Unsex Mothering Responses: Camille Gear Rich


Race-ing Motherhood

A Response to Darren Rosenblum’s Unsex Mothering: Toward a Culture of New Parenting

Camille Gear Rich[1]

Unsex Mothering[2] does exactly what one expects of fantastic legal scholarship: it provokes deep thought and leaves the reader wanting to hear more from the author.  Professor Rosenblum provides a rich, nuanced exploration of the ways in which mothering has been conflated with bio-sex.  He reveals how reproductive technologies, adoption, and other non-traditional approaches to becoming a parent have revealed the socially constructed nature of mothering.  The conceptual space created by these currently circulating, multiple definitions of motherhood provides us with the opportunity to consider how both genders can and should be allowed to take on “mothering” roles. 

While attractive, Rosenblum’s call also triggers certain reservations, for his model of motherhood is shaped by race and class in ways that should give feminists pause.  In this response, I call on him to race motherhood—that is, to explore the race and class dimensions of his notion of motherhood—before moving on to a call for both genders to play this mothering function.  The white, middle class understanding of motherhood on which his model is based has been a disciplinary tool that has worked to disadvantage women of color and poor women of all races, and even today is used to subordinate the group of middle class mothers on which it is ostensibly based. 

Rosenblum’s vision of unsexed motherhood is quite compelling in its abstract form.  He proposes that in an unsexed world one person would devote herself to being a primary parent, with the other partner taking on a secondary role.  He assures those of us who do take pleasure in gender constructs that his model does not require a move towards androgyny, as he appreciates the electricity that gender brings to parenting understandings. 

However, when one fully instrumentalizes Rosenblum’s concept of primary parent, one sees how deeply the model of white, middle class motherhood shapes his understanding.  His expectation is that a primary parent either opts out of labor market participation (particularly in the child’s early years) or retains a much smaller role in the world of paid work in order to perform this primary parent role.  Yet as feminists well know, even under a regime that ensures that one does not lose wages during this period, a primary parent suffers certain opportunity costs, as the decision to develop a childcare specialty prevents her from developing other more broadly marketable skills during this period.  This childcare specialization ultimately becomes the source of the primary parent’s social subordination as she devotes time, energy, and intellect to a function that is socially necessary but deeply undervalued.  Before we advocate that both genders bear obligations to perform this role, we might question the origins of this assumption about childrearing and, further, whether it is necessary from a feminist point of view to retain this understanding. 

Why does Rosenblum make this assumption about what it means to be a primary parent?  From my vantage point, as the daughter of a working class woman of color, I have a much different understanding; there was no question that my mother was my “primary parent,” but she also had little choice but to engage in full time wage labor during the early years of my life.  Instead of having one “primary parent” as Rosenblum describes, I was raised by what Melissa Murray describes as a networked family—a collective of working aunts, grandmothers, cousins, teachers, and daycare workers, all of whom cared for me.[3]  And while I might have spent more time in the actual company of other caretakers on any given day, there was never any question in my mind that my mother loved me and was in charge.  I knew that my mother was my primary parent because she was the person who took responsibility for me economically, socially, and spiritually.  She made the necessary decisions about my diet, education, and religious upbringing.  She dreamed dreams for me and provided the resources I needed to have dreams of my own.  Consequently, in my view, the “primary parent” is the one who bears true responsibility for a child.  I suspect that many working class women and women of color who parent outside of traditional nuclear family arrangements have similar understandings.  Taking responsibility and making decisions has substituted for the time that these mothers could not spend with their children for economic reasons.

Certainly, we should not romanticize the harsh economic realities that take poor women away from their children.  However, there is also little doubt that labor market participation gives women a source of identity and strength not available to women who exclusively specialize in childcare.  Vicki Schultz, in her essay Life’s Work, expands on the utopian vision that might be developed from this understanding.[4]  She explains that the world of work can provide women and men with opportunities for self-realization.  She argues that we should create institutional arrangements that are based on valuing parents’ participation in the world of paid work.  I concur, as there are dangers associated with the regime Rosenblum proposes; it assumes that each worker must or should become a primary caretaker at some point.  The regime he proposes promises to aggravate dynamics Katherine Franke has described—ones that pathologize women (and potentially men) when they do not choose to allocate time and energy to childrearing.[5]  Indeed, Rosenblum celebrates the Swedish parental leave model, as compared to the more subtly gendered provisions of the Family Medical Leave Act, because of its strong incentives for both partners to provide care, regardless of gender.  He applauds social dynamics that would create presumptions that each parent at some point must provide exclusive and engaged childcare. 

I argue that we cannot afford to uncritically celebrate institutional arrangements that stress the importance of leave, as they promote the cult of middle class motherhood along with all of its disciplinary implications.  We must bear in mind that historically poor women and women of color who could not live up to this model for economic reasons were made to feel like lesser mothers because of their inability to discharge parenting obligations in this manner.  Yet these mothers were often just as successful as white, middle class mothers in providing nurturing and care.  Today middle class women who do not have the inclination to parent using the “ideal” approach are similarly made to feel inadequate because they do not submit to the cult of engaged middle class motherhood. 

Even those of us who have taken substantial time off from work to perform this model of ideal motherhood feel the strain; the obligations of truly engaged or ideal, middle class motherhood continue to mount: one must breastfeed for more than a year, provide an organic diet, co-sleep, take on elimination communication (in which a child never wears a diaper but is taken to the bathroom when he signals), teach sign language, enroll in swimming, art, and music classes, and attend to an ever broadening array of “critical” needs.  If we base primary parenthood on this model and we welcome men into this space, I suspect that they will not experience parenthood as a joyous and identity-affirming experience.  Instead, we simply will invite them as partners into a new dance where both genders must negotiate the disciplinary power associated with full-time, fully engaged, devoted motherhood.  

Rosenblum is certainly right that both genders benefit from providing care.  I have argued as much in my own work on fatherhood.[6]  But I would also argue that we should not develop our model of “unsexed” motherhood based on a white, middle class model of motherhood given the role this construct has played in women’s social subordination and economic marginalization.  We should not uncritically adopt institutional arrangements based on this model, as these regimes make assumptions about primary parents that simply do not match up with the historical practices of poor mothers, women of color, and other women who have relied on networked arrangements.  Instead, these women might advocate for a different utopian vision—one that ensures the development of high quality, easily accessible childcare and one that assigns childcare specialization a market value, ensuring that professionals able to do this work are properly valued.  But perhaps I merely have a different utopia in mind, and the source of our disagreement is about emphasis rather than warring visions for the future.  I propose that we open the conversation even more and imagine a variety of unsexed futures for parenting.  My hope is that by “race-ing” motherhood I have, at the very least, introduced new, intriguing possibilities for discussion. 

[1] Associate Professor of Law, University of Southern California Gould School of Law.


[2] Darren Rosenblum, Unsex Mothering: Toward a New Culture of Parenting, 35 Harv. J.L. & Gender 57 (2012).


[3] Melissa Murray, The Networked Family: Reframing The Legal Understanding of Caregiving and Caregivers, 94 Va. L. Rev. 385, 385–86 (2008).


[4] Vicki Schultz, Life’s Work, 100 Col. L. Rev. 1881, 1886–91 (2000).


[5] Katherine M. Franke, Theorizing Yes: An Essay on Feminism, Law and Desire, 101 Col. L. Rev. 181, 185 (2001).


[6] Camille Gear Rich, Innocence Interrupted: Reconstructing Fatherhood in the Shadow of Child Molestation Law (under submission), available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2001053.  



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