The Good Mothers Club

Disability and Mothering:

Liminal Spaces of Embodied Knowledge  

Edited by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Jen Cellio

Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011, 340 pp., $39.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Kim E. Nielsen

“What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a wheelchair?” asked the man at the farmers market as he handed us the bright red tomatoes. What should a good mother do in response? Throw the tomatoes at him? Glance at the guy’s shoes with the hope that they are flimsy and that it will hurt when his toes are squished by the wheelchair? Launch into a scholarly explanation of his inadequacies? Politely say thank you? The next week the pain and fatigue were less, the to-do list shorter, and the wheelchair sat in the car while we picked up purple beets. Were any of us now prettier? Was anyone disabled? Had the maternal responsibilities and perceptions changed? Were the children and mother any less or more remarkable? Or remarked upon?  This time the vendors made no personal comments.

The essays in Disability and Mothering reflect the lessons and insights, as well as the complications and questions, that arise when disability and feminist analysis cross paths.  In a variety of narrative forms, multiple authors in this anthology reinforce the argument that both binaries—that of disability/nondisability and good mother/bad mother—are social constructions, and that definitions of disability and good motherhood build on, and erode, one another. Numerous essays leave no doubt that disability and good motherhood, both as concepts and as lived experience, are profoundly shaped by multiple other intersectional identities. And regardless of whether or not a woman is a mother, and regardless of whether or not she is disabled, all women are affected by these concepts and experiences.

Am I, will I be, would I be, a Good Mother? What makes a Good Mother? As the book’s editors Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Jen Celino remind us in their introduction, the “dominant social order has been able to deprive women with disability of the basic right to reproduce.” Historically, women with disabilities have been forcibly sterilized, denied loving and committed relationships with partner or child, and had their children removed from them. Indeed, the historical denial has been so strong that, as the essayist Kristin Lindgren writes, “[W]hen disability and maternity register visibly in the same body, they sometimes create a visual and cognitive dissonance, as if one can be either a mother or a disabled person—not both at once.”  In societies like that of the United States, in which motherhood is “understood as a hallmark of being a woman,” a disabled woman can find that exclusion from motherhood “brings into question her social location as a woman.” Samantha Walsh, reflecting on others’ presumption that she should not have children, goes on to note, “[T]he sense that I could not mother because of my disability suggests that disability somehow negates the validity of my personhood.” In a national context in which women of color have long histories of forced sterilization and embattled claims to womanhood, and in which the womanliness of women without children is questioned frequently, these essays help us to understand, and then to ask additional questions, about the intersecting definitions of femininity, disability, race, marital status, and Good Motherhood.

Numerous essays in the book make clear that mothers and potential mothers with disabilities reject and resist their exclusion from the Good Mothers’ Club. The disabled single mothers living in poverty studied by Shawn Cassiman, “organize their resistance strategies in order to defend against the stigma and scrutiny associated with their disabilities, single motherhood, and welfare receipt.” Despite, or perhaps because of, their lack of privilege and overabundance of stigma, these mothers self-police their public participation, passionately protect their children—and fiercely claim themselves to be good mothers.  

Similarly defiant, Heather Kuttai chronicles the resistance and strength embodied in breastfeeding while living “in a body that is devalued in so many ways.” “My body,” she writes, “takes on a new value, importance, and even status when it is pregnant, nurturing, and breastfeeding.” Felicity Boardman demonstrates that when women with genetic disabilities make reproductive decisions, they often base them not on dominant ableist ideologies but on their own “lived experiences of their impairments.” Theorizing from their own daily lives enables women to “deflect the perceived (and actual) judgments others make about their reproductive choices, but also to transform the boundaries and definitions of responsible motherhood,” writes Boardman.  Both Kuttai’s and Boardman’s research subjects find strength not in the opinions of experts, not in the judgments of neighbors, but in their own bodies and lived experiences.

One implication of the new reproductive technologies is that while it takes two to tango, mother-blame keeps regenerating (apparently via immaculate conception). Motherhood can open one up to accusations of fiscal or emotional irresponsibility, but women with genetic disabilities now face accusations of genetic irresponsibility as well. Despite the resistance of mothers with disabilities, the essays in this volume make disturbingly clear that “eugenic discourse and rhetorics have not disappeared from discussions about disability and mothering.” Constantly expanding reproductive technologies have created new spaces in which women with disabilities, particularly those with genetic disabilities, encounter shifting and hostile “expectations, boundaries, and definitions of motherhood” that exclude them. If they would take the genetically responsible approach, they are told, they would not reproduce. Their genetics, their disability, and their inadequate femaleness renders them inappropriate mothers.

One of this book’s strengths lies in its essays on the mothering and caretaking of children, and parents, with disabilities. In a beautiful historical essay, Corinne Manning unpacks how the mothers of children placed at Kew Cottages, Australia, in the mid-twentieth-century, initially wrestled with the widespread belief that once their children were committed, “mothering ceased.” Just as mothers of institutionalized children in the United States were encouraged to forget the existence of their children throughout the 1950s and 1960s, so were Australian mothers.  

Whitney Jones-Garcia (a pseudonym) writes beautifully of mothering her mother amid paranoid schizophrenia, mental health hospitals of varying quality, and a lack of insurance. Abby Wilkerson and Julia Miele Rodas both write of the ways by which mothers are coerced and “conscripted into enforcing ablebodiedness even though it frequently does not serve their children—or themselves—well.” For example, medical authorities interpreted the dreadlocks of Wilkerson’s institutionalized daughter as “an outward sign of a profound internal disorder”; thus defined, she was subjected to daily hair washing. Educational and medical authorities often insist that good mothering requires mothers to enforce ablebodiedness by accepting diagnoses and altering their children. These authors resist diagnoses—not because of shame or stigma, but because of the ways by which diagnoses and treatments, as well as social institutions as various as beauty ideals and athleticism, create and enforce a restrictive and ultimately negative ablebodiedness. Resistance or rejection of diagnosis is “a refusal of the rhetorical gesture that frames a person as a ‘case,’” but both women also claim it as good mothering, despite incredible social pressures. 

For me, the ultimate lesson of this book has to do with uneasy relationship both US democracy and feminism have with (inter)dependency. Julie Maybee’s essay, “The Personal is Political,” is delightfully honest about the ways in which her daughter’s childhood-acquired disability left her “dependent in ways that rub against both my definitions of myself as a woman and the kind of life I had envisioned for her as a woman.” The lived realities of disability and motherhood are constant reminders that none of us, despite our denials and our professional or personal goals, is an autonomous creature. In the United States,  the language of “choice,” “rights,” and “independence” offers “a simple but seductive promise of control and mastery of embodiment.” Even feminism is to blame, for it has sometimes promised an illusory autonomy as the ultimate manifestation of gender resistance, the ultimate badge of feminism. In this context, disability and (inter)dependency are stigmatized. We all, however, need assistance. Independence is a dangerous and misleading myth grounded in ableism and masculine gender ideals.    

The essays in Disability and Mothering force readers to wrestle with the ways in which the social stigma that accrues to the need for assistance is profoundly based in gender, ableism, race and (as Denise Cordella Hughes-Tafen’s essay illustrates) colonialist structures. Which assistance is stigmatized and which is not is the definition of disability; and this shapes our definitions of Good Motherhood.  

Kim E. Nielsen is professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo, where she continues to learn about feminism, disability, and history. Her most recent book, A Disability History of the United States will appear October 2012.
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