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“American Motherhood Felt Like That: Like a Plan Devised by Men.”
I remember reveling in the discovery of new writers and thinkers when I was in grad school: like, oh, just a month before, I had no idea this sort of thinking even existed, now I get to dive into WHOLE BOOKS of it? Every seminar felt like a new iceberg. It was intimidating and sublime, but I also thought there would be a point in time when the pace of discovery slowed and then, one day, stopped altogether. I’d still read people whose ideas elaborated in interesting ways on things I’d already encountered, but at some point you’ve been around the block, picked up all the books on the stoops, read all the good stuff.
I was wrong! I was so wrong! And honestly I didn’t realize just how wrong I was until I left academia, because then I got to dedicate precious reading time to thinkers operating in that electric space between theory and craft, creating writing that was provocative and addictive and, well, fun to read.
That’s where Amanda Montei’s writing lands, and I am obsessed with it. A lot of it has to do with motherhood, but as you read our discussion below, you’ll see that it’s a lot more interested in what it feels like to be a person in the world operating within others’ expectations of you. It’s about sobriety, ambivalence, and consent, and the feminization and normalization of pain, and making yourself invisible. It makes me want to write more and better; it’s unflinching but doesn’t make me feel dead inside. Again: I love it.
Amanda’s new book, Touched Out, is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read this year — particularly if you, too, like that electric space between theory and craft. Read our conversation, buy our book, and if you want Amanda’s thinking in your inbox every week — absolutely subscribe to her newsletter.
First off, for those who aren’t fluent in the current vernaculars of motherhood (particularly online motherhood) — can you explain what it means to be “touched out,” how that feels in your own body, what you think the phrase actually describes?
“Touched out” is this term that has really evolved online over the past decade. It’s become a sort of catch-all, colloquial, pseudo-scientific name for a mix of emotions mothers, usually in cis hetero partnerships, feel. When it comes up online, there’s descriptions of skin crawling or wanting to rip one’s skin off, so the term really describes a feeling of physical and emotional overwhelm for mothers who are inundated with the physicality of care work (it’s also sometimes used by those who work in childcare or who have sensory sensitivities). It’s a kind of burnout, we might say, but also inseparable from an intense and sudden desire for space–space to not be touched, sure, but also space to think, to sort things out, to take a beat. There tends to be lots of anger, confusion, sadness, and self-doubt hovering around this experience.
In many descriptions online, there’s also an explicit but usually underexplored connection—and more shame— around the refusal of intimacy with a husband, who tends to otherwise not really be on the scene while this mother is caring all day for her children, usually alone in an isolated domestic situation, with the kids constantly making demands of her body.
There’s very little research on maternal touch aversion, not surprisingly, because there’s very little research on postpartum mental health generally. But much of the early writing on this phenomenon– whether at La Leche League or in popular media– was really about normalizing the feeling or connecting it to the demands of breastfeeding. There's nothing wrong with you, the reporting said. This was important for combatting that sense of confusion and uncertainty so many women feel when they have any negative emotions about motherhood, much less when they find themselves pushing away children and male partners in a society in which it’s implicit that we will serve the needs of kids and men. Lately, though, explorations of the phenomenon have centered more on the overstimulation of contemporary parenthood and how neurodivergence and ADHD can make people more predisposed to this feeling.
What the phrase actually describes, though, and what I think is missing here, is a deeper exploration around a couple things I explore in the book. The first is that sexual obligation women feel weighing so heavily on them when they need some additional space or a respite from sexual intimacy, while working as primary caregivers in their homes with little to no social or emotional support.
Another subject that’s underexplored here is the very not normal or natural conditions in which we parent. So there’s this assumption underneath all this touch of feeling “touched out” that women caring for children all day at home alone—which of course is incredibly overstimulating and emotionally and physically taxing—is inevitable. That, for me, says a lot about how we view the inevitability of women’s suffering.
In the book, though, I also call on this term as a kind of metaphor for how so many of us feel when we are at a breaking point with the demands of gender and patriarchal control. It’s that feeling of, really, wanting to get the hands of power off us, wanting to push the world away, so that we can think and see straight. This book isn’t a look at the science of touch aversion, though I explore some of that. It’s really a look at the continuity I found between our assumptions about what motherhood will take from women and what it will do to their bodies and their sense of identity, and the broader messages we receive about who and what women’s bodies are for in this culture of misogyny and gendered violence.
There’s a line in the book where you’re describing the prolonged reckoning process with the reality of motherhood, and the question you found yourself returning to: Did I really ask for this?
“Ask for it” makes me think of asking for it — and that idea that women knowingly and unknowingly are inviting their own degradation and suffering. Can we use that phrase as a way to talk about the driving themes of the book? [This is also where I hope we can get into the line that’s sunk into me and never left: “American motherhood felt like that: like a plan devised by men.”]
I’m so glad you pulled out that line. It’s one of those phrases that really captures how victim-blaming logic is used against women who become parents, should they have any sort of critique of the institution of motherhood. One of the things I explore in the book is how the language that circles around assault, violation, violence against women, and just general sexual politics, is echoed in how we talk about motherhood. In parenting discourse, though, it’s all watered down and sentimentalized and rife with cliche, such that the exploitation and degradation and suffering of the bodies at work in the institution of motherhood appear to be… not that bad. But it is bad!
That phrase “she asked for it”—and really just that notion that we make choices and then because we made a choice we can‘t critique the institutions and systems and policies and cultural demands and exploitation we come up against after making those choices—also captures how choice is frequently weaponized against women. In America, we are so invested in the neoliberal myth of free will that people tend to get very prickly around the suggestion that, actually, culture and politics have a big hand in the shaping of things like identity, intimacy, and family, even choice! Women may make choices that put them closer to the scene of exploitation or violence, but there are a host of reasons why this might happen–sometimes it’s because they believe it will make them safer, or more lovable; sometimes it’s simply a result of cultural pressure or socialization; sometimes policy hems in our ability to choose what we really want.
So, in the book, I write about how we need to explore this idea of choice. Who really gets to consent to the conditions of their lives? Who gets to experience the kind of nostalgic motherhood we see in the most idealized depictions of family life?
We see the weaponization of choice come up often in conservative rhetoric around better policies for families, like paid leave and affordable childcare, and of course abortion rights. The response is often that women should know better, should make better choices, should close their legs, should control the intake of semen, should shut that whole thing down, should make more money before becoming parents/shouldn’t be poor, with the implication that poverty is a choice, and so on.
But of course that’s all a cover for a cultural and political and economic entitlement to women’s bodies serving male pleasure and power in the form of pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering– through her roles in the nuclear family as doting wife and mother.
In the book, I wanted to explore how it feels to try to hold oneself accountable for the choices we’ve made, while also acknowledging cultural coercion and other ways power shapes our bodies, our lives, our relationships, our sense of love and desire, and our most intimate experiences. What does it feel like to try to take one’s body and life back in that kind of culture? I write about sort of waking up and looking around my house, where I was mostly alone with my first kid, sucked into making Pinterest boards about toddler busy-boxes and family-friendly recipes, cleaning house, no longer writing or doing the work I had trained for for over a decade. I was playing out this role that felt like it had been designed by men. I had been duped.
I write too about a sexual experience I had as a teenager, when I consented to have sex with this boy I really really liked, then he never talked to me again. I still have the note I wrote to a friend, it’s so filled with rage, asking why he had sex with me if he didn’t like me. My sense was that his friends— boys— knew I liked him and that I was not a virgin, but he was, so they had encouraged him to fuck me. I had consented, just as I had consented to motherhood—pretty enthusiastically. But what I learned later totally corrupted the experience, and the sense of agency and choice I once felt I had over the situation.
That was similar to how I felt as a new mother. Over the years, I’ve also really tried in my work to articulate how the conditions in which we parent are not consensual. I have, now, a lot more agency over my life that I did in the early years of parenting, and even then, I had more sense of choice than many in America have. I wanted us to talk so much more about this— how choice is not distributed evenly in this country, and never has been, but rather, it’s always been conditioned along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality. It’s always been hemmed in and gradated by policy.
Continuing that question in a way that I hope allows us to talk about who this book is about and for: What do you mean when you say that you’re not talking about mothers as people so much as “motherhood” as “a script that acts on the body?” (Thinking also about the section on page 107 that’s furiously highlighted in my copy re: the ways in which parenting in private also transforms woman into mother)
Motherhood, capital M is an institution. A set of cultural and economic ideals and assumptions, a set of gendered expectations and aspirations for bodies socialized as girls. As I emphasize in the book, Motherhood is also a set of labors— domestic work, housework, caregiving work, emotional work. We bundle all of that together and call it Motherhood! Which conveniently normalizes and naturalizes all these ways in which women’s bodies are policed and disciplined into the gender category woman (of which Mother is supposedly the highest form) from a young age. By attributing that work and those ways of being and behaving to the feminine condition, it creates a number of pressures felt by all women, but also by men, and by anyone who refuses the gender binary.
That may be uncomfortable for some people to acknowledge, especially people who identify with motherhood, or the really creative, intellectual, skilled work of caring for children. It has been uncomfortable at times for me, as I write in the book, to acknowledge how much of my identity and behavior and life is rooted in these roles we are coerced into playing out. It was especially uncomfortable for me when I realized how hard it was to liberate myself or extricate myself from the institution of motherhood, such that I could even really see the forest for the trees– where did I stop and where did this inherited institution start?
It’s kind of a futile question on the surface, but for me, it’s still a question worth continually asking ourselves, even if there is no such thing as a self that exists outside of, you know, patriarchal control and a misogynist culture. I write in the book about how, as a parent, there is a process of mourning that comes for many with realizing that our children, despite our best efforts, will be socialized into this patriarchal culture. We have to accept that we are all products of this world, while also holding space to resist that world, and that’s some of the hardest, and most valuable, work of parenting, to my mind.
Part of why I think it’s still important to ask that question of where the line might be between experience and institution– I’m drawing on Adrienne Rich’s crucial distinction there—is because many of us carry a lot of shame for what we’ve done to ourselves, what we’ve been convinced we’ve done to ourselves, and what others have done to us as a result of these social and cultural and political scripts that live inside all of us. It’s not just the institution of motherhood, in other words, that I explore in the book, but also this culture of violence against women that we all live with. I think becoming more aware of how a misogynist culture shapes our early sexual experiences, for example, and therefore our deepest senses of desire and pleasure, can help us find inroads to make those experiences more consensual, and more pleasurable.
So for example, I write in the book about an experience I had with a coworker who, it took me years to put it this way, tried to rape me. I made myself totally abject and hid out in a bathroom until he left, because I didn’t really have any method of refusal available to me. It’s not only that I didn’t know how to say no, but that I carried all these assumptions inside myself that told me I had asked for it: I had invited this older man over, I had flirted with him at work, I had gotten drunk with him (really, all I wanted was someone to get drunk and chat with!), I hadn’t said no firmly enough (I think because I was worried it would put me in more danger).
Similarly, I found in the early years of motherhood that it was incredibly hard to distinguish what I was doing with my kids or just, you know, in my life in general, because of some cultural compulsion, some external pressure to meet a maternal standard that I had internalized, and what I was choosing to do in my parenting because I valued it, or found pleasure in it.
Please take this as the compliment that it is, but I think I’ve always found myself attracted to your writing because of its ambivalence. Ambivalence about motherhood, yes, but also just a general posture of ambivalence towards dominant understandings. It’s less meh than “let me whisper louder and louder and louder that things aren’t as great as the story we tell ourselves.” But it’s also not, like, a Capital Letters Argument, like 17 REASONS WHY MOTHERHOOD IS A SCAM.
Where do you think that ambivalence comes from on the emotional life, and how has your training — in your Ph.D. program, in your M.F.A. — honed it when it comes to craft?
Hah, well motherhood is a scam, but also I think sometimes those of us who do “motherhood” writing (an annoying category in and of itself) are expected to sort jazz-hands everything? Make it soft and sweet, or at least funny and light, or at least colloquial, as though “mothers” (a category way more diverse than we allow) cannot handle complex intellectual thoughts? Calling it a scam is okay, but, like, calling it the capitalist exploitation of labor historically performed by women is a bit much.
But we are living in an era of forced motherhood. Pregnant people are dying. It’s pretty dark out there. And feminists have been studying the institution of motherhood for a long time. So part of that desire to whisper louder is also, honestly, just frustration and anger that we are still here trying to say the same old shit in new ways, and we are still, too often in my mind, dancing around the reality of what’s happening.
We are living in an era in which many people are actively dedicating their lives to controlling women’s bodies, trans bodies, controlling any body that doesn’t fit neatly into the hetero nuclear family. I think we can and need to be enraged about that all the time, and that normalizing the suffering of women, whether in sex or marriage or parenthood, is part of the problem.
To the question of where that ambivalence comes from and how it’s related to my training as a writer and thinker—yeah, I think a lot of it comes from my resistance to, as you put it, dominant understandings, or the sort of Expert-mentality that make every argument into a kind of phallic gesture toward A Claim. I’m a bit of a contrarian too in that anything that is trendy or timely makes me restless. As soon as we settle into some idea about motherhood especially, it gets coopted by capitalism and repackaged as a good we can buy, so as I write in the book, I think we need to be constantly trying to write a new story — or stories.
Within the academy, knowledge production is always framed as this very masculine, competitive pursuit for a singularly original argument. Before my PhD I was trained (funny term!) as a writer in a very experimental MFA program, and in poetics and narrative. Because of that background, I think I see traditions around knowledge-making as super patriarchal and also extremely disembodied. It’s important for me as a writer to push back against all that.
In the book, I write about trying to embody that kind of resistance as a parent as well. I write about trying to find some theory or way of understanding pregnancy and childbirth that was outside male power and control. That proved really hard! For instance, I really didn’t want to identify my pain in childbirth as pain, because that was all mixed up in this history of seeing women’s pain in childbirth as evidence of their predisposition for suffering in both sex and motherhood (so, you know, childbirth is painful, therefore pain is part of the feminine condition). But then I noticed that some of the reactive schools of thought in pregnancy that link childbirth with power, or as a kind of prep work for parenting….well that was also problematic, because it sets us up for a variety of beliefs about who is best at care work — and who should be expected do that work.
Even after my kids were born, though, as I said, I kept trying to locate some line between all the narratives I had inherited about motherhood, and the experiences I was having. Again, maybe this is because I was trained to see the world in stories, as narrative? But also, I think it’s a common experience, especially for feminists who want to find a way to forge their own path outside patriarchal control, and even on a craft level for women writers, or any writer trying to rethink creativity as something other than a kind of masculine productivity.
There’s this moment at the end of the book that I’ll try not to spoil too much for readers, but I talk about my experience working at a daycare as a new mom, making art with the kids. It was always my favorite thing to do with the kids (if I could get them all to sit down and make stuff at one time!). I loved watching their little brains try to make something out of all the pieces of the world they were absorbing that day, that week. And just by making something, they were changed. They never had the expectation that the art would solve everything, or even make sense of everything, or even that what they made would be their best work. But they were working through it, and they were changed every time by the process. And then they’d gift the little artwork to someone, as an offering. I like that as a model for writing.
When I read the book, I was working on this piece connecting some dots between #tradwives and the maxims for motherly self-annihilation — something that is a recurring theme in your book (self-annihilation, not trad wives).
You’ve written about how drinking was a way of giving into that invisibility — of easing into erasure, of disappearing yourself — and that getting sober was your means of resisting that inertia. Can you talk more about that process, and how your thinking has solidified or changed since you initially made the decision?
Self-annihilation is a big theme in the book. I think the drinking characteristic of the 90s and 2000s hookup culture I grew up in, and in wine mom culture, provide inroads here because they show how something can look a lot like an individual choice, but in fact what’s happening is much more complex. I don’t endorse the idea that one can choose their way out of addiction. For me, in a sense it felt like this, when I quit drinking, but it was not a choice I could have made at other times in my life, and for many addicts that word, choice, or the idea of having agency over one’s addiction, is a really damaging misnomer.
But there’s also a way in which alcohol culture has historically aligned itself with feminism (Holly Whitaker writes about this beautifully in Quit Like a Woman), such that getting wasted or disappearing oneself in response to the brutalities of domestic life looks like a radical or revolutionary response. Drinking and disappearing at the end of a long day can be posed as a kind of refusal, to call on a term I use in the book. But in actuality, we’re turning ourselves into woman-as-backcloth. Wine moms are cool, until they look like those hidden Victorian mothers who used to hold their babies still in photographs, draped in black so they would fade into the background.
What I noticed was that my drinking, and the drinking of many women in my generation, was an effort to medicate– or annihilate–a body that was roiling from the effects of compulsory domesticity. I was fading into the wallpaper, like my grandmother, who was addicted to Milltowns, or my great-grandmother, who has been reduced in our family lore to a woman who “cried a lot.” I wanted to take back some agency over my life, for sure. But also, I wanted to feel, to be more of a self. At first, that process was incredibly painful, but as I look back on the last two years of recovery— I wrote the book before getting sober, but I finished it on the other side, and so many powerful things have come into my life since. I’m louder now, and rather than identity my recovery with some form of powerlessness or shame, it’s actually allowed me to step forward, throw off that black cloth if you will, and look around.
That was all important for me as a way to meet the ways that, I realized as I wrote this book, we ask women to self-annihilate in subtler ways. In sexual experiences, for instance, those who are socialized as girls learn young that our desires and discomforts– from the pain we feel in sex, to learning to push through gagging while giving head, to having sex taken from us—that’s all meant to be secondary to the pleasure we give male figures in our lives. And then if we become mothers, we find, well, here we are again: the kids come first, the husband comes first, subsume your body and hang in there. Today, we are also inundated with all this parenting advice, which is mostly built on the largely unquestioned supremacy of attachment theory— that, too, tells us to speak this way, contort our bodies that way, feel another way, lest we will traumatize our kids forever.
I wrote about the phrase “they’re only little once” recently— a phrase I heard a lot in early motherhood as I restructured my personal and professional life, my desires, so I could care for my kids. It’s just one example of that line of thinking that begs women to self-annihilate, lest they damage their kids forever— and that often gets deployed as a pat excuse for every way mothers are asked to disappear themselves in the early years of parenthood.
After a while of living in a culture like this, it can be hard to find ourselves. There is no there there. This book is about trying to find the there again.
I don’t want to end with, like, a facile piece of advice, but I do think that there are very few people who have written as vividly, wretchedly, and exquisitely about the realities of American motherhood, so I think your perspective would be valuable here. For people who are feeling completely alienated from, discombobulated by, flattened over by the experience of caregiving….what has helped you reacquaint yourself with yourself? What made you feel visible to yourself?
I love the way you phrased this question because you know I hate advice and giving advice, but obviously I believe there’s so much value in sharing experiences, especially those usually kept hidden. That’s why I wrote a memoir!
Unfortunately, the easiest answer is probably childcare, which not everyone in this country has equal access to. But this isn’t necessarily because getting away from my kids returned me to myself. In part it did, but having more childcare also allowed me to make time and space for other forms of community, other forms of connection to other people, and to figure out how to integrate my kids, or myself as a parent, into those communities.
Being with my kids actually also continues to make me feel most visible to myself (I love that phrase). Parenting is where I do the really hard work of explaining the world to them and, at the same time, imagining something better with and alongside my kids. It is powerful work, and it isn’t accessible only to mothers or women or parents, as you write about so well. It’s work we should all be invested in.
I am working on a piece, too, about taking a break from sex. I’ve been having sex since I was in high school, and when I got sober and started to see more clearly some of my own sources of shame, I realized that actually I wanted to explore other forms of pleasure, and that has been incredibly eye-opening for me, in terms of understanding my body and its emotional sore spots. I’ve heard from some early readers of Touched Out that they, too, have started to rethink their own relationship with sexual desire and consent, to be more vigilant about tapping into the kinds of language they want partners to use with them, they kind of touch they welcome and want, and the kind they don’t. We are still dealing with the legacy of feminine frigidity, and I think it’s still incredibly shocking that women might… not want to have sex with men for any period of their lives. But the idea that this book might help people start to talk more openly about what it’s felt like to have their bodies used in different ways, that’s honestly mind-blowing and more than I ever could have imagined.
Writing for me is also a lifeline. I know that might sound dull or cliche, but I often think of an essay Adrienne Rich wrote about her own desire in early motherhood, how she wanted the one thing of which there was never enough—time to think and time to write. She draws a line between our sexual lives and political institutions in that essay, and writes about longing to find a way to stitch everything together—to locate and name an interconnectedness between the anger she felt at her children and her sensual and sexual life, so that she could function again. I had a very similar desire, which is what drove me to write this book.
Having the space to think and write and talk with others about the connections between these parts of ourselves, the shame and guilt we carry for who we become, the way we often find ourselves isolated in caregiving, in our sexual lives, in our feelings, that has absolutely brought me back to myself. Writing this book has made me fully visible to myself in a way that’s actually, frankly, totally terrifying, but also liberating. Not in the sense that, here I am, I have arrived, I am healed and liberated, I have solved the influence of patriarchy, and we can close up shop. I write in the book how one woman– i.e. me– finding her way back to writing or her body or herself is not enough to meet this current political and social moment.
But putting new language to experiences that feel tangled up in these institutions, parsing them out, exploring them in community, there is a lot of power and potential for all of us to write a new story there. ●