Books / Culture

The Good Mother Myth – An interview with Joy Ladin

Deborah Goldstein talked with Avital Norman, Joy Ladin and Candace Walsh about the anthology, “The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality“, which seeks to deconstruct the myth of the “good mother.”  You can purchase the book through Amazon.com.

The following interview with contributor, Joy Ladin, is the second of a three-part series. You can find the first part here.


The Good Mother MythJoy and I talked about gender, parenting roles and the price she paid to live her truth as a trans woman. We referred to her essay, Confessions of a born-bad mother.

Deborah: It was such a powerful story and one that still leaves me heavy and hopeful at the same time. Even before you started talking about the trans experience, you really focused on the disparity between expectations of mothers and fathers which I loved. I was wondering if you feel that disparity is inherent in gender and do same-sex couples avoid those imbalances?

Joy: When I was home, I was a primary parent but I was a student and then I was teaching so I was away a couple nights a week and there was a built-in disparity about the amount of parenting I was doing and – of course – there’s a biological disparity that’s built in also. When I was there, I didn’t feel like that was that big a deal because actually our kids liked nursing so much that by the time they were finally done, my ex was quite eager to have somebody else hold them so that worked out fine. But I think that whenever there’s an unequal distribution of labor in any way, people tend to build on it and in ways I think have nothing to do with gender or sex. But when those disparities correspond to prefabricated cultural patterns about gender, whatever’s going on in the individual relationship is magnified in a crazy way. Toward the end of living as a guy, I was connecting with women – I guess they had gotten married by then – but they had kids for a while and their marriage was the same as my marriage. She went to the city for a couple days a week. Her wife was home with the kids and they were having the same fights, the same strains, the same guilt and I thought, “That’s interesting how little this really has to do with gender and how much it has to do with circumstance.” But I think that gender comes in because gender shapes our awareness of ourselves and our expectations of ourselves and it also shapes the way people look at us. So, shame is the interface between the individual and the group and so is gender. So, these are group expectations that you perform in front of everybody and then individuals are either told from the outside or telling themselves on the inside, “Oh, I’m falling short,” or “I’m about to fall short.” There’s the constant anxiety about that so the gender stuff just magnifies everything. But the basic thing is who’s taking care of the kids most and if there’s a big disparity, there tends to be pressure on the person who feels most responsible.

Deborah: I’m at home. My partner works full-time. Oftentimes, I feel like we’re no further along than 1950s husband and wife. You focus on the fact that during your separation, you were transitioning and you were clearly at fault in the eyes of the law and people casting their uneducated judgment. It seems like conversations about the trans community are much more prevalent than they were 20 years ago. Do you see opinions in courts or law or society changing? How quickly are they changing?

Joy: Mass media and social media have caused an enormous jump in awareness of T people and in T people being aware of one another and talking to one another. When I was transitioning, I felt fairly isolated. There were some discussion boards but even in 6 years, I’ve seen a huge difference in that. At the same time, most people really don’t know T people and most T people are still trying to figure themselves out. So when we talk about the T community, I always say, “Do you have an address for me because I would like to visit? Ha Ha” We don’t have a community in that sense but when there are small knots of T in certain localities, people will get together. Often, it turns out there are problems of self-definition. Who’s doing it right? Who’s doing it wrong? Do you include people who are gender queer? Do you include only binary transsexuals? The reason for this is that the culture as a whole is only just beginning – very, very spottily and much more slowly than media coverage makes it seem – to reckon with what it means to recognize that there are small groups of people who vary widely in terms of gender identity and expression. That’s a normal part of humanity, but it’s never going to be a huge part of humanity.

Deborah: Social media and the media have helped in small ways increase people’s awareness and, hopefully, normalize the conversation. Has that helped your relationship with your ex-wife or your children? Has that helped them to come to terms with it?

Joy: I’m going to go with no. For one thing, the media my kids are exposed to is the same gender binary stuff that’s always been in kids’ shows, including kids’ shows that are quite progressive and politically aware compared to what I grew up with. They’re still the same old jokes about boys wearing dresses or femininity being a shameful thing and so I don’t think – in terms of popular culture – things have gotten that far. But for my kids, the problem isn’t trans people in general. They’re growing up in a pretty progressive area. The problem is that the trans person in their life is associated with the worst thing that ever happened to them. It’s important that they and I recognize the particularity of that. I’m tempted sometimes to say, “Oh c’mon –  just realize that being trans is normal.”  Then, I look at them and that doesn’t matter. That’s not really going to change the way your family broke up or anything. For my ex, it’s made her feel more isolated to the extent that there’s some push toward dealing with trans people in a positive way. It’s like the Good Mother thing. You’re a Good Mother or a Bad Mother. You can’t just be a mother. So, if the trans husband who transitions is Good, that must mean the wife is Bad. So, it remains a pretty primitive binary kind of morality and she suffers from it.

Deborah: Not having other people’s experiences to compare it to or to validate your own feelings must be isolating for both of you. When we first started VillageQ, we were looking to get voices from everyone. We wanted to be an inclusive place, somewhere where everybody could find their people. But it’s really difficult when those people are, as you say, not even sure of who they are and may be afraid or nervous about reaching out or speaking out or don’t feel that empowerment with community yet because they don’t feel the empowerment of self. So, we’ve had a difficult time finding the voices of trans parents.

Joy: I teach at an Orthodox Jewish school and because of publicity that I got all about “Oh look, there’s a trans person at an Orthodox environment,” so I’ve been in contact with a lot of trans Orthodox Jews.

Deborah: Helpful for them to have you through that publicity. How does everybody find each other? I feel like all I have to do is search for lesbians, gay moms, queer parents and there are a host of resources and isolation is so disempowering. Where do you find each other?

Joy: It’s a great question. I think the web is both a great place to find people and a terrible place to find people. So, when I was in early transition, I reached out to anybody who was on the web. There were people I would never take advice from if I actually knew them. All I knew was they were further along in transition and I just needed somebody to tell me what to do. For reasons I can’t imagine, someone contacted me from a Southeast Asian country. She was asking me to find people. No resources. Underground. You need to actually know people. It’s great to read things but to have what you’re calling community and to really know who you’re talking to and to be seen is so important for trans people – to see themselves reflected as people in other people’s physical presence – and that’s really tough.

Deborah: Have you found that in writing this anthology, people have been able to find you?

Joy: I don’t know that I’m connected with any trans people through the anthology at this point but through other kinds of writing, absolutely.  That’s been a pretty great thing because there’s that deep hunger – and I think this gets to what Avital was talking about also – I think that shame and part of the hard parts of our lives is this deep question of am I the only one? Is my experience intelligible to somebody else? Is my suffering, does my failure, does my triumph, does it mean anything to anyone else or am I the only one? So it’s been pretty great for me personally when anybody responds to something I’ve written. I also feel found.

Deborah: That’s wonderful. Have you felt in reading any of the other essays that you could connect or that you had a moment that you hadn’t considered previously about a particular situation?

Joy: Avital has been great at arranging group readings. Those have been amazing experiences and I think that it’s true that in everybody’s story, there have been things that I’ve recognized but also parts of parenting that I really haven’t. Heather, one of the contributors, has a child who has food allergies – wonderful, moving essay. My kids never had that but I do have two children with life-threatening conditions so know that fear. I have not had the physical parts of these experiences. I haven’t had the day-to-day responsibility for children and so, for me, the definition of motherhood has been broadened for my benefit in this context and it’s quite wonderful to be included with such incredible people.


Joy LadinJoy Ladin is the David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. Her memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, was a finalist for a 2012 National Jewish Book Award. She is the author of six books of poetry, including The Definition of Joy, Forward Fives Award winner Coming to Life, and Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration. She has been featured on On Being and several other NPR programs. She serves on the Board of Keshet, a national organization working toward full inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish communities.

PHOTO CREDITS: THE GOOD MOTHER MYTH

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2 Comments

  1. This series is great. Thanks!

    • Avital found a fantastic group of contributors for the anthology, and I feel really lucky to have spent time with some of them. Very glad you’re enjoying it!

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