A Q&A with Amanda Montei
When Amanda Montei became a parent, she struggled with the physicality of caring for children, but even more with the growing lack of autonomy she felt in her personal and professional life. The conditions of modern American parenthood—the lack of paid leave and affordable childcare, the isolation and alienation, the distribution of labor in her home, and the implicit demands of marriage—were not what she had expected. After #MeToo, she began to see a connection between how women were feeling in motherhood and the larger culture of assault in which she had grown up. In Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control, Montei examines the intersection between misogyny and motherhood, considering how caregivers can take back their bodies and pass on a language of consent to their children. Beacon Press’s associate director of publicity, Caitlin Meyer, caught up with her to chat about it.
Caitlin Meyer: You’re a mother to two young kids as well as a busy working writer, a writing instructor, and a university lecturer. How hard was it to find the time to complete this book?
Amanda Montei: It was very hard! I’ll say that in both creative and academic circles, the subject of motherhood is often seen as niche and unserious, and personal struggles with caregiving and domestic work are as well. I’ve experienced some pretty outright sexism over the years, but also so many subtle dismissals of my work and my intellect as a mother writing about motherhood, or even just “women’s issues.” Alongside the very real struggle of securing affordable childcare.
CM: Any advice for other mothers struggling to succeed in the creative or academic spaces?
AM: My advice would be to insist on the importance of making issues of care work and housework visible, putting them in the context of other struggles for autonomy and against systems of power, educating others on how our professional and creative and educational institutions have been built around the erasure of such work, and seeing these issues as collective rather than personal problems.
Both at home and in professional childcare settings, I also think it’s crucial we demand more men in childcare.
CM: In the book, you unpack the experience of being a mother in the US today and the impact of growing up in a society that upholds misogyny and rape culture. Can you explain a little bit about the connection you make between the experiences of rape culture and motherhood?
AM: Some of this connection is quite obvious when we start to think of these subjects together: within both rape culture and the institution of motherhood, women are expected to surrender their own desires, their bodily autonomy, their access to full personhood, to neutralize their voices and identities in service of others, and to endure a certain amount of suffering, as though it were part of the feminine condition.
When it comes to abating this suffering, we also often place an undue burden on women’s speech and actions. Women are expected to know what they want unfailingly from a very young age to avoid violation and exploitation by men. When women demand better public policy to support parents and families, there’s also this retort on the Right that, “Well, you asked for it,” which is just a continuation of that victim-blaming mentality.
All this, of course, stems from a broader ideology—the belief that women’s bodies are not only made to reproduce, but to serve male pleasure and power through sex and domestic work.
CM: As a mom to two young kids myself, I found that reading your book sometimes stopped me in my tracks. It was overwhelming (in the best way!) to be confronted with such a profoundly honest and articulate exploration of how we grow from daughters to young women to mothers, and so often get lost along the way. What have you learned from this experience, and what are you hoping to pass along to your daughter and son?
AM: I’m so glad you felt that. It’s incredibly hard to grow up trying to fulfill—or thwart—the many conflicting patriarchal expectations placed on girls and women. I grew up with a progressive mother who often looked not how a mother should and told me stories of women in our family who struggled with motherhood or had abortions. This gave me a certain sense of resistance very young. And yet, still I found myself constantly contorting myself into a sexual object and shaping my desires around what men seemed to want from me.
As I write in the book, I looked to pregnancy and parenthood as a way to reconnect with my body, but of course, as I entered the institution of motherhood, I was flooded with a whole new set of contradictory expectations.
This book really explores the question of how we refuse the stories that have, for better or worse, become central to the way we see the world and understand ourselves. How do we shake off these systems of power and domination that live within us and all around us, from the way we have sex, to the culture we consume, to how we are asked to care for one another?
I’ve learned a lot through writing the book about the impossibility of settling on any one answer to that question. It’s much more complex than our current era of wellness and empowerment tends to allow. As far as what I want to pass on to my children—I want them to understand that body autonomy is the path from which all others diverge, and that they have a duty to care for others, just as much as for themselves. Of course, I want so many other things for them, too, but this is one grounding belief I always come back to as a parent.
CM: What do you think about the recent influx of books that draw back the curtain on the stress and labor of motherhood? Is all this attention finally putting us on the precipice of real change? How do you hope Touched Out adds to the conversation currently unfolding?
AM: There is such a rich new canon of writing on motherhood. I love it all. As someone trained in narrative and as a critic, I’d like to see even more of these stories to really diversify our understanding of parenting and caregiving and to counter both the idealized depictions of motherhood as martyrdom or pure sentimentality, and even to move us beyond the concept of maternal ambivalence, and those reactionary “hot mess” or “wine mom” or “I hate my children” tropes.
To me, the most meaningful depictions of parenting, or really any subject, are aesthetic ones, by which I mean those that wrestle with inherited cultural stories and tropes and structures and identities.
This book is as much a memoir as it is an exploration of feminist theory, and so while I hope that the claims and arguments made in this book make people think more deeply about the issues I explore, I also hope it provides a different kind of narrative about motherhood that others can see themselves in.
About Amanda Montei
Amanda Montei has a PhD in English literature from SUNY at Buffalo and an MFA in Writing from California Institute of the Arts. She is also the author of Two Memoirs (Jaded Ibis). Her essays and criticism have appeared at Slate, Mother Tongue, Vox, HuffPost, Electric Literature, The Believer, The Rumpus, Ms. Magazine blog, American Book Review, and others. She teaches writing and lives in California with her husband and 2 children. Connect with her online at amandamontei.com and follower her on Twitter (@AmandaMontei) and Instagram (@amontei).