Kinky mothering & children who don’t belong to anybody: Sophie A. Lewis

Sophie A. Lewis is the author of new book, ‘Full Surrogacy Now,’ published by Verso in the UK.  She appears in conversation with Joanna Biggs at The London Review of Books Bookshop on 30th May.

Demented Goddess (DG): Sophie, a woman’s sexiness and sexuality are inextricably linked, by most hetero-dominant cultures, to procreation. Is rejection of motherhood a possible way out?

Au contraire, I think mother-labourers can smash white hetero-capitalist patriarchy. Mothering is a verb, as Sarah Knott’s new book insists—and it is a sensual, political one. And not just because human primates have wonderfully anomalous (because permanently swollen) breasts, which do seem to form a strong (if not exclusive) basis for our sexual attraction towards people who have them. Fertility signalling is, supposedly, sexy; but motherhood itself, supposedly, isn’t. We can change that, though. I’m all for Maggie Nelson’s “sodomitical maternity”; all for the comradeliness and eros of collective (that is to say, structurally queer) mothering.

But “motherhood” needs to be rejected, yes – it’s the name for a socio-legal status that is only available to some women (and only women). As Alexis Pauline Gumbs contends, “American slavery has fundamentally ripped the work of mothering from the bodies of Black mothers, fully denying them any of the authority of motherhood.” So, in contrast to the “mothering” practices of the dispossessed, motherhood is an institution of private property and nationhood, and a fundamentally anti-queer ideology. I think the distinction is important.

“There is eros in the unceasing bodily power-play, and touch, and suck, of mothering.”

I also actually think sexiness is culturally barred from the realm of physical nurturance and mothering. Meanwhile, everyone secretly knows there is eros to be found in the unceasing bodily power-play, and touch, and suck, of mothering.

DG: Do you think the traditional family unit is evil?

If by “traditional family unit” you mean the relatively recent invention of the private household or “nuclear family,” then… yes, pretty much, even though not everyone experiences it that way. And I probably wouldn’t choose the word ‘evil’.

But, yes. The history of so-called “natural” a.k.a. “unassisted” family life has been endlessly documented as the province of queerphobia, coercion, abuse, rape, gender-straitjacketing, racial programming, and class consolidation. The private family is the headquarters of all of these evils. I truly believe that humanity can do better. And it’s not even a matter of belief. In the aftermath of attempts to organise societies into nuclear families, many humans have still managed to carry on caring for each other, mothering each other, in non-biological, inter-generational modes. Younger generations of queers are everywhere experimenting, perfecting these models of comradely care.

 DG: There are appallingly scant infrastructures, even in Western medicine, to treat the damage child-bearing can wreak. Very few NHS trusts in the UK, for example, link Obstetrics with Orthopedics or Psychiatric Care, despite the pressure on pelvises, spines, rib-cages and hormonally-affected brains. Meanwhile, contemporary Western culture fears pain and sometimes views breast-feeding as challenging. As a result, women can feel daunted to have babies. What would you say to someone who is frightened by reading your book?

Even when supported by state-of-the-art medical technology, there is a certain violent grisliness involved in human gestating; which is not to deny that (for many people) it involves deep, sublime pleasures. Humans are gloriously perverse; we are into all kinds of pain and kink, and I’m for that.

But childbirth kills 300,000 adults a year, and injures millions more. So, what I’m against is the absence of choice, control and autonomy over gestating, for those who want it. My book opens with a description of the dangerous specificities associated with the human placenta. But my book isn’t intended to frighten would-be gestators. It aims to open up a conversation about the realities of pregnancy as it exists at this moment in history, with a view to transforming it for the better. Let’s be utopian about researching ways to tweak bodily biology to better privilege, protect, support, and empower those with uteruses who find themselves put to work by a placenta. Reproductive justice must be trans-inclusive but also anti-natural and anti-work.

DG: Can you expand a little on how pregnancy could and should, in your view, be “anti-natural”? Do you we should consider being surrogates and use surrogates, more?

My point is that if we jettisoned the idea of exclusive parents with unique rights and entitlements over their progeny, if we made every pregnancy for everybody, there would be no distinction between surrogate and non surrogate pregnancies.

The word surrogacy would become kind of meaningless, since there would be nothing a surrogate would stand ‘in’ for. But pregnancy gets loaded down with the oppressive ideological weight of “nature”. Actual pregnancies are conscious, technical, collective, creative. Gestating is one of the most cyborg kinds of embodiment, and labour, and relationality. It involves a lot of chains of labour and technology.

Sophie with her idol, Donna Haraway, leading ecofeminist & post-humanist scholar & professor.

As Donna Haraway says, to be a human is to be (in) a multispecies relationship. What better example than this? Fetuses are an aquatic species! I’m not against the “natural childbirth” movement insofar as it has a lot of good (though I wouldn’t call them particularly “natural”) hacks and knowledges and artifices for doing gestations pleasurably and safely.

DG: I was disabled for 3 years through a freakishly fertile level of hormones when I had my little boy. My lover and I considered adoption (our original preference, before we became pregnant) and surrogacy, to have a second child. However, my experience of being both enthralled and enslaved by physical motherhood means I don’t feel comfortable inflicting surrogacy on another woman. What would be your solution to this quandary?

Contemporary markets enable people to extract—seamlessly, and without even noticing—all kinds of brutal labours from the bodies of other people they may never even meet, sometimes over great distances.

Of the two options you mention (adoption and commercial surrogacy), one of them is supposed to be outside of the logic of the market. Some anti-surrogacy activists feel that they’re equally ethically unconscionable, in that, in both scenarios, one is taking up ownership of a small person produced by someone else’s physical, emotional, visceral labour. I don’t know what they think should happen to children who can’t or don’t want to live with their biological kin! Still, there’s obviously something to this—the fact that the global poor are systematically dispossessed of their children is one of the greatest forms of brutality on earth. In my book, however, I also question the notion that creating a baby’s body gives one “entitlement” to or “rights” over that person as they grow up. Barring full gestational communism, I don’t have an immediate-term “solution” in the sense I think you are requesting. I mean, if you want a parenting relationship with another child, perhaps you could get together with some friends and make a commitment to an existing baby?

DG: Well, yes, I’ve been flagrantly in the godparenting market a few years for a few years now.  I’m happy to use this interview as a public advertisement, with all the sleep-deprivation and shared costs entailed!

While considering adoption or surrogacy to have a second child, friends urged my lover and I to make use of the clinic run by Nayna Patel in India (you quote Patel’s description of her “community of 2000” supposedly willing, fairly-paid surrogates). Being familiar with class and social prejudice in India, I recoiled, suspecting that my partner in surrogacy would receive the rough end of the deal. Your research, detailing the abuse, in some cases, of illiterate women, confirms my suspicions. How would you make surrogacy fair, between participants?

There are two ways—one reform-oriented, one philosophical—to answer this. I’d echo Sharmila Rudrappa when she says: “if and when surrogate mothers are treated as full human beings, with respect for their emotional, physical, and intellectual well-being, their sense of self, dignity, and body intact, then I am an advocate of commercial transnational surrogacy.”

Amrita Pande, too, imagines “fair trade surrogacy” founded on “openness and transparency on three fronts: in the structure of payments, in the medical process, and in the relationships forged.”

“Children don’t belong to anyone, ever.” Sophie with her mother.

But Full Surrogacy Now is a utopian polemic, and my approach to “surrogacy” is that it is impossible. Children don’t belong to anyone, ever. In a world in which everything were truly held in common, there could be no “surrogacy”—there would be no authorized original from whence to depart. Even now, we are all, at root, responsible for another. We gestate one another, and we could learn collectively to act like it. That is what I mean by full surrogacy.

DG: You quote an assertion by Kahlil Gibran: “Your children are not your children.” I love extending my mothering to other people’s children. I ask my young son to regard our friends and house guests as ‘family’. However, for all my distrust of the feudal family unit, I’d be punishing myself and my little boy to deny the primacy of our bond. Do you think it’s desirable or possible to displace the wild passion and loyalty some mothers feel for their children?

Possible, yes. Desirable, not necessarily. I’m glad you said ‘some,’ not all, mothers—because many societies make a taboo of mother-labourers who are not ‘passionate’ about their parental love, or who are open about their ambivalences.

Would I challenge your sense that your son comes first? Maybe in theory. But there are real limits on individuals’ ability to prefigure a world in which these kinds of ‘primacy’ wouldn’t be necessary. For that, we’d need a revolution. An anti-capitalist one. I find it interesting that you say you distrust the ‘feudal’ family unit. As Melinda Cooper lays out in her essential Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, the family unit in perpetual crisis is no less key to western political economy now than it ever was.

I am interested in promoting children’s and women’s liberation in tandem, linking the two in comradeliness and respect. It’s crucial not to romanticise or sacralise mother-love, which can be a rubric under which all kinds of resentful, manipulative, codependent and controlling abuses take place.

DG: Oh yes, the concept of family has led to almighty horrors on a personal, commercial and historical level, (cf. The Crusades). The often sanctified role of ‘Mother’ definitely contributes.

You mention the ‘comradely’ ideal a few times in your book. Babies and children are newer beings and respecting them for me, means respecting their unfolding consciousness. When they are in my company, I try hard to maintain a twofold perspective: total solidarity, while providing the shelter they need. I try to ensure they feel secure of my love so they never have to question it. This of course demands many tiny self-negations and is by no means uncomplicated (you might call it my ‘kink’!). As Maggie Nelson references in The Argonauts, it may be that the well-parented child does not remember their parenting.  How might a child, in your view, be a ‘comrade’ to their parent?

I think you put this very well. It’s also an interesting question, what is the comradeliness of children to parents?

“The abolition of childhood innocence would make it easier to recognise the agency of young people.”

Receiving and (if possible) rejecting care, recognizing personhood, responding, setting boundaries, holding, letting go… I think that this is a form of comradeliness that is much better developed already, than its inverse. It’s not about duty or indebtedness, that much I know. And I think the abolition of childhood institution of innocence, would make it easier to recognize the political agency and self-determination of young people.

Sophie A. Lewis was in conversation with Soma Ghosh, Editor of The Demented Goddess.  Follow Sophie on Twitter @reproutopia.  Follow Soma on Twitter @calcourtesan.

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