Unsex Mothering Responses: Fernanda G. Nicola

“Unclass Mothering”

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

Fernanda G.  Nicola[1]

Darren Rosenblum’s Unsex Mothering: Toward a New Culture of Parenting[2] makes an important point, that the fluidity of parenting roles ought to be incorporated by international equality instruments like CEDAW, because this is no longer a problem of women, as the main parent in the family, but rather a problem that women and men should equally try to solve.[3]  Rather than embracing a “grizzly mom” image for either women or men, Rosenblum deconstructs parenting roles as they encompass both the sphere of the family and the market, and in doing so, he contributes to two recent critical literatures—one against “family law exceptionalism,”[4] and the other against “new-maternalism.”[5]  Rosenblum’s article questions the rigidity of sexed parenting roles while convincingly offering a conception of fluid parenting roles as men, women, and perhaps even friends or relatives undertake these roles and switch from one to another in relation to child rearing.[6]

My response begins with an anecdote that made me immediately sympathize with Rosenblum’s very initial exchange with the cab driver.[7]  Personal stories can be useful when they are narrated in a way that remains vividly impressed in someone’s mind,[8] or when they are extremely funny, almost as parody.[9]  It is a difficult task to achieve both.  One afternoon, I was rushing to pick up my daughter, Simone, at her daycare located east of Rock Creek Park.  Despite increasing gentrification which has pushed out lost of poor, African American families, the city continues to imagine Rock Creek Park as the dividing line between rich, white neighborhoods to the west, and poorer, more diverse ones to the east.  My daughter’s school was an amazing facility and also a Head Start program, meaning it mixed low income and full tuition families in a uniquely diverse class and racial mix dominated by Latino and African American children.

My daughter’s classroom was composed of eight children: four African Americans, three Latinos, and my daughter—I guess the only white and “Italian” kid in the class.  To my surprise, my daughter bonded with the African American kids much more than the Latino kids.  Because we speak Italian or Spanish at home, I initially found her friendships odd.  Later on, having finally met the other children’s parents, I understood why her “buddies” were African American.  At the school, the Black families were upper middle class professionals, while the Latinos were mostly lower income members of the working class.

When I arrived in Simone’s classroom that afternoon it was during the after school program; things were rather chaotic, with a larger number of kids that were brought together from different classes.  Rosenblum’s cab driver was for me the “teenage volunteer,” coming from one of the wealthiest schools of the city, located west of Rock Creek Park, who was fulfilling her community services in an “inner city” school.  When I arrived in the parking lot and I saw the bus with the name of the prestigious school, I thought to myself: perhaps Obama’s daughter is visiting a friend at Simone’s school, how exciting!  So I asked the front desk what was going on, and they told me that the high school kids were coming to volunteer at our daycare to fulfill some sort of community service.  How strange, I thought to myself.  I did not perceive our architecturally stunning daycare, with one of the best facilities I have ever seen, as a “needy” inner city school.  In my mind, there are many schools that in could fall into such category, especially if one ventures toward the northeast or southeast quadrants of the city.

Left with that explanation, during my short walk from the front desk to the classroom where I had to pick up Simone, I became very suspicious.  I was now assigned a role.  I was a recipient of the volunteers’ work for inner city kids.  When I entered the classroom, there were three or four high school volunteers, impeccably dressed in Prada shoes and Diesel jeans, and the only thing I could think of was how paradoxical that they were primed for such a task: “community service.”  I felt I had to perform for them, and fit somehow a role that was not totally clear to me yet.  The three volunteers were not really sure what to do in the classroom.  Some attempted to read books to the children, others looked astonished at the lively chaos in the classroom while chatting among themselves. 

When I entered the classroom, Simone greeted me, and the volunteers began observing me.  In their eyes I had to be a working mother, who could not afford to stay at home with her child or even pick her up at 3:00 PM when the regular school program ended.  As a working mother, I had to “park” my daughter in the unstructured after care program, and they were providing extra care to those needy kids.  In my mind, I had clearly become a single working mom, a recipient of their community services and someone who could not afford the “opt-out” option.  In addition, because of my name and my Spanish fluency, I was immediately part of the Latino lower income group.  At this point, I was completely immersed in my role: I began speaking in Spanish to the caretakers and to my daughter to fully appropriate the stereotype that the teenage volunteers were primed to embrace.  How fun, I thought—I can be a law professor advising the same students, ten years older perhaps, on how to get jobs at the World Bank or in Europe, and just a few miles away from the fancy American University campus, having crossed the dividing line of Rock Creek Park, I can be the Hispanic working mom, a recipient of the teenage volunteers’ efforts.

By the time I was calling Simone—“Querida: vamos a la casa por favor”—to leave the daycare, I was hoping she would not throw a tantrum because she did not want to leave.  Such behavior would have either blown my cover, as I would have had to bribe her in English, or I would have had to perform even more the working mom who is necessarily a poor educator, unable to control her child with early behavioral problems.  For that second part of the experiment, I have no data because my daughter was well-behaved.  The teenage volunteers said goodbye to her.  Some even uttered “hola” quietly to be polite.  By Christmas, Simone received a present from the daycare that we put under our tree.  My partner and I found out later that it was part of a toy drive organized by the same school volunteers.  Again we were recipients of their community services, and my daughter received a beautiful purple doll.

 As Rosenblum describes in his article, the family is sexed and so is the market, where man’s domination continues in an environment that “reinforces cultural biosex stereotypes,” where even Ivy League women are embracing the stay-home mom model.[10]  In her brilliant essay summarizing the Opt-out Myth debate, EJ Graff explains:


“Here’s what feminism hasn’t yet changed: the American idea of mothering is left over from the 1950s, that odd moment in history when America’s unrivaled economic power enabled a single breadwinner to support an entire family. Fifty years later we still have the idea that a mother, and not a father, should be available to her child at every moment. But if being a mom is a 24-hour-a-day job, and being a worker requires a similar commitment, then the two roles are mutually exclusive.” [11]


Graff explains that the idea of what mothers are supposed to do as primary caretakers is despite US feminism, and it is so embedded in our society that the teenage volunteers were easily primed to believe that they were offering their services to needy inner city children.  U.S. feminism has focused on mothers, women, and female caretakers but has lagged behind in including fathers, men, and same-sex couples—that Rosenblum, with his queer theory approach, foregrounds in his critique.

What if Simone’s father had picked her up at daycare?  Perhaps he would have enjoyed playing the same role I did, or perhaps he would not have cared?  According to what Rosenblum describes as biosex stereotypes affecting the market, perhaps as a breadwinner he would have been more entitled in the eyes of the “volunteers” to pick up his daughter in the after care program.  And if Simone had thrown a tantrum at him, that was to be excused because he was not the mother!

Rosenblum’s Unsex Mothering asks for equal duties as well as equal responsibilities on both parents who are sharing mothering and fathering roles by encouraging fathers to participate more fully in family responsibilities, but also by making sure that mothers who think of themselves as “mama grizzlies” take their parental roles as more fungible.  Thus both mother and father in my example should be equal recipients of the volunteers’ assumption that they are helping “inner city” parents.

But can the same fluidity that Rosenblum envisages for unsexing parenting roles be applied across socioeconomic disparities?  “Unclass mothering” is something that Rosenblum does not explore, even though he collapses it under what he calls “thin” or “thick” unsexing when it compares the protections under the U.S. versus the Swedish parental leave models.  Is FMLA producing the same effects between rich and poor heterosexual or homosexual families in the U.S.?  Likewise, is the Swedish parental policy having the same salubrious effects Rosenblum describes for Swedes versus immigrant families structurally making lower wages?[12]

Unsexed mothering might not work without a class analysis of the kind of families who can or cannot take parental leave because of socioeconomic and other legal constraints.  For instance, a taxonomy of different groups who can take parental leave (paid or unpaid) in the U.S. or in Sweden might show that unsexing mothering might be easier or more difficult to achieve, not only based on the policy rationale behind the parental leave laws, but because of the socioeconomic disparities of the households involved, as well as other background rules impinging on the family such as immigration, labor markets, and corporate law.

Because of the important critical contribution of Unsex Mothering, the Unclass project might be a task for the future, to show the perverse effects of sex on the economic family when it comes to parenting.   If I can be a needy mother or father when I pick up my daughter at her daycare east of Rock Creek Park, it is easier for me, rather than the Latino parents of the daycare who might be stuck in their roles,[13] to be a recipient of community service when I am east of the Park and become a law professor when I am in my office West of the dividing line.



[1] Associate Professor of Law, Washington College of Law, American University.



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



[3] See Frances Olsen, The Family and the Market, 96 Harv. L. Rev. 1497 (1983) (proposing, for the first time, this framework to talk about feminist legal reforms).



[4] See Janet Halley & Kerry Rittich, Critical Directions in Comparative Family Law: Genealogies and Contemporary Studies of Family Law Exceptionalism, 58 Am. J. Comp. L. 753 (2010).



[5] See Naomi Mezey & Cornelia Nina Pillard, Against the New Maternalism, 18 Mich. J. Gender & L. __ (forthcoming 2012).



[6] See Nancy Polikoff, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law (Beacon Press 2008).



[7] See Rosenblum, supra note 2, at 58.



[8] See Martha M. Ertman, Monologue, Telling, 2 Utah L. Rev. 531 (2009).



[9] See Ezra Rosser, On Becoming “Professor:” A Semi-Serious Look in the Mirror; 36 Fla. St. U. L. Rev., 215 (2009).



[10] See Katha Pollitt, Desperate Housewives of the Ivy League?, The Nation, Oct, 17, 2005, at 281; Louise Story, Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood, N.Y. Times, September 20, 2005, at 14.



[11] EJ Graff, The Opt-Out Myth, Columbia Journalism Rev., Mar./Apr 2007 at 45.



[12] See Carl le Grand and Ryszard Szulkin, Permanent Disadvantage or Gradual Integration: Explaining the Immigrant–Native Earnings Gap in Sweden, 16 Labour, 1, 37, (2002).



[13] See Ezra Rosser, Getting to Know the Poor, 14 Yale Hum. Rts. & Dev. L.J. 66 (2011) (exploring the “distance” between poor and rich households).




1 thought on “Unsex Mothering Responses: Fernanda G. Nicola”

  1. Professor Nicola's story about class stereotyping and her musings on "unclass mothering" made me think about some of the other compounding issues that we don't always think about when we think about judgement based on mothering. In one of my classes we recently discussed how women are often discriminated against in the workplace for choosing to have a child, but that the discrimination is actually more for white heterosexual women as opposed to African American women, or women in same sex relationships. How does class status, race, and sexual orientation play into our views on what motherhood or parenting should look like? Does motherhood not only need to be "unsexed" and "unclassed" but also "un-raced"? And can that happen all at once? What other biases do we bring to the table when we think about motherhood? 

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