By Therí A. Pickens
A few vignettes:
1) I watched the live tweets when Tamar Braxton and Vincent Herbert interviewed surrogates. The twitterverse was ablaze with consternation as to why Tamar would be so “selfish” and not “have the baby herself” since “she knows she could.”
2) I'm aware that in some cases pregnant women qualify for maternity leave because it falls under the parameters for short-term disability.
3) I got onto a train recently and had to sit in the aisle with my scooter since the disabled persons’ seating was taken up by a couple with a baby. (See full blog post here.)
4) I noticed that there is only one handicapped stall in the women’s bathroom at my church. In that stall is the only diaper changing station.
It occurred to me that these vignettes have one particular thread in common. They pit disabled women against abled women. They pit women in general against the disabled in general. Each scenario seems to position the needs and desires of one group as incompatible with the needs and desires of the other. Is it a zero-sum game with regard to surrogates? Only those who are incapable can use surrogates? Is it absolutely necessary to have only one place to fill the needs of parents and the disabled? Why might one privilege his/her/zie’s parenting needs above another’s mobility needs? Why do we conflate disability and pregnancy or define the latter according to the logics of the former?
The assumed incompatibility facilitates ableism and misogyny becoming mutually constitutive and fortifying each other. To mandate that Tamar Braxton carry her child, despite the fact that her body and image are her product, falsely positions motherhood as a pinnacle achievement. Given the fraught history of black motherhood, expecting Tamar to even want motherhood asks her to reinscribe herself into a paradigm our foremothers fought like hell to get us out of. Hello rock! It also unfairly characterizes her as selfish for wanting to protect the body and the voice that make her lifestyle possible. It assumes that the ability to carry a child equals necessity of having one. Conversely, disability gets figured as selfish in this paradigm as well. As the opposite of ability, it would correlate to a lack of necessity in having one – rendering the phrase “disabled mother” oxymoronic. Hello hard place!
As I think about when and where we enter and who enters with us, I find it important to examine how the logics of privilege and –isms work. Because they tend to be based on the same logics, they function well together. Their logical compatibility constructs and perpetuates the seeming incompatibility between oppressed groups. The end result is a set of discourses that ensnare and entangle everyone fighting against them. Divided and conquered?
What these vignettes show me is that the thought of incompatibility is ingrained in our infrastructure. From the institution of the twitterverse (yeah I said it) to maternity leave, we have promulgated the idea that womanhood and disability are fundamentally opposed and only reliant upon each other when necessary for continuing ableist and misogynist ideology. We have to take the diaper changing station out of the disability stall. Obey train personnel and posted signs. Get actual maternity leave rather than short-term disability leave. And, yes, protect Tamar Braxton’s uterus if need be.
Therí A. Pickens is an assistant professor of English at Bates College and a contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE.