By Angela Frederick
Gender scholars have been critical of the expectations placed upon women to accomplish a perfect version of motherhood. Yet, as I argue in my recent Gender & Society article, what we have often understood to be a “perfection project” is in fact a “normalcy project.” Exemplified by our celebration of infants born with all ten fingers and all ten toes, we desire, not perfect babies, but normal babies. Under the guidance of medical and scientific experts, mothers are expected to devote ample amounts of their energy and resources to the project of preventing disability and other unwelcome differences in their children.
Women themselves are also expected to possess “normal” bodies as they carry out the demands of modern motherhood. Yet, how do mothers who do not have typical bodies – those with disabilities – experience these ideals? I explore this question through interviews and focus groups with mothers who have physical and sensory disabilities. I find these Deaf women and disabled women experience a profound paradox of visibility as they mother.
The mothers I interviewed shared numerous stories of feeling hypervisible as they were held to higher scrutiny by medical professionals and others who assumed their atypical bodies and ways of mothering rendered them inadequate mothers. Denise, who is blind, recalled being asked by staff at her Obstetrics and Gynecology (OBGYN) clinic, “Are you thinking about getting fixed?” Heather, who has a physical disability, recalled her OBGYN physician remarking, “You sure have a grasp of what’s going on for someone in your condition.” And Grace, who is Deaf, once looked over at a nurse’s notes during a prenatal visit and saw that the nurse had written “deaf and dumb” on her chart.
These pathologizing assumptions can lead to serious consequences for Deaf mothers and disabled mothers. One in four of the mothers I interviewed faced a serious threat to her parenting rights, when doctors initiated state intervention or when former partners or family members threatened to use the mother’s disability against her in custody disputes.
Though many of the mothers I interviewed experienced heightened levels of scrutiny as they sought medical care, at the same time their individual needs and ways of mothering were rendered invisible within the medical system and in the consumer market of advice and products targeting mothers. Accessibility issues manifested in different ways for these women. Mothers with physical disabilities had more issues with inaccessible hospital rooms and medical offices, as well as with restricted choice in doctors. Deaf mothers expressed frustration at medical institutions’ reluctance to provide ASL interpreters for doctor visits. And, though patient forms can be made accessible through online access, blind mothers discussed common experiences of being asked to complete their paperwork verbally in the waiting room where other patients could hear their private medical information being exchanged. Many of the mothers also engaged in additional mothering labor to access hard to find baby equipment compatible with their disabilities, and even built equipment on their own.
The use of baby sign presents one of the most peculiar contradictions embedded in modern mothering. New brain research suggests teaching infants and toddlers sign language will improve their verbal and cognitive development. As a result, signing has become a common practice among U.S. middle and upper class hearing families.
I find, however, that the appropriation of sign language by hearing families has not come with an increased appreciation of the identities of Deaf mothers and other mothers with disabilities. Consider the experience of Sarah, who is Deaf, when she sought interventions for her son, who has developmental delays. Two therapists who visited her home on separate occasions claimed Sarah’s use of American Sign Language was inhibiting her son’s language development. Thus, Sarah continued to be regarded as an inadequate mother for using sign language, even as hearing middle and upper class families are consuming sign for the benefits it purports to offer their hearing children.
Too often feminist scholarship has reinforced the binary of care, the notion that we can be neatly divided between women who provide care and those who receive it. This artificial divide renders the care work of women with disabilities invisible in our analyses. Not only are these women’s stories important in their own right, but Deaf and disabled mothers are well-positioned to expose the underlying beliefs about normalcy with which all of us contend.
Angela Frederick is assistant professor of sociology at The University of Texas at El Paso. Her research interests include gender, disability, and intersecting identities. Her article, Risky Mothers and the Normalcy Project Women with Disabilities Negotiate Scientific Motherhood, can be found in the 2017 February 31 (1) issue of Gender & Society.