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What It Means to Mother
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What it Means
to Mother

Illustrations by Shanée Benjamin

HBO’s new show The Baby explores motherhood in all its absurd (and often comedic) complexities, reflecting a world in which the concept of motherhood has never been more malleable.

The word family, even in our modern era, likely conjures an image of a woman and a man, both with distinctly gendered roles and responsibilities in parenting. But over the years, as people’s lived realities have expanded to include a wide variety of lifestyles, preferences, and household arrangements, the definitions of family and parenting have evolved dramatically.

Despite these shifts in perception, there’s one word that continues to bear the brunt of societal prejudices and judgment: mother. Flattened to a singular identity as soon as they are tasked with child-rearing, mothers are often relegated to moral and ethical binaries: good or bad, respectable or irresponsible, conventional or radical. Mainstream cultural touchpoints such as sitcoms, Disney films, and rom-coms have bolstered this misconception (some scholars would argue that they helped create it).

Films, television, and art have begun to tackle the complexities of motherhood, peeling away at the stifling facade. For its part, HBO’s new series The Baby wields surrealism and horror in its interrogation and reimagining of motherhood. The show follows a motley group of people whose lives are upended by their personal decision to have children or not. Although it tackles the realities of parenting (including tough topics like infertility and child abandonment), the series makes room for the bumbling mistakes and slapstick moments that come with raising a child, infusing every story with dark humor and unexpected twists. The Baby looks at motherhood from a multitude of vantage points and explores what it means to mother today.

I Mothering while Black

Natasha, a single Black woman and The Baby’s main character, is a part of the increasingly large subsection of the population that is rejecting parenting completely. According to a recent study at least 44 percent of Americans do not want to ever have children, up from 37 percent in 2018. (Rising costs of child care, climate change anxiety, and a generalized worry about the state of the world rank as high concerns.) For the majority of the series, viewers watch as Natasha’s life morphs into an almost fun-house reality when she’s tasked with taking care of an orphaned child. During a particularly desperate moment, she places the unwanted baby in a picturesque cornfield far from her home and walks away, only to return following a crisis of conscience.

Although Natasha is uninterested in motherhood, some of the most pivotal moments in The Baby are those she shares with her own mother, Barbara, who left while her daughter was young to build a life that allowed her to be more than a parent. Their scenes together are fraught with accusations and pain, but they also carry some of the most tender conversations in the show. Eschewing her motherly duties, Barbara chose a hermit existence and found contentment in silence and isolation.

“I think that there’s an immense pressure and responsibility for birthing people to be this all-encompassing, always available emotionally and mentally, extremely nurturing, extremely patient and present person all the time, no matter what,” shares Summaya Franklin, a doula and midwife. In the strained interactions between Barbara and Natasha, The Baby allows space for viewers to empathize with both women while tracing the generational impact endured by those left to find their own way.

Natasha longs for closeness and yet finds herself pulling away and lashing out, while her mother struggles with feelings of guilt for finding joy at the expense of her daughter’s emotional well-being. Natasha was also left to raise herself and her younger sister, leading her to view motherhood as a grating imposition.

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The cyclical traumas at play in this dynamic are made even more apparent in the relationship between Natasha and her best friend, Mags, a new mother whose fears and paranoias lie just below the surface of performative new-mom bliss. Through uncomfortable pauses during conversations with other new parents on playdates, and in Mags’s own hesitation to share her true feelings, viewers see the layered emotions that accompany parenting as a Black woman. That includes the heightened fear of judgment from others, paired with the lack of mental health support that leaves many feeling simultaneously hypervisible and deeply overlooked.

While Mags is the only Black woman with a child in the show, The Baby’s examination of the challenges of Black motherhood is one of its boldest narratives. We see Mags unable to find a confidant with whom to share how physically and emotionally life-changing pregnancy was, and we watch as she desperately tries to hold on to her life pre-baby while being a committed mother. Whether she’s comically protective of her son’s toy or cooing him to sleep and completely losing track of conversations, Mags laughs through the pain, and the series dares the audience to join in. As observers, we see how easily a baby’s needs take over a life, submerging new parents under responsibilities, expectations, and pressures that they attempt to joke their way through.

For Shannon Boodram, a certified sexologist and host of the podcast Lovers and Friends, having a child was something she simply thought was “not meant” for her. Throughout her life, she had never experienced what she calls “a tingling in her ovaries”—the natural urge to procreate that women of child-rearing age might begin to have.

“It was after I read a book called The Art of Living which talked about two types of mothering—mothers who have babies because they want the love of a child, and those who have babies because they want to love an adult—that my perception shifted,” Boodram says. The latter point deeply resonated with Boodram, and it stayed with her as her thoughts on parenting grew and shifted. “I’m not a baby person,” she says. “I never have been, and I’m still not a baby person, but I do want to give someone an opportunity at a great life as an adult.” Boodram now has a child, but she’s not alone in reshaping parenting to suit her understanding of raising and supporting a life.

On her podcast, Boodram facilitated discussions about the hardships of motherhood with new mothers and maternal experts, and she shared her struggles during pregnancy including the effects that her new mothering responsibilities had on both her mental health and physical being. Her transparency is rare and necessary—many Black women with children suffer in plain sight as they juggle their past and present selves. The Baby’s Mags is searching for a space to have candid conversations on the drastic changes that come with mothering, and she finds her friends ill-prepared to understand or support her. Natasha expects Mags to be the same person she was before pregnancy, and doesn’t grasp how the acts of childbirth and child-rearing reach far beyond pregnancy and creep into every aspect of one’s being.

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Black women face myriad obstacles when it comes to optimal maternal health, including health care practitioners, social workers, law enforcement and even close friends and family. Countless reports along with first-person stories from high-profile Black women such as Serena Williams, have revealed how poorly Black women are treated during pregnancy, leading to high rates of maternal death. Even as these medical biases become more widely discussed, they have not come with corresponding systemic change—Black women are still less likely to receive adequate prenatal care compared to white women and are three times more likely to die during childbirth no matter their income or level of education.

It’s a topic that Chanel Porchia-Albert, doula and founder of Ancient Song Doula Services, is particularly keen to tackle. “Black maternal health has really become a buzzword, and for good reasons,” says Porchia-Albert. And while maternal mortality is an urgent reality Porchia-Albert understands, she believes it does not approach Black maternal care in a holistic manner. She urges health professionals and community caregivers to offer resources and opportunities for education so that Black mothers are better prepared to take on the challenge of parenting. As Porchia-Albert puts it, “What does it mean for us to look at data of the living instead of talking about Black death?”

II Mothering while Queer

Queer parents face unique challenges in parenting and motherhood and are more heavily scrutinized for their choices than their cisgender counterparts are. In The Baby, a queer couple eager to have a child faces complex legal barriers to simply be seen as fit parents. During a moment when queer children and their parents are facing increased surveillance in the United States, this is a timely arc.

In the show, the couple is so eager to impress a stone-faced child-welfare representative that they turn to performing magic routines. Their rehearsals add levity to an otherwise stressful journey, and the audience feels the couple’s desperate desire to parent and witnesses the ways laughter and whimsy keeps them going.

Josie Rodriguez-Bouchier, a fertility expert who specializes in the wellness and health of LGBTQ families, is intimately familiar with the realities of parenting as a queer couple—a challenge that begins long before a child arrives in the home, and continues throughout a family’s life together. From the colors chosen for birthing announcements to the toys purchased for playtime, the binary of gender has defined so much of how children are raised. Rodriguez-Bouchier chooses to offer a more expansive outlook on gender identity: “Recently I’ve been talking to my kiddos a lot about myself and my gender and coming out as nonbinary, and they’re fascinated by it,” they say. “They also get it right away, because it’s not hard to understand.” Rodriguez-Bouchier’s nine-year-old has even begun crossing out the word girl with a black permanent marker and replacing it with the word kids.

“I’m lucky in a way that when I came out as queer and then nonbinary, my kids were a little older,” they share. “And once you are aware of how gendered everything is, then you just see it everywhere, and it is astounding.”

III Mothering while Incarcerated

The intentional focus on self as part of the approach to parenting is a perspective shared by Franklin, the doula and midwife. She is particularly concerned with the experiences of those who have children while incarcerated.

At a police station, where she tried to leave the child that literally fell into her arms, The Baby’s Natasha is detained without any clear reason. Although she’s lucid and direct with the officers regarding the child’s absurd arrival into her life, Natasha’s mental state is called into question. Her detainment lasts through the night.

While Natasha’s interactions with law enforcement are more hapless than overtly dangerous, these scenes pose compelling questions about the experiences of real-life Black women and caregivers whose search for assistance is met with incompetence at best and violence at worst. The U.S. has the second highest number of incarcerated women in the world, and a disproportionate number of these women are Black and Indigenous and face increased risk of anxiety, sexual trauma, and depression. When it comes to seeing their children, incarcerated women face serious challenges to visitation, including barriers to transportation: Fewer female prisons often means that families are forced to travel a greater distance to see their mothers. Children can also be placed in foster care even if they have living family (a reality that largely affects Black women).

Release from prison doesn’t guarantee that mothers will reconnect with or support their children: Formerly incarcerated people face steep biases while securing a job, housing instability, and continued state surveillance. The realities of motherhood behind bars can result in serious trauma for children and their parents.

IV Motherhood and Humanity

The Baby doesn’t offer any easy resolutions and successfully resists the inclination to cast its characters as villains or heroes. Instead, the series picks apart the anxieties that drive personal choices and points a finger at ingrained social expectations that expose society’s distaste for individuals’ personal choices. The show suggests there is always more behind the term bad mother—a realization that Natasha reaches while laying her ghosts to rest. In doing so, she reaches a higher understanding of the many types of birthing people around her—those who chose children, those who did not, and those who, like herself, are still trying to decide.