Against Maternal Exceptionalism
A conversation with Erin S. Lane
“Being a woman, you can’t just say you don’t want a child. You have to have some big plan or idea of what you’re going to do instead. And it better be something great. And you had better be able to tell it convincingly – before it even happens – what the arc of your life will be.”
Motherhood, Sheila Heti
Lord knows I love a theologian who opens her book with Rebecca Solnit and drops an F-bomb before she even gets to chapter one.
Meet Erin S. Lane, author of Someone Other Than a Mother: Flipping the Scripts on a Woman’s Purpose and Making Meaning Beyond Motherhood.
If you missed my last newsletter on the glorification of motherhood, read it now, because it is the perfect introduction to Erin, her book, and why her book is relevant to our conversations on The Mother Lode.
What Erin aims to do in her book is rewrite the cultural scripts we are given about motherhood, and fight against the concept of maternal exceptionalism, or the belief that moms are more valuable than non-moms. She spent a good portion of her adulthood childfree, and then fostered and adopted three daughters in her mid-thirties. She is now mothering three teenage girls and her book examines how we can reclaim our worth as women apart from our wombs, as well as “how we find community when we find ourselves outside of convention.”
She was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me, and I share our conversation below.
I love how you frame your book around the mother “scripts”
Well, I don't mean to be a weird conspiracy theorist about this but I'm always, like, Who's prioritizing mother love above all others? Because for a long time nations or religions or, let's get real, MEN, valorized women's unpaid reproductive labor because they needed it for survival and/or world domination. And, also, women quite frequently died during childbirth. So how do you convince us it's something worth doing? You tell us it's the greatest, most blessed, most joyful things since sliced...potatoes!?! It makes sense then that a lot of us would hop on the "mother love is the best love" wagon because it may feel like one of the few things women ARE valued for. But it's not THE ONLY thing worth doing. And that's what I set out to do in the book. To say, "Okay, but like, what other loves in our lives are worth celebrating? And can we celebrate those loves - like self-love or friend-love - that are actually accessible to all humans, not just those of us who choose to use our womb?" Celebration is a very sneaky act of resistance.
Starting with desire rather than duty is a real, healthy corrective for a lot of girls and women.
You share: “Women as a whole reported reaching their peak happiness after age eighty-five, presumably when they have the least caregiving responsibilities of their adult lives.” I think there is this idea that if you are lucky enough to reach old age as a woman, then you finally have freedom to put yourself first. How can we show the next generation that they do not have to wait until age 85 to live the life they desire?
Gah, this answer feels real sacrilegious to me because I am very into THE SOCIAL CONTRACT by which I mean you don't always get to do what you want to do when it comes to taking care of each other. But, stepping down from that soap box, I do think that starting with desire rather than duty is a real, healthy corrective for a lot of girls and women. So, it's a parenting value of mine, an actual printed value that is the only "artwork" I allow on the refrigerator, that you "ask for what you want" in my house. Which means you have to get curious about what you want. And that DOES NOT guarantee that you'll get what you want. Only that there is something instructive in doing a fierce inventory of your desire and the world you live-in and asking where there's overlap. But I don't know. All that sounds real vague to me now as I write it. Honestly? Part of showing my three teen daughters not to wait until age 85 to live the life they desire is to talk about my own life - at 38 - as if it has yet to be fully written. Let me tell you, some of my desires - like the desire to move across the country and live in an Air Stream trailer after they graduate - are not pleasing to them. They need to see me be okay with not being pleasing.
I love that. It is a very revolutionary act as a woman to say, I aim to please myself, not always others. Not that you cannot do both, but we’ve been conditioned to please others first and sometimes I think that is why we find ourselves in the bind that we are in today. (To read my thoughts on desire, click here).
I really related with the content in the book that reflects on how erased you feel by the title “mom” or the insistence that your role be more important than your identity. “Titles may be who I am to you but names are who I am to myself,” you write. You also mention changing your name back to your “maiden name” (yuck, I hate that phrase) after being married for four years. Talk to me about the importance of your name and why you think women are still conditioned to hide behind their roles or feel comfortable erasing their previous identity upon marriage?
Oh, I love my first name. I mean, I did try to change it periodically through middle school. Once, by telling everyone it was spelled "Airen." Another, by asking everyone to call me "Stephanie," which I claimed was my middle name. (It was not. The "S" stands for Steffen.) Then I did try to get everyone to call me "Miss E" a.k.a. "Missy" in college but 0% of new friends did. So, it's taken some time to love my first name but it feels like this thing that uniquely belongs to me with limited patriarchal influence. My hypothesis on why other women are less enthused though? Well, I honestly think a lot of women long to belong to someone else. And that longing is not bad. It's good! Like, we're all both souls and roles and, I think those two words are a paradox that deserves holding. But when you flip too far out on hiding behind your roles, that's worth investigating. Like, do I do that because it's easier to identify other people's needs than my own? Or that other people are such a gaping hole of disappointment to me that they can't be trusted to see me for my whole self so I may as well absent my agency from the situation entirely? Not speaking from experience or anything...
Your book is also a beautiful exploration of the experience of fostering. You talk openly about the amount of support that is provided for foster parents. “If this kind of government support came built-in for biological parents, how many fewer foster parents would we need?” Your legal bills were fully covered, “monthly adoption assistance payments would continue until the girls were eighteen, and a yearly pot of money was available to cover ongoing needs for things like therapy, educational testing, and day camps with floppy-haired counselors named Jack. If I was ever going to become a parent in modern-day America, this was the way I wanted it: consensual, communal, subsidized. This is the way I want it for all parents, mind you.” Why do you think there is this divide between children who the government is willing to support and those they are not?
Ugh. Because in America we're so much better at throwing money at problems rather than preempting them? Or because we're so opposed to giving help or "government hand outs" to people who should really learn to do for themselves? It's atrocious, and ridiculously short-sighted. I remember reading in The Body Keeps the Score that if we addressed the child abuse epidemic like we did smoking cessation we'd save billions of dollars in healthcare every year. But instead, we're like, women should love being mothers! Why subsidize that love? Subsidizing that love would cheapen it! What bullshit. For all the anxiety about birth rates in America, I have yet to see a lot of politicians getting creative about the actual stuff - not the rhetorical stuff - that would make women and parents more broadly feel valued and then - MAYBE - simultaneously less dependent on venerating their identity as parents.
You write that we [need to]
“speak more honestly about our lives as they are and not as we wish them to be. To stop trying to advise the failure right out of one another. To listen for the peculiarities rather than the similarities in each other’s stories. To wear regret like ashes on our foreheads, a reminder that we are not-God, and regret is not the end.”
I love the idea of wearing regret like ashes. Why do you think being honest about regrets and failures is important?
Because I don't think we can belong to ourselves or one another - not fully - until we embrace reality. And reality is weird and kind and brutal and brilliant and smacks of being human. And - not to nerd out theologically but I'm going to nerd out theologically - confession is requisite for repentance. If we want anything to change about our suffering, we first have to name the suffering. Like, okay, my life didn't turn out how I thought it would. I am an impatient asshole during bedtime routines. I like my life and I don't like my life and what am I going to do about it? That's the stuff of resurrection. What needs to be grieved before I can begin experimenting with a new way of being where I don't lose my shit after 9pm?
If we want anything to change about our suffering, we first have to name the suffering.
You seek to expand the concept of family, love, and what it means to leave a legacy. Who are some other writers/thinkers/activists who are working in this space that you recommend we read as we continue this conversation?
Ah, what a useful question. Sarah Sentilles- a foster parent whom we both LOVE - and her book Stranger Care. Courtney Martin - a biological mom who cares deeply about neighbor love - and her book Learning in Public. Alexis Pauline Gumbs - a childless queer woman who revalorized the word mothering for me - and her anthology Revolutionary Mothering. Really, I'm so into this conversation on all fronts. And so into seeing more people raise their hand to say, "Hey, the scripts aren't working for me anymore. How can we rewrite a truer, weirder, kinder story together?"
Thank you Erin, for taking the time to write this book and have this conversation with me. To order Erin’s book, click here. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and sign up for her own newsletter.
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This is my first interview! I’d love to hear what you think of it.
“Your biological clock is ticking.”
“Home is your highest duty.”
“Motherhood is the toughest job.”
“But you’d make a great mom.”
“Children are a gift from God.”
“It’ll be different with your own.”
“You’ll regret not having kids.”
“Family is the greatest legacy.”
“You don’t know love until you become a mother.”
I edited Sarah’s book Breaking Up with God while working at HarperOne. I have also participated in her Word River writing groups thus we reconnected in the summer of 2021 when she told me a horrifying story of how brutal I was as an editor! But she assured me it made her a better writer!
Cindy, the interview is so rich. Wearing our regret like ashes. That really resonated for me. Along with all the mothering work, I'm interested in how this overlaps with the "Nap Ministry" work by Tricia Hersey. I'm also interested in dominion over other human bodies and required labor that deletes agency. This post is making me wonder how we have a bigger public conversation about grieving our loss of agency, grieving our willingness to participate in systems that are not designed for our own wellbeing, and the radical work of creating space and time to dare to imagine a different way of being. Sometimes I imagine Atherton from the sky, and I see these contemporary kings in their castles and the way a single Silicon Valley job reigns over a large domestic team. It feels so out of balance and unsustainable. I feel so embedded in it, so tired, and so at my wits end on how to rebuild for harmony and sustainability.