By Eli Nova Rose
As I write, it’s dark before dawn very early on a Saturday morning, and one kid is groaning, a freight train whistles, and now the unhappy child is crying in frustration, refusing to be soothed and storming off. I implore her not to storm off, but to no avail. Sometimes on mornings like this, while my partner is sleeping and our kids are watching cartoons, I have time to read books — but now the unhappy kid has come, having self-soothed. She seems to be looking for something —
When I have time to read, which is one of my only escapes from our hectic ordinary life, I’m looking for something too, though I’m not sure what it is. As a trans femme parent, I always have a lot of existential questions about gender and caretaking. I often feel so inadequate, like I’m doing everything wrong and I’m useless, and there’s this inexplicable sadness that sometimes wells up amidst the joy and comedy of childcare. I’m ambivalent, I guess — who isn’t? I read in these early hours less to find answers than to find better questions, to find comrades in ambivalence.
Sometimes the books I read are way ahead of me: I picked up Andrea Long Chu’s Females and was amazed at how it converted ambivalence into a site of solidarity. “We share this, I think,” Chu writes of her imaginary relationship with the 60s radical writer Valerie Solanas, “a preference for indefensible claims, for following our ambivalence to the end.” Solanas is famous for her 1967 SCUM Manifesto, which declared that women should “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex.” Chu draws on this sort of polemical, radical spirit in Females, which came out in 2019, predictably published by Verso. But while I had high hopes for a trans woman’s radical theory of gender, in the end I found it a frustrating experience.
Chu generalizes her concept of femaleness to include everybody; the provocation on the cover says that “everyone is female, and everyone hates it.” For Chu, “a female is one who has eaten the loathing of another… the self’s gentle suicide in the name of someone else’s desires, someone else’s narcissism” (35). She adds that this makes each of us into “an object” (36). To be an object, on this account, is to be defined by the other, by their recognition, their categories, their wishes for us. “You do not get to consent to yourself—a definition of femaleness” (38). “Castration [psychoanalytically speaking] happens on both sides” (22).
Chu is absolutely right that our existence owes everything to our interpellation by other people, people who objectify us, project their desires onto us, classify us, or dump their feelings on us, even their loathing. It’s always fair to insist on our radical dependency on the Other. It’s especially worth insisting on this when you’re constantly being told to see yourself as a unique, autonomous individual, valid in your power to define yourself however you wish. Dominant ideologies of individual self-fashioning are at least as pervasive among trans people as anywhere else, and Chu is right to criticize them.
But Chu consistently assumes that our dependency on the other is an entirely negative experience, “the self’s gentle suicide in the name of someone else’s desires.” I soon found myself thinking: But I love so many of the ways that the Other becomes part of me. I feel joy about being able to form new desires by absorbing them from other people. I find delight in hearing other people’s voices, in resonating with something outside myself. It’s not just that other people objectify, classify and damage us; they also live with us, affirm us, care for us, share their feelings, hold us, and teach us their desires. While some people do make me feel crushed with their narcissism and their capacity for misrecognition, it strikes me as sad and inaccurate to assume that violence and imposition are the only possible ways we can encounter each other. There’s so much more to recognition than making each of us a passive “canvas for someone else’s fantasy” (30). In short, there’s such a thing as intersubjectivity, a concept conspicuously absent from Chu’s account of gender. Intersubjectivity is what becomes possible in the space between subjects when objectification and violence aren’t total.
As I read it, it occurs to me that there is something awfully lonely about Chu’s book, which constantly claims “we are all X” (we are all female, we are all trans, we are all dumb blondes, we are all “sissies”), but whose deliberately implausible claims to universality seem to cover up Chu’s own anxieties about being singular and isolated. As the book goes on, she tells us more and more about her life, a series of lonely scenes only partly redeemed by their ironic comedy. She makes solitary art projects like a defaced piano (16), public art projects dedicated to the impossibility of knowing other people’s experience (88–89). She recounts moments of solo sex and abject (sissy) fantasy as her girlfriend slept (70). She even describes, in the years before her gender transition, giving an angry radical-feminist soliloquy to an audience of nearby cis women. “They let me rant,” Chu reports, “they had come to expect this kind of behavior from me” (50). And I thought: what do you call it when women are there to absorb your outbursts of rage?
Chu’s book was at its best, for me, when it shifted away from theoretical provocation and towards personal narrative. “Before I started testosterone blockers, I used to get very angry—scary angry. I yelled a lot,” Chu explains, “I was probably depressed” (48). The flat comic delivery somehow doesn’t prevent me from admiring Chu’s stark openness about her own bad moments. Isn’t every gender transition also a flight from something, a critique of something? But I felt bad for Chu, too, because I sensed that in the end Females was a book about her own stuckness and disconnection, projected awkwardly into a general theory of human existence. While Chu brandishes her “preference for indefensible claims, for following… ambivalence to the end,” I felt that her ambivalence had not yet taken her far enough.
Does ambivalence really have an end, though? Perhaps not, at least not for mothers, a class of chronically ambivalent people who are notably undertheorized in Chu’s “ontological” account of female existence. The day after I finished Females, I optimistically picked up Mothers, an essay by English cultural theorist Jacqueline Rose. It came out in 2018, subtitled An Essay on Love and Cruelty. I loved this project, but as I want to explain, I also found it hard going.
Mothers is a wide-ranging text, moving from the xenophobic treatment of African mothers in Britain to Simone de Beauvoir’s theory of motherhood, from statistics on pregnancy discrimination to studies in Greek drama. It is above all a work of criticism: its best moments are readings of literature and psychoanalysis, Rose’s own specialties. It is starkly (if sometimes awkwardly) aware of race and class differences among women, pointedly contrasting bourgeois white motherhood with Black mothering in South Africa and the United States. Yet it is not a sociology, nor a revolutionary feminist manifesto. It proposes no totalizing theory of motherhood; the writing is cogent but restless, constantly in motion. It left me drifting through a composite dream image of maternal life, which it presents as fractured, overwhelmed, flickering in and out of presence, being subjected to impossible expectations and double binds, getting blamed for things unfairly.
Thus for Rose, motherhood is about love and care, and yet at times “I am the centre of an atrocity… I am breaking apart like the world” (122, citing Sylvia Plath). Mothers are supposed to hold things together, to contain crisis and emotion, but often this containment proves to be impossible: “Explosive is what she, to her utter dismay, often feels: there is nobody in the world I love as much as my child, nobody in the world who makes me as angry” (125). Meanwhile there are pressures to repress and disavow so many things, from maternal sexuality to the pressures of love norms that can’t quite work. “The [normative] demand to love crushes its object and obliterates itself” (77). “Caught between ‘narcissism and altruism, dream, authenticity and bad faith, devotion and cynicism’, being a mother is a ‘strange compromise’” (137, quoting Simone de Beauvoir).
It felt like a book that was speaking to my unconscious, which mirrors its own account of motherhood: “You are born into the slipstream of your mother’s unconscious” (109). And yet, somehow, as I started reading this book, I faced sudden pangs of depression. The act of reading left me undone and down, wondering if everything I do as a trans femme parent was just nothing, and wondering whether I even really exist, whether within the scope of this text or anywhere. And then, trying to rationalize my feelings, I found myself unhappy with the book. I felt frustrated that it sidelines non-natal and queer mothers, lapses sometimes into essentializing language, centers yet again “the modern Western world,” and undertheorizes its author’s subject position as a bourgeois white woman in Britain.
The low point for me was the ending, where Rose praises Susan Stryker’s writing about being a trans woman in a hospital delivery room. The passage reads thus:
In the early 1990s, at the Kaiser Medical Center, Los Angeles, Susan Stryker, trans activist and writer, held her pregnant lover between her spread legs as she gave birth, gripping Stryker so hard she left bruises on her thigh. As she felt a child move out of another woman’s body, ‘a jumble of dark unsolicited feelings’ emerged ‘wordlessly from some back corner’ of her mind. The medical staff were clueless as to how the various members of this ‘little tribe’ all related to each other: mother, biological father, their personal midwife, the mother’s sister, Stryker and her son from an earlier heterosexual – sort of – marriage. ‘Step by increasingly intimate step,’ Stryker found herself participating in the ritual of transforming consciousness that heralded this new birth, ‘a profound opening, as psychic as it is corporeal’. When she later returned to her home, she burst open – opening is key – ‘like a wet paper bag’, spilling the ‘emotional contents of my life through the hands I cupped like a sieve over my face’. It is agony, not least because of the mourning it provokes for the earlier marriage that had produced her son. But it is also ‘simple joy bubbling out, wave after wave’, as well as a moment of total dispossession, not unlike others we have seen, as she prepares ‘to let go of whatever was deepest within’.
It is an extraordinary piece of writing, a tribute to the moment of giving birth as an experience into which anyone can enter, can lose and find themselves. Perhaps – although Stryker herself does not quite say this – it is only the radical disorientation of transgender that makes such an exuberant and painful crossing possible. Far from the air-brushed, sanitised image of mothering we have so often seen, and miles from the world of entrenched borders, which is where this book started, Stryker suggests that, in relation to this founding act of motherhood, what matters is how close you can get. Another way of putting this is that in an ideal world, everyone, whatever the impulses driving them hard and fast in the opposite direction, would be capable of thinking of themselves as mothers. [203–204]
While it’s nice to see trans women’s writing being praised, Rose does not seem to see Stryker as any kind of mother. This strikes me as strange, since in most queer families I know, female parents are usually still “mothers,” whether or not they gave birth. To be fair, in Stryker’s original text, “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix,” she doesn’t really identify as a mother either. “As the partner of a new mother, I am often invisible as a transsexual, a woman, and a lesbian,” says Stryker’s original (246). We don’t know how she ended up theorizing her parental role, and I confess I can’t imagine trans parenting in 1990s: a transitional moment before the present.
But Rose is writing 25 years later than this, and she could have acknowledged the ways that 2018 is not 1993, above all not for North American queer and trans families. Instead, she reads the “radical disorientation of transgender” (whatever that is) as a thought experiment, testing whether “anyone” or “everyone” could ideally “be capable of thinking of themselves as mothers.” Such a reading erases anything that could be real or particular about trans mothering.
To be clear, Rose is clearly not a TERF. Her meditation on trans existence, “Who do you think you are?” came out in the London Review of Books in 2016, with explicit condemnations of transphobes like Germaine Greer, and it was promptly criticized by some LRB readers for being insufficiently generous to TERFs. It must have taken some courage to publish a piece like this in contemporary Britain; and yet some parts of her piece struck me as ambiguous or problematic, using dated terminology, and prioritizing psychoanalytic interpretation over political analysis.
Meanwhile, Rose’s reading of Stryker’s birth narrative makes me feel uncomfortable. It remains too tied to the distinction between “feminism” and “trans” that already preoccupied her in 2016, now transformed into a distinction between “mothers” and people merely “capable of thinking of themselves as mothers.” To be clear, I wouldn’t say that all trans women with children are mothers a priori. Whether a trans woman with kids is considered a mother is not something we can deduce from an abstract category or identity. It might be something more emergent. Even indeterminate. And this indeterminacy might remind us (as Rose does too) that motherhood is never just one thing in the first place.
(As I’m writing, now on a weeknight evening after bedtime, our younger kid began to cough and cry inconsolably in the night, and I ran up the stairs to comfort her, frantically assessing whether it was serious, which it wasn’t, and eventually, very gradually, she calmed down, and my partner stayed with her a few minutes longer until she went back to sleep.)
I believe that Rose becomes so deeply invested in her core category, mothers, that she has trouble really seeing the margins and others of motherhood. “The womb was a site of struggle,” Rose observes of ancient Greece (57), and one could rightly comment — though Rose does not — that motherhood is a site of struggle too. Sometimes its boundaries become unclear. This vexed question can’t not be personal for me.
“Mother” isn’t really my identity. I already have a nonbinary parent label I love; I realize how fraught and sacred motherhood can be; and I don’t want to venture into maternal territory uninvited. But it’s funny: now that I am a feminine parent with kids, I sometimes get seen as a mom by default, no matter what my inner identity might be. The pediatrician’s office calls me “mom” every time I talk to them, and some people see us as a “two mom family.” I didn’t give birth or breastfeed (neither did many other queer parents), but I do soothe kids when they cry, feed them, transport them, bathe them, clean up after them, play with them, anticipate their future needs, contain their anger and frustration, and generally try to emulate my partner, who is definitely a mother. Mothers around me are my role models, friends and comrades; without identifying as them, I identify with them. And after all that, I’m happy to be seen as a mother if that’s how someone wants to see me, unprompted. And if these blurry, ambiguous, even nonbinary margins of “motherhood” are deemed irrelevant or impossible by cis feminist theory, then… that makes me sad.
Reading Mothers left me feeling so muddled.
But then, in spite of my depressed and critical feelings, I began to ask myself: shouldn’t I be tender towards a book about mothers whose heart is largely in the right place? Shouldn’t I care for this book, and for Chu’s Females, with all their courage and eloquent formulations? When, in the end, does a book bring out our tenderness, or conversely, our fierceness? When do we read to sit with the thoughts of others and make space for them; and when can we rightfully ask an author to make space for us?
Rose asks a question at one point that I love: “What version of motherhood might make it possible for a mother to listen to her child?” — to listen, she means, in some way that takes you beyond your expectations, beyond your desires, beyond misrecognition. As with Chu, I find myself coming back to questions about intersubjectivity. I’d like to imagine that reading and writing can be a dialogue, a space of mutuality, rather than something one-directional. And what I learn from reading Mothers and Females is that sometimes what we need from that space is not necessarily clarity, not necessarily a finished theory, but rather an openness, a momentary suspension of definitions, a loosening of recognition. But this kind of openness, this listening, does come with a risk: you never know where it might take you.
Eli Nova Rose is a trans femme ex-academic who is wistful about reflexivity and optimistic about kids. She (/they) previously edited an anthology of feminist writing about life in precarious times, A Day is a Struggle (2021), and wrote a fragmentary book about radical philosophy in France, Disappointed Utopia (2022).
Andrea Long Chu, Females. New York: Verso, 2019.
Jacqueline Rose, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
–, “Who do you think you are?” London Review of Books 38(9), 5 May 2016. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v38/n09/jacqueline-rose/who-do-you-think-you-are
Susan Stryker, “My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix.” GLQ 1:237–254, 1994.