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Mother’s Day comes with lots of talk and thought about mothers and motherhood — its joys and its sacrifices. It also comes, increasingly and importantly, with discussions and interventions about the people who do not have mothers, the people who were unable to become mothers, or who have difficult relationships with their mothers. What if we also extended that conversation to reimagining the family itself and looking at lives lived outside of its conventions? These books do so with child-free protagonists, women celebrating divorce, and calls to abolish the family altogether.
In her new book, A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again, Joanna Biggs champions women writers who, in some way, flouted the ideals of their time and prized their intellectual freedom. She tells the story of Mary Wollstonecraft who, jilted by the father of her first child, manages to create great works and find love again; of George Eliot, who quoted Wollstonecraft in letters, and started her life over again at 38, and refused to marry her longtime lover; of Toni Morrison, a single mother who wrote that it should be a whole community that raises a child. She also tells her own story of leaving a marriage that didn’t quite work and finding fulfillment and even love in her intellectual life and her strong friendships.
Biggs puts herself and these women–and often their fictional characters–in conversation, showing a long lineage of women who lived unconventional lives and found meaning beyond what might have been expected of them.
In a conversation Renee and I recently had for the podcast on being child-free, Renee suggested Serena Singh Flips the Script by Sonya Lalli. Serena, who is happy with her life in advertising, is not interested in having children and would rather find a new female friend than a partner and subverting the conventions of both her immigrant family and the romance narrative.
I am also thinking of Alice Stern in Emma Straub’s This Time Tomorrow, whose time travel allows her briefly to go back in time and pursue a life with a husband and child. It turns out that these were not things her life had been wanting. She is searching for another kind of meaning.
There are so many different ways and degrees by which to reimagine family. Queer people, radical feminists, socialist utopians, and rich aunts have long theorized, imagined, and lived lives outside of the nuclear family arrangement. And pre-colonial, pre-patriarchal, and non-capitalist, non-western societies had and have very different familial models.
Peggy O’Donnell Heffington includes some of these and other histories in her new book, Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother. Heffington, as the title suggests, delves into the history of women who elected not to have children or were unable to have children and those who fall somewhere in between. She writes, “the explanations for individual and collective childlessness are complicated. It’s not just our finances, or the joy of living a selfish and hedonic existence, or the grief of infertility. For some of us, it’s all of these, and more: the lack of support in our current society that makes parenting a profoundly individual, isolated project; the financial pressures that make us prioritize careers and income over almost anything else; the fear of raising children on a planet already groaning under the weight of a mass of humanity doing its best to destroy it; the fear of creating another human to aid in that destruction. Some of us want to live lives that don’t allow space for children, lives that demand we spend our reserves of time, energy, and love in other ways.”
She concludes, in a way that echoes many of other thinkers I have read on the subject, that it is the coming together of mothers and non-mothers, community support, solidarity, and kinship that will serve as a balm where our systems fail, remind me of a book I spent a lot of time with last summer, Essential Labor by Angela Garbes. I felt that Garbes elucidated many of these structural failings and how they impacted her as a mother and parents in the US more broadly, concluding in part that family would be transformed and parenting would be less of a struggle if care were more communal, even compensated.
Earlier this month, Sophie Lewis wrote an article that piqued my interest for the London Review of Books criticizing aspects of Garbes’s work, writing that this incrementalist communitarian approach might amount to little more than a change in attitude. What Lewis wants is a revolution. In her review and in her book, Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, Lewis traces the socialist and radical roots of the idea of not only reimagining the family, but doing away with it as a whole as part of an anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal remaking of the world. The family, Lewis argues, using feminist, Marxist, and Gay Liberation texts, thought, and examples, subjugates women and codifies capitalism. It stands in for structures of care that could be better managed in different ways.
What if society had better systems to provide for children, the sick, and the old instead of trusting that family will do so? It is the family, Lewis says, that prevents the emergence of better alternatives that might arise in its place and prevents us from “imagining a world in which all people are cared for by many by default.”
Lewis cites M.E. O’Brien, an outspoken family abolitionist, whose new book Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care is out June 10. O’Brien is also the co-author of Everything For Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072. In that book, a utopian imagining of a post-revolutionary world, children are cared for communally. Biological parents can take part in their children’s’ lives but the community as a whole provides real, direct support in the raising of a child. And children have more free will in terms of where they live and how they spend their time. The result is freeing for everyone involved. Biological parents do not need to give up their entire lives after a child is born. Those who do not take part in the physical act of conception can still actively participate in the raising of a child. And a child is not bound unequivocally to the people who conceived them.
Lewis doesn’t envision these changes happening within her lifetime, but her work, like O’Brien’s, imagines, gestures towards, and points the way towards what might be possible. It is a different kind of conception.