KARL, A PHD and lecturer at MIT, gave birth to both of his children—and despite being the one with the baby bump, he was routinely asked to wait outside while the nurses attended to his (not pregnant) wife.
People were unable, he says, to see both a man and a pregnant body; as a result, Karl became a “fat man” rather than a pregnant person. Despite being assigned female at birth (AFAB) and possessing a uterus and glands for lactating, Karl was not—in the eyes of even the medical staff—the mother.
Karl considered himself a PaPa; other transgender parents choose more androgynous terms, largely because of the way motherhood has been construed. At best, says Karl, unconventional pregnant parents cause “total gender confusion” even among medical practitioners, but at worst it results in trauma, violence, and harm, in trans men failing to get emergency care during miscarriages, in trans women being treated as pedophiles, and in nonbinary identities being entirely erased.
And yet woman and mother are not, nor have they ever been, synonymous. In fact, neither term has any objective reality at all.
Motherhood, like gender, is a social construct; “it exists because humans agree that it exists.” We create constructs as a means of ordering the world and attempting to control it. They are useful for organizing our thoughts; they become extremely dangerous when we mistake them for reality. Some commentators go so far as to suggest that a trans woman’s pregnancy “inverts” and warps “immutable biological realities.”
But motherhood is not immutable, and it is not (necessarily or entirely) biological. In recent decades, scientific technology has come closer than ever to providing fertility to all, from those who struggle with infertility due to conditions like endometriosis or low gamete count to those born with Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome, a rare disorder wherein AFAB women are born without a womb or upper two-thirds of the birth canal.
The concept of “motherhood” must be actively decoupled from its exclusive connection to “womanhood” or we risk devolving into a society that penalizes, imprisons, or commits violence against would-be parents or their children. We built this term and imbued it with meaning, and we can likewise change it, and perhaps divest it of its divinity and its demons.
ADRIENNE RICH, A poet and essayist, once described “two strands” of motherhood. One is an experience, and the other is a political institution in which “all women are seen primarily as mothers; all mothers are expected to experience motherhood unambivalently and in accordance with patriarchal values; and the ‘nonmothering’ woman is seen as deviant.”
These restrictive assumptions do more than limit the opportunities for women; they limit access to health care for those who would become mothers but who do not fit the traditional concept of motherhood. (The recent Supreme Court decision draft concerning Roe vs. Wade makes these ommissions even more glaring, as transgender people with uteruses are continually left out of discussions about reproductive rights.)