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An Interview with Amanda Montei on Touched Out

Motherhood radicalized me

A. Montei, Touched Out, 89

Amanda Montei is the author of Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control, which came out in 2023. In this memoir which blends personal recollections with cultural analysis, Montei documents how motherhood triggered a radical personal reckoning. After she gave birth to her first daughter, Montei explains that she began to completely question the assumptions which had guided her life, with regards to her role as a woman within a patriarchal culture. Like Adrienne Rich before her, she realised that she was struggling to meet the impossible expectations heaped upon women by the institution of motherhood: expectations to be constantly available to her children as well as her husband, to put her desires after those of her family, etc. Like Eliane Glaser and Lucy Jones, Montei had fallen prey to the ideology of perfect motherhood which sets women up for failure by holding them to unrealistic standards. Beset by guilt and an overwhelming desire to fight back for her autonomy, she finds herself recoiling from her children’s, as well as her husband’s need for her touch. She is “touched out”, desperate to set up some sort of boundary between her body and those of her loved ones.

I began to wonder about the connection between how women were feeling in motherhood and the larger culture of assault in which we had all grown up.

A. Montei, Touched Out, 6

Montei’s take on contemporary motherhood is infused with the debates which have taken hold of our culture over misogyny, consent, and the commodification of women’s bodies. Looking back to her past, and particularly to her history of substance abuse and nonconsensual sexual encounters, Montei explores the idea that the ideology of perfect motherhood is connected with rape culture, as both suppose that the female body should be available at all times. As she struggles to make some time for herself and for her professional activities while resisting her family’s claims for her presence and her attention, she is reminded of how, as a young adult, she used to cave to the pressure of men’s desire of her body. We struck up a conversation after I read the book, and I was eager to know more about her ideas on what it means to mother in a patriarchal culture.


Alice Braun: What have been the reactions to your book, and more particularly to the connection you made between contemporary parenting and rape culture? Have you met with hostility from readers and reviewers (I’m thinking here of the reactions to Rachel Cusk’s memoir in the early 2000s)

Amanda Montei: Whenever I read the criticisms of Cusk’s A Life’s Work, I’m stunned all over again at what she had to put up with and how difficult that must have been for her. I haven’t received any hostility from any serious readers of the book. Many many women have contacted me with notes of gratitude, and to say that they’ve always felt connections between different periods of their lives, but couldn’t quite name how or why until the read the book.

It’s been quite surprising to me to see, however, how dangerous the Right thinks it is to connect these two ideological and cultural areas—rape culture and the institution of motherhood—because of course they share an architecture. They are both belief systems about who and what women’s bodies are for.

After an excerpt of my book was published at The Guardian, the alt right commentator Matt Walsh shared the piece, which led to some nasty harassment from people who were either bots or who obviously hadn’t read the book or even the full excerpt of the book. After that, an article was published at the conservative publication The Federalist. That piece, which mentioned the excerpt of my book that appeared at The Guardian, claimed there had been too much feminist writing recently on mothers regretting their children’s existence—or something like that. Of course, the excerpt I published was not at all about maternal regret, but rather about the complex interiority of one mother trying to work out all the ways her body had been used over the course of a lifetime.

The Federalist piece, however, also referenced Merritt Tierce’s stunning essay the abortion she didn’t have and another article on married women who have abortions—two pieces of writing I admire, and that I feel are crucial for, again, establishing this idea that maternal subjectivity and women’s relationships to consent and autonomy are complex and precarious. The conservative writer’s effort to connect all these very different pieces betrays, I think, what’s really going on here—what the fear is for conservatives (and we even see this from more progressive writers) when women speak openly about their experiences of motherhood or sexuality, which is that we might encourage other women to trouble or disrupt the economic institutions of motherhood and marriage. It all proved to me, in other words, one central thesis in my book—which is that women’s bodies are expected to serve men and children, not have any sort of identity to themselves.

What have been the books about motherhood that have inspired you the most? Did you read many motherhood memoirs when you were writing your own? Or do you wish you had read more realistic representations of motherhood in order to prepare for your own experience of it?

There are so many, and I read across genres, so it’s always hard to pin down the books that inspired a project the most. But I read many memoirs about motherhood when I began this book, from Cusk to Angela Garbes. I was fascinated by the emerging genre, but also the roots contemporary writing on motherhood have in confessional poetry and feminist art. As I got further into the process of writing, I spent more time with the texts I cite in the book. Since my background as an academic is in the literature and art of women’s work, I had many complex representations of motherhood on hand before I had my first child. I had read lots of Marxist feminist theory and feminist revisions of psychoanalysis. In some ways, that prepared me, but in other ways, I had to really experience motherhood in my own cultural and social (and financial!) context to make sense of how the experience uprooted my identity and my life.

Do you think contemporary feminism equips women with the sufficient tools to deal with the experience of motherhood? Or do you think it has failed mothers?

I don’t think the lack of tools or understanding can or should be placed on contemporary feminism—although of course that’s a tricky phrase. Commercialized white feminism is of course quite different from more radical perspectives, and not all of us grow up reading those Marxist feminist perspectives or French feminism or Black feminists texts on kinship. Women have been writing about motherhood for a long time, and finally, it seems some of these ideas are trickling into the mainstream. We see so much more discussion now of things like “mental load” and “unpaid labor” and even misogyny. Some of this is watered down or has otherwise been altered by capitalism, and I think we need to remain attentive to the limits of both empowerment discourse and individualism (which are perhaps one in the same). But it’s encouraging to at least see the conversations around gender, equity, and motherhood expanding.

In general, though, these conversations are almost exclusively geared toward women. I think men need to play a much bigger role in parenting conversations. We’re seeing a push now to get men more involved in domestic equality, but men still rarely appear in professional childcare settings. Of course our medical system and social services are also really lacking in terms of research and postpartum care—those are the systems that consistently fail mothers because culturally and politically we still aren’t really listening to feminists. As I argue in the book, however, this has a lot to do with who benefits from keeping women quiet, docile, and working at home for free.

I started to think more carefully about what I had been taught about my body, about desire, about the right I felt I did or did not have to limits and to pleasure. And that’s what led me into this book.

Amanda Montei

Also you make an interesting point about the “sex positivity” that was promised by feminists in the 2000s and 2010s and how it participated in planting in women’s brains the idea that they could fashion their sexuality based on men’s sexuality. Could you expand a little bit on how the experience of motherhood led you to reconsidering this concept?

I think that’s generally how we interpreted sex positivity in that era—and again, I think this comes back to the way in which feminist theory gets watered down as it circulates culturally. But another reason this remains an issue is because we continue to try to patch up an inherently and structurally misogynist culture with our individual behavior. So this idea that we can liberate ourselves sexually by just embracing sex and pleasure is missing how power circulates between men and women— and really all the complications of desire in a patriarchal society.

I think I revisited my girlhood when I became a mother because I had a daughter, and I had to really begin thinking about the kind of life I was living and what that was teaching her. But I also became a mother right around the time the Me Too movement was gaining ground. Navigating questions of consent and autonomy in my own home—when and how I would make my body available, what right I had to set boundaries in motherhood and marriage—while also being implicitly invited by the movement to consider more honestly the sexual experiences I had growing up, that was all a strange and yet necessary confluence of events. I started to think more carefully about what I had been taught about my body, about desire, about the right I felt I did or did not have to limits and to pleasure. And that’s what led me into this book.

Where do you think the new fads around natural childbirth, mandatory breastfeeding, attachment parenting mostly peddled by women themselves, come from?

A lot of this comes from attachment science, which as I discuss in the book has taken on a kind of biblical significance not only in parenting philosophy, but also in the world of dating and romance. But of course, it’s complicated—natural childbirth movements, for example, are often understood as a resistance to the medicalization of birth, which sees women’s bodies as inherently broken or in need of male expertise. And yet interestingly, intensive mothering and the parenting advice industry is somewhat the continuation of this, and these schools of thoughts also often imply that mothers need the voice of experts to guide them.

The more we parent in isolation and without community, too, the more we are in need of help, and with the spread of the internet coaching and social media, there’s now a whole industry of, yes, mostly women, hawking advice and programs to other mothers. I’ve written before about the disaster capitalist aspect of all this.

I have been exploring the idea that one of the reasons why mothers find it so difficult to write after they have become mothers has to do with the fact that they can’t fit their reality within the cultural script of what an artist should be like: male, detached from others around him, unconstrained by responsibilities, the “art monster”. What do you think about this?

Could not agree more! This is something I talk with mother writers about constantly in my work as a writing teacher. We have this image of the male genius, who is unfettered by domestic duties, by caregiving, often even by editing his own work. It’s impossible to create those conditions when you have an infant, or a toddler, or even a teenager, unless you are able to leave your children for long stretches of time. So often, as we see in narratives like The Lost Daughter, that’s the alternative narrative: this longing to completely escape.

One of the things I embrace in my teaching is the idea of writing with and around interruption. We talk about how this might alter our understanding not just of artistic practice—what it looks and feels like, how and where it happens— but also what our finished work looks like. Of course, what’s challenging about that is that the artistic market isn’t always on board with this experimentation, and there are still expectations for most artists that we appear as some ideal cultural worker, constantly laboring.

One of the central questions I explore in my book is the complication between the world we live in, which is constantly posing us and telling us how to love and work, and the desire for a world untouched by all of that. The latter is an impossibility, as the poet Alice Notley writes, it’s like trying to imagine the beginning of the world. But as I write in the book, I think it’s still a worthy project—to try to find the line between what we actually want or hope for, and what we’ve been taught will make us good.



Cite this blog post
Alice Braun (2024, March 6). An Interview with Amanda Montei on Touched Out. Mothers and writers. Retrieved June 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vyqp

By Alice Braun

Maîtresse de conférences en anglais à l’université Paris Nanterre/Senior lecturer in English at the Paris Nanterre university.

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