by Amanda Montei
Beacon Press (2023); 256 pp.; $25.99 (Hardcover)Buy Book
Amanda Montei has a devoted following, and I count myself as part of her fan club. Her critical voice represents many mothers’ struggles to balance work, care, art, and ambition with overwhelming physical and emotional pressures. Whether writing about being a pandemic “wine mom,” or the linguistics of baby talk, her work focuses on America’s misogynistic culture of control over women’s bodies and choices. In her most recent book, Touched Out (Beacon Press, 2023), Montei reveals the rickety architecture of modern motherhood by tracing her experiences of bodily coercion and shame.
In Touched Out, Montei unpacks the intersection of consent, caregiving, and motherhood in America. With a combination of memoir, feminist theory, and cultural criticism, her sharp eye and nuanced writing highlight the hidden and overt connections between pleasure, choice, refusal, relief, and the feeling of powerlessness in motherhood. Meeting the post-pandemic, post-Roe moment, Montei’s book begs us to push back against antiquated systems designed to keep women at home, silent and suffering. Touched Out offers a reckoning and a resolution; Montei’s words will help women stitch themselves whole.
I had the great privilege of chatting with Montei this summer about care work, consent, and finding our place in motherhood. Our interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Natalie Serianni: You trace the idea of being touched out through sexual experiences, birth’s demands on our bodies, the struggle of new motherhood, and later becoming open to our children. The definition you give, from a 2016 La Leche League article, describes being touched out as, “claustrophobic, anxious, and guilt[y] over feeling irritated by your loved ones.” You insist that this is a much larger problem: American motherhood and care work consume women. How can we center women’s needs and desires to find more space in motherhood?
Amanda Montei: I love that you brought in that La Leche League quotation. Just within that description, it’s clear that when someone says they’re feeling touched out, there’s a lot going on: shame, confusion, a feeling of being trapped or stuck or consumed. Then there’s the way this cocktail of feelings is interpreted, and what we’re told to do with it.
When it comes to maternal mental health, the tendency is to look toward individual solutions, whether that’s normalizing a common struggle or creating a line of products—consumerist or pharmaceutical—meant to help us feel better. I’m hesitant to offer individual solutions to a political problem. Finding space, as mothers, requires systemic support and more men getting involved in childcare.
NS: Being touched out is more than physical. You say, it’s “women’s bodies sounding an alarm bell,” of brokenness, betrayal, and burnout. It means too much. I felt completely touched out this summer, and I don’t have young kids anymore. Can you say more about why we feel this way with older kids?
AM: I’m interested in how domestic sounds, images, internalized misogyny, and the pressure to perform feminine traits like pleasure-giving and niceness affect our bodies. How women react or respond to the infinite, and often very conflicting, demands they experience when they become parents. I had one reader share with me that as her child has gotten older, the feeling didn’t go away, it just morphed. Now she listens to her child describe every detail of the video games they love. It’s kind of a funny anecdote, but also, it’s a symptom of a culture that positions mothers as affective trash cans for children and men. It’s exhausting.
This exhaustion has only been heightened by the internet. Now we all carry these voices inside our heads about how to be a good mom, how not to fuck up our children forever. There’s a little Dr. Becky inside all of us, or some other person reminding us about some theory about attachment.
NS: The beginning of this book centers on the birth of your oldest child and discovering how closely linked that birth was to your past experiences with men. How did reflecting on and re-examining your relationship with your own and others’ bodies bring wisdom?
AM: As I moved into motherhood, I did rethink my own sexual life, and this is what I get into in the book. I was particularly thrown by the apparent assumption that I would surrender everything for my child. I didn’t really have a model for surrendering, as bell hooks put it, as a form of love. I had only this experience of submission, of performance, of effacing myself to bring others pleasure. When we surrender to another—or to love, or to care work—we are not allowing ourselves to be dominated, while submission requires us to sublimate our desires, our sense of self, our intuition, so that we can be dominated by another person. Submission is part of the model of power we have in the West—this idea that power means power over. I think there’s more power to be found in figuring out how to be together and care for each other.
NS: You say, “If there was any way in which childbirth turned me into a mother, it was in this first encounter with failure and resistance.” It’s not just how birth prepares us to become mothers, but how it hints at what’s to come. How can we continue to change the narrative, the story about motherhood?
AM: I am speaking to that tendency to frame childbirth as a proving ground for what’s to come for us as parents, which I find problematic. There are many wonderful parents who are not gestational parents, and this belief that birthing bodies are the most powerful, superhuman bodies only sets us up for the story that follows—that women are superhuman and therefore can naturally care for children in impossible cultural and political conditions. But one way in which childbirth did sort of start my story as a mother was that I began to notice that my relationship with my children required that I both resist the institution of motherhood—these sets of beliefs and ideals about who and what women’s bodies are for—and accept that I would fail at that again and again.
I think the simplest way to change the narrative of motherhood is to continually consider the narratives that are most pervasive culturally and politically. We need to consider, also, what aspects of our experiences replicate the expectation that women are born to be used, to be run into the ground, to be violated, and what aspects of our experiences provide openings for us to play around with or refuse or rewrite the story, not just for ourselves, but with our children, and with those in our communities.
NS: You write about the pleasure of early motherhood, where our sense of pleasure shifts to babies, and how closely these “hormone highs” resemble those of your adulthood when we are often so concerned with chasing pleasure and finding ways to bring pleasure to our bodies. Motherhood, breastfeeding, and care work can be, as artist Mary Kelly said, “yes, sensual.” It’s a powerful love affair with your child that takes hold. It’s both, as you mention, a “surprise and an allowance.” Can you tell us more about your unfolding as a new mother, and how you continue to find pleasure in and foster love with your children as they grow older?
AM: I get so much pleasure from my children, which we’re not supposed to say, because there’s this whole cultural tradition of policing women who either love their children too much or not enough.
Yes, I found breastfeeding sensual and pleasurable, and this was because it was very consensual at first. It was something I wanted, and my children wanted. For many, that’s not the case, because there’s so much cultural pressure to feed or to balance feeding with other work, paid or unpaid. For me, over time, as I lost control over my professional and personal life, breastfeeding, and other aspects of parenting, felt less consensual, which changed the experience quite a bit.
Now, I find myself most connected to my children when I feel like I, and they, have autonomy and independence in other areas of life. There’s this whole idea that it’s terribly sad that children get older and move away from us, and certainly, there is grief in watching children enter a world that is scary and violent. But I think there’s also a lot of joy and delight in watching children become their own people. My kids teach me new things all the time, and it’s such a wonder to watch them become so wise and creative. Just this morning, I was telling my youngest, who is five, that they’ve been trying so hard in kindergarten, and I’m so proud, and they corrected me, “Everyone is always trying hard, mommy!” My kids keep me in check.
NS: You say that care “rewires our brain, alters skeletal structures, destroys lower backs, jumbles emotions, digs out memories. The work teaches us to explore old wounds and preconceptions as we try to make something new with and for our children.” The goal might not be to become a mother, per se, but to, “learn how to mother, to care for oneself while caring for another.” Can you talk about a few ways writing this book has helped you learn to mother yourself, as you mother your children?
AM: Yes, writing this book was a process of excavation, or a purging, or an exorcism. Maybe all books are. But for me, a woman taught to feel ashamed of what others had done to me, placing some of the sources of shame I carried on the page allowed me to see them in a new light.
I think what’s different about this book is that it explores sexuality alongside motherhood, which is something that’s taboo still. But who are we protecting by keeping these two realms—both of which are indisputably forms of sexual politics—separate?
NS: American mothers feel ill-equipped not just for the realities of birthing, but for care work and motherhood, often seeking support from unreliable social media sources.
AM: So important! Put the phone down! Walk away! In all seriousness, I really do get why new parents spiral into the internet for guidance. I did it; sometimes I still do it. It’s this new form of labor, parenting, that we’re learning how to do, and there is no onboarding process, much less compensation or ongoing professional development. But the cult of parenting advice we’re living under right now is ridiculously out of control. No one needs that many videos on how to talk and how not to talk to children. They just feed into this idea that a mother is this one thing, this evacuation of self, but also that children can and should get all they need from one adult.
NS: What faith do we still have in the institution of motherhood?
AM: I have . . . no faith in the institution of motherhood! But only because I define it as this conflicting set of misogynist ideals about women. I have lots of faith in those of us interested in care and a feminist politics that centers care.
NS: How do you prioritize creativity as a mother, writer, teacher, and spouse?
AM: Over the years I have been relentless about centering creativity and writing in my work. Losing my work when I became a mother, and seeing how that removal of my public voice felt intentional, made me even more insistent that I would find a way to hold on to it, or get it back. I no longer feel guilty about securing childcare to write. I tell (not ask) my partner to watch the kids when I need to write. I try to make the cost of childcare visible, too, so that people understand that writing isn’t a hobby or a labor that should go unpaid, any more than motherhood is. And also so people understand that it’s not as simple as creating priorities and popping writing at the top. Many voices are kept silent, as Tille Olsen said, because they don’t have access to the material or financial conditions we need to write. I think for me it always comes back to the fact that writing is the most meaningful work I am able to do in my community (aside from care work!), and that I wouldn’t be much of a person without it.
NS: How is your voice distinct from and in concert with other mother writers who write about the maddening aspects of motherhood, caregiving, unpaid labor, and consent? How do you think these voices will continue to grow, particularly in post-Roe America?
AM: Always, always I am in conversation with the very wise voices writing on these subjects today. I’ve learned so much from them, especially Angela Garbes, about how settler colonialism and white supremacy have shaped American misogyny. My work in this book is rooted in sexual politics, and exploring what motherhood looks like both post-#MeToo, and somewhat timelessly, under patriarchy. I look at how the institution has always been connected to the broader exploitation of women’s bodies. It’s also a very personal book that speaks to the ways our early sexual experiences and cultural messages about gender shape our ability to love and be loved as we age. I think these personal stories will continue in post-Roe America. It’s how we survive, how we push toward new understandings and find new language and come closer to a more intersectional feminism that also reckons with the unfinished problem of motherhood.