Unsex Mothering Responses: Kimberly Mutcherson


Unsexing Care: Beyond Gendered Parenting Terms

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

Kimberly Mutcherson[1]

One thing that can be expected from a formerly pregnant man is interesting commentary about the parenting experience that follows that pregnancy.  Professor Rosenblum’s piece, Unsex Mothering: Toward a New Culture of Parenting,[2] does not disappoint in this regard.  His reflections on unsexing mothering are provocative and engaging.  Given the stimulating nature of the topic and my general interest in seeing traditional gender roles complicated and dismantled in the interest of equality, I was surprised to find myself not totally convinced by the project.  Sympathetic though I am to Professor Rosenblum’s overall goal—finding  space for parenting that does not force parents into rigid and confining roles based on biosex—I found myself pinpointing gaps in his narrative that left with me significant questions.  By the end of his piece, I was concerned that his goal might be even more difficult to attain than one might think at first glance.

I am fascinated by Professor Rosenblum’s notion of unsexing motherhood specifically and unsexing parenthood in general.  As he notes, this project is particularly salient for families that already eschew traditional notions of gender and family, such as families headed by same-sex or transgender parents, yet there is also significant room for other families to benefit from such a shift.  Certainly, Professor Rosenblum is not the only man who identifies with the part of himself that mothers.  As I read his piece, I was reminded of a blog called Mommy With a Penis,[3] penned by a gay man raising two adopted children with his husband.  These men challenge an entrenched orthodoxy about what it means to be a mother and resist the notion that “mother” is a label that requires a particular biosex or gender identification.  No doubt, challenges of this sort have been and will continue to be critical to the diversification of family life.

Missing, however, from Professor Rosenblum’s narrative was any substantial discussion of the myriad ways in which “mother” and “mothering” are highly loaded terms whose perceived grant of power is not equally distributed.  He explains in his piece that responsibility for children is a driver of women’s second-class status at work and then notes that “[t]his split varies along constructions of race, culture, class and ethnicity—indeed motherhood and fatherhood differ along these axes.”[4]  Although he is clear that mothers and fathers do not exist in isolation, but rather are understood and constructed in a world in which demographic categories matter, throughout the piece, Professor Rosenblum seems to be primarily concerned with families of privilege.  When he writes about the rise of the “Grizzly Mama”[5] or the “opt-out” revolution,[6] he is writing about a subset of women, many of them white, for whom embracing the power of motherhood, such as it is, is in fact a choice.  This is a choice made within particular social constructs, but it is still more of a choice than is available to many women for whom mothering is, at least in part, a site of oppression, government intrusions on privacy, and denigration. 

Motherhood does not mean the same thing to all people, and its social meaning is different depending upon who mothers.  No doubt motherhood confers power on some for whom motherhood is freely chosen and who can exercise some control over how they mother.  For others, however, motherhood involves significant and intrusive state oversight of parenting choices, substantial economic hardship, and in some cases even violence.  That this is true suggests to me that Rosenblum’s story cannot simply end with the idea of mothering being unbound from gender.  For if the social construction of “mother” and capacity for mothering varies across race, class, sexual orientation, immigration status, marital status, and other categories of difference, it will surely differ across biosex as well, and perhaps in ways that Rosenblum does not anticipate and/or in ways that undermine the goals of an unsexing process.  To not grapple with the intersectional realities of motherhood, I fear, means that it is impossible or at least difficult to understand what would make a project of unsexing successful.

In a similar vein, I left the piece unconvinced that the goal should be to first unsex mothering and fathering, which Rosenblum argues “may lead toward the diminution of the terms’ distinctions, and may even serve as a precursor to unsexing parenting.”[7]  He goes on to suggest that unsexing “mother” and “father” might mean that these terms come “to carry less meaning than ‘parent,’ but that is a side effect rather than the principal purpose of unsexing mothering and fathering.”[8]  At this point, I found myself wondering why this should be the case.  For, it strikes me that an equally if not more powerful goal than creating space for people to mother no matter their biosex, a move that so many will blindly resist, is the goal of creating spaces in which men provide care.  In other words, the goal here need not be for men to call themselves mothers and women to call themselves fathers but for men to be thought of as eager and talented caretakers and for women to be free to reject such a role as natural and intuitive. 

The point to be made on a larger scale isn’t that men can “mother” as that term has been understood.  Rather, because I am unconvinced that women benefit in such a scheme as it remains premised on the idea that gender—represented by the use of the gender specific term “mother” rather than the gender neutral term “parent”—still matters when it comes to caretaking.  Continuing to use that gendered pronoun does not do enough work to discard the idea that womanhood is synonymous with the ability and desire to provide care.  Rosenblum makes this argument himself when he writes that ideally the unsexing of mothering “will eventually lead to a conception of ‘fathering’ and ‘parenting’ as legitimate caretaking.”[9]  This move does not first require continuing to privilege mothers and mothering, no matter the biosex of those assuming these labels, as the primary site of parenting.  Plus, I worry that continuing to use the categories of mother and father also reinforces the notion of primary parents and secondary parents.  This too, I fear, will too frequently mean that women, not men, no matter the title they embrace, will bear the brunt of caretaking responsibilities.

My resistance to the attempt to unsex mothering has both a theoretical and a practical component.  On the practical end, I have two concerns.  First, while it is clear that Rosenblum’s piece is about mothering as a practice, I found myself wondering whether he leaves any room for mothering and the term “mother” as simply descriptive terms.  In other words, if stripped of normative content, is there any harm in referring to a person who identifies as a woman as a mother and to a person who identifies as a man as a father?  If harm is not a given, then the problem is not so much the need to re-define certain words, but to create a different culture within which those words are deployed.  I can imagine a world in which we use the word mother not to conjure a particular parental role, but in a neutral fashion, and we imbue the word parent with the other important notions of caretaking that should rightly be shared among those who assume primary responsibility for a child’s upbringing.  Second, I worry about the stickiness of gender identification and the reality that most of the circumstances in which men are given or take on roles traditionally gendered as female are in places that are on the fringe, where assuming those roles is intended for comedy, or, more perniciously, to pillory women.  If I am right about this, then I am concerned that many men—perhaps most men, but particularly heterosexual men—will not see the potential for liberation in a world in which they too can be “mothers.”  This is not to say that there aren’t men like Professor Rosenblum who find strength in embracing the term mother, but I imagine substantially more resistance to that shift than one might find among men and women who believe that good parenting has no gender.

I am drawn in by Professor Rosenblum’s call for a new culture of parenting.  Like him, I am excited by the existing examples we have in a social, political, and legal context that suggest that while good parenting has substantial normative content, it is without a gender.  But his call for unsexing mothering left me pondering a children’s book called Are You My Mother?[10] in which a baby bird confronts a series of different animals and objects, including a cow and a piece of construction equipment, before happily stumbling upon his real mother, another bird who briefly left him in search of food.  I think that Rosenblum and I would agree that the end goal is not in the titles, but in the acts of care that we ask of all good parents and for which gender is irrelevant.

[1] Associate Professor of Law, Rutgers School of Law—Camden.

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

[3] Mommy with a Penis, http://mommywithapenis.blogspot.com/ (last visited February 3, 2012).

[4] Rosenblum, supra note 2, at 67.

[5] Id. at 72.

[6] Id. at 71.

[7] Id. at 79–80.

[8] Id. at 80.

[9] Id. at 83.

[10] P.D. Eastman, Are You My Mother? (1960).


2 thoughts on “Unsex Mothering Responses: Kimberly Mutcherson”

  1. I really appreciate Professor Mutcherson's observation that the "motherhood as power" concept may be limited to parenting within a limited socioeconomic context. It's easy (and politically palatable) to talk about motherhood in terms of it bringing power/responsibility/joy to the mother figure (whatever his/her sex/gender!), and much more uncomfortable to talk about motherhood as a burden.

  2. Professor Mutcherson's recognition that there is "also significant room for other families [who are not headed by same-sex or transgender parents] to benefit from such a shift" is important because it reveals how the project of "unsexing mothering" is so universally applicable. Unsexing mothering benefits heterosexual mothers, heterosexual fathers, lesbian mothers, gay fathers, bisexual parents, transgender parents, single mothers, single fathers, families with multiple sets of parents, gender non-conforming parents, as well as children. 

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