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Mothering Against the World: Momrades Against Motherhood
The following piece first appeared in print in Salvage #8: Comrades, This is Madness, our latest issue. Issue 8 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue (issue 9).
I. (By Way of Introduction)
Diary of a Family-Abolitionist’s Year on Tour
24 May 2019. Hmm. I’m noticing that people get furious at the suggestion that they deserved more than they, as children, received.
17 August. Of course, any family-abolitionist worth their salt understands all too well that the ‘infamous proposal of the communists’ – to abolish the family – attacks the very foundations of the self (as currently constituted). I think the psychological reaction-mechanism – and it’s one all of us must contend with – goes something like this: ‘Well, sure, it may be a disciplinary, scarcity-based trauma-machine, but it’s my disciplinary, scarcity-based trauma-machine! And I don’t know who I would be without it! Back off. How dare you’. In other words, the idea of abolishing the family triggers enormous onto-epistemological anxiety, whereupon a violent anger is often unleashed. ‘Across the short term’, as Jules and Kate note, whatever communist counter-familial institution we collectively build will no doubt be ‘one of the least popular to have ever existed’.
I know all this. All the same, I find it amazing that a few people – that is to say, I’ve caught a few vanishing glimpses of this phenomenon while I’ve been travelling – seem to smugly believe that my bio-mother getting cancer in the same moment that I birth my book against motherhood is some kind of delicious irony – perhaps even a divine justice. ‘So, you think everybody deserves many mothers, is that right? Funny, I notice you’re pretty sad about your real mother dying!’
6 November. My personal bio-familial circumstances this year have involved terrible and looming bereavement, compounded by precarity, not to mention border- and immigration-related obstruction and capture. I call this surreal not because it was somehow ‘hypocritical’ to be speaking publicly about abolishing the naturalised private/nuclear family – and its scaled-up counterpart, the nation – while, simultaneously, struggling (like so many people right now) to cross borders in order to be with biological and legal next-of-kin. Nor was it somehow ‘contradictory’ to be preaching ‘full surrogacy’ while tending to my historically estranged mother’s deathbed. Quite the contrary, in a way. The temporal coincidence of the Full Surrogacy Now launch with this (for me) unprecedented requirement that I be at my closest genetic relative’s bedside brought the stakes of my subject-matter to life with almost unbearable intensity.
3 December. Condolences. Wow – so, so many condolences. Most of them are truly comforting, even if I sense there is something threatening about me right now, in everyday sociality, something radioactive in my aura, a black mark on my forehead that reads ‘Lost their mother’. There are wonderful comrades out there who know what to do, how to be with grief, not just tolerating it, but staying with it fearlessly. The doulas, in fact, started making themselves known before Mum’s death, not just afterward. This European settler culture is not, in general, good at doing death. But Rosie showed me the ropes. Madeline mailed me a toy monkey. Sarah mailed me toner. Zach vacuumed my stairs. Paul made me go to queer/trans yoga. Julia left soup for me on my stoop. And, perhaps most miraculous of all, I found Philly Death Doula Collective. Comradeliness around dying exists.
At the same time, there has been a portion of the condolences that feel almost violent: ostensibly sympathetic comments that are, in reality, full of reaction, and discipline, and personal projection about maternal bereavement’s normative meaning. I feel like I am being bombarded with prescriptive statements about what ‘the death of one’s mother’ is, under the sign of the Universal Human Experience. Aren’t these people concerned about doubling my loss, by making visible my lack? Rubbing it in my face that, not only have I lost the mother I had, but that the one I had is, in some sense, ungrievable, because she was not a Mother with a capital M? These people seem bent on ensuring that I also feel the lack of the mother I did not have (that is, the one I could have and would have lost in this particular, prescribed and romantic, way).
Luckily, I still manage to laugh at all of this – at least, sometimes. It has been suggested to me, for example, that I should try to ‘love myself’ in the days ahead ‘as she loved me’. LMAO! What a terrible idea. Like, honey? I am going to have to do so, so much better than that. And so will all my friends.
II. What Makes a Momrade?
On 26 November 2019, my mother, Ingrid Helga Lewis, died aged seventy-three in a hospice outside London. Three of the proximate causes of her dying were as follows: various cancers, one of which had been diagnosed about a year prior; heart complications; and that dubious thing, ‘alcoholism’. My mother was, among many other things, an excellent writer, a gifted humourist, and a German anglophile in near-total exodus from Germanness. She was a white cisgender heterosexual and consummate flirt (thrice-divorcée, twice from the same man), and a middle-class liberal who was briefly an organised Maoist ’68er at the University of Göttingen. She was a survivor of parental neglect and abuse, and the first in her family to go to university. She was an impossible and wilful, not explicitly feminist, woman who, at the age of forty, having achieved perfect bilingualism and a position at the BBC German Service, suddenly changed her mind about not having children and married my father – an Englishman ten years her junior who worked for Reuters, and with whom she’d fallen in love in Vienna. She then gestated two infants in a row – first me, then my brother Ben – and raised us to puberty with insufficient help from her new husband, as well as insufficient help from a succession of ‘au pair girls’: the paid mothers of my childhood.
My understanding is that Mum vigorously refused the cultural and social identity ‘mother’ even at the start, before she became suicidal. She shrieked with protestatory laughter, for example, if ever a child referred to her as ‘la maman de Sophie/Ben’ (we lived in France); she disliked it when Ben interpellated her as ‘Mama’. On the other hand, much later, she suddenly did not want to be addressed by us grownup kids as ‘Ingrid’, but as ‘Mum’, and above all ‘Mumputz’: a characteristic Engleutsch (English/Deutsch) coinage of hers that seems to perfectly sum up her recalcitrant, roundabout, tragicomically belated entry into identification with feminist mothering. This diminutive suffix, -putz, was one she had the idea of doling out affectionately to the people around her. (We numbered extremely few. She was unbelievably alone. She ineluctably pushed everyone – every last friend – away.) The ‘Mumputz’ nicknaming-practice evoked a jocular equality, a friendzone, a conspiracy; it conjured the affective space within which I could, by her account, ‘introduce her to feminism’ via her ‘helping’ me (hindering me, honestly) with work projects such as the German-to-English translation of Antje Schrupp’s A Brief History of Feminism, or The Future of Differenceby Paula-Irene Villa and Sabine Hark. Oscillating in and out of this discursive equality, every so often, she would vary ‘Mumputz’ to ‘Putz-in-Chief’, so as to be distinguished from, for example, Vickyputz, my partner, Benputz, her son, or Sophputz (a.k.a., for some reason, Vice-Putz-in-Chief) – me.
By her own admission, my Putz-in-Chief more or less checked out of mothering me not long after I got my first period, sinking into alcoholism when I was about eleven and she fifty-three. This is one reason that I have been occupied, for two decades, by the question of what constitutes comradely care; why I’ve been always been on the lookout, everywhere I go, for what in Full Surrogacy NowI called ‘beautiful militants hell-bent on regeneration, not self-replication’; why I felt profoundly compelled, when my chosen intellectual parent Donna Haraway started saying ‘make kin, not babies’ in 2015, to mount a rejoinder calling for family abolition without antinatalism: make kin and/or babies (maybe). My book was birthed, as it happens, six months prior to Mum’s death, only a couple of days before the NHS declared her cancer – the one they knew about at that point – to be Stage Four. So I was on the ‘right’ side of the Atlantic, albeit not – as Mum resentfully pointed out – for the ‘right’ reason. For weeks, I combined sitting in Mum’s hospital ward, trying to coax her into cleaning, or at least lubricating, her frighteningly rotten mouth, with book-signings and launch events.
At some point over that adult-diaper-studded summer, I noticed the portmanteau ‘momrade’ – mom plus comrade – on social media and in online forums of mothers and/or leftists. The satirical website The Worker’s Spatula, for instance, dedicated its 2019 Mother’s Day post to ‘all the momrades’. The Brooklyn-based union organiser and anthropologist Kate Doyle-Griffiths tweeted that, while ‘collectivising household labor in giant communes’ does not end capitalism in and of itself, ‘it absolutely can be a good thing for you and your momrades if you can pull it off’. Self-designated ‘mommy bloggers’ have been using the term since at least 2004. It appears in assorted social media bios and/or handles among community organisers all over the US. A momrade might title her post about interparental support ‘A Momrade in Need is a Momrade Indeed’; or, in a blog for ModernMom.com, share ‘nifty tips’ on toddlers gleaned from discussion ‘with several of my momrades’. There have even existed (albeit shortlived) websites flying the momradeship flag, such as Momrades.blogspot.com and Momrades.com.
The page for ‘momrade’ on urbandictionary.com, dated 16 December 2017, lists two radically different definitions: one hinges on the verb ‘to have’, and the other on ‘to do’ – two options which the author (‘zuchinno’) has decided to connect simply with a richly suggestive ‘and/or’.
1) comrades who have children
2) comrades who do the lion’s share of support work and reproductive labor in the movement
Comrades who have, or comrades who do? Echoing the same dyad, albeit with none of my comrades’ communist-abolitionist aims, in her 2018 novel Motherhood, Sheila Heti complains about the way some mothers in her culture talk ‘as though a child is something to have, not something to do. The doing is what seems hard. The having seems marvellous. But one doesn’t have a child, one does it’.
Like Heti, the UrbanDictionary contributor precisely captures the tension so powerfully articulated in Adrienne Rich’s feminist classic Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, between reproductive labour’s potential to effect liberatory kinmaking (mothering) on the one hand, and anti-liberatory privatisation (motherhood qua property ideology) on the other.
But the question, for me, which neither Heti nor zuchinno pose, is this: does 1) (having children) automatically make you 2) (a momrade)? Conversely, does doing mothering entail having a bunch of ‘kids’ of some kind, or is there no property component necessary to being ‘a’ mom? Is momradeliness simply comradeliness – but then, comradeliness vis-à-vis whom? – on the part of persons who happen to have procreated? Or is pulling one’s weight with regard to the so-called ‘supportive’, ‘reproductive’ labours of life the only meaningful definition of ‘comrade’ in the first place? Can a comrade be called a comrade if they are not a momrade? What of people like my late mother, a sometime left activist who ‘had’ children, owned legal papers to prove it, but from about the turn of the twenty-first century did little-to-no support work or reproductive labour for those children, let alone for ‘the movement’?
The web-definition, in short, perfectly distils the dialectic of ‘mothering against motherhood’ that Adrienne Rich’s intellectual heirs are still thrashing out to this day – the competing truths that ‘Mother is an institution’ and ‘Mother is a verb’.
In the first instance, we can posit the negation of mother-violence by othermothering. Or, to avoid appropriating the term ‘othermother’ from Black feminism and, instead, coin another to designate people who do mothering without necessarily being mothers, we could speak of the multi-generational ‘motherers’ of many people’s experience. When I think of momradeship, for example, it is not my mother who springs to mind but, rather, precisely those other humans in my life who helped reverse and heal the pain that she (and my long-since-divorced-from-her dad) inflicted over the years, by not mothering me in any significant way through my adolescence.
My mother – that is, my official mother – was many things, but as far as I could see, she was not a motherer. She was, in fact, one of the least care-oriented and most narcissistic individuals of my acquaintance. But she was also exactly the kind of person (like me) to be tickled by a cringe-making coinage like ‘momrade’. Furthermore, she would have enjoyed taking the neologism seriously, and putting the notions of mothering and comradeliness into earnest dialogue with one another. That’s what I am trying to do. Sitting at my desk five months after she died, mourning her, clad at last in many of her long-coveted-by-me clothes and excellent necklaces, I am, after all, a personality and a body somewhat in her likeness, hurt and disloyal as I am.
In what ways do comradely mothers of all genders abolish not only motherhood but the present state of things? In what ways do – might – the collective arts of care labour unmake worlds? What makes mothering anti-productive, rather than reproductive? How do all these questions reprise, tweak, and/or recombine concepts like Marx and Engels’s ‘family abolition’, queer Black feminism’s ‘polymaternalism’, and Xenofeminism’s ‘xenofamiliality’?
III. The (Un)Mothering of Mumputz
The residual trauma of Mum’s desertion remains one of the severely challenging things in my life. Yet, besides hurt and hatred, I also feel deep empathy, bordering on respect, regarding her disgusted exit (via suicidality) from the misery of the marriage and nuclear-family system. Whereas, in the past, I have on occasion wished my mother dead, for the past decade or so it has been hard for me to condemn her outright for opting out of a job (mothering me) that capitalist society was compelling her to do in such a lonely way. After all, my deepest spiritual and political commitments are to the queer revolutionary slogan ‘abolish the family!’ Alongside a small but swelling number of avowed ‘family-abolitionist’ writers in the US and UK, I currently contribute to a theoretical tendency that deems the positive supersession of the nuclear-normative family to be – no, always to have been – the proper object of queer liberation and feminist/gender liberation struggles. Under capitalism, as Alva Gotby notes, ‘families are work relations’. As such, an all-important question for those of us opposed to the tyranny of work becomes, how, as Madeline Lane-McKinley asks,to abolish the family for kids. In Lane-McKinley’s chapbook of poetry Dear Z, the poet writes to her child: ‘I wonder how to abolish the family not without you but with you’. How would you talk to a child about family abolition?
I do not entirely agree with the received wisdom that in the present conjunture, mothers should at all costs conceal from their children that they regret having had children. If you ask me, of all the things Mumputz did wrong, the fact that she did not conceal this was among the least. Children, while needful of and entitled to abundant unconditional commitment, are also, clearly, capable of reciprocal comradeliness. They – we, as children – frequently desire not to be falsely sheltered from the opportunity to practice empathy and solidarity. Children cannot be well mothered by the unmothered, and they are not, collectively, well-served by the bio-legal lottery system that allocates them to the private care of a few adults – to life in the lonely, unsustainable, car-dependent architecture of heteropatriarchal nuclear atomisation. Kids are, in fact, probably better than most people at intuitively grasping that ‘the more loving and chosen the family, the more amenable it may be to self-abolishing’, to quote M. E. O’Brien. Family abolition, as O’Brien defines it in Pinko magazine, ‘is not the destruction of kinship ties that currently serve as protection against white supremacy, poverty, and state violence, but instead the expansion of that protection into broader communities of struggle’ that include, at the heart of their democratic processes, very young people.
Kids, in their inspiring freedom from propertarian ideology, are themselves the inventors, not just the heirs, of the possibilities of the future care commune. Duh! Nobody should have to be shackled in an apartment to their gestator (or gestatee) against their will: in the communes envisioned by utopian socialist Charles Fourier in the 1800s, or by Shulamith Firestone in 1970, children and parents alike can opt out of a toxic dynamic, safe in the knowledge that no one will be left entirely un-cared for. O’Brien distils the central idea: ‘No one is bound together violently any longer’.
As a child, I did not want anyone to be bound together violently. Therefore, I don’t think I ever got confused about the difference between a mother’s regretting of motherhood and my mother wishing me dead. To understand that having kids – or, having kids with Dad – was, quite simply, the wrong decision for Mum, was not something to take personally or take offence at.
To be clear, I do not believe that what Ben and I received was ‘good enough mothering’, to use Winnicott’s term. I’m certainly not saying I am not resentful, angry, deeply in need of healing. Don’t get me wrong: as far as I’m concerned, Mumputz fucking sucked. It is just that, as an anti-work anti-racist queer communist who understands the nuclear family to be capitalism’s point zero, I cannot wholeheartedly condemn Mum’s past insistence, when she was still trying to mother, on being finite; on wanting, as stand-up comedian Ali Wong puts it, not to lean in, but rather to lie down. Perhaps in reaction to my father’s lionisation of the angel-in-the-house-ism of his own mother – or perhaps not – I have always loved a slut, a slattern, a woman on strike. Somewhere along the road, I connected the dots. I recently realised that I have deep respect for important aspects of Mumputz’s (scant) parenting style.
Counterintuitively, perhaps, I came to this appreciation via reading Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Counterposing Black mothering to hegemonic motherhood, Gumbs, an independent scholar, poet, activist and educator in North Carolina, historicises the collective polymaternal labour of Black women – ‘those who were never meant to survive’ – as queer, ‘because it disrupts the social reproduction of capital by offering an alternative social framework’. ‘M/other’, writes Gumbs, ‘is a verb. Black mothering, the production of radical difference, when done for “ourselves” as a reclamation of labor and a reflexive intervention against the reproduction of sameness, is an alternate mode of production’. In researching my book, I’d been deeply curious about exactly this: how multi-gendered labours of baby-making might be conceived of, by comradely gestators, as implicated in a revolutionary politics of commune-building. How is mothering, despite being called ‘reproduction’, in fact, anti-(re)productive (because anti-proprietary)? Here, finally, were some answers.
In ‘My Son Runs in Riots’, a poem by Christy NaMee Eriksen published in Revolutionary Mothering(a 2016 collection co-edited by Gumbs), not only is reproduction non-reproductive and collective, it is nothing short of bomb-making. For Eriksen, breast-feeding is weapon-building, and mothers of colour are, by default, polymaternal pétroleuses. Children are comrades, belonging to everyone, and to no one but themselves: ‘when you watch the video / It’s tough to tell whose son it is’. Indeed, babymaking has long been explicitly recognised in some strands of Black feminism – so I’ve learned – as a destructive, as much as a creative enterprise; an insurgency of the commons and an unnatural danger: personal yet plural, intimate yet inclusive, loving yet unpretty. For the structurally queer mothers involved, the motive question undergirding this poetics becomes, how can this world-ending (not just world-making) power be collectively harnessed, organised and directed?
The main way this Black queer anticapitalist polymothering literature led me to appreciate my own mother’s parenting is, of course, simply in the negative. Hers was, obviously, very much not the subversive ‘bad mothering’ that is bad for capitalism, theorised by Gumbs in her reading of Audre Lorde’s famous injunction to black lesbians: ‘We can learn to mother ourselves’. Mum’s passive slowdown, or white strike, was categorically not a ‘production of a rival mothering’ antithetical to the reproduction of the nuclear heteropatriarchal family. Put it this way: if I am anything like a bomb, it is not because Mum, in her alcoholic solitude, was (able to be) a bomb-builder. Besides, as Alexis Shotwell compellingly reminds white people, Black mothering cannot simply be taken up by white people, and ‘indigenous practices of relationality cannot be taken up by settlers … we must craft new practices of being in relation that can destroy settler colonialism and its articulation with anti-Black racism and border militarism’.
Such crafting is what, in a small way, this essay seeks to help do, as part of the painful and difficult task Shotwell describes as ‘Claiming Bad Kin’: the needful project of ‘white settlers claiming rather than disavowing our connection to white supremacist people and social relations’, and of ‘friends and comrades working as race traitors against whiteness’. In saying that Black polymaternalist feminisms helped me appreciate my committedly white mother, what I am saying is that they give me words to put to that horizon – one which Mum’s historic neglect merely drove me to, whereas they open it. Gumbs: ‘what if anyone can participate in the production of the future by parenting, teaching, surviving?’
As part of my family abolitionism, I know, I must claim my bad kin. Here is my starting-point. Mum was no queer motherer, yet in her performance of motherhood there was one kernel of something Gumbs names in her analysis of revolutionary mamahood: the reclamation/refusal of imposed labour. The best way I can put it is this: although she was by no means ‘queering’ motherhood, although she was white, and cis, and straight, and middle-class, Mumputz did motherhood as though it were a form of drag. The task (of mothering) centrally consisted for her, it seemed, of thrusting suncream and kiwis, a.k.a. Vitaminbomben (vitamin bombs), on the younger generation, often with cod-Nazi-officer voice. But even when the joke was not funny – indeed, even when it was scary and deadly serious, as when she screamed in maniacal fury at us about the laundry or the washing-up – one was, sort of, in on it. I don’t know that I have forgiven her everything, but I am grateful to her for her structurally queer denaturalisation of motherlove, and her immanent critique of the invisibility of domestic reproductive labour. Her dissatisfaction with the status quo was, I know, transmitted to all her kids (biological and not).
IV. Comradely Death-Doula-ing of a Non-Momrade
In December 2019, I found myself finally, stunningly, bereaved of Mumputz. A photo of her corpse had been non-consensually sent from her phone to my phone, minutes after the event, by my estranged father (the one person who, in the end, happened to be visiting when she finally crossed over). Stumbling out of my home, one day, in a fug of incomprehension, I spotted a flyer taped to a lamppost directly outside my building: ‘Grief Circle’. The Philly Death Doula Collective, I read, ‘will be a facilitating a regular Grief Circle for those identifying as women, trans, and/or non-binary. It will be a safe space for people to share their story of loss/sorrow/grief’. I have been attending every circle convened by Kai, the founding death-doula, ever since. Through our simple practice of collective witnessing of the stranger, the collective has enabled me to perceive that a large part of what I did throughout 2019 was, in fact, ‘doula’ my mother’s death. What I did was not just for my mother, who resisted some of this doula-ing, just as she refused to say goodbye in any meaningful way, and avoided acknowledging the imminence of her death. What I did was, crucially, took care of all of us, especially myself and my fellow depressed gay sibling, Ben.
It is fair to say that Mum, for her part, did not ‘doula’ anyone through her own death, least of all herself. Particularly since she had, basically, no one else, she benefited hugely in her final year from Ben jeopardising his receptionist job by taking endless time off work to jet over from France (where he lives) and sit with her. At her home in Kingston-on-Thames, or in hospital, Ben soaked up her brattiness for weeks at a time, waiting, in limbo, in that zone of impossible/non-prognosis: it could be many months, or she could die at any time. To and fro he went, via easyJet, bereft, at this point, of any hope of receiving from her a reckoning or resolution for the deep violence she did to him in the 2000s by repeatedly putting herself into near-comas, toying with suicide, right in front of him. Several times, during this phase of final decline, she inexplicably thought it comical and cute to refer to him, petulantly, as ‘pondlife’.
‘More cigarettes. More wine. I don’t think I will die soon’, she would declare, even as she grew more and more blurred, waxen, immobile. Although visibly frightened, she did, somehow, simultaneously, seem to believe this. My sense was that the sheer spiritual and cognitive effort required by that denial, together with the vast pain she was in, and swimming in morphine, swallowed everything else. She had already spent great swaths of the past two decades asleep: now she slept constantly. When awake, she was, on the whole, impossible – even more so than usual – but I found myself for once able to see past her aversive cowardice and toddler-like solipsism, to the courage it took, for seventy years, for her to be herself. Nevertheless, it was irritating that, apart from ‘I love you’, which she did say, several times, Mumputz had nothing to say to those of us she left behind. Particularly since it turns out that she had on occasion summoned the courage, privately, to admit that she was dying – just to herself.
There exists a scrap of paper, found posthumously on her desk, whereon she writes:
Death Labour: I will miss the boat. This time I’ve really done it. I can’t even catch the next one. It’s not waiting. It’s not stopping for me. Even if I explain about the lost ticket they won’t give me another one. It can’t be 5 to 12 anymore. I can’t do it at the last minute. But I thought: it’s not fair. Why have I lost my appeal? I’ll miss the hope (another chance. Another autumn. Another evening class. Another man. …)
In the days following her death, my closest comrade, Judy, collated several friends’ ambivalent, fond, hilarious recollections of Mum, and curated, with me, choice Mumputz apothegms, pronouncements and emoji art. The final document, two months on, contains no accounts of any of the brutal, unforgivable things she did over the course of my lifetime, let alone hers (and editing was only open to chosen family from my lifetime). It does, however, allude a little to her violence, and consequently pays tribute to a human being in a candid and unromantic manner I prefer to the standard bowdlerising approach often adopted in our culture when eulogising the dead. Judy prefaced the collage with an ode whose opening words are: ‘Ingrid was an alcoholic on a mobility scooter with a handbag in the shape of a teapot calling people who pointed to No Smoking signs fascists’.
‘An Ode to our Putz-in-Chief’ is a deeply loving text – loving above all to me, but also to the deceased – in which Judy speaks frankly of how Ingrid ‘ate the birthday cakes and drank the champagne that she bought for her children’, the better to pay honest tribute to ‘her strangeness and refusal and deeply queer dignity’. These, according to Judy, were the characteristics that made her ‘too weird to be abject’. Constitutive to comradeliness, in our friendship, is that grieving can only function respectfully because of, not despite, truthfulness. Pride of place is still given, in the document, to celebratory anecdotes, such as that about her one-night stand with what turned out to be the former prime minister of the Netherlands; or about her escaping a police kettle in Berlin, aged sixty-four, by claiming to be pregnant (with cigarette in mouth and a random twenty-something lad in tow – ‘this is the father!’). She was not much of a comrade to the people she most affected, is the consensus. ‘But in some vectors of bestness, she was best’.
Mum made clear, in her final months, that she had no desire to talk, listen, give blessings, nor to atone, apologise, repair, reconcile. Her desire was, quite simply, for booze and fags; plus, sometimes, a few other forms of soothing. She wanted to be amused and distracted, occasionally by people, but most dependably by her own storytelling, which she would perform, regardless of who she was with, while drinking wine and chain-smoking (on her back, under a mandatory safety blanket, to prevent her electric bed from catching fire). When her ability to eat and drink failed, the hospice facilitated her imbibing of wine by providing a wine-sponge on a stick. These days, it is the thought of that comradeliness on the part of the staff, with their care for my mother’s dignity and comfort in that prolonged time of muffled terror, that most reliably makes me cry.
V. Family Abolitionism Rebooted: Xenofam, Comradeliness and Kith
Why do I claim that this wine-stick-providing action – so remote from formal political affiliation – can be called ‘comradeliness’? For Jodi Dean (who would, I should point out, categorically reject my application of the term to this scenario) ‘a comrade is one of many fighting on the same side’. And towards the end of Mum’s life, inspired by the death-doulas of the hospice system – those deeply skilful emotional labourers, at times indistinguishable from sex workers – I arrived at last at a radical acceptance of the way that line had been drawn – that is to say, of her drinking, pill-popping and smoking – which enabled me to choose to stop siding against her. At the hospice, theirs was a logic sharply distinct from the liberal notion of care, and similar to that of ‘harm reduction’ as articulated in M. E. O’Brien’s Commune essay ‘Junkie Communism’. Harm reduction, writes O’Brien, ‘seems to offer a path towards an alternative ethical framework that allows us to stop constantly judging others – and ourselves – according to the rigid criteria of political righteousness. Instead we could learn to care for each other with dignity, to challenge our capacity for harm by lovingly welcoming the most painful parts of ourselves’.
Instead of fighting Mum, I sought to emulate the hospice workers, whether I was complementing them, taking their place, or (ultimately) simply leaving her to them. I emulated them by fighting, so far as possible, on her side, while still acknowledging, in myself, the often painful and horrible feelings she elicited. I stroked her forehead very gently, on one occasion, and gasped to realise from the way she instantly closed her eyes, whimpering with pleasure, how radically my fingertips – any fingertips – were needed in there. Hospice workers and Ben and I, and, at the end, her ex-husband (Dad): we were all she had. I knew, and felt compassionate about, how anxious and ambivalent Mum was, even now, about my company. She sometimes expressed, even in those last months, even though I live in the US, that she would rather my visits were not very prolonged. I, ultimately, concurred. I drew an impossible line, and kept to it. I did not stay longer than my visa imbroglio with the United States would allow. The main thing I felt, before I left, watching her smoke and drink wine, waiting to die, is that she deserved a better world: one that might have fostered wilder and less lonely desires. I deserve that world, too. She was one of the people who owed, who owe it to me.
In disidentifying with the label ‘mother’, my Putz-in-Chief ended up, ironically enough, cleaving to that mechanism of conservation, reproduction and quiescence, Motherhood. This, to be sure, is why that old distinction between ‘mother’ and what I’ve proposed to call ‘motherer’ is crucial; and why ‘matricentric feminism’ has recently undergone a revival, led by, amongst others, Toronto-based feminist and Rich scholar Andrea O’Reilly, who asks that feminism be ‘committed to the abolition of motherhood and the achievement of mothering’. Mothers have, after all, historically both brought down oppressive regimes and built them. On the one hand, maternal feminists, maternalist activists and femo-nationalists (so-called mothers of the nation) have served for centuries as prime movers of world-systemic evils such as white supremacy, spearheading imperial and settler-colonial projects of ‘racial uplift’ and eugenics. On the other, as we’ve seen, dispossessed mamas, mamis, othermothers and queer motherers have consistently posed a formidable threat to capitalism and the state. The dialectic in question is – as black and indigenous feminisms have had to point out to Rich’s fans and inheritors – more properly articulated not as a contradiction in the soul of every mother, but as a structural matter of colonially imposed scarcity; of planetary whiteness and its abolition; of the war between social reproduction ‘from below’ and class society’s reproduction from above; of motherhood’s very invention and design, finally, as an institution to render indigenous and formerly enslaved people ‘kinless’.
To understand that parenting can be insurrectionary is not to say that whether or not a child ‘turns out well’ – in the sense of ‘a revolutionary’ – is determined by individual mothers. On the contrary. For better and for worse, it really is ‘a village’, not a single author, that manufactures persons. My argument has been, accordingly, for the revival of an anti-individual politics grounded in this sociobiological reality: we are the makers of one another, and we could collectively learn to act like it. Necessarily, to face up to this expansive, watery and mutual mothering that is biological reality – ‘amniotechnics’ – is a project that, at its core, requires us not to retreat into the story of kin: the story of those who are ‘like us’ versus those ‘not like us’. Further, the uncomfortable and unpretty fact that we are all gestating one another, wetly and dangerously, across species boundaries, requires a ‘staying with the trouble’ of the question of the stranger, the alien, and the other. Feminist philosophy, for decades, has powerfully dismantled the social and cultural logics that render the figure of the mother (m/other) ‘other’. I want now, however, to make a queer plea for the value of recognising the possibility of a genuine m/other, suggesting that comradeliness, in some instances, might require encountering the ‘natural’ mother in the register of the alien.
In her short 2018 treatise Xenofeminism, Helen Hester – one of the six members of the Laboria Cuboniks collective that authored ‘XF’ (‘The Xenofeminist Manifesto’) in 2015 – elaborates on XF’s anti-natural and gender-abolitionist anticapitalist politics of reproduction. In particular, in her chapter ‘Xenofeminist Futurities’, Hester elaborates on the xenofeminist proposition ‘xenofam ≥ biofam’. The equation conveys the idea that projects of comradeliness vis-à-vis the alien, that is to say, so-called nonbiological kinmaking or (to revive the other half of the ancient phrase ‘kith and kin’) relations of kith, match or exceed the capabilities of families built on genetic coincidence alone. The authors’ careful use of the sign ‘equal or greater than’ already make clear to the careful reader that so-called ‘biological’ procreation can absolutely be a site of comradeliness equal to any other: there is no repudiation of biogenetic reproduction operative here, no matrophobia. Hester nevertheless painstakingly adds ‘the explicit caveat that so-called “blood relations” can themselves become xenofamilial through an ongoing orientation towards practical solidarity’. Xenofamiliality, for her, functions both as utopian horizon and latent reality in the present, the ensemble of templates for social reproduction grounded in ‘solidarities synthesised across differences’.
Mumputz was not, on the face of things, xenos(a stranger). I knew this woman, in part because I’d observed and absorbed her intimately throughout infancy, in part, as our WhatsApp message history attests, because I’d tried to get to know her as an adult, following long estrangement. Still, she felt surprisingly alien to me. For one thing, she did not know me, nor really care to, although she knew my child self, no doubt. She did not seek to understand me. She regretted procreativity on the terms of the existing psycho-economic order. But, well, here I was. Here I am. I cannot afford the luxury of that regret. Nor, even if I could, would I want to follow her and ‘check out’. We were, then, unequally intimate strangers. We were historically divided companions, asymmetric co-victims and perpetrators of the nuclear family, faced with the respective tasks of dying (as well as possible), and of instantiating a kind of equality between us. That is why the horizon of ‘comradeliness’, more than love, seems the most useful term with which to think about her need for end-of-life mothering. Dean: ‘“comrade” names a relation characterised by sameness, equality, and solidarity’. Comradeliness, then, is not accountability: it does not operate in the register of the past. It names the ‘making history’ part of the famous dictum, the present future-oriented part, not that about all that weight of unrepaired history we inherit, the circumstances ‘not of our own choosing’.
Making Mum comfortable/a comrade required learning a form of ‘xenohospitality’ – hospitality to the other, the alien. I’ve already mentioned how, speaking to the ethical imperative to enact this allomaternal hospitality, this kinmaking outside the bounds of biogenetic and procreative registers, Donna Haraway has said, ‘make kin, not babies’. But it is less-often remarked upon, certainly among straight people, that people often make babies who never become kin. Haraway knows this, and, to her credit, lays constant stress on what one might call the need to make kin of babies – to make xenofam, as it were, out of one’s already-existing biofam. Thanks to her engagement with my text, and that of the respondents in the Full Surrogacy Now forum at Society & Space, I have discovered that the other way of spelling my title is as follows: ‘(real) surrogacy against (capitalist) feminism, and (real) feminism against (capitalist) surrogacy: FULL FAMILY NOW!’ Astute reviewers, of course, had already twigged that ‘Lewis’ (ha!) is demanding real family; more family, not less.
While the fantasy of ‘blood’ relationality is that it makes adopting one another unnecessary, in reality, as I sought to argue in the book, children never belong to us, their makers, in the first place. The fabric of the social is something we weave by taking up where gestation left off, encountering one another as the strangers we always are, adopting one another skin-to-skin, forming loving and abusive attachments, and striving at comradeship. Kinship, in other words, is always made, not given. By the same token, where kinship is assumed, it fails to be made, more often than we think. I’m with McKenzie Wark, therefore, when she proposes reviving the ancient word ‘kith, with its nebulous senses of the friend, neighbor, local, and the customary’; when she suggests the comradely rewrite of Haraway: ‘make kith, not kin!’
Could my mothering of my mother, striving to make kith, xeno-hospitably, at the eleventh hour, change her? Probably not. Could it go some way towards negating her negation of comradeliness, though? Could it make a difference, could it change me? Could it uncover the elements of her mothering that had been momradely, and refuse the bad, the uncaring logics of the world she had, in a sense, mothered (in the sense of reproduced) by refusing to mother?
VI. Consider the Lobster (In Lieu of Conclusion)
It is too early to say. What I can say is that, by trying, I forgave Mumputz much. I mothered her, as people say, ‘as best I could’. It both was and was not ‘natural’ for me to provide this mothering. It was both a reversal of an historic flow of care, and an invention of care ex nihilo, on the part of someone a little bit motherless, for the sake of her mother. It was mothering and anti-mothering, self-mothering and re-mothering of another. It was mothering against my mother’s style of motherhood, which was, for its part, both a non-motherhood and, by that same token, an effective mode of reproduction of the present state of things.
Despite my ‘best’ efforts, and despite her being, as I say, in the ongoing care of my brother and of extraordinary and loving hospice workers, in the event, at the time of her death my mother was accompanied by no bodily presence other than that of her ex-husband, our estranged father, who happened to be visiting. She did have virtual company, however, and I have been telling myself – with some success – that this was real company; good enough. She was listening via smartphone to a recording of my brother and I singing an acoustic version of the oddly sinister pop song ‘Safe and Sound’ by Taylor Swift. She was watched over, too, while she died, by an also-sinister toy lobster from Boston’s Logan airport that I had omitted to pay for en route to see her in August, for what turned out to be the penultimate time. Additionally, her request had been to pass away listening to a seventeeth-century summer hymn, ‘Geh aus, mein Herz, und suche Freud’ (‘Go Forth, My Heart, and Seek Delight’) by Paul Gerhardt. So I had learned to sing it and recorded it for her in full, in lieu of singing it by her deathbed in person (which I decided not to do in order to avoid jeopardising my green-card application to the United States). She particularly relished the lines ‘Narzissus und die Tulipan / Die ziehen sich viel schöner an / Als Salomonis Seide / Als Salomonis Seide’: ‘Narcissus and the tulip fair / Are clothed in raiment far more rare / Than all King Solomon’s silks / Than all King Solomon’s silks’.
Larry the lobster brought Mumputz a lot of joy and, I think, made palpable my love for her. She was never henceforth without him. ‘God, he looks evil!’ she crows, holding him aloft in bed, in one clip I filmed on my phone. ‘Doesn’t he? Doesn’t he?!’ It’s true: he does – although, as she remarked once, depending on the angle you pick, he also looks deeply sad.
As I type these lines, I am looking at Larry in my home in Philadelphia, for, unlike Mum’s ashes, he has already been ‘returned’ to me. I am acutely conscious that with his crimson polyester fur, his giant glowering plastic eyes, he served, this winter, as my care-surrogate, death-doula-ing the hard-carapaced person who gestated my body into existence in 1987 and 1988. It was Larry who bore witness while the tinny sound of mine and my sibling’s serenade played on the pillow next to Mum’s eardrums, her fading hearing: ‘Just close your eyes, the sun is going down / You’ll be all right, no one can hurt you now / Come morning light, you and I’ll be safe and sound’. At present not a day passes for me when this refrain does not rattle around my head. May it strengthen my collective efforts, alongside other multispecies momrades in unvanquishable number, to abolish the sad and evil world, this present state of things.
Rest in Power Ingrid Helga Lewis (formerly Ingrid Dressler, and née Ingrid Ihbe) a.k.a. Mumputz a.k.a our Putz-in-Chief
b. 20 June 1946, Hannover | d. 26 November 2019, Esher
Sophie Lewis is a queer feminist communist writer and occasional translator living in Philadelphia. She has written a number of immoderate essays of cultural theory and critique (including for Blind Field, Viewpoint, Logic, Commune, The New Inquiry), as well as a family-abolitionist book, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, published by Verso Books in May 2019. She is a member of the Out of the Woods collective. You can support her writing at patreon.com/reproutopia.