The Politics of Motherhood

OSU researcher Cari Maes teaches the course Politics of Motherhood and is a recipient of the prestigious Fulbright IIE scholarship for her research on the history of maternal and infant public health policy in Brazil. In her work and research, Maes explores issues of various cultural contexts and politics regarding motherhood, surrogacy, movements for reproductive justice, and transnational representations of motherhood. 

Q.  Doctor Maes, could you explain a bit about your research regarding the politics of motherhood? 

A. My research looks into the foundation of Brazil’s first comprehensive maternal and infant health care program in the early 20th-century. I am interested in comparing the ways doctors and other health care providers see mothers and babies in a clinical sense and how governments see them as critical human capital. 

Tracing the co-evolution of medicine, health care, and politics in the past is important for understanding the experiences of mothers and babies today. I’m most interested in using history to help explain why present-day interventions into maternal and infant health sometimes fail despite their best intentions. I think history and its lessons needs to be a bigger part of the current public health discussion.

Q. Why are you drawn to this work?

A. Like a lot of scholars, I think it began with my own family. I grew up in a family with children ‘produced’ three different ways: through adoption, ART (assisted reproductive technology), and conventional conception (me, an unexpected third child). These different routes into motherhood involved legal bureaucracy and medical science, making my mother’s body and her mothering the subject of scrutiny by doctors, lawyers, society, and the state. 

My mom’s experience disabused me of romanticized ideas about motherhood and pregnancy. When I set about doing archival research in Brazil as a graduate student, these ideas definitely influenced my decision to ultimately focus on mothers and children. I also like the idea that, throughout every twist and turn of history, in moments of great turmoil and flourishing, pregnancy, birthing, and mothering were happening in the background. I love to tap into that hidden and intimate past.

Q. How has motherhood changed throughout history?

A. One of the most significant changes has been the singularization of motherhood. 

For the most part, our ancestors relied on alloparenting, or shared care. A number of caregivers would have ‘mothered’ a child. Today, in the West, we have drifted quite far from this communal model to one in which a single maternal figure bears, or is expected to bear, the lion’s share of nurturing responsibilities. Of course, we have fewer pregnancies and offspring than our foremothers did. 

Another major shift has been the advent of reproductive technologies that are constantly expanding the ways one can become a ‘mother.’ Gestational surrogacy, uterine transplants, cryopreservation, and ART, for example, help individuals overcome biological challenges to becoming mothers or parents. Consequently, these innovations have shifted and widened our definition of who and what constitutes as a ‘mother’ in both a biological and cultural sense today.

Q. Is there a difference between motherhood in the U.S and in Brazil?

A. Brazil is a majority Catholic country, so that religious tradition has profoundly shaped motherhood there. Catholic Brazilians venerate the Virgin Mary, known locally as ‘Our Lady of Aparecida.’ This maternal patroness has, since the colonial period, served as an important cultural archetype of motherhood. 

Outside Catholicism, West-African-rooted religious traditions – a legacy of the more than 5 million slaves brought to Brazil – also worship maternal deities, such as Iemanjá, the mother of the sea. The Tupí-Guaraní, one of Brazil’s many indigenous peoples, also worship different ‘Cy’ or mother goddesses. 

Mothers may be culturally respected, but there are clear indicators that point to a lack of sociopolitical will to improve mothers’ health and wellbeing. Brazil has one of the world’s highest rates of Caesarean sections, almost twice the rate in the US at about 55 percent. Most surgeries are performed out of expediency rather than medical necessity. 

Recently, mothers and allies in Brazil have fought back against obstetric violence, a term that encompasses a variety of physical and psychological harms inflicted during pregnancy and birthing. One out of four women experience some form of obstetric violence in Brazil today. 

One group, the “Union of Mothers of Angels,” also advocates for better care for microcephalic children in the wake of the Zika virus epidemic. In other words, mothers are on the frontlines pushing for social change, health, and justice for themselves and their children. 

Brazil, like the United States, is extremely regionally diverse, so it is nearly impossible to speak of a universal idea of the Brazilian mother. 

Over the last two decades, I have lived with many Brazilian families who come from different regions and from various class levels and backgrounds. I like to think each of these mothers taught me something about the realities of raising children, about both the bliss and the frustration. 

One lesson stands out in particular and comes from a mother I lived with in Rio de Janeiro. She would often repeat the phrase, “não custa nada,” or “it doesn’t cost a thing.” What she meant, and what I try to remind myself often, is that being empathetic, generous, and kind actually costs us nothing. I hope my own kids live by that lesson.

Q. How do differing socioeconomic statuses affect the well-being and health of mother and child?

A. Social class affects both the material conditions in which someone raises a child and the ways society perceives mothering. The material impacts of poverty start affecting those who mother long before they have children. 

Poverty reduces access to all the essential building blocks of healthy reproduction, pregnancy, birth, and post-natal thriving, such as education, nutrition, social equality, and healthy, safe living conditions. Poverty also mediates how we as a society evaluate and view mothers according to class. 

Those who mother in contexts of poverty are often stereotyped as “bad” mothers, while those with higher statuses are considered “good.” These false perceptions can influence policy formation and everyday social interactions. Race, ethnicity, citizenship status, ability, sexuality, and a many other axes of one’s identity also influence how socioeconomic status will influence their mothering. 

Ultimately, wealth, or the lack of it, does not determine the quality of someone’s parenting or the love they feel for their child.

Q. What is biopower?

A. Biopower is a term described by French scholar Michel Foucault that refers to the exertion of authority over human bodies. Biopower, sometimes also called “biopolitics,” can encompass all the ways the state and its institutions, as well as health and medical authorities, exercise control over human bodies. 

For example, Foucault studied the ways that clinics and prisons regiment human beings through confinement, punishment, surveillance, and treatment. 

To illustrate the effects of biopower in the classroom, I like to ask my students to raise their hands if they brushed their teeth that morning (a few will sheepishly withhold their hands). Self-regimentation is one of the outcomes of biopower. We’ve received the message that teeth-brushing and other hygiene routines keep us healthy, so those of us who have access to the necessary resources will brush our teeth regularly without being told. 

Other forms of biopower are more detrimental and target those among us who are the most marginalized and vulnerable. 

For instance, I teach about the history of coerced and forced sterilization in our country to show how biopower has affected reproductive bodies. These days, students will bring up the series “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a very clear, dystopian example of biopower. I remind them, as the original author Margaret Atwood does, that women, particularly women of color, have endured these reproductive abuses throughout history—it is not purely fiction.

Q. What is female genital cutting? Is it still practiced today?

A. Female genital cutting (FGC) or circumcision refers to the ritualized practice of removing external parts of the vaginal anatomy. Researchers do not know the exact origins and significance of this practice although some archaeological and historical clues exist. 

Today, a number of groups across the world perform FGC as a rite of passage for girls and adolescents. Studies estimate that more than 125 million individuals have had this procedure. 

Depending on the degree of circumcision, women can experience a number of health complications related to menstruation, pregnancy, birthing, and sex. In the US or in the ‘West’, we have tended to ‘otherize’ and even condemn this practice as something that happens “over there.” However, cliterectomies and other forms of genital modification have been common at various times in the US and in Europe.

It is important to consider local traditions and values and what these procedures mean in their own contexts, rather than to judge FGC from where we sit. 

Someone across the world could consider my choice to circumcise my son as a form of “mutilation.” Recently, US courts ruled as unconstitutional a ban on FGC that emanated from a clinic performing the procedure near Detroit, Michigan. As this issue continues to ignite fierce controversy, it is imperative to give girls and women themselves a voice in the debate and to provide advocacy and health resources to those who have had it or may have it in the future.

Q. Why is infant mortality an important issue in Brazil?

A. Infant mortality, the number of deaths before age one, is a critical public health concern everywhere in the world. It is one of the most robust indicators of a country’s overall well-being and one of the most difficult public health problems to solve.

In the first half of the 20th century, Brazil had the second highest rate of infant death in the Americas (second only to Bolivia). It was not uncommon for nearly half of all infants to die before reaching age one in areas of extreme poverty. Even in major cities like Rio de Janeiro around one out of every five babies would die before age one. For comparison, Brazil’s current rate is about 17 deaths per 1,000 live births. The introduction of vaccines and the expansion of health care helped lower Brazil’s rate in the second half of the last century. However, the country is currently facing rising infant mortality for the first time in 30 years. 

Racism and social inequality continue to put women and infants of color at a higher risk of death. The recent Zika and fetal microcephaly epidemic, for example, affected mostly Afro-Brazilian women and infants living in poverty in the country’s Northeastern regions. 

My research helps uncover the history of the public health response to infant mortality to inform the formulation of strategies to combat it today and going forward. It is critical to trace what medical science and technology have done in the past to know which avenues to pursue, and which ones to avoid, in the future.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

A: One of the focal points of my teaching has been to really expand our definition of who or what is a ‘mother.’ There is no single definition, just as there is no single route to becoming a mother or parent. There is a marvelous adage stating that “there is no such ‘thing’ as a mother” because it is relational, meaning it cannot exist on its own. 

There is beauty in the idea that anyone can be a mother. We do not need rigid boundaries around the term. Both biologically and culturally speaking, we have to complicate conventional notions of who qualifies as a ‘mother.’ ‘Mother’ and ‘woman’ are not cognates. 

No matter what label we use, who we mother, or how we become mothers, we all deserve dignity, respect, and a healthy, safe, and supportive environment where we can build our nests and watch our fledglings grow.

By Olivia Cartwright 

Do you have a story for The Advocate? Email