Tag Archives: mothers

Older Mothers: When the Camera Doesn’t Lie, the Captions Do

Debbie says:

Philip N. Cohen blogs at Family Inequality, where he has written recently here and here about how the older-mother phenomenon is misrepresented in articles and data.

In this Sociological Images post, he takes on the visual imagery that goes with the misrepresentations. This picture is sold by a stock photo agency as a picture of a grandmother with her new grandchild.

When it ran in Slate with Katie Roiphe’s lamentation in Slate about how older mothers are women “trying to have it all,” it was captioned as if it was a picture of a mom and baby. Cohen is kind enough to say that this isn’t really untrue, because the article is a feature and not news.

Here’s Roiphe on older moms:

… one of the problems of our bourgeois, post-feminist world is the lingering sense that you can, according to the absurd cliché, “have it all”—that you should be able to have children, even if you push off that time until your late 30s or early 40s, and that the world should not be withholding an experience like motherhood from you because you have dedicated yourself to your career and adventures in your 20s and 30s. We tend to view basic biology as a practicality to be surmounted, something trivial and irritating that shouldn’t get in the way of the promise of a full life.

Of course, what this really is is anti-feminist journalist code for “I don’t want to go into the social pressures on women, or the social/financial/cultural reasons why women delay motherhood; I just want to call them out for being selfish, and especially I want to say that they are acting stupidly and they don’t have their children’s best interests at heart.”

A very similar article, also from Slate, was reprinted by Canada’s National Post with this image:

This one is a picture from China, and is sold (weirdly) as a picture illustrating the problems of the one-child policy in terms of available children to care for aging grandparents and parents. (This makes no sense, since the woman is with two children, but it’s also not expressly, and perhaps not at all, a picture of an older mother.)

I don’t feel as kind as Cohen about this. I think this is misrepresentation. Slate and other venues could find accurate pictures to make their point if they wanted to. These pictures are in short supply at the stock photo agencies, but they’re easy to find on Google Images (and rights to Google Image photos can usually be cleared with a little patience). They’re probably also easy to find on Flickr. Perhaps even more to the point, if Roiphe and Benedikt and their companions in this crusade against women who “want to have it all” are interviewing real people for their stories, why aren’t they bringing a camera to the interviews?

Perhaps for the same reason that they can’t be bothered to get their facts about older motherhood correct?

ETA: The original version put more burden on Roiphe and Benedikt for the truth of the photographs than is probably fair given how journalism works. This version attempts to correct that.

Butch Mom, Wearing Words Any Way They See Fit

Debbie says:

If you can’t blog your friends really good posts, what’s the point of having a blog at all? I’m a frequent visitor in Lori Selke’s household, so I can confirm that when they (Selke’s preferred pronoun) say, “I am a butch biological mother in a queer parenting threesome in which the other two members are male-assigned and I would probably have to arm-wrestle at least one of them for the title of ‘most butch,'” it’s no exaggeration.

Selke is responding to a Lambda Literary Review article in which Sinclair Sexsmith interviews Jack Halberstam. (Jack Halberstam, until recently, has been better known as Judith Halberstam: in either identity, a prominent and interesting gender theorist). Here’s the Halberstam quote that got Selke steaming:

Sometimes I get really irritated when I’m around other queer couples where one person is kind of clearly butch and the other is clearly less butch, but the butch partner is still called “mom.” I think, what’s that about? Why do you want to be called mom? Nothing could be further from my desire, in parenting, than to be called mom. So, we’re doing this queer parenting thing, but the roles of mom and dad have remained completely stable? Only women can be mom, only men can be dad? What’s that about? It’s another frontier where we need better and more interesting ways of thinking about how gender interacts with social functions like parenting.

And here’s Selke’s response (well, part of it):

The idea that because my kids call me mom, I believe or support the idea that only women can be mom and only men can be dad is ludicrous. Now we are using the word “mom” to determine who is hip and happening and genderbending and questioning and exploring how gender and parenting interact, and who’s not. Apparently, by not chafing at the label M-O-M, I’m not.

Even though they also call me “Mister Sir” (and sometimes “Mister Sir Mommy Sir”)? Not making that one up.

… I want to open up the word “Mom” to be as inclusive as possible. Butch moms, femme moms, none-of-the-above moms. Stud moms. Trans moms. Mister Sir Mommy moms. Male moms.

I want other words, too. New words and coinages, and the repurposing of old terms, both obscure and forgotten and otherwise. I want to rip vocabulary from the clutches of the hegemony and wear words any way I see fit. I want to mix codes and confuse the masses. And even if I didn’t want that, it happens in my wake regardless. I’ve watched the ripples of consternation follow me all my life, both before and after I became a parent.

And I see using “mom” for a butch parent as very clearly a repurposing. It’s not a word for everybody, and if Halberstam had stuck to “I have absolutely no desire to be referred to as ‘mom,’” I wouldn’t be writing this. But please. If I can be called a Mom, that lights a fuse to a lot of stereotypes about what Moms can and can’t do, look like, be.

I’m right there with them, all that range of Moms. Just the concept makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

But I have a question (more for Halberstam than for Selke, and also for anyone who wants to answer): where are the dads in this article? Is it different to talk about femme dads, and sissy dads than it is to talk about butch moms? It’s one thing to be stuck in the binary of “mom” and “dad” the same way we’re stuck in the binary of “male” and “female,” but it’s something else again to have dads go completely invisible. Halberstam talks some about butch dads (by which he means dads who have also been coded female, presumably by birth and phenotype, since the context rules out dads who have been coded female by femme behavior and dress). Selke talks about the male-assigned parents in their household.

Dads, who aren’t butch, whether they are cis-male dads, trans-female dads, genderless dads, are completely invisible in the conversation. And perhaps because I am so taken with Selke’s desire to mess with vocabulary and codes and confuse the masses (and the words they use to describe that desire), I miss the presence of the range of dads that I’m confident both Halberstam and Selke can imagine.