The Vulnerability of Mothers
Manipulation via the dead baby card and the threat of separation by system
In Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, Abigail Shrier parses out the gender dysphoria or “gender identity disorder” that’s long been recognized by mental health professionals from the gender dysphoria that’s recently been emerging among largely adolescent white girls who are the children of progressive parents of financial means and whose peers are often experiencing the same identity shift. When these parents, presumably mostly mothers, take their daughters to therapists they are told they should use their daughters’—now sons’—preferred names and pronouns and support their use of testosterone followed by surgery if they choose these. If they don’t, these parents (again, most likely mothers) are warned, their daughters-now-sons may die by suicide.
It isn’t my intent to argue for or against the validity of the warning; Shrier explores the issue in her book, which is well worth reading. What struck me though is how much this warning resembles the “dead baby card” frequently employed by obstetricians, labor and delivery nurses, and midwives when a birthing mother questions the caregivers’ opinions or actions, hesitates to comply with a command, or refuses a treatment. “We could do it your way,” the provider might say, “but you want your baby to live, right?”
In either case, mothers are infantilized as their concerns are ignored and power is wrested from them, and the point is made: You need to get on board if you want your child to survive.
The assumption is that the mother isn’t concerned, isn’t in fact the most concerned with her child’s wellbeing and that she’s too fragile, too hysterical, too feeble minded, too female to be treated with dignity and respect.
No one is more vulnerable to manipulation of this magnitude than a mother worried about her child.
During the first birth I attended when I was a doula, the mother, while pushing, lie on her back, her hands grasping handles, like vertical bicycle handles, on either side of the bed. Though designed to be held around the grips, her hands were on top, as one would do with a stick shift, and her elbows were anchored into the bed away from her sides.
The nurse came over.
“You need to hold on like this,” she said angrily, prying the woman’s hand off and repositioning it the “correct” way. “And you need to move your elbow here, right next to your body.”
By that time, I’d given birth to two children of my own, and I knew that one’s hands and elbows had nothing to do with pushing out a baby, nothing to do with the mother’s health or her child’s. Unable to be two places at once, I stood on the mother’s right, close, pressed against the bed, guarding that side of her body, and whispering that she was doing a great job and could put her hands and elbows wherever felt right to her. She kept them in their assigned positions.
Very often at the end of a flight when everyone’s standing up in the aisle an older person will say to me, “Your kids were so well behaved.”
I suppose they expect me to thank them, but I never do. I might say “Oh, OK” or nod or shrug. A compliment on my kids’ behavior isn’t a compliment to me. I’m wary of the assumption that my values would include obedience and of people trying to ensure my kids’ obedience and my obedience in keeping my kids obedient. “Well behaved” isn’t a compliment; it’s a prescription.
I’m white and well-educated as per the dominant paradigm, financially secure. My children, white, able-bodied, neurotypical, have the privilege of disobedience, of being able to flout behavioral norms should they choose with likely little or no consequence; I have the privilege of rejecting obedience too. Obedience (not to be conflated with respect) is optional for us, and for those with much privilege who embrace it, leads to unhealthy conformity, quiet resignation, and/or manipulation and exploitation of others, in short, the maintenance of the status quo.
My mom gave birth to me with her arms and legs tied down, after which, and though I was healthy, I was taken from her for eight hours.
My husband walked from the bedroom into the living room with our hours old son and I started yelling, “Bring back my baby!”
While my biggest existential fear is regretting the things I haven’t done, my biggest fear on solid ground is not that one or both of my children will die or be killed, kidnapped, or sexually assaulted—it’s that our institutions, our systems will separate one or both of them from me. Because our nation is built upon systems that have done just that for hundreds of years.
- Enslaved children sold away from their mothers.
- Native children snatched and forced into residential schools.
- Immigrant children abducted at the border.
- Black children killed by law enforcement.
- Black and brown and poor children thrown into foster care.
- Black and brown and poor children sent to prison, sent for life, sent to die.
My children, due to their privilege, will likely be OK, but the very idea that an entire system—not a disease or accident or even a lone person or small group of people—would steal or murder my kids is nearly beyond contemplation.
While these systems hold children with fewer privileges physically hostage, the threat of them holds me, and others of the most privileged, emotionally hostage. What if we disobey? What if we refuse the medical treatment du jour for our kids? Might social services be called? What if our kids go to the park by themselves or wait in the car while we go in the store? What if there’s some “helpful” bystander nearby?
I have no doubt that there are people who would seek to satisfy their righteous indignation by destroying a family, my family. I have no doubt that these people build and descend from the builders of systems that do the same. I know too that the builders and upholders of these systems are people of privilege, people like me.
Therefore, we mothers of privilege must ask in what ways we’re reinforcing the system. We must refuse to manipulate by pretending we’re more fragile than we are. We must learn to trust ourselves. We must disobey our programming.
We mothers possess a liability, a vulnerability that we’ll never overcome, would never want to overcome.
Many of us must both walk the narrow edge of this vulnerability and uproot the ways in which we contribute to its exploitation.
It’s the heartiest “fuck you” we can deliver to these systems.