In an exclusive excerpt from Amanda Montei’s new memoir Touched Out, a mother considers how talking with her children has taught her about her own body—a healing process she hasn’t always welcomed or wanted.
When I gave birth to my first child, whom the doctors swiftly marked “girl,” I had no idea how complex the work of passing on a sense of bodily autonomy would be. My new daughter was so small she had to be monitored constantly. We were ordered to stay at the hospital for two days while her little red feet were repeatedly pricked for glucose tests, and the wails she let out as nurses squeezed blood from her heels made me sweat. I wanted to tell them to stop, but I just said, “How much more?”
I desired, even then, resolute autonomy for my daughter, but I have not always known how to give it to her in a culture that doesn’t want her to have it.
Still reeling from childbirth, in the early days of motherhood I didn’t see breastfeeding as an opportunity to provide my daughter with her first lessons on consent. Instead, our nursing relationship became increasingly one-sided. I lost any strength to resist my baby’s demands, to say no, to refuse her—not only because she was needy and helpless and it was my job to care for her, but because the parenting advice I consumed in books and online told me, breast was best.
I recall stumbling on a few articles and posts on motherhood forums during late-night deep dives into the internet: essays and posts about mothers who pinched their children hard when their babies bit their nipples, or who simply shouted in response to moments of pain during breast-feeding. I latched on to these bits of advice as firmly as my daughter clamped down on my nipple, but I never had the strength to communicate my boundaries that clearly. When I did lash out, I felt ashamed for overreacting.
Though I mostly disavowed my own body and needs in early motherhood, I tried to follow the experts online who told me to respect my daughter’s infant body. My husband and I tried not to gasp or giggle at any diapered explosions—out of deference, as the Magda-Gerber-inspired guidance suggested—but we still found ourselves laughing uncontrollably the day I looked on while Jon changed a diaper, streams of greenish goo squirting from our baby’s butthole all over his hands, which now flailed wildly, tossing wipes in all directions. Our daughter’s wide eyes looked up at us, wondering what she had done to make us smile, asking for more.
Despite the missteps, I pressed on. I talked to my daughter about all my care work, and insisted my husband do the same. We looked to her, even when she was young, for confirmation that she consented—to us picking her up, carrying her around, dressing and undressing her. Over time though, as my daughter learned to resist things that were in her best interest, and to insist on using only my body for a ride or a meal, even when I was tired and drained, I became confounded by the potent dance of consent that took place between parent and child.
The physical intimacy of caring for my baby, and the everyday navigation of questions around touch and consent, soon triggered unprocessed memories of my early sexual life—of other times when I had felt my body was not my own, but rather just a tool for another person’s pleasure. I began thinking more about my own experiences growing up in what author Roxane Gay calls, in the introduction to the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, “a culture where it often seems like it is a question of when, not if, a woman will encounter some kind of sexual violence.” And I worried about whether I could protect my daughter, who would grow up in a culture that still polices, controls, and uses women’s bodies.
How could I secure my daughter’s safety and autonomy? How could I ensure that the things that happened to me didn’t happen to her?
I have always wanted my daughter to have the sexual education I never had, but over the years, talking to her about bodies has taught me about my own—a resurrection of experience I didn’t always welcome or want. The language that passes between us has from the beginning been filled with urgent lessons about gender, but like my own mother—who never taught me an alternative to what she saw as a culture of inevitable male violence—the lessons I have passed on to my daughter have at times surprised me.
When I was pregnant with my second child and back at work, my daughter observed the way I navigated labor in and outside the home, trying my methods on for size, as she sometimes did with my too-big-for-her clothes. “Oh gosh,” she said one afternoon, in the middle of her newly favored game of “I’m the mom.” She looked down at her doll sternly; then, with a heavy sigh of feigned exhaustion, hoisted the doll high up on her shoulder, as she mimicked the disciplined, reluctant labor of motherhood. She gathered herself up for more. “All right, baby,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Watching these little performances unfold, I felt embarrassed, shaken, responsible, misrepresented. But back then, my life reflected a culture that beats women down until they are wearied, frayed. And there she was, my daughter, performing submission. Sometimes she loaded many bags up with knickknacks found around the house, piling them all on her two tiny shoulders, lugging them around. She was imitating the slog, the depressive’s heavy body. She was imitating me.
Parenthood, I came to see, isn’t just a tool for passing on beliefs about bodies, but for learning about the beliefs we already carry—the kind we lug around, that weigh us down. The ever-shifting nuance I had to embrace as I taught my daughter about needs and wants, about what I value, about how I do and do not always live by those values—and as she challenged me on those discrepancies—made it seem as though I was not only struggling against my own worst impulses, but constantly doing damage control against the worst cultural ideas about women.
Doing this important work has taught me to unload some of my own heaviest bags. When my daughter entered grade school in the middle of the pandemic, I began fussing with her hair unconsciously, following her around with hairbrushes in the morning, asking if she wanted to comb out her bed head, seeing she did not, but sometimes still insisting. Eventually I stopped telling her how to present her body to the world. She likes to leave her hair wild. I let her. It is important to me that she know her body is her own, not mine to mold, present, and control.
I know, however, that untamed hair and a sense of self-possession won’t be enough to protect her—to secure the basic rights she deserves to make decisions about her body, for example, or to keep her from harm in a culture in which sexual violence remains pervasive. My anxieties about my daughter’s future remain, even though she has become so self-assured, so confident in naming what she wants.
And I know the demand for women’s self-knowledge is a common way in which we police girl’s and women’s desires, placing blame on them when boys and men wrong them. I used to buy into this thinking in my parenting, too—this idea that if I could just teach my daughter to speak for herself, to know herself completely, she would be safe. When little boys hit her or pushed her around on the playground, I would rush in, telling her to hold up her little hand and yell, “Stop!” Sometimes it turned into an odd victim-blaming moment, in which I’d scold her, “You have to stand up for yourself!” But none of us know ourselves unfalteringly, nor should that be a standard for saving ourselves from the violence of others.
Self-protection is not the same as feeling safe.
I want my daughter to be okay not knowing what she wants, just as much as I want her to know what she does want. I want her to feel she is allowed to be uncertain without opening herself up to violence, and without falling into the belief I held for so long: the belief that uncertainty was just a condition of my sexuality.
Raising a girl in a world that wants to control her body has been a mind fuck, but the work is no less complex with children of any other gender. By the time my second child—this one marked “boy”—was born, I had accepted how gender shaped my approach to parenting, even if I still felt confused about the lessons I was running in my own home. Having a boy in my arms, however, felt immediately different, a sentiment for which I scolded myself. My second baby certainly did not yet have the capacity to endorse his own gender identification—he did not even know he had hands!
Even so, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this baby was different—a potential enemy. Parenting a son with patriarchy in mind, I reasoned, meant I had to be extra attentive to the ways in which my best efforts at making him a good person would be thwarted by a culture of masculinity that would teach him to take take take. A few years in, however, I felt like I had been conned into reproducing the exact gender roles I was trying to avoid. I had positioned my daughter as a victim of the patriarchy, my son as an aggressor. I had left no room for anything in between.
Over the years, my children have brought home their own stories about gender, and I have learned to make room for them to be curious, without imposing my own vocabulary. They joke about tying penises into ponytails and run around the house singing songs about vaginas because they like the sound of the word. I have tried to help them find joy in their bodies and to resist the urge to shut it all down for fear they aren’t approaching the subject the right way. I remind myself they are already more fluent and articulate about gender and autonomy than I was before they were born. When they move to hug me or climb on me, they frequently forget that I am not a toy, but more often, they look into my eyes and ask for consent, the way I did with them when they were babies.
I still want my children to know themselves and their bodies, but this can only be one arm of protection, one limb in a larger system. I also want them to see their bodies as implicated in institutions, their desire as both coerced and liberated, limited and privileged, because with that comes the power to understand consent as itself a practice of care.
I continue to do the obvious things: I teach them that a friend saying “no” once is enough, but also that sometimes bodies tell us what they want or don’t want without words—with facial expressions, with grunts or noises, or by tensing up. Giving my children the tools to affirm their own autonomy and the autonomy of others feels undeniably important, like the path from which all others diverge, even if the work also feels impossible, all-consuming, and never enough.
In talking with my children about all this, I have also had to look more closely at my own allegiance to idealized depictions of mothers, especially mothers who sacrifice everything for their children. I know this image serves a broader culture in America that is—right now, during my children’s most formative years—acting aggressively to control and violate women’s bodies, trans bodies, and the bodies of anyone who is perceived to deviate from gender norms.
My approach to resisting such a culture in our home hasn’t always been measured or cool: I have shouted at my children to give me space, to stop climbing on me, to just got outside please, as I project my frustrations with the world on to their little bodies. These are not aspirational moments. They still evoke shame for me, even as I have learned to be more tender with myself. I worry that I have pushed my children too far away, too soon, or too often, because of my preoccupations with consent.
Sometimes, I even play out my grown children’s perspective of me: a mother who was self-involved, closed-off, not the kind of mother we see in the movies, always longingly remembered for hollowing herself out in service of motherhood. But this, I now know, is not my voice. It’s the voice of a culture that is external to the deep and complex relationship I share with my children—one filled with tangled legs on the couch, hand squeezes in public spaces that, like morse code, send messages of our love, nights of reading books in each other’s arms, and so many boogered kisses.
My kids will likely not say I was the most selfless mother. But why is this something to which I ever aspired? They will know I loved them deeply, and they will know what was important to me—as a mother, but also as a person. Resenting me for my values is their birthright, but I’m at peace now with the knowledge that my kids will grow up knowing how important bodily autonomy and the right to say “no” was to me—even though, or maybe especially because, I am a mother.
Adapted from Touched Out by Amanda Montei, published by Beacon Press, available September 12, 2023. Copyright © 2023 by Amanda Montei.