Birth Stories Are an Ideological Minefield: A Conversation with Amanda Montei

By Kate DurbinAugust 18, 2023

Birth Stories Are an Ideological Minefield: A Conversation with Amanda Montei

Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control by Amanda Montei

IN 2017, AS THE #MeToo movement unfurled across social media, writer and scholar Amanda Montei began to see a connection between the lack of physical autonomy she felt in new motherhood and the stories of sexual assault and violence that were finally being spoken out loud in public. Then, a few years later, the pandemic happened, and she found herself trapped inside the nightmare many parents found themselves in at that time: at home all day with her two young children, and also needing to get her paid work done. Tenuously holding it all together.

To be “touched out” is to be over being grabbed and groped. To be sick of your kids constantly touching you. According to Montei, it’s a phrase that millennials have embraced. And yet, there is still a stigma around discussing parents’ discomfort with their children’s touch, and the ways mothers are expected to forever be what Virginia Woolf called the “Angel in the House.” To “give up their bodies, minds, and lives for the family,” as Montei writes. This stigma prevents us from connecting a mother’s taboo, touched-out feelings to their larger, structural cause—the way that care work is siloed and offloaded onto the nuclear family and especially mothers, who are then blamed for everything.

Throughout her brilliant new Beacon Press book, Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control, Montei deftly reveals the web of outrageous expectations, contradictions, and impossibility that is the institution of motherhood in the United States today. She traces this web back to her own coming-of-age in the superficially “girl power” 1990s, before messages of sexual consent were the cultural norm, and then through a deeply honest and visceral rendering of her early days of parenting. Through it all, she deconstructs pop-cultural messages about gender roles in movies like Failure to Launch (2006) and reality-TV shows like Labor of Love (2020), weaving in a constellation of feminist thinkers such as Roxane Gay and Silvia Federici.

Touched Out is a rallying cry against the normalization of a mother’s suffering. Montei shows how we are groomed from birth to give up our bodily autonomy, and she radically expands current notions of consent, offering imaginative possibilities for forming new “networks of care and hope.” Anne Boyer calls Touched Out a new classic, and I agree. Reading the book is like the opposite of being gaslit: it lights up everything at once.

Montei and I discussed the book via Google Docs during the summer heat wave of 2023.


KATE DURBIN: You write in Touched Out, “I saw that a mother’s body is slowly made over time, groomed from birth by the ideologies of womanhood that descend on us the moment we are born.” Why was it important to you to begin by tracing the mother’s body back to girlhood?

AMANDA MONTEI: We tend to talk about the connection between girlhood and motherhood rather flatly: girls are given baby dolls, which teaches them that motherhood is the only valuable role for a woman, that sort of thing. This is an important critique of gender and consumerism and how kids are socialized into binary roles and images of the nuclear family from a young age. But a narrow focus on this critique has also fueled careerist feminism.

We see this in some of the recent Barbie discourse, and even in the film itself. If baby dolls groom girls to become mothers, we can just hand them President Barbie, and maybe that’ll fix things. But neither the film nor Mattel can fully resolve the question of motherhood.

I wanted to trace in this book some of the other ways childhood teaches us to understand our bodies, such as how we are groomed for a particular kind of maternity through early sexual experiences and the policing of feminine sexuality.

This totalizing control of bodies from birth to death is so important in the book, and I feel like it connects to your expansive thesis, this idea that the “unreasonable expectations placed on mothers” affect others as well, not just those who are coded mothers. Why was it important to you to expand your thinking around motherhood to include others?

Motherhood is a concept, an institution, a set of cultural expectations and beliefs about the gender category “woman.” Motherhood is not, therefore, an identity, but rather a form of labor to which we’ve attached a variety of misogynistic assumptions about who and what certain bodies are for. I believe that the labor of caring for children should be shared and communal, which means we should all be concerned with the subject of caring for children even if we don’t identify with the term “mother” or “woman.”

Those who are socialized as girls grow up surrounded by a constant imposition of the maternal role. We are disciplined into that role, as I write in the book, not only through toys and by watching our own mothers but also, as I mentioned, through our early sexual experiences. We tend to learn through those experiences that discomfort and putting others’ feelings and desires before our own are part of the feminine experience. We are meant to take care not to upset others. This carries over into how women are treated in workplaces, on the streets, and in public policy—women are always expected to serve caregiving roles by tending to everyone’s feelings.

But the way we think about family, care, and gender doesn’t just affect women. We are also seeing how conservative ideas about reproduction and family are fueling the assault on queer and trans lives. As Silvia Federici writes, it’s a grand trick of capitalism to position childcare and housework as conditions of femininity and as the highest forms of womanhood. The institutions of motherhood and the nuclear family are each a major source of male power, so we’re seeing this desperate push to return to regressive binary gender roles and anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Even so, unfortunately, some of the most complex conversations about the institution of motherhood still tend to be seen as niche and unserious in literary and media spheres, and often even in feminist theory.

That idea of the institution of motherhood being siloed and even silenced in the discourse connects to one of the lightning-rod connections you make in the book, between the #MeToo movement and motherhood—this idea that, in our culture, women’s bodies don’t belong to them. That their desires, limits, and discomfort don’t really matter when someone else wants something from them, and how we can see that in cases of both sexual assault and being “touched out” in motherhood. How did this connection between #MeToo and motherhood evolve for you?

This book is very much about motherhood after #MeToo. I follow my own personal and intellectual reckoning, which was pushed along in part by giving birth to my second child right around the time #MeToo was dominating the cultural conversation. That era gave me a better understanding of my own sexual experiences and the experiences of the women in my family. But because I sort of witnessed #MeToo at a distance, at home alone as a new mother, I think I was pushed further to consider how interconnected the language of motherhood and assault often are.

I came to find that, for many new mothers, it’s very hard not to feel like you or your children or your partner are doing something wrong, that you’re to blame, and that your body no longer belongs to you. This gendered, individualistic story is one we’ve inherited, though, not a natural or innate part of parenting, and it prevents us from seeing the conditions of parenting that are entirely politically, socially, and culturally constructed.

You talk in the book about how you attempted to exert linguistic control over childbirth, to take back the patriarchal language around the experience. But then, also, how ultimately uncontrollable the body is in labor, beyond language in a way. Did you feel that writing this book was a way to finally take back that linguistic control, perhaps by taking both the medical and “natural” models to task? I feel like it’s still radical to articulate the intense experience of childbirth, which has historically been so hidden from the public.

Absolutely, and I found that birth stories really are an ideological minefield. I find it fascinating to study birth stories for this reason. They tend to confirm or deny a person’s politics, their worldview, their perspectives on gender. I think I sensed this when I was pregnant but couldn’t really articulate it, so I hunted for a birth experience that resonated with the kind of person I thought I was. This desire for some theory by which I might understand (and control!) labor and birth was also heightened by my work as a writer and feminist thinker. But many people who give birth have that same desire for some all-encompassing theory or story through which they might make sense of this really evasive, animal experience. I never found one!

I did, however, find clarity around some of the more troubling narratives that hang around childbirth—the patriarchal ones, as you say, such as the idea that, because birthing bodies feel pain, suffering must be a natural part of womanhood. Or this idea that people who give birth are naturally more powerful, the toughest athletes, because of what they’ve overcome. Or that birth prepares us for parenthood in this way. But there are plenty of wonderful parents and caregivers who do not give birth, and the idea that one must be a gestational, birthing mother to excel at the impossibly hard work of parenting only reaffirms the gendered division of labor in homes and excuses the lack of support we give parents in this country.

Childbirth is an incredibly confronting experience that breaks down the body’s separation from the world and others. And yes, I think it remains radical to chronicle one’s labor because women’s bodies and lives have always been shrouded in secrecy and silence. But I think we also must be careful about falling into these common tropes and narratives that make childbirth the doorway into motherhood, because they tend to structure how we think about caregiving and who should do it.

Writing this book was a way of taking back the narrative and the control. But in the end, a lot of what I write about in the book is how we live under control—that is, in an era of control. I didn’t want to create some false narrative in which I “get my body back” or “take my story back,” or even find the one way of looking at, say, childbirth, that gives us all the answers we seek. The book ends, after all, with all of us living in this post-Roe era.

But I do think language—such as the language of birth stories and the stories we tell about parenthood—remain an important site of resistance. In the book, I argue that we continually return to revisit those sites.

I want to talk about the problem of work, which is also the problem of day care. To work, you need to make enough for astronomical day care costs, but in the precarious US today with its shrinking middle class, so much work doesn’t pay enough for day care. And then, of course, childcare workers are paid almost nothing. Yesterday, I spoke to three parents in my family about it: my sister, my sister-in-law, and my cousin. The cost of day care is such a huge burden for all of them, as it is for anyone in the United States with kids who isn’t rich. Can you talk about the coercion of care that results from this problem? What are some of the radical collective possibilities of resolving these issues?

The problem of work is the problem of day. care, but the problem of work is also the problem of the unpaid work of social reproduction. During the welfare struggles of the 1960s, many women noted how absurd it is that we’ve come to accept as normal that care work like foster parenting or childcare at day care centers should be paid, while the care work we do at home remains unpaid, and mothers who demand government assistance are told to work more for the market. They’re already working!

But because we’ve accepted that people should only be paid if they are caring for someone else’s child, and that all parents must pay to have someone else care for their children in order to make a living wage, or that women should just not work and care for their children and this is somehow morally the best choice, parents who do have jobs outside the home have to cobble together childcare just to make ends meet. I am fortunate to have relatives who live near me—though to tap into that support system, I had to move across the country and live in a city I don’t really like. Many are forced into much more compromising situations.

I think alloparenting and community-care arrangements like the kind we saw in pods are promising, but we also need more folks who are not parents to step into caregiving roles. Not just women, though. Early childhood educators are 97 percent women, and almost half are women of color. I would like to see more men in childcare.

I definitely think housework and care work should be paid (perhaps universal basic income could cover it). I’m so glad you talk about multi-level marketing companies in Touched Out. I think a lot about how these companies prey on stay-at-home parents who want to build an identity for themselves and be financially independent. I grew up in a conservative religious environment in the 1990s, where the moms sold homemade bread and handmade floral diaper bags. I can totally see the homeschool moms I grew up with being LuLaRoe sellers today. Online work that you can do around care work, and in community with others, seems super appealing for anyone isolated in domesticity.

I think it’s so easy to write off MLM stay-at-home moms as suckers. I think I did that when suddenly every new mother I met seemed to be hawking something, but I also seriously considered selling essential oils or starting my own at-home bakery business. I needed to make money and care for my child, and there were only so many ways I could think to do that.

The problem of MLMs, though, is not just the problem of capitalism and wellness and momboss, neoliberal-feminist empowerment, which tells women that careerism and the market are sources of liberation. MLMs purport to solve the problem of women’s unpaid work in the home. Here’s a way to make money while staying at home with your kids, they say, without having to pay for childcare, and you get a ready-made community to boot (along with some moralizing about how terrible it is to send your kids away to day care anyway and how morally good it is to work hard).

That is all an incredibly attractive proposition to new mothers who may feel they have lost community, a sense of self, their professional identity, and an income. But of course, we know that, in fact, these companies prey on women struggling to resolve capitalism’s reliance on unpaid labor in the home. They didn’t actually solve that problem; they just made money off of it.

Touched Out is as much about pleasure as it is about pain. Can you talk about those early days with your daughter, how you relished disappearing into the physicality of your relationship? And the importance of pleasure in the book?

I found breastfeeding very pleasurable, which I know will aggravate some who have had different experiences. But it was a very consensual experience for me at first, which is not always the case. I think this is part of what’s missing from our current conversation around breastfeeding. Is it consensual? Or are nursing parents feeling coerced into this relationship?

Later, when breastfeeding became an all-consuming labor and I found myself increasingly alienated from public life, it became more difficult. I felt like I didn’t have autonomy over whether I wanted to continue feeding, in part because I became sort of confined to this life of parenting constantly, mostly alone.

But I still think it’s important to talk about the pleasures of caring for children, whether through breastfeeding or any number of sensual encounters. We tend not to talk about these pleasures because there’s been so much idealization and nostalgia around motherhood. It’s also still very much off limits for women to talk about the pleasures of parenting unless they include men or a state of servitude.

You introduced me to “Mom Instagram” a few years ago, and ever since then, the algorithm has been recommending momfluencers to me. I’m fascinated and horrified by how parenting has become an aestheticized, competitive sport where the competition in part is about finding some minute aspect of parenting to “innovate.” How has Instagram affected your own parenting? How does it tie into individualism, capitalism, and the notion of “intensive parenting” you discuss in the book?

Parenting has totally become a competitive sport, really drawing on the broader era of optimization in which we’re living. In fact, a lot of the most “empowering” messages around motherhood today use sports metaphors! In the book, I talk about how the “moms are the toughest athletes” narrative just feeds into the idea that parenting necessitates for women a destruction of the former self, a loss of autonomy, and lots of suffering. Moms can either buck up, push through, get strong—they asked for it, after all—or they can complain, and then they’re just hysterical women or bad moms who don’t love their kids.

You can see how the logic of rape culture is at work here in this idea that women ask for the struggles that come with parenting in a society that fails consistently at protecting maternal mental health, has no federally mandated paid leave, and has untenable childcare costs.

I never got too into Instagram momfluencers, but when I became a parent in the mid-2010s, I spent way too much time spiraling into Pinterest, aggregating posts written by mom bloggers on attachment parenting, home maintenance, ways to keep my baby busy, developmentally appropriate play ideas. I think many of those content creators probably were on Instagram or eventually migrated there. Sharon Hays used the term intensive mothering in the late 1990s, but as I write in the book, by the time I became a parent the internet was further fueling this idea that the child should be the center of every mother’s world, often at the expense of her own health and well-being. Attachment parenting was having a heyday, which similarly put pressure on mothers, as the presumed primary figures of attachment, to make their body freely available to their children day and night.

A lot of attachment theory is built on shaky science and the presumption of a nuclear family run by one mother, the primary figure of attachment. Instagram has really aestheticized and further commodified this image, and other parenting ideologies over the past decade have cemented this idea that mothers need to spend hours online learning how to parent. It’s a highly individualist take on child-rearing.

You also talk about letting everything fall apart while you wrote this book. I thought it might be interesting to end by having you share what those things are that you didn’t do in order to write Touched Out. These could be forms of labor or pleasure or something else.

I locked myself behind many doors. I lost my patience with my kids. I stopped taking care of my husband and performing wifeliness. I asked him to take on more labor around the house. I pulled back on many relationships, including those with family that left me feeling drained and hurt. I abandoned most forms of pleasure beyond desserts, television, and sleep. Mostly I did not clean the house.

I also got sober. This meant that, for a while, everything fell apart emotionally too. But over time, I’ve started tidying up.


Amanda Montei has a PhD in English literature from SUNY at Buffalo and an MFA in writing from the California Institute of the Arts. She is the author of Two Memoirs (Jaded Ibis, 2015) and Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control (Beacon Press, 2023).

Kate Durbin is a writer and artist from Los Angeles. Her books include Hoarders (Wave Books, 2021), E! Entertainment (Wonder, 2011), The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books, 2009), and ABRA (1913 Press, 2015).

LARB Contributor

Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles–based artist and writer whose books of poetry include Hoarders (Wave Books, 2021), E! Entertainment (Wonder, 2011), and The Ravenous Audience (Akashic, 2009). Her digital poetry app, ABRA, won the Turn on Literature Prize for Electronic Literature in Europe. In 2017, and again in 2020, she was the Arts Queensland Poet-in-Residence. Kate’s artwork has been shown nationally and internationally, and has been featured in The New York Times, Art in America, Artforum, and elsewhere.


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