“Tick tock, tick tock”. Pragya Agarwal repeatedly writes about the ticking hands of an analogue clock that are meant to serve as an ever-present reminder of a woman’s supposed “fertility window” – that according to her biological clock, her time to conceive children is running out. But “35 is no magical marker of a slippery slope into oblivion”, she writes in her latest book (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman.
The non-fiction tome is packed with research alongside Agarwal’s own experiences of motherhood, as she forms what she calls an “untraditional” family. She works through her thoughts about topics such as fertility, abortion and surrogacy, and explores how these subjects are interwoven with concepts such as choice, consent and agency.
“The notion of motherhood shapes so much of our lives, whether it be deciding not to be a mother, or having the burning desire to be a mother by any means possible,” writes Agarwal, who is a behaviour and data scientist and professor of social inequities and injustice in the UK. Her previous books include Wish We Knew What to Say: Talking with Children About Race and Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias.
In (M)otherhood, Agarwal references numerous poets, psychologists, doctors, studies, statistics and memoirs of other women, along with Biblical, Greek, Egyptian and Indian mythology, to show how the role of motherhood has been deemed the ultimate realisation of womanhood since time immemorial.
Agarwal also deconstructs modern-day motherhood – from the cultural gender roles that pressure women to choose raising kids over cultivating their careers, to the normative images and fertility advertisements that they are bombarded with – all while relating her own memories over the past 30 years.
Writing and 'mothering' during lockdown
(M)otherhood was commissioned in March 2020 by Canongate Books. “It kind of flowed out of me really,” she tells The National, ahead of her talk and panel discussion sessions on February 12 at the 2022 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. “I was intensely mothering and writing this book during the whole lockdown. It was really high-pressure.”
Much of her memoir covers the mental and physical trauma of fertility treatments, and the eventual birth of her twins through surrogacy. Now aged 5, the twins were at home with Agarwal without schooling or childcare, while she penned her book.
Agarwal writes that the pandemic highlighted privilege inequities, and that she is “acutely aware” of her own privilege. Her book mentions the killing of George Floyd, which sparked the global #BlackLivesMatter movement, as well as India’s recent Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, which was passed to help protect underprivileged women at risk of being exploited for their wombs through transnational, commercial surrogacy.
She writes that “being a mother is considered the most natural state” of women across cultures in the East and the West, and says that while there are other memoirs on motherhood out there, they’re often centred on a white, middle-class perspective. “This is rooted in systemic hierarchies that are set up in our society,” she says. “We don’t hear stories of women of colour, working-class people or nonbinary people, and all those stories are worthwhile as well.”
Part memoir, part social critique
“I think we’re having more open discussions around motherhood – it has become such a pertinent topic after the pandemic because we’ve been so intensely parenting during this time,” says Agarwal, who draws on her Indian heritage and behavioural research while analysing how motherhood and feminism have typically been perceived as binary.
“While I was growing up, I saw this model: if you’re choosing motherhood, then you have to be steeped into patriarchy, where your role models are self-sacrificial mothers. They don’t come first; they do everything for the children and for the family. And on the other side were the outliers to the norm, rebelling against these traditions,” she explains.
Agarwal examines her own role in the “system” of patriarchy, which is at odds with her fundamentally feminist ideals. “I always believed that feminism meant rejecting these traditional models of womanhood because I internalised that womanhood is deeply associated with fertility and being a mother. But I don’t think they should be binary choices, because there are grey spaces in between where we can imbibe both these roles,” she says.
This is why Agarwal decided to keep the letter “M” in brackets, in her title, (M)otherhood. “It’s about the ‘otherhood’ in motherhood,” she explains. “I wanted to show through cultural and historical analysis and research that a woman’s fertility has been so tied with these feminine roles that we have to play in our society. We’re not always given the choice, or the space to be ambivalent about this choice and to say, ‘actually I don’t want to be a mother and I don’t need to justify that to anybody’”.
Agarwal points out the problematic nature of using insensitive medical terms such as “inhospitable uterus”, and cites an urban myth from the 1940s that links infertility with women who had “too much” ambition and education, thus perpetuating stigmas about women in the workforce – a realm culturally and historically reserved for men.
Challenging gender roles
“When we create binary ideologies of masculinity and femininity, we get trapped in these traditional roles and stereotypes that are socially determined and deeply embedded in our society. Unless we talk about dismantling binary ideologies of masculinity and femininity, we cannot change these social attitudes and beliefs,” says Agarwal, vocalising the motivations that lie at the heart of her work.
In the same way that Agarwal analyses societal preconceptions around womanhood in (M)otherhood, in her earlier book, Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, which was published in 2020 by Bloomsbury, she dissects how our brains unintentionally label people by race. She describes how we form implicit biases, and questions how we can overcome them. These are the conversations she hopes to be a part of at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where she will be discussing her book, Sway, and appearing on a panel about the stereotypes and struggles surrounding motherhood.
“I can only see myself as a small cog, and I think that the conversations at the literary festival will be stimulating, about how we create change. Our world is changing – at the moment we are in this really unsettled phase of trying to establish identities and sometimes we fall back on these historical tropes of nationalistic identity, or gender identity,” she explains.
“The books I write are about how we can question status quos, because it’s easier to believe in and conform to them since they’re already there. It’s more difficult and more cognitively dissonant for us to reject them, and try to unlearn behaviours. We all have these biases, we all have these internalised prejudices, but we can question them – every little conversation can help change attitudes and beliefs.”
Tickets for Pragya Agarwal’s sessions are available at www.emirateslitfest.com