IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Became An Academic Expert On Motherhood Without Ever Having A Kid

I am not a mom, but I study them -- and the difficult work they do -- for about eight hours a day.
Publish date:
July 3, 2014
It Happened To Me, parenting, feminism, motherhood, childcare, women's studies

I am a PhD candidate in Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies at Toronto’s York University. By virtue of my several years of graduate training, I am now technically considered an academic “expert” in my sub-field, which is Motherhood Studies.

The thing is, while I may be considered extremely knowledgeable about the study of motherhood, I have never been a biological or custodial mother. I’ve yet to give birth, adopt or foster a tiny human, a tween or a teen. I am not a mom, but I study them and the difficult work they do for about 8 hours of every single day.

Motherhood Studies began to develop in the 1970s with work such as Adrienne Rich’s pivotal book "Of Woman Born." In recent years, with organizations such as Demeter Press, the world’s first feminist press on motherhood, the field has really taken off. While this area of the feminist academy is burgeoning, the majority of people I know in the Motherhood Studies community became interested in studying motherhood after becoming mothers themselves.

Now, please don’t get me wrong here; I think it’s awesome that so many fabulous feminists I know have been inspired by their work as parents, channeling their experience into significant academic research I so admire. I am immensely proud of the community of motherhood scholars of which I am privileged to be a part. I am however, a minority in this field. Being a presently child-free woman, I am by no means alone, but I am fairly rare in my academic community.

I originally got interested in studying motherhood in the first year of my PhD, when I took a class with an icon of Motherhood Studies, the venerable Dr. Andrea O’Reilly. I registered for the course on a whim, as I was fairly certain I was going to do my dissertation on something zeitgeist-y about post-9/11 feminism where I’d get to talk a lot about surveillance. Of course, I still think that post-9/11 feminism is important, but my interest in that subject didn’t stop me from falling head over heels in love with studying moms. It was sort of like the first time I had a really good glass of Shiraz -– I had no idea what I’d been missing until I found it!

In Andrea O’Reilly’s course on motherhood, I learned that patriarchal motherhood is predicated on a gender binary that believes women are inherently more nurturing than men. This notion pretends that all cisgender women should WANT to be mothers, even though many actually don’t and that should be totally cool. I also learned to question this essentialist belief that being born with vagina automatically makes you a kickass nurturer when I discovered that most moms in fact do not feel they are “natural” mothers. No, the books I read showed me that many mothers do not instinctively know exactly how to raise a baby when you plop one in their laps.

As the work of legendary maternal theorist Sara Ruddick shows us, the mother role has historically been conflated with primary care-giving. Ruddick’s theorizing suggests a mother is essentially anyone who makes the tasks of raising a child a major part of their life, regardless of biology at birth. This is something people of all gender identities can do. There is no need to limit the work of mothering to women alone. I for one would like to live in a future where we see primary care-work as a less gendered act.

Unfortunately, any Motherhood Studies scholar worth their salt can tell you we have a long way to go in reforming motherhood. My Motherhood Studies course taught me women as mothers still do significantly more parenting on average than fathers. This Pew Research Study illustrates that point.

I also learned that mothering has changed a great deal in recent decades, becoming more and more intensive. Thanks to the modern-day norm of “helicopter parenting,” so-called “good mothers” are expected to lavish drastically more time and money on their children than just a few decades ago. It is now common to hear of a mom getting up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to drive her kid to hockey practice, or spending a small fortune on various enrichment tutors or ballet and violin lessons. Those moms who can’t afford such things -- or choose not to -- are often cast as subpar.

Most importantly, however, through my years studying motherhood, I realized that we as a society love to vilify mothers for being anything less than whatever arbitrary notion of perfect is popular at the time. For reference, read almost any recent story on Kim Kardashian or Kate Middleton. We are obsessed with judging moms for an array of decisions, from whether or not they breastfeed to what they wear. Despite that obsession, there is alarmingly little public discourse about things that actually help moms, like subsidized daycare.

After many hours studying the above issues -- with lots of work and green tea consumption on my part -- I have now earned the opportunity to present my research at conferences hosted by such institutions as Manhattan’s Marymount College and the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. In addition, I am very fortunate to call myself the co-editor of a book of essays about mothers released in 2013. Once I get my PhD (let’s hope that’s soon!), you could well call me Dr. Mom, except for the fact that I’m not one. I just study them.

I am sometimes asked by feminist academic peers why I care so much about moms. Even the occasional well-meaning colleague at a Motherhood Studies conference has asked, “Why do you study mothering when you aren’t a mom?” My response is always the same; I smile and say, “No one asks a political scientist why they still care about government if they haven’t run for office.”

The truth is, parenting interests me because it’s so basic and yet so complicated. Whether it’s by biological, adopted, or foster parents, paid caregivers or involved family friends, everyone needs someone to care for them as a young child. To put it bluntly, without people to feed our infant selves, we’d all have died.

Despite the fact that the research shows cisgender women are not born with some implant in our ovaries that magically tells us how to be parents, cisgender women are still expected to perform the majority of childcare in our society. Because no one gives you an owner’s manual for a baby (unless you count Dr. Spock, which I don’t), this is a job you learn as you go along. Some moms like it and some moms don’t, but one thing I’ve learned is that it’s never easy. It is a job that requires about as much thought as analyzing Foucault, and probably A LOT more patience.

The fact that some people find it surprising that a childfree 20-something academic like myself would give a damn about motherhood without being a mother shows how little we as a society respect that job. Whether or not we are super close to the mothers who raised us, the majority of us have had them. So, as far as I’m concerned, why NOT study mothers?

Ultimately, I’m glad I got to study motherhood while still childfree. Even with all I’ve learned about how hard society can make mothering, I do hope very much to become a mother one day; however, I will now go into that life experience seeing it for what it is, a tough job that currently does not get nearly enough respect.