parent with
Because he can’t seem to calm the baby or remember your smoothies or grasp the depths of the earth shaking transition you’re navigating
You’re not alone
And it will get easier
One sleepy, shaky day at a time
So much of this kind of content appeared, posts that championed the capacity of mothers to carry on, and represented fathers as blissfully, stupidly, exasperatingly unaffected by children.
Seeing these posts filled me with despair for the state of things; they were an insight into how the culture around birth acts as a passage into the restrictive norms of the nuclear family. Many such posts emphasised the postpartum body and breastfeeding, naturalising the idea that birth parents cannot help but shoulder all the work. The response to these posts was never ‘okay, so how do we change this?’, but rather, ‘you got this mama’. The spectre of the heterosexual nuclear family haunts every assumption around ‘family’; the less we expect of men as fathers the more we expect of women as mothers.
In reproduction the ‘natural’ clouds the air, from conception to breastfeeding. Stigma circulates around anything that deviates from presumed natural pathways. From lesbian and queer parents using donor sperm, to couples accessing In Vitro Fertilisation, and parents practicing mixed or formula-only feeding – there is a strange silence around these practices in birthing culture discourse, despite their ubiquity.
The idea that there is ‘nothing more natural to a woman than giving birth’ is one that I encountered many times while pregnant. I noticed this myth, for example, heavily perpetuated in a birthing class that my partner and I attended before our baby arrived. It is obviously meant to be reassuring, to give you the confidence to face the extreme sport that is attempting to push an infant out of a small orifice. Yet it also creates the imaginary notion of mother as a woman capable of anything. This myth is a kind of ‘lean in’ for birth: every mother is the girlboss of her body.
There is very real pain tied to the expectations placed on birthing parents as mothers who are women. The midwife running our birthing class talked us through the different options for ‘pain management’ during labour. The options of TENS machines (which block your pain pathway through administering small electric shocks up your spine) and laughing gas got the thumbs up, while epidural and morphine got a big thumbs down. While the midwife promoted the former as brief and non-invasive, the latter were marked as dangerous, unpleasant, and even unlikely to work. The midwife emphasised that pain was something you had to manage, not eliminate. The message was clear: woman are superheroes and if you simply believe in your ability to birth, you can, with minimal intervention. And pain? Something to endure.
Sceptical, I went home to read scientific papers on the topic, and found that yes, positive attitude to birth is one of the strongest predictors of positive experiences of pain in childbirth. However, another of the strongest predictors is having an epidural. As one 2021 study even found, ‘despite initial intentions, most of the women end up having an epidural, and most describe their epidurals as both wonderful and immensely helpful’.
I opt for the TENS machine and gas in my labour plan, the image of ‘natural birth’ as the ideal aim hanging over me. I end up having a spinal tap for the emergency c-section and despite my critical awareness I cannot shake the cultural messages about natural birth, cannot help feeling that I have failed, that I have not adequately ‘given’ birth. I question whether it was a failure of mindset or something more fundamental about my womanliness, a gendering which is becoming increasingly abstract to me every step of the way from pregnancy to parenthood.
With me recovering from my unexpected c-section and unable to drive for six weeks, my partner decides to take accrued annual leave to be at home. While my work allows an incredible 36 weeks of primary carer leave – hard won through union struggle – at the time my partner is only entitled to one week from his work. Even workplaces that provide greater partner leave often do not allow this to be concurrent. People of an older generation kept reminding us that a week was a lot better than in the past, when partners tended to only get one day or so before they were expected to return to work.
A few weeks after the birth, we have our first parents group meet up and my partner is the only father to attend the session. I suspect the reason is that we have the youngest baby in the group and other partners have returned to work. Nevertheless, it feels awkward. One of the other mums sets up a group chat and titles it ‘Mothers Group’. This would become our common experience of attending baby activities together. My partner the only man, feeling slightly on the edge of things as if intruding into space he should not be part of. We form a unit that inexplicably fails to comply to the rules of the heterosexual nuclear family where fathers should be out earning bread.
By the end of the first six weeks my partner decides to continue working part-time to ensure he is around as much as possible while our baby is still young. Materially this decision is facilitated by my good wage and leave conditions. Yet many people we encounter express puzzlement not over the ‘how’ of this decision, but rather, the ‘why’. Why was my partner not at work? Why did we need him? Were there long-term complications after the c-section? For me the subtext was: why could I not handle things on my own?
‘You got this mama’ is a mantra in online spaces around motherhood. It is a phrase designed to communicate recognition of how hard motherhood is, while offering encouragement. Mama culture, as we might term it, is about elevating the status of mother in the face of difficult conditions. Yet it also involves a pacification of imagining, or even demanding, a shift in gender dynamics around parenting. When things are hard, mamas ‘got this’.
A search for #yougotthismama on Instagram reveals reams of pastel-coloured posts designed by entrepreneurial ‘momfluencers’, most featuring instructional text about how to be a good mother. ‘Helping your children….’, ‘What to do when your child says…’, ‘Four steps for…’, ‘Mom confession….’, ‘Postpartum real talk…’ and so on. Usually, I don’t have to actively search for this content because the algorithm started feeding it to me as soon as it realised that I was pregnant. Much of this content is framed within psychological – or pseudo-psychological – wellness culture language.
For example, Ashurina Ream, or Psychedmommy, on Instagram, offers tips around perinatal mental health. Like most momfluencers she has monetised her status, offering things like online courses and sponsored content. One such course, ‘Keeping Mommy in Mind’ looks at the experience of women feeling resentment toward their partners around childrearing. Rather than critiquing the uneven division of labour, the goals are managing one’s feelings in order to resolve intimacy issues with partners. The focus of this culture tends to stay on women individually governing themselves, negotiating their minds, bodies, and families, not how to tear down gendered expectations altogether.
While there is an emerging trend of ‘dadfluencers’ posting under hashtags life #dadlife, generally the emphasis on fatherhood on social media pales in comparison to the omnipresence and influence of mama culture. You will rarely encounter the catchphrase #yougotthisdad, I think because dads simply aren’t expected to have ‘got this’ in the same way as mothers. In the imaginary of the heterosexual nuclear family dads are expected to be out in the world, not at home negotiating newborns and checking Instagram for tips.
Ironically a chunk of online ‘mama culture’, under the banner of ‘natural parenting‘, does engage with questions of patriarchy. In this genre of mama culture, energy is directed toward questioning the medical system or technologies and methods of birth and mothering, rather than nuclear family dynamics or heterosexual partnerships. From this angle how quickly a critique of patriarchy becomes a set of tacit moral rules about how to be a good mother: have a home birth (never trust the patriarchal medical system), practice ‘hypnobirthing’ (use only breathing and no drugs in labour), prioritise babywearing over prams (to stayed connected with your baby), make sure you nurture yourself postpartum (practice ‘self-care’/purchase the right products), and so on.
It seems wherever you turn within mama culture there are prescriptions. Scholar Kathryn Jezer-Morton, who studies momfluencers, argues that while originally many bloggers in the mama culture space challenged patriarchal power structures, today much of the discourse is about performing as the ‘right’ kind of mother, and setting oneself apart from the ‘wrong’ kinds.
Mama culture is rife with cruel optimism. The desire is for a world where it is easier to be a parent, where parents are better supported from pregnancy through to birth and beyond. Yet while expressing this desire mama culture holds on tight to elevating the status of mother, and appealing to biological determinism related to womanhood at that, which redoubles the expectations and burdens on mothers to be the centre of their child’s universe. The response to the social expectation women bear the brunt of childrearing is valorisation, not critique.
A common description you will find in the #yougotthismama space is that mother is ‘the sun around which her child orbits’. This role assertion means mother is the one who knows everything about her baby, the only one who can make her baby happy. The story is that this is simply nature, biology. Here mama culture doubles down on a gendered narrative, rather than reflecting on the trap this represents.
Mama culture reiterates pregnancy, birth, and parenting newborns as secret women’s business. It lets fathers off the hook while at once shutting fathers out. From this vantage there are also no non-binary parents, no trans parents, no same sex couples – these parents are the exceptions who do not warrant attention under mama culture, who pose confronting challenges to the binary that mama culture relies on. There is only the imaginary of the heterosexual nuclear family, and all of the assumptions that go with it.
In reflecting on the gendering of parenting the question is not ‘but what about men?’ Instead, I would hope to offer ‘what is broken about the assumptions around the heterosexual nuclear family?’ and ‘what are we going to do about it?’ In my view there is much to be done: let go of the gendered ideologies around parenting that keep us trapped; admit that we don’t ‘got this’; expect more of communities; demand more of institutions.
While transphobes might lament gender neutral language and ideas as destroying motherhood, I say: blow it up. The alternative is becoming fixated on the categories that oppress us. As Sophie Lewis argues in their book Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, ‘If feminists want to denaturalize the gender of reproductive work more generally, we have to stop (re-)imposing gender on gestation and gestators in particular’. Every time a transphobic feminist, or a mama culture influencer argues on behalf of mothers everywhere, the possibilities for what it means to be a mother, a woman, a birthing person, how to parent, and who should be involved, shrink.
What might happen if we let go of our cruelly optimistic attachments that keep us trapped in hardened gender relations? Loosen our language, the idea of mother as the centre of the child’s universe, the myths of mama culture? Imagine the supernova, the constellations to form that might finally mean freedom.