Motherhood as Unexpected: Stories That Defy the Mold of Being a Mother

In (M)otherhood: On the Choices of Being a Woman, author Pragya Agarwal intertwines her own experiences as a mother with voices, thoughts and realities often kept behind closed doors.

When I read Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, I was at a college I would soon be leaving. An institution in which white fraternity culture prevailed and the safety and autonomy of women’s bodies felt quite unimportant.

Beyond the coursework and requirements of being a piano performance major (with four hours of practice a day), I lived with the added strain of keeping myself and my friends safe in a place in which the autonomy and protection of women’s bodies felt non-existent. That task increasingly came to feel like a full-time job.

Motherhood, the core subject of Rich’s book, felt a lifetime away and yet the book was still prescient, powerful and moving, as it gave me a way of looking at the reality of being a woman in a patriarchal world that I previously did not have. It gave me permission to view both womanhood and motherhood with ambivalence.

As I recently read Pragya Agarwal’s latest book, released in paperback in January, (M)otherhood: On the Choices of Being a Woman I found myself, in many ways, in a parallel universe. Twenty years later, I am a mother during a pandemic and once again keeping myself and others (this time children) safe feels like a full-time job. Similarly, I see the safety and autonomy of our bodies eroding, especially if those bodies are not white. I am reminded of the importance of stories, like Agarwal’s, that push against social norms and taboos and speak openly and honestly about women’s lives.

Part memoir, part sociological study, Agarwal’s intimate exploration of her own experiences as a mother, first unexpectedly and then through the use of a surrogate, brings forth voices, thoughts and realities often kept behind closed doors. She highlights the ways in which women are discouraged from understanding and knowing our own bodies and the ways language around pregnancy and (in)fertility remain gendered, biased and patriarchal. 

We want mothers to be capable, beautiful and self-sacrificing, but we don’t want to engage in meaningful discussions or understandings of how women become mothers. Nor do we want to be reminded of the ugliness mothering might be. And certainly we don’t want to confront the large amount of unpaid labor undertaken by those who take on the esteemed (and maligned) role of mother.

I see the safety and autonomy of women’s bodies eroding, and I am reminded of the importance of stories, like Agarwal’s, that push against social norms and taboos and speak openly and honestly about women’s lives.

Today, the choices of being a woman, which Agarwal’s book so eloquently explores, feel more fraught than ever in the face of a global pandemic with viral mutations, rising infection rates and a health care system at its breaking point. Nothing is simple. Nothing is clear. Nothing is easy. 

In the opening of the book, she reminds us “stories matter. Individual stories project into universal experiences. And women’s stories have been hidden, ignored, sidelined.” This was true when Rich published her groundbreaking work on motherhood 45 years ago and remains true today. 

Agarwal is intent on expanding the stories included in the limited canon on motherhood, stories that center white, middle class experiences, especially when it comes to infertility. She is fiercely committed to placing front and center the sustained bias implicit in the medical field regarding women’s bodies and the process of becoming pregnant. As she points out, gendered language prevails in medicine and women are presented as passive participants who are often woefully uninformed about our own bodies. This aspect of the book resonated with me deeply as I recently learned I have a prolapsed uterus and have since my last pregnancy, ten years ago. 

“Empowering people with more knowledge and information will help them make better choices and decisions, of course, but does society really want this?” Agarwal asks as she pushes readers to consider not only implicit biases in science, but the biases we hold inside of ourselves. 

At its core, the power of this book for me is not only its ability to tell a story of motherhood rarely told, but also its insistence on interrogating bias. Society offers a very limited view of who can and should be a mother and of what paths to motherhood are acceptable, praised, rejected, etc. Through Agarwal’s journey to motherhood, I was able to reconsider my own journey in a powerful way that offered me freedom and grace.

Even though my process to becoming a mother was very different from Agarwal’s, I still felt very seen as I read her book because she speaks so openly about inequity and stresses the multitude that is mothering and motherhood. 

Agarwal views mothering as an act of defiance, rather than an act that demands we accept the patriarchal structures which often come with it. This mirrored my own approach to motherhood and I greatly appreciated her recognition of the realities a wide array of mothers face: women in detention (immigrant or otherwise), trans men who give birth and the gender dysphoria some of them experience, mothers who choose to become surrogates and many others.

While the book centers on Agarwal’s personal story, it does not do so at the exclusion of other stories, but rather recognizes the need for a much more expansive understanding of motherhood and of the choices all women face. Importantly, she does not treat those choices as uniform or homogenous. Rather, she carefully notes the ways societal experiences, religion, race, class, gender identity and other factors affect the choices women face and the access women have to choices in general. 

Agarwal views mothering as an act of defiance, rather than an act that demands we accept the patriarchal structures which often come with it.

What drew me to Rich’s work is what draws me to Agarwal’s as well, the recognition of the ambivalence of motherhood and the struggle to articulate what it means to be a mother. 

“Somehow there are no words in our armoury for maternal anger and ambivalence;” no words, at least “that can stand side by side with our love,” she writes.

While this is true, it is equally true (M)otherhood gives us some of the words we need. This book will resonate deeply with many mothers who have previously felt invisible. In reading Agarwal’s words, I hope those mothers will find their own words and articulate their experiences so our communal understanding of what it means to be a mother can grow.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Jennifer Fischer is a writer and filmmaker whose work has been featured by Vice News, ABC, Univision, NBCLatino, Fusion, NBCBLK and others. She has an essay forthcoming in the book What Is a Criminal? to be published by Routledge Press in 2022. She is the executive director of Journeys in Film. She can be found on Twitter @IndieJenFischer.