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Answering The Call Of Radical Mothering In A Time of Turmoil

Written by Meryl Pataky

Photography by Photos Courtesy of Meryl Pataky

With horrific laws and headlines raining down at us at all moments, to be a person—and parent—in today’s world is undeniably stressful, heartbreaking, and enraging. Add new motherhood into the mix, and the darkness can easily become all-consuming. However, as artist Meryl Pataky writes, there’s also power in care-taking that can be both inspiring and revolutionary. Below, she shares her thoughts and unique perspective as a brand-new mom, adoptee, and someone who has had an abortion, during an especially devastating time to be an American.

Something dark has descended upon us. It reaches into my throat and builds a mass that strangles any attempt at intelligible expression, transforming it into feverish gasps, a guttural scream. Roe v. Wade has been overturned. Our rights are being chipped away. We are being shot en masse during trips to the grocery store and church. Babies at school. Our representatives aren’t helping us. They spend money on war and militarized police instead of investing in community health. As a brand-new parent in a post-Roe, pandemic-affected, late-stage capitalist society that is increasingly and heartbreakingly hostile to its children, I am terrified and saddened. Finding any coherent words is a struggle, but I gotta try and purge it and hopefully something lands.

As I begin to write, my newborn sits in his bouncy chair looking out the front window of our house in complete amazement. His newness renders him completely unaware of the awful state of our country, our Earth. In some ways, I may be jealous. His sole focus at present is simply bouncing and being. At the very same time, this steady stream of dystopia that shapes our reality stirs in me an immense sadness when I imagine it as his future. “Sorry to involve you in all of this, my love,” I think as I gaze at him.

Brave was delivered via planned C-section due to complications from gestational diabetes and pre-eclamptic warnings. Despite the fact that it wasn’t an emergency surgery and that I hadn’t labored for some obscene amount of failed time beforehand, I still feel traumatized by the birth. That surgery is absolutely no joke—you’re lying immobile and temporarily paralyzed yet palpably vulnerable on a table, with 7 layers of your body, skin, and muscle cut open. A day later, I became hypertensive and a gamut of cardiac tests were run. I was put on a 24-hour magnesium sulfate IV treatment, nicknamed “MAG” by the nurses, to prevent hypertensive seizures. I was scared.

I’m still processing it. And, the truth is, I’m extremely fortunate to have received the care that I did and to have survived the process with a healthy baby. I can’t stop thinking about those who don’t have access to the care I had, or at all. As we know (or should know)—the maternal death rate is higher in the U.S. than any other wealthy nation and Black women especially suffer as they are more than 3 times more likely to die than white women. I was struck with this terrifying reminder, only after I had been through it myself, that pregnancy and labor are AN EXTREME MEDICAL RISK. A risk that can affect your health permanently. A risk whose total cost is upwards of $100,000 before insurance adjustments. Imagine the gamble for many—you either lose your life or any financial stability you may have had, if you had any at all.

After 38 weeks of pregnancy, my body is still not my own and won’t be for at least a year, should I be lucky enough to be able to breastfeed for as long as that. So far, so good—but I’m paranoid each day thinking about whether my supply is getting low, terrified of needing to rely on formula during a shortage (a whole other dystopian and unbelievable reality playing out simultaneously, as if things couldn’t get worse).

My time is also not my own. I am a self-employed artist/tradeswoman who managed, miraculously, to pay for her own 2-month maternity leave (which is far from enough), wondering how on Earth I will make work work when I haven’t come unlatched from this vulnerable being today for 4 1/2 hours. Just now, before I typed that sentence, I carefully placed my infant in a swing and by the time I finished the sentence he’s already fussing again, needing to be held. 

I keep thinking about those who will be FORCED to go through this risk, the physical and emotional trauma of pregnancy and labor, some having already experienced a trauma that put them in the situation to begin with. Some will get stuck in violent and abusive relationships while others will be targets and victims to those that feel killing is a better option than having a child. Many will die.

The turnback of Roe sets us on a fascist precipice where we may see the loss of other rights that prevent us from seeking and experiencing justice and community care, that which is ultimately necessary for the preservation of our ecosystems. This setback is inextricable to the other battlefields we find ourselves on today. A world without Roe means a world without equality in love and health, a world with more guns and violence, a world that continues to burn with fire and famine. A world without Roe is a world I don’t want for my child. There will come a time in my son’s development when he starts to ask me about the horrors and injustices of the world. If he’s anything like me, it will pain him to see it. How will I tell him? What does parenting look like in this new normal? 

I wanted to become a mother (in short) to join in love and creativity with my partner, to experience the world through my child’s eyes, to reconnect with my imagination and to nurture a caring human that will care for others. I am equal parts thrilled and terrified for my child to hold a mirror to me and cultivate the deepest reflection and growth of my life. I have had two abortions, both a choice and an experience along my personal journey towards my son.

Most recently, I received an abortion (a “D&C” or dilatation and curettage) as a result of my latest miscarriage in 2020. The procedure was necessary to ensure that all tissue was expelled, lest I suffer from sepsis. My first abortion was due to an accidental pregnancy by an emotionally abusive partner at the age of 18. Despite the fact that I am adopted, neither myself nor my mother saw carrying a child to term at that age the best choice for me or my future.

Meryl as a baby with her own mother.

My late mother adopted me after years of trying with heart disease. The doctors felt she couldn’t have kids in her condition. She and my father, a teacher and an ophthalmologist, had the means to adopt a baby if they wanted; to any agency, they were the “ideal” couple: young, white, and thriving in the 1980’s middle class. I certainly realize how well things worked out for me—I was given up at 18 weeks by a bipolar teenager who went on to become an addict and a drifter to a safe, loving, and privileged environment. Anti-abortion advocates make the infuriatingly played-out and inaccurate argument that “adoption is the answer.” They will say, “you’re lucky your birth mother ‘did the right thing’ and didn’t abort you.” It enrages me when adoptees who are anti-abortion act as if our experience is monolithic, saying “I’m so happy my birth mother ‘did the right thing,’ otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.”

Firstly, it is my belief that I, my consciousness or spirit, would have made it Earthside eventually. I don’t believe that had my birth mother aborted me, somehow my consciousness wouldn’t have existed. Secondly, the sad truth is that no more than 2% of Americans adopt, and for all the talk about adoption being the answer, it doesn’t seem to be the answer for the almost half a million kids in the system. It didn’t even end up being my answer during my struggles with conceiving, despite my background. Had my adoption been such an inspiration to me, my son wouldn’t exist today. How does Christian logic make sense of that? Adoption is only accessible to those with means. 

I happened to be luckier than the hundreds of thousands of children in foster care—I was born white and given up young. But my fate could have easily been like so many raised in poverty by a mother suffering from mental illness and addiction. “The right thing”? The only thing that’s right is what’s right for you. 

Of course I may be preaching to the choir here, repeating facts we already know. No closer to any clarity or security. My experience is just one in countless experiences that nuance our outlooks. What I do know is whether or not we made the choice to have kids and how, we all want a secure future for our children. It’s not just about abortion. The issue is so extensive and pervasive. It reaches so far into our private lives, our bodies, our DNA, and our futures that it feels insurmountable and insidious. How will we save ourselves? 

My son Brave has now transitioned from his contentment, bouncing and being, to hunger. I lift him out of his chair and start for the couch. I recently received my copy of Angela Garbes’ new book Essential Labor: Mothering As Social Change, and I’m excited to reach for it as I sit down for a feed, the initial sting of Brave’s latch at my nipple eventually subsiding, beginning to feel familiar and comfortable, this ritual working its way into balance in our daily life. 

Garbes’ beautiful depiction of motherhood against the backdrop of her Filipinx heritage and the story of her mother in the caregiving field is potent and powerful in ways I’m still trying to articulate. She defines motherhood by what it is not: “The terrain of mothering is not limited to the people who give birth to children, it is not defined by gender.” Garbes poetically argues for a future where the everyday labor of care work, in its many forms, is valued and treated with the respect it deserves. 

Mother is a synonym for care. For love. Mothering is a collective and communal action. A mother is a nurse, a mother is an activist, a mother is a teacher. A mother is a father. A mother is a mentor. There is a mother in us all, whether we are parents or not. It is “an action that includes people of all genders and non-parents alike.” 

I have been worried about so much. Balancing my new identity with the others—artist, curator, community leader—I value just as much. Worried about how I will support my child in these hostile times, if I can protect him from a hostile future. How can I make a difference in the world or be helpful at all when I don’t have time for anything other than breastfeeding and pumping? How can I support the mothers and non-mothers in my community? Again, what does parenting look like in this new normal?

Our collective rage can be channeled into embodied action—care—that has the power to heal ourselves and others. “This work can be our most consistent, embodied resistance to patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, and the exploitation that underlies American capitalism,” says Garbes.  

In other words: Mothering is Punk.  

Brave starts fussing during feeding. He hasn’t been feeling well, a stomach bug maybe? It’s all still guesswork for me at this point. My mother is no longer here to guide me on this journey. I rely on my in-laws, my community of mothers and non-mothers, and kind and helpful strangers on Instagram. I am thankfully inspired during this time to do the work of mothering and I feel less alone in terror and worry.

I bring him over my shoulder and tap his back for a burp. Despite the cliche, I need to focus on what I can control—the hours and minutes caring for this new life, which now feels radical. 

In Essential Labor, Garbes introduces us to Silvia Federici, founder of Wages for Housework, a grassroots campaign founded in the 1970’s to demand payment for care work, who wrote, “Everyday life is the primary terrain of social change.” 

I start to bounce Brave in my arms, falling into a steady rhythm that calms him and, I realize, me too. There is a lifetime in these moments. Right now, simply bouncing and being feels tremendously important. 


Meryl’s summer reading list:

We Organize to Change Everything: Fighting for Abortion Access and Reproductive Justice 
An urgent collection on losing Roe v. Wade, struggling to provide abortion across the Americas, and how we can rebuild a fighting movement for reproductive justice. Read the FREE e-book through Verso Books now.

Like A Mother and Essential Labor by Angela Garbes

Revolutionary Mothering: Love On The Frontlines by by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams
Inspired by the legacy of radical and queer black feminists of the 1970s and 1980s, this anthology centers around mothers of color and marginalized mothers’ voices.

I’ll Show Myself Out by Jesse Klein
A collection of essays that “explodes the cultural myths and impossible expectations around motherhood and explore the humiliations, poignancies, and possibilities of midlife.”

The New York Times list of books on the history of Roe v. Wade

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