Ruse, Regulation, and Older Motherhood

06 Oct

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This week, New York magazine’s cover features the captivating Maye Musk, fabulously pregnant and posed reminiscent of Demi Moore’s equally captivating photo on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991. What makes this photo the subject of so much hot topic discussion? Ms. Musk is in her sixties and, it seems, is having a baby. The question thrust at readers from this cover is “Is she just too old for this?” I find the question, and the one that opens the feature article, “Is there anything wrong with being 53 and pregnant?” troubling. Insulting even.

I’m going to push aside the fact that May Muske is actually NOT pregnant in this photo, and the questions that thus emerge about why it is New York couldn’t show an older woman who actually IS pregnant to make their point, and pursue instead the questions on the cover and that lead the article. These questions echo a couple of centuries of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ that have been aimed at mothers in the U.S. and that have functioned to regulate women’s bodies and sexualities and movement in the world. In the early 1900s, the U.S. Children’s Bureau had a long list of them aimed, perhaps with good intention, at helping poor mothers to raise healthy babies. But the recommendations functioned to center white, middle class child-rearing practices and to render problematic the practices, and even the foods, of other races/ethnicities (recommendations included: DO feed with potatoes but DON’T feed with pasta; don’t use garlicky or spicy foods; don’t have multiple generations living together). In the 1940s during WWII, many women were told they should leave the home and get to work (the kids are fine without you), and then after the war they were told they should leave the workplace and return to the home (the kids will fall to pieces without you). Poor women over many decades have been told they should be working rather than home caring for their children (the kids will…well, nobody seemed concerned enough to make claims about those kids). And today’s mothers, across a vast range of incomes, are told they should invest enormous amounts of time, money, and energy into their children, who are so unbelievably fragile that one wrong move on the mother’s part will lead to the child’s certain ruin, even though current research suggests that families that follow this advice and are wholly child-centered are not producing quite the stable movers and shakers they thought they were.

The social powers that seek to subject women to ever-increasing surveillance and regulation have, it seems, an ever-flowing font of ways to suffuse, at best, and drown out, at worst, women’s freedom and agency as mothers. None of the arguments against rearing children in later years—wait, I mean against mothers rearing children in later years; that regulatory font I mentioned doesn’t seem to flow toward fathers—don’t seem to hold much water. People deciding to have children should, I agree, make considerations about their health, and its impact on the family. This is the same for all parents, most likely. Some health outcomes are more conducive to parenting for 18 years or so than others, and this is something that those who are going to or wanting to become parents ought calculate as part of the equation. But to say that a year, say 53 or 63, or a look, say that of an older pregnant woman, tells us what we need to know about the best interests of the children and, more importantly, entitles us to critique her decisions outright, is ignorant and self-satisfied, and participates in a much larger project of trying to control women under the ruse of protecting the children. And this is one ruse of which I remain deeply, and have been long, suspicious. I can see regulation right through it and I for one am not buying this critique of older women’s maternity as about anything else.


Posted by on October 6, 2011 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting


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5 responses to “Ruse, Regulation, and Older Motherhood

  1. Christy

    October 6, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    What a great post! And what an amazing woman Musk is. Thank you!

    PS-I don’t know what was done differently in this posting but I have to say that it was much easier to read (font-wise/size-wise) than previous posts that come to me via my e-mail.

    • Dr. Mama

      October 6, 2011 at 11:52 pm

      Christy–I don’t know why the type is easier to read. I’ve noticed that my last two posts are more readable in email than others. Strange. BTW, I discovered shortly after I posted that some of my info was wrong so I edited it for accuracy on the blog site. Musk is actually older and the pregnancy is apparently photoshopped in! Still a great image though. And the article and hullabaloo no less problematic

  2. r4dic4lf3mm3

    October 9, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    People seem so compelled to comment on older women getting pregnant and make outrageous claims that these women are selfish. They say that they won’t have the energy to engage in physical activity with their children and that they may not live to see their children grow up. These type of claims just seem silly to me. No mother can be sure that she will live to see her children turn 18. Any of us could die in a car accident, or develop breast cancer at any age. Older mothers have more patience,experience and wisdom to offer than young mothers, and they are typically more financially stable. Mothering at a young age has other stengths and weaknesses. Having had the experience of becoming a mother as a teenager and then having another child at 31 years old, I can say from experience that there is very much a trade off in terms of what am able to do for them and in how I interact with them. As a young mother I had a lot of energy and was able to coach my daughter’s soccer team and volunteer at her school. However, because I was young I was not financially stable so there were activities she didn’t get to try and places I couldn’t afford to take her. I also had no patience at that age. I was more self-absorbed and invested in pursuing my own interests (which I think is healthy). Later when I had a child at 31, pregnancy was really tough on my body. Getting up in the middle of the night was exhausting and chasing a toddler around felt much harder than I remember it to be. Although, physically mothering is much harder now, I am much more financially stable and I appreciate every moment with my young daughter. I find it much easier to listen to what a two year old has to say now verses when I had a two year old at 20 years old. Interestingly, it seems no one holds back on commenting when a mother considers having a child at an advanced age, However, no one says much about men fathering children in their sixties and beyond.

  3. K.A. Dorgan

    October 10, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Ok, I’m about to add a completely inane, unsophisticated comment: How the heck does a 53 year old Maye Musk look better than I ever did at 23, 33 or 43?

    Of course, I wonder the added layer of critique that would be offered if she were also “unattractive” and/or poor?

    I will also echo the previous comment made by r4dic4lf3mm3 by saying that if I’d parented my son-with-special-needs at 23 or 33, I wouldn’t have gotten through his childhood–of course, he wouldn’t have either.

    In the end, all I’ve learned about Mothering is that no matter our age, education level, race, affectional orientation, economic status…this Mothering stuff is nearly impossible to do, making it a miracle that it manages to get done every single day by a variety of women.

    • Dr. Mama

      October 10, 2011 at 10:13 am

      K.A.—Well one way she looks like that is she isn't actually pregnant! I discovered this, and the fact that she is in her sixties, not her fifties,after the email subscriptions to my posts went out.I made corrections to the online post but I wanted first to clarify that.As for me, I feel, in my forties, so much calmer and centered and financially secure than in earlier points in my life.It wouldn't work for me personally to have a another child now, but I can certainly see the benefits and understand the motivation to have children later.


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