Unsex Mothering Responses: I. Bennett Capers

Shall I Play Mother?

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

I. Bennett Capers[1]

“Shall I play mother?” asks a campy old man in Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton, a novel I read some years ago, using the phrase to determine who should serve tea.[2]  It’s telling that the phrase has stuck with me all these years.  And it’s telling that this phrase came to mind as I read Rosenblum’s Unsex Mothering.[3]  After all, the expression “Shall I play mother?” (a rather common British expression, it turns out) decouples biosex from “mothering” much in the way Rosenblum advocates.  Indeed, it disrupts the notion that there is any connection, other than a socially constructed one, between biosex and mothering, in this case serving tea.  The expression also brings to mind the performative aspect of mothering, an aspect Rosenblum touches on.  As a fan of drag—and of course, drag mothers—this aspect of mothering as gender performance has particular salience for me.    

So “shall I play mother” was the predominant thought that came to mind as I read Unsex Mothering.  But then other thoughts and questions asserted themselves, and it is to these thoughts and questions I turn now.

As Rosenblum puts it in his prologue, the outside world tends to “box [him] into the ‘daddy’ category.”[4]  He goes on to argue that many of us “flip and shift” between the “mother” and “father” roles, and that “society would benefit from unsexing mothering (and fathering).”[5]  But would it?  It seems to me that Rosenblum’s project does not disrupt rigid gender roles so much as expand the list of players who can claim those roles.  After all, Rosenblum’s normative vision is that a man should be allowed to play the traditional mother role, and a woman should be allowed to play the traditional father role, if they so choose.  My problem with this vision is that it’s still, at the end of the day, reifying traditional roles and reifying a binary (mother/father) division of labor that, at bottom, is gendered and hierarchical.  To be clear, I don’t dispute that there are benefits that would attend if we unsexed mothering.  But might not there be more benefits if we simply retired mothering and fathering as categories, given their gendered provenance, and instead embraced the term parenting? 

Of course, Rosenblum recognizes this problem, and gestures towards a more radically progressive project of simply having parents.  “In an ideal world,” he writes, “people now considered ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ would be ‘parents’ first, a category that includes all forms of caretaking.”[6]  But then he dials back, saying that he will “instead focus . . . on unsexing the roles of ‘mother’ and ‘father,’ elevating them from biodeterminist brandings to chosen classifications or roles.”[7]  But why limit the focus so?  The sole explanation he gives is that “to unsex parenting entirely would require the precursor of universal androgyny,” a precursor he is not willing to embrace.[8]  But again, my head is swirling with questions.  Why is universal androgyny a necessary predicate to unsexing parenting?  Certainly embracing the non-gendered term “parenting” requires less of a paradigm shift than decoupling gender from mothering and fathering.  And why categorize such parenting as “unsexed parenting” anyway?  Isn’t “parenting” already “unsexed” in its very gender neutrality?

Unsex Mothering prompts other questions as well.  Rosenblum makes much of the fact that biology—in terms of ovulation, gestation, and lactation—has little to do with the tasks we think of as encompassing mothering.  This of course supports his argument that anyone (male, female, transgender, what have you) can potentially engage in tasks to justify claim to the title mother.  But as an African-American living in a society that remains very much racialized, living in a city where much of the “mothering” of white children is done by black and brown nannies who a century ago might have been called “mammies,” I have to ask where these women fit in Rosenblum’s vision.  Rosenblum addresses such “careworkers” and “outsourc[ing of] parenting” in a footnote, only to say that “whether mothering and fathering can be performed by careworkers is beyond the scope of this Article.”[9]  Given that a large percentage of his readers have engaged or will engage in such “outsourcing” of childcare, I wish Rosenblum had devoted more time to exploring this gendered issue.

So, lots of questions.  But this is not to diminish Rosenblum’s article.  It is certainly provocative, and it has certainly gotten a lot of us thinking and talking—even those, like myself, who do not write in this area.  And it has prompted me to rethink his prologue in light of my own life.  My partner (a term I prefer to the gendered term “husband”) and I do not have a child.  Still, if we did and I was confronted with a taxi driver’s view that only a mother knows how to do certain things, I can’t imagine wanting to retort, “But I am the mother.”  Nor can I imagine retorting that my child has two fathers, and that’s enough.  More likely, I would respond, “The child has a parent, which is all that matters.”  But of course, the more I think about this, the more I realize that in truth, my response would be very different.  In truth, I’d more likely respond, “Really, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”  In truth, I probably wouldn’t respond at all.

[2] Peter Ackroyd, Chatterton (1st Grove Press Pbk. ed. 1996).



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



[4] Id. at 58.



[5] Id.



[6] Id. at 60.



[7] Id.



[8] Id. at 80.



[9] Id. at 80 n.99.




2 thoughts on “Unsex Mothering Responses: I. Bennett Capers”

  1. I'm really interested to hear thoughts on Professor Capers query whether the "mothering" role can be played by caretakers. My instinct is yes – and that that is not necessarily a bad thing. I'm currently in the process of looking for day care for my son for next year, so this is something that has been on my mind. I've observed other "mothers" (in the caretaker sense that Professor Rosenblum uses the term) who seem wary of allowing another individual or group of individuals share in the caretaking role, it seems for fear of being displaced. But would they be? Professor Capers hear asks whether other individuals can lay claim to the title of mother – but is there just one title to be claimed? Maybe we can allow many individuals to be a child's mother without those of us who call ourselves mothers needing to guard the role. 

  2. I share some of Professor Caper's concerns about whether unsexing mothering goes far enough, and whether it reinforces the dichotomy of 'mother' vs. 'father' as distinct roles.  
    The question about caregivers is quite thought-provoking.  Should a distinction be drawn between caregiving done for compensation, and without compensation?  For example, if a child is raised by her (single) mom, as well as her aunt and and her grandmother, who watch her while mom works, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to say that they are all "mothering" her.  But if she's raised by her mom, and while her mom works, by a nanny, I hesitate to say that the nanny is "mothering" her.  Perhaps the distinction is not a clear one. But we do seem to get nervous when parenting, children, and money intersect.
    On a somewhat related note, I think that childcare poses a bit of an ethical quandry for women like myself. I intend to have both a career and a family. But in abdicating the traditional mother role (ie: stay at home, let the man be the breadwinner), I will probably be pushing those responsibilities onto other women. (Unless men flock to the childcare and house-keeping industries in the next few years — doubtful.)  In other words, not all women have the luxury of being liberated from traditional sex roles. Yes, some will be paid to care for other women's homes and children, and perhaps being paid to do "women's" work is better than doing it for free. But in the end, the work has to be done by someone. 

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