Unsex Mothering Responses: Naomi Mezey

What’s a Mother Once Unsexed?

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

Naomi Mezey[1]

One can readily agree with Darren Rosenblum’s understanding of the problems of contemporary parenting—the (still!) dichotomous ideas about gender and the persistent assignment of domestic and market power according to sex that reinforces those ideas and hardens the default roles of mother and father—and yet wonder what unsexing does for us; in what way exactly is it a solution to the problems that we agree on?  Unsexing seeks to untether various parenting roles from the biosex of the person who performs them.  I’m all for it, but I wonder whether there are such things as mothers and fathers if parenting is fully unsexed.  I suppose the question is one of language and its unstable but productive relationship to reality—can we use “mother” and “father” as nouns and verbs once they are unsexed?  If so, what do they mean?  Does it matter if their meanings retain powerful traces of sex and gender?

These are questions I direct not only to Rosenblum but also to all of us who care about these issues.  They are questions Nina Pillard and I struggled with in making a similar kind of argument in our piece on new maternalism, namely “that workplace equality for women and household equality for men depend on culturally and legally decoupling family care work from femaleness.”[2]  We focus our critique on the new forms of romanticizing and performing motherhood as unique and distinct from fatherhood and other kinds of caretaking.  But our conclusion is consistent with Rosenblum’s.  To put it in his terms, we find that part of the problem is thinking about motherhood as a deeply sexed and gendered identity rather than acts that in most ways are not specific to sex or gender.[3]

I applaud and share Rosenblum’s desire to validate the whole range of caretaking and wage earning done within single parent, same-sex, transgender, and blended families; to protect women’s rights inside and outside of families; and to balance family responsibilities in heterosexual families.  I also agree that more gender flexibility is required to get us there.  But unsexing seems to suggest something more than gender flexibility in parenting roles.

Rosenblum wants to unsex mothers and fathers but not move toward unsexed people.  He wants fluidity of role assumption as well as celebration of sex differences in parenting.  He wants to remove the subordinating elements of parenting without losing the playfulness of sex role differentiation.[4]  Unsexing suggests a transgressive (but not too transgressive) move to a world in which women could choose to father and men could choose to mother.  But what exactly does it mean to “mother” or “father”?  These are, Rosenblum explains, always relational with the child.  But what kind of relation does it occupy?  But what would it mean to unsex mothering exactly?  Once a mother is unsexed, what is he/she in relation to a child?

Does “mother” mean to nurture, feed, clean, and love?  Does it mean to chastise, nag, and punish?  Does it mean to work for no pay?  Does it mean to be taken for granted?  Does it mean to be desired, disrespected, discriminated against, and desexualized?  If mothering and fathering are acts rather than identities, what acts do they encompass?  Rosenblum suggests they are recognizable roles that we move in and out of, pick up and discard; if so, then they verge on becoming identities again, labels or performances that can so easily be clichéd, retrogressive, and gendered.  If they are roles, can we play only the positive and affirming aspects of the role?  How do we know which role we occupy?  Am I a mother or a father when I make my child’s lunch or attend her basketball game?  In what way are “‘mothering’ and ‘fathering’ beyond biosex” still mothering and fathering?[5]

What should we make of those instances when one’s relation to a child cannot be unsexed—when it attaches to our bodies?  As Rosenblum points out, the absence of ovulation, gestation, and lactation do not deprive someone of the status of mother, nor does their presence require that someone be a mother.[6]  Yet these bodily relationships are significant and have played a role in the generation and perpetuation of sexed parenting identities, default rules, and rhetoric.  Again, the language illuminates and betrays us.  What should we make of the fact that, despite the exaggerated role we give to women’s bodies in mothering, the verb “to mother” has come to mean something much more social and cultural than biological?  “To father,” on the other hand, is most often used as a verb to mean the biological act of siring.

Like life, language can also be thin or thick.  Thick unsexing within the law, as Rosenblum describes it, goes beyond sex neutrality and affirmatively tries to undo the existing sex defaults in both work and caretaking.  How might we thicken our use of language in ways that make thick unsexing within law and culture more imaginable, and which move us toward a world of greater caretaking by men and more freedom for women not to be tied to caretaking roles?  I’m not sure the arid connotations of parenting are up to the task, but I’m even less sure I know what mothers and fathers are once unsexed.

[1] Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center.

[2] Naomi Mezey & Cornelia T.L. Pillard, Against the New Maternalism, 18 Mich. J. Gender & L. 229, 232 (2012).

[3] Darren Rosenblum, Unsex Mothering: Toward a New Culture of Parenting, 35 Harv. J.L. & Gender 56, 78 (2012).

[4] See id. at 80.           

[5] Id. at 89.

[6] Id. at 70–71.



4 thoughts on “Unsex Mothering Responses: Naomi Mezey

  1. I think Professor Mezey's discussion of language is an important one.  It seems difficult to talk about the enterprises of mothering and fathering without their sexed and gendered baggage.  A man who "mothers" would be so designated because he performs caretaking responsibilities traditionally associated with a woman.  But if we want equality in parenting, do we still want to use two different words ("mothering" and "fathering") to describe the ways in which people parent?  I agree that "parenting" is somewhat colorless.  Perhaps part of the task of unsexing, then, is changing the meaning of mothering and fathering at the same time that we say that men mother and women father.  That is, we should not only use the these words differently but modify what they signify as well. 

      1. Agreed! This reminds me of the conversation we had in Sex Equality about whether transgender people would seek sex reassignment surgeries if gender norms didn't exist. (I still can't wrap my mind fully around that question!) It's very difficult to imagine exactly what an unsexed mother or father is, and how/whether they are different, when our current conceptions are so tied to gender norms.

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