Sophie Lewis: On Non-reparative Mothering
In thinking about care and care work, practices of mothering play a crucial role. In her essay, writer and scholar Sophie Lewis takes her ambivalent relationship to her own mother as well as impressions from the exhibition YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal as an opportunity to critically examine the “solitary cell of bourgeois kinship”.
What I have found lately is that it is difficult for me to hate a woman on strike. Even when her product is… me. Don’t get me wrong, it sucks, in many ways, to be an item on the peoplemaking assembly-line that gets left sitting on the moving belt, missing out on certain steps in the process of being made. Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to muster real contempt for the not-good-enough mother. It’s not that I think the traumas she inflicts aren’t real, or aren’t hers to answer for. They are, and I think the feminist left is sometimes so caught up in combating mother-blaming and matrophobia that it doesn’t give maternal violence the attention it’s due. But a reproductive labourer’s working-conditions are so compromised under patriarchal capitalism that I cannot help but admire her withdrawals of her labour-power a little bit. For instance, even Shulamith Firestone, the family abolitionist and children’s liberationist, refused to pull her weight where the collective work of care was concerned. Reportedly, she “objected” during the 1968 National Women’s Liberation Conference in Illinois, “when someone asked that the audience applaud the efforts of the child-care attendants. Instead, she declared that mothers should have left their children at home.” (1) An unforgivable nonsense. Yet, somehow, I hesitate to condemn.
I did not always feel hesitant. When I was younger, I ragefully reproached my mother for never telling me about queerness, racism, or menstruation; for caring little about me in general; for attempting suicide. I also hated my mother’s official parents, my misogynist, traditionalist German granddad and grandma, for caring so poorly for her (admittedly this was in part because they didn’t have the resources to care for both children equally when my physically disabled uncle was born). (2) I was angry that she – having been neglected – didn’t do a better job with me. After all, she brought me into this intensively familised, capitalist world, didn’t she? Why couldn’t she singlehandedly break the proverbial cycle? Surely she owed me the same impossible, total labour that all undersupported care-givers owe their dependents. I was anguished at my undermotheredness. Thus, after years of pre-emptively rejecting her, I turned around and tried to get to know her – and force her to know me. Then, I was angry all over again when she wasn’t sufficiently interested. But, even then, I think I was almost equally angry at the situation in which we had always found ourselves, the two of us: trapped in a solitary cell of bourgeois kinship, on a planet on which neither of us got the time or resources to be the people we wanted to become.
Children have specific needs and entitlements. But they are not incapable of participating in care. In a different world, I sometimes speculate, children might even articulate, politically, their desire to be involved in certain kinds of care reciprocity. Children, in the present, are not incapable of solidarity with overburdened mothers. Sometimes, children simply, unresentfully, understand: mothers need mothering, too. Often, children who mother a mother who can’t mother, in the present, are talked about in the psycho-analytic idiom of Alice Miller’s “drama of the gifted child”. (3) But what psychoanalysts – with some exceptions – don’t like to talk about so much is the fact that the domestic labour conditions undergirding this and other psychological syndromes are contingent: not a transhistoric necessity, not a fact of nature. Moreover, the task of reproducing “well-adjusted” individuals in a context of post-genocidal, white supremacist class society is surely not one every mother, ethically speaking, “should” want to carry out. However destructively, self-hatingly and messily, mothers who don’t mother (enough) may be subconsciously attempting not to reproduce themselves: seeking to halt, for example, the reproduction of fascists and colonisers from whom they may be descended.
When I walked into the Gropius Bau in Berlin in October 2022, I was primed to give a fairly impersonal “art world” lecture about the critical-utopianist dialectic of “mothering against motherhood”. I planned to borrow Louise Bourgeois’ profoundly (to my mind) anti-essentialist pregnancy inkworks as background illustrations for a straightforward movement history of the lesbian-feminist idea that the collective creativity of polymaternal peoplemaking is antithetical to the patriarchal institutions of social reproduction. However, as I walked through the Bourgeois exhibition The Woven Child on the upper floor, and then examined the works of the 25 artists comprising YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal (on the ground level), I decided to adjust my plan. Inspired by the anti-sentimental visions I encountered, of what it means to inhabit an unhealable body, I suddenly realised that I wanted to publicly present – for the first time – some of the intensely personal auto-theory I had composed on the occasion of my mother’s death in November 2019: Mothering against motherhood: (death) doula work, xenohospitality and the idea of the momrade. Newly lodged in my brain were the violent needlework carcasses, hostile vulvas and necropolitical gestationalities of Bourgeois, Johanna Hedva (The Clock is Always Wrong, 2022) and Paula Rego (The Abortion Series, 2000/2020). While Bourgeois had literally cut up her ancestors’ clothes, pricking at them thousands of times to sculpt them into bodies, Rego had portrayed the dignity of feticide, and Hedva had fashioned and curated monstrous time-pieces that challenge the commonplace association between time and healing.
Suddenly, I was acutely conscious of being in Berlin – the city to which my mother, as a five-year-old child, was routinely exiled in the late 1940s. I can almost picture her, playing alone on the roof of the apartment block in which her grandparents lived: ex-Jewish Germans who – like Bourgeois’ parents, come to think of it – were tailors, ever plying needle and thread. Right outside the Gropius Bau, the Topographie des Terrors (Topography of Terror) documentation centre exhibits artifacts of genocide remembrance on the grounds of the former Nazi “Reich Security” headquarters, the site of the Secret State Police and of the SS. There’s no getting around it, I reflected: my mum’s father (who died when I was four), fought uncomplainingly for Hitler. Meanwhile, secretly, my mother’s mother had been born into a Jewish family, which earlier in the century had antisemitically repudiated its own Jewishness, converted away from Judaism and changed its name. Learning of the latter history only late in her life, my mother – like many Germans born under National Socialism – redoubled her attempts not to be German and drowned herself in alcohol. Yet, it was not possible to create an entirely un-German child (me) via passivity and avoidance. Here, amidst the YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal exhibition, I stood, looking through a window at the Topography of Terror. Mentally, it seemed, I had started pricking at disparate recollections, shreds of genealogical experience, things I had never been invited to claim. I was tugging them into view: not in order to paper over the fissures and the rotten roots of my “family tree”, but precisely to make them visible.
Clumsily, and with the loosest of filaments, I seemed to be trying to stitch myself into relation with this place. I even wondered briefly if I might give the lecture in German – the language one could technically call my “mother-tongue”, even though I cannot actually speak it fluently, because my mother by and large did not speak it with me. Such was my newfound appetite to violate my late mother’s boundary; to reverse my disinheritance by her; to refuse her refusal to bequeath me an identity, from which she disidentified. “Claim your bad kin”, enjoined the Canadian philosopher Alexis Shotwell, speaking to her fellow settler-colonists – and fellow white people in North America – in 2018. The reasoning goes: “White nationalists claim me, as a white person, as kin…they are working for a world in which I and white people like me hold citizenship, reproduce ‘the white race,’ and are safe and flourishing.” (4) Thus, writes Shotwell, with reference to the Indigenous anthropologists Kim Tallbear and Audra Simpson and in homage to the Black philosopher Christina Sharpe’s work: “I started to wonder what would happen if I claimed them back.” The project of claiming bad kin aims at the proliferation of “race traitors against whiteness” (5) – to borrow from Shotwell once again – in an effort to stymy the disavowal of personal connections to white supremacist people, histories and social relations. In other words, it is not about reconciliation, even if it might include elements of appreciation: I am me because you were you. If I become anything like a bomb, it is not because Mum, in her alcoholic solitude, was a bomb-builder… in a conscious sense.
I rewrote my script, remade my slideshow presentation and stood on-stage, resolved to see what would happen if I performed, publicly, my ambivalently tender and aggressive attempt to extract liberatory mothering – not motherhood! – from my unmotherly mother, posthumously. I talked about the rightness and wrongness of birthing Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (2019), my first book, at the same time as attending the terminal decline of my most proximate, and yet also most alien, family member. I talked about desiring the abolition of the family as an antiracist and decolonial imperative, not least because I loved and would have loved to love better, some of the people in my family. My “Mumputz.” I showed the audience intimate photographs, screenshots of text messages, anecdotes, theory and narratives about late-stage oncology, homecare and hospice care, in a context of care crisis, austerity and border crisis. As I settle back into my home in the United States and look back at the evening in Berlin, it seems clear: it was, for me, the beginning of something. Make no mistake: when Audre Lorde said, “we can learn to mother ourselves”, (6) she was speaking to the lesbians and other Black women who (in Hortense Spillers epochal analysis Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book, 1987) stand outside the symbolics of gendered humanness. When I say I am learning to mother myself, I am trying to become capable of situated response-ability and class/race treachery.
It is eminently possible that some things in this world are, simply, irreparable. It is also possible that things, while not necessarily irreparable, are better left unrepaired. Perhaps relatedly, reparations for certain acts of violence cannot be made. Conceivably, however, payment must still begin anyway. Those who endured should not face pressure to be re-paired – recoupled, integrated – with a defeated enemy. At the same time, forgiveness can feel worthwhile, as an internal rather than a relational matter: a reconstitution of broken parts of the self. I think we are often anxious: if people do not repair and recover themselves after they have suffered violence, aren’t they allowing their abusers to define them – and isn’t that bad? Conversely, what if the labour of resilience also centres and privileges the injustice that necessitated it in the first place? From my new vantage-point as a bad-kin-claimer, I want to say that being defined by evil may be inevitable. And it seems to me that the self-purifying fantasy that we aren’t (at least in part) the creations of our enemies is what Donna Haraway’s “cyborg” figuration of the body set out so powerfully to debunk in the 1980s. Those who mother against motherhood understand this viscerally: as Madeline Lane-McKinley puts it: “Caring for children can be an ongoing tragedy of naturalising capitalism in order to survive in it.” As I said, I find it increasingly hard to hate a woman on strike. (7)
1 Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975, Thirtieth Anniversary Edition, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), p.112. Based on oral interview with Corinne Coleman.
2 The story goes that my Oma and Opa told their infant daughter shortly after her physically disabled brother’s birth that henceforward the hospitalised boy-child would come first. Opa even indicated in the air with his hand how unimportant she now was: absolutely bottom of his list of priorities.
3 Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self (New York: Basic Books, 2008).
4 Alexis Shotwell, “Claiming Bad Kin”, Alexis Shotwell, March 2, 2018, https://alexisshotwell.com/2018/03/02/claiming-bad-kin/.
6 Audre Lorde, “Eye to Eye: Black Women Hatred and Anger”, in Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984).
7 Madeline Lane-McKinley, “The Idea of Children”, Blind Field, August 2, 2018, https://blindfieldjournal.com/2018/08/02/the-idea-of-children/.