Contesting Maternal Ideology: The Yonic Myths of Motherhood1
This is a story about my pregnancy and what it means to be a woman and a (good) mother. I write with great pain and urgency fueled by restricting definitions that my yoni (a Sanskrit word meaning womb, vagina, and other physical and spiritual concepts to indicate woman-ness) and I did not create. Definitions that were fraught with images of what being a real woman meant—a real woman whose ultimate role is to be a vehicle for cultural production and reproduction, one whose body is required to pass down traditions to subsequent generations, which are intrinsically bound to ideas of nationality and citizenship.
By the time I was twenty-five, I was living the ideal life not only by American standards, but also according to the myth of the model-minority that plagues most South Asian Americans. I married a Bangladeshi immigrant man soon after completing my first graduate degree. Three years into our marriage, we went on to buy our own white picket fence in an affluent suburb, and I began my PhD, a third graduate degree. What else was there left to do? I had, after all, completed my mission as the ideal Bangladeshi-American daughter, an American offspring of a small pre-1965 migration wave of professionals from South Asia. But, in fact, there was something missing.
I would still be required to maintain and extend patriarchy within a heterosexual matrix, fulfilling an essentialized definition of what it means to be a woman in America (and perhaps in most other societies embedded in a hetero-patriarchal and paternalistic matrix). And, I would be required to do so not only because my body is gendered and sexed, but also because I hold a particular class and racial status: I am a healthy, over-educated, upper-middle class South Asian American woman, a status much different than the poor, pregnant, and HIV-infected women of color who were used as a platform during the 1980s and 1990s to have politicized debates about national health.2 My gendered, sexed, classed, and racialized body would be controlled to extend Bourdieuian cultural capital, one that maintains the boundaries of the American nation-state, while the reproduction of HIV-positive mothers are often (state-) controlled in opposing ways for the very same purpose of upholding U.S. nationalism. In other words, race, ethnicity, class, gender, and culture collide in one instantaneous moment—the point of conception.
As I witnessed one of my closest friends at the time, among others, go through multiple pregnancies, my partner and I found ourselves to be quickly left behind. We were still a part of the sophisticated and swanky New York City night scene, attending Broadway shows, eating at the Le Cirques, and heading off to cigar lounges for nightcaps afterwards. Our friends, on the other hand, had traded in their past lives for maroon minivans, filling their weekends with Sesame Street Live! I too soon began to imagine adding a child to our fabulous life.
Motherhood seemed flattering to me: I used Reese Witherspoon to glamorize pregnancy and I planned on purchasing Juicy Couture diaper bags and Burberry onesies. Joy overcame my partner and me as e.p.t. efficiently and proudly announced that I was pregnant—until I began my seventh week. I was diagnosed with a severe and strange form of hyperemesis. Hyperemesis is an extended form of morning sickness, and it is generally not considered a serious condition. A majority of hyperemetic women visit the ER a couple of times for intravenous solutions and the nausea usually subsides by mid-second trimester. However, my doctor soon realized that my condition was much more serious and complicated.
As my pregnancy continued, I began losing weight drastically. I was unable to keep any solids or liquids down and I was throwing up every twenty minutes around the clock. I eventually began excreting yellow-green bile and crimson blood for months to come. By the end of the first trimester, I was down to an unhealthy ninety pounds and the fetus was not growing as it should be. An intravenous line for liquid nutrition was inserted through my right arm to one of the valves in my heart so that the baby and I could subsist until delivery. I was additionally given intravenous drugs usually prescribed to chemotherapy patients to help control the nausea. Needless to say, I was in and out of hospitals for an entire eight months (my daughter was born a month premature) with multiple intravenous lines protruding from my body. I was weak: I was unable to lift my head, I could not walk because my muscles were slowly deteriorating, and I could not relieve bodily functions without someone carrying me to the bathroom.
My sister flew in frequently from the Midwest to hold my hand in the ER; my father flew in from England every other weekend; my partner left his job to stay at home with me; and my mother-in-law left her partner behind an entire continent, pulled her teenage daughter out of school, and lived with me until I delivered. Our entire world, literally, was turned upside down so that I could deliver this baby safely without costing my own life.
What was I feeling throughout this excruciatingly painful and debilitating pregnancy?
I wanted out! I wanted it out! The pain of carrying this living being felt like a bulldozer driving over my body back and forth repeatedly for eight months. I began to develop a hatred for the life inside of me. I wanted to rip my belly apart and take her out (the sonogram indicated that I was having a girl). All I could think about was how she had taken my life away. She had not only forced me to forgo a prestigious teaching appointment, but more importantly, she also took away my ability to engage in daily rituals like using the toilet by myself. The baby had stolen my dignity, and, hence, I could not bear to look at the sonograms. Even as she directly looked at me with big eyes through the imaging screen, almost as if she was calling out at me, "Mama, Mama, it's me. Don't you recognize me?" I looked away. I did not want her to look at me. I did not want her to call out to me. I felt nothing when I saw her tiny feet trying to kick through the taut skin on my round scarred belly. I secretly wished for a miscarriage so that I would no longer have to carry this burden inside me. My feelings toward the baby inside of me became more violent, and I became suicidal. I envisioned various methods of how to end the pregnancy, including throwing myself down the stairs. Unfortunately, the American medical establishment is less than holistic. My psychiatrist felt that it was crucial for me to take C-Class anti-depressants, while my OB/GYN strongly urged me to gain inner strength rather then popping pills. Medical personnel had little understanding of how a mother could hate her child, purposely wanting to harm her baby. My psychiatric report read "narcissistic and immature." Delivering this baby was almost mandatory for me due to the various ways in which the intersections of race, class, and gender work in the U.S. Had I been a black, single, and poor woman, I, first, would not have access to the type of medical care that I had, and, second, I would not have been continually encouraged by the medical establishment to continue with the pregnancy, deterring my choice of abortion. Week after week, struggle after struggle, it came time to deliver a small but healthy baby girl.
Soon after pushing her out of my burning, clipped, and sewn yoni, I held her. It was not until I touched my four and a half pound daughter that I fell in love with her. It was instantaneous—truly love at first sight. Up until that first touch—the warmth of her extraordinarily petite flushed face against my sweaty cheeks and her tiny salty and slimy fingers in my feverishly hot mouth—I had no maternal instincts; I had no desire to help her to extend her life. At that moment, I realized that if I had ended my daughter's life, I would have murdered my soul with her (while I have allowed my daughter to live, I strongly underscore a woman's right-to-choose). Her laughter is what helps me to wake up in the morning every day and try to do something wonderful. What happened? How could my feelings toward this child be manically bipolar? I do not know what happened or if I can ever reconcile my feelings, but the ending is less than sweet.
I have not slept soundly since I became pregnant. I vividly remember the day I announced to my partner that I wanted to have a baby. He was ecstatic because he always wanted children (his "biological clock" was perhaps stronger than mine, but I am not so sure I had one to begin with). And while I was pleased with his support, I was irritated at his lack of shock with my decision to have a child because I had never wanted children. His response was, "I knew you would come around. It's natural for all women to have children." Almost five years later, his words continue to haunt me. I still wake-up in the middle of the night sweating with fear as my partner's words, "It's natural," ring in my ears, making me feel ridiculously inadequate as a mother. When I look into my daughter's eyes, I am shamed by my ugliness inside. Her innocent brown eyes are unaware of my dark secret. I contemplate if I should ever tell her about how our relationship began, and how it might have almost ended even before beginning. Will she hate me? Will she understand? Will she forgive me? Will I forgive myself?
My pregnancy has had a profound emotional impact on me, and I am left with an unanswered question that I continue to grapple with: what does it mean to be a "good" mother?
According to maternal ideology, "good" mothers engage in acts of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation, always putting the interests of their children before their own, and this behavior is presumed to emanate from natural instinct that at least all mothers should have, if not all women. By implication, "bad" mothers are women who put their children in harm's way, either through a willful disregard for their maternal instinct or because they lack such instinct. Through the good/bad mother continuum, a central mothering narrative is invoked: mothering is central for women and it defines women as women, and to ignore or not have maternal instincts undermines the bond between mothers and infants which in turn threatens the very fabric of community. Here, the regulation of bad mothers is deemed necessary and acceptable not only because such women pose a threat to their child's well-being, but also because they pose a threat to social order and stability. In other words, it is through the portal of mothering that the regulation of women's bodies is justified. And clearly, the assumption here is that motherhood and womanhood are tightly linked, even when in fact many American women cannot and do not give birth.3
What my story begins to suggest is the very elasticity and compelling nature of maternal ideology. I argue that the assumption of the naturalness of mothering behavior and the mother-child bond is enormously faulty. To presume that good childcare is the natural outcome of an innate instinct, first, renders women as wholly responsible for the care and well-being of their children, and, second, it erases the practice of mothering from social and historical obstacles that constrain it, like affordable health care.4 My narrative of good, bad, and redemptive motherhood highlights the maternal ideology—the narrative of the traditionally selfless mother—invoked and deployed to regulate and constrain women's bodies, and my oppositional narrative of motherhood requires contesting dominant ways of thinking about motherhood and dislodging the unthinkable.
Sharing my "herstory" pains me greatly, but writing is beginning the process of redemption for me. I end my story here defeated, lost, and struggling while simultaneously celebrating, triumphing, and transforming.
1 I wrote this piece originally as a monologue, submitted to a call for "Yoni Ki Baat," an oral performance show sponsored by South Asian Sisters, an all women of color organization based in Northern California. "Yoni Ki Baat," meaning "Vagina Monologues" in Hindi, celebrates the vastness of womenís gender and sexual identities. My piece, entitled "Contesting Maternal Ideology: The Yonic Myths of Motherhood" was accepted and performed by Maulie Dass at the Canvas Gallery in San Francisco, CA on November 19, 2005. I would like to thank the women of South Asian Sisters Production and the amazingly talented performing artists of Yoni Ki Baat for providing me with a safe space to express my yoni - my body, mind, and soul.
2 See Zivi, Karen. 2005 (November). "Contesting Motherhood in the Age of AIDS: Maternal Ideology in the Debate over Mandatory HIV Testing." Feminist Review 31, 2: 347-374.