B.J. Woodstein is a Swedish-to-English translator, writer, editor, lactation consultant, and doula, as well as an honorary professor in literature and translation at the University of East Anglia. Two of her most recent books are We’re Here! A Practical Guide to Becoming an LGBTQ+ Parent and The Portrayal of Breastfeeding in Literature. She especially enjoys translating children’s books, including The Summer of Diving by Sara Stridsberg, with illustrations by Sara Lundberg, and The Book That Did Not Want to be Read by David Sundin, with illustrations by Alexis Holmqvist, and she reads all her draft translations to her children, in order to get their input as the target audience. She lives with her wife and their two daughters, two cats and one dog in Norwich, England, and can be reached at www.bjwoodstein.com.
A few questions …
How do we create family?
To make a baby, of course, you need an egg, sperm and a uterus. But to make a family, you need nurturing and love. It doesn’t matter whose body the baby has grown in or how many genes you have in common; what matters is the way you engage with one another. I wake up grateful for another day with my wife and our children, and I’m always eager to see how we will relate to and play off one another on that particular day. My absolute favourite thing to do is to have one arm around each child and to hold them close, with my wife cuddled next to us; we belong together and we are a family unit. I only hope that the children will always feel the love their mothers have for them and that they will feel the connection between us, the close bond that makes us a family.
How does thinking about motherhood affect your identity?
Motherhood changed my entire career trajectory. Before we had the children, I was almost entirely focused on my job. I gave it most of my time and energy, and I conveniently ignored the fact that it didn’t love me back. Work is still an important part of my identity, but I came to realise that for me, the most vital role I could ever fulfil is that of mother. Due to having the children, I turned down a dream job when I realised the move it would require wouldn’t suit my daughters’ lives, and some years later, I left another job because it was negatively impacting on my and my family’s life, and I needed to put us first. I don’t resent the children for this, as some have suggested I would; indeed, I am so glad that having them forced me to reprioritise and to reconsider who I am and what truly matters to me.
What are the highlights of motherhood?
One of the most surprising highlights of motherhood for me has been breastfeeding. When I was first pregnant, I knew little about breastfeeding and I nonchalantly said I’d try it out but I wouldn’t be bothered if we swapped to formula; at the time, I was only vaguely aware that I myself had been breastfed. Little did I know that I would become so passionate about it that I’d battle through pain, illness, lack of medical knowledge and much more in order to give my children my milk and to form a physically nurturing bond with them. As of this writing, I have been breastfeeding for over 8.5 years, and it has been amazing to nourish them with both nutrients and love from my own body. Breastfeeding has been my not-so-secret weapon, the tool I’ve relied on to meet all sorts of needs from my children. It also inspired me so much that I eventually trained as a lactation consultant!
How can we better support mothers and parents?
We live in a society that doesn’t recognise the labour that parents, especially mothers, provide. Women are expected to give and to give and to not think of themselves, so we need to move towards making the world more family-friendly. Obvious suggestions include offering good-quality, low-cost day care for parents who wish to return to work or payment for parents who stay home to care for their children; providing safe spaces for people to go to with or without their children in order to get non-judgemental support with parenting; treating mothering as the meaningful role it is and giving parents more respect and help; and recognising that without mothers and children, society wouldn’t survive and would be meaningless. Teachers should be paid more than politicians or financial advisors or sports players, for instance, and that would send a message about how children – and therefore parents – are valued.
What has shaped your mothering or parenting philosophy?
I describe myself as an atheist Jew. I am not religious, but I am culturally and ethnically Jewish and I have been inspired by some of my ancestors’ traditions. For example, donating to charity (tzedakah) and healing the world (tikkun olam) are important aspects of Judaism, so my children regularly discuss the ways in which they are privileged, and they buy items to donate to food banks, and they choose to forgo having lots of presents for Hanukkah or their birthdays, instead supporting the work of their preferred organisations with that money. Education is also very important to many Jewish people, so my wife and I have consciously chosen to prioritise a good school and extracurricular activities that support our children’s development, and the girls themselves make active choices about how they want to spend their time. Raising ethical, independent, well-rounded, conscientious children is obviously important to most people, but for me, this stems from my Jewish background.
About your writing …
In your book ‘The Portrayal of Breastfeeding in Literature’ (Anthem Press: 2022), you write:
‘To use a cliche, a woman with a baby in literature is damned if she breastfeeds and also damned if she does not.’
How did you reach this conclusion?
These lines stood out for us too:
‘Many literary works show anxiety about mothering and being a good mother, which is understandable given the vast range of ideas and obligations our society seems to have for women; one dichotomy seems to be that women should both take care of children but also act as if they do not have children, and another can be said to be to both nourish children while also being sexually available to men.’
Please can you tell us more!
As time went on in my breastfeeding relationship with my children and I became more passionate about breastfeeding, I began to wonder why I so rarely saw breastfeeding depicted in literature, either for young readers or for adults. It’s part of life, so shouldn’t it be in books, too? As I spent years as an academic in literature, I decided to delve deeper into this topic and the result was a book I published in 2022, The Portrayal of Breastfeeding in Literature.
In the book, I explore many different aspects of how breastfeeding is described in both words and images in literature for different audiences and across languages/cultures, but unfortunately my findings were overwhelmingly rather negative. To me, this reflects the fact that breastfeeding is not well supported in our culture. Here in the UK, for example, breastfeeding rates are pretty low, and women are encouraged to hurry back to work and to their former lives, which can impact their breastfeeding relationships.
Something I claimed in the book is that ‘a woman with a baby in literature is damned if she breastfeeds and damned if she does not’, which sums up the catch-22 many mothers find themselves in, both in literature and in society at large. In many novels, I found that mothers were frequently judged, regardless of their choices. As motherhood is still seen as the highest (or perhaps only) calling for women, a mother is expected to put her child above all else. If she chooses not to breastfeed, she is judged as being a bad mother. How dare she be so selfish that she does not prioritise her child’s physical health and emotional well-being? What does she think her breasts are for, after all? And yet, if she does breastfeed, people are disgusted and disturbed. Why is she showing her breasts in public? Is she only breastfeeding for her own enjoyment? Doesn’t she realise her body is there to serve men and that she should put men’s pleasure in her sexualised breasts over a baby’s need for nutrition and nurturing?
Simply put, women can’t win, whatever we decide to do, which is perhaps why I’d advocate that mothers should make decisions about what works best for them, and try to ignore what others say to them (easier said than done, of course).
Similarly, in my research, I found that there was a huge amount of pressure on women to both give everything to their children but also to live as though they don’t have offspring. This is another impossible thing to achieve. Women are often encouraged to believe that if they are going to be successful, they need to live ‘like men’, or at least to be like the stereotypes that we have of men. For example, women should talk with deeper voices (not those high-pitched, girly ones that aren’t thought to sound authoritative) and we should work extra-long hours, never taking time off to see our kids’ shows at school or to care for them when they are ill. Men aren’t held back to the same extent by having children; they often carry on as before, their lives scarcely changing because of the new presence in their family. If men do get involved in a tangible, more public way, people praise them for picking up their kids from school, but meanwhile, they frown at women who do so, assuming she’s not dedicated to her job. We just don’t respect motherhood in our society, not in all its fullness, diversity and complexity. Motherhood is treated as something other, rather than as something that is one aspect of a woman, the way fatherhood is accepted as just one aspect – often a lesser one – of a man.
A woman who has a baby is pressured by our society to ‘get her body back’ and lose the pregnancy weight as soon as possible, to start having sex (with her presumed male partner) within two months of birth, to return to caring for the household and to her job quickly, and so on. But equally, she is expected to dote on her child, to ‘enjoy every minute’, to never forget ‘how fast time passes’, and to give all her energy and passion to raising her family. You can’t both be one-hundred percent dedicated to your work and one-hundred percent dedicated to your children, and never mind having some time to yourself. The expectations on women are enormous and completely impossible to meet.
I think in literature and in life more broadly, there are a lot of preconceived ideas about what a mother is, and more specifically about the concept of a ‘good mother’. This is quite limiting and can make it challenging for women to find their own way forward as parents. If I could be so bold as to give advice – appreciating that I am an imperfect human being who fails on a daily basis – it would be for people to try to ignore all these voices and ideas to whatever extent they can, and to try focus on who they truly want to be. What does being a mother look and feel like to you? How do you want to relate to your child/children? Your mother isn’t living your life, your partner isn’t living your life, your best friend isn’t living your life, your boss isn’t living your life, society isn’t living your life – only you are. It’s not worth desperately trying to please everyone and to become the ideal person, because that is never going to happen.
Personally, I want my children to know they are loved and adored, and I want to be as present as possible in their lives. But also, for both financial and personal reasons, I want and need to work, and I think it’s important for my daughters to see that there are many facets to my personality and to my life. It isn’t easy to balance everyone’s needs, and I don’t always get it right, and I do sometimes feel judged by other people, whether it’s for not being a stay-at-home parent or for giving up on a supposedly important job, among many other things. Frankly, all these judgements do sometimes make me criticise myself, and that’s painful.
I’d love to see more literary works that depict this struggle honestly, rather than focusing on the supposed dichotomy between good and bad mothers and highlighting the unachievable expectations on women. We’re all just doing our best, in a challenging world, and we need support rather than criticism, encouragement rather than anxiety.
More on motherhood …
When a family member found out that I had a girlfriend (and not the boyfriend she’d imagined), she was quite taken aback. A bit later in that conversation, she said to me, ‘People like you don’t have kids.’ When she announced that, it was my turn to be surprised at how our conversation was going. I wasn’t sure what a person like me was. Did she mean queer people don’t have kids, or that people who work hard don’t have kids, or that people who had left their native countries don’t have kids, or atheists don’t have kids, or what? What sort of person did she think I was and why would it impact on my choice to have children or not? Because she had made the comment in the context of our discussion about my sexuality, I have always assumed that she was referring to that, and I was offended and hurt. People like me most certainly do have children.
For me, my queerness is inextricably linked to my being a mother, both the fact that I chose to have children and the way in which I parent. Like many people, I longed to have children; it was both a physical and an emotional desire. But because it was never going to happen naturally, my wife and I had to extensively discuss it and consciously choose to become mothers. Once we’d made that decision, there were many further choices to ponder in regard to how we wanted to go about doing it. I enjoyed all the conversations we had and felt I learned a lot about myself in the process; I even came to think how lucky we were that, despite the lack of sperm in our relationship, we had so many options for how to create our family.
Our daughters know how they were created; we don’t believe in hiding information from them and we answer all questions from them (and their friends, when appropriate) in a matter-of-fact and open way. Besides a basic knowledge of anatomy and procreation and legislation, the key message our children seem to have taken from our honest conversations, much to my pleasure, is that they are very wanted and extremely loved children. They were not accidents who we reluctantly decided to keep and parent; we actively sought to create them, and we spent a lot of time, effort, money and emotion on it. They seem to delight in their own importance, telling us that they made us mothers and they improved our lives immeasurably, and they sometimes roll their eyes jokingly and say, ‘We know you love us more than anything! You’ve told us loads of times!’
As a mother, I feel that my queerness has a lot of benefits. My wife and I, as noted, did a lot of thinking before we had kids, and this forced us to reckon with our own childhoods, as well as to explore how we might want to parent. We both grew up in traditional, relatively conservative homes in which we seldom discussed our feelings or perspectives, and we have actively sought to use different techniques and approaches in our mothering. For instance, bedsharing, extended breastfeeding, babywearing, the aforementioned dedication to candidness, an inclination to challenge societal beliefs and stereotypes, the willingness to speak up on our children’s and other people’s behalf as needed, a focus on empathy and compassion and an acceptance of the diversity of humankind, and an emphasis on quality family time are all things we have chosen to do or to concentrate on in our household and I would argue that these decisions stem to a certain extent from our experiences growing up ‘different’. Even though particular aspects of my life have been difficult because of my queerness, I believe this has made me stronger, and I like to think that I’m a better person and a better mother for it.
Also, although this was not my guiding principle in choosing to become a mother, I’ll admit that there was a small part of me that enjoyed the idea of proving people wrong. This included both people like my relative, who made the assumption that queer people wouldn’t have kids, but also all the people around the world who believe that we shouldn’t do so. There are so many people out there who look upon LGBTQ+ folks with disgust or fear, or who actively work to keep us from having equal rights or access to marriage, health care, fertility treatment, the opportunity to foster or adopt, and more. There has been this naughty little voice inside me saying, ‘Let’s show them! They’ll soon realise how great LGBTQ+ people can be at parenting. They’ll see that they had erroneous misconceptions about us.’ Indeed, academic research into queer parenting has shown that we queers are just as good, and sometimes even better, at raising children than our heterosexual, cisgender counterpoints. Obviously, it’s not a competition, but it is powerful to learn that our children are less likely to be bound to gender stereotypes or to feel limited in their choices for their future. Our children see us, two women, taking care of everything in the household and forging careers, so they have no preconceived notions that men do one thing and women something else. They are aware that some people believe this, but as far as they see in practice, everyone – including children – needs to help with laundry or cooking or taking the dog for a walk or sorting out bicycles or the car. Our children see for themselves that families come in many different formats and that everyone plays an important role in the family. When I hear prejudiced or ignorant comments from others, I think about how much more knowledgeable and accepting children can be, and I’m grateful that families like mine exist so we can help change society for the better.
A different relative cautioned me that I shouldn’t be out at work; the concern was that I would be disliked and misunderstood and not promoted. I countered – through my words during the conversation, and through my actions ever since – that I was never going to be ashamed of or silent about who I am, and I certainly wouldn’t want to send such messages to my children. I am proud of all that my wife and I have been through and accomplished on our journey to becoming and being mothers. We’re queer mothers, and yes, people like us most certainly have kids.