Years ago, at a high school party, Amanda Montei found herself in a bedroom alone with a football player she liked. He was a virgin; she was not. She imagined there was more to her presence in that room than this set of facts. She felt chosen, special; she pictured them falling in love, becoming a couple. Only later did she learn this encounter had been plotted by the football player’s buddies, who knew about her crush on him. He accomplished what he came for and never spoke to her again.
What does this depressing but unremarkable story have to do with being a mother in 21st-century America? On the surface, nothing. But in her trenchant and revelatory book “Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control,” Montei deftly illuminates how the girlhood training she received in turning her body over to others also shapes contemporary ideas of what makes a “good” mother and wife. “It’s impossible to disentangle the exploitation of women in the home from assumptions about what women owe men in the streets, in the workplace, and in bed, nor from how much women are expected to give up in meeting such demands,” she asserts.
Montei hasn’t always seen this link so clearly. When she gave birth to her first child eight years ago, she was as susceptible as any new mother to narratives equating good parenting with self-erasure. She embraced the rigorously child-centric theories that are now parenting gospel, such as “attachment parenting” and “gentle parenting,” and threw herself into their requirements: baby-wearing, breast-feeding on demand, responding promptly to her baby’s every noise. Intensifying this togetherness, Montei — like the millions of other mothers who have “chosen” to exit the workforce due to our nation’s lack of affordable child care — was now a full-time homemaker while her husband earned the bread. Their punk-spirited partnership had transformed overnight into a 1950s trope.
Montei often found sublime pleasure in the “sweet, warm, new project” of caring for her daughter. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d been primed — in a manner reminiscent of that long-ago party — into agreeing to something without full knowledge of the terms. American motherhood felt like “something I wanted, then got, only to find I had been lured in by a group of boys who didn’t care at all how I ended up and were nowhere on the scene,” she explains. She had consented to motherhood, yes — even longed for it. And yet, she writes, “my housewifery also felt forced, compulsory, staged. And the experience of getting what I wanted was immediately tainted by what I hadn’t known before consenting.”
What distinguishes Montei’s book from other excellent critiques of contemporary motherhood published in the wake of the pandemic, such as Angela Garbes’s “Essential Labor” and Chelsea Conaboy’s “Mother Brain,” is its emphasis on corporeal autonomy — a focus all the more urgent in our post-Roe landscape. Long before Montei discovered the term “touched out” in an internet parenting forum, she understood in her flesh what it describes: the overwhelm many caregivers feel as a result of the demands on their body by children and partners. She had absorbed the myth that good mothering meant constantly being at her child’s disposal physically — not only as a source of nourishment and comfort but as a diversion and plaything. (In one moment, uncomfortably familiar to me as a mom of three, her body becomes a literal railroad, crisscrossed over and over by her toddler’s toy train.)
At first, Montei was relieved she wasn’t the only “touched out” mother. She’d felt guilty when she chafed against her daughter’s grasping hands or recoiled at her husband’s advances, interpreting these responses as a personal failure. But as the #MeToo movement erupted in 2017, her relief morphed into something sharper. Her own marriage had revealed how male entitlement can infiltrate even the most egalitarian heterosexual partnerships: “My self-proclaimed feminist husband didn’t consciously expect me to service his feelings when he came home wrecked and deflated from … work,” she writes, “but unconsciously he did.” Unsurprisingly, in a culture that tends to attribute any dip in female sex drive to “hormones,” her husband believed her suppressed desire was a phase that would pass — preferably ASAP.
Most reporting on the “touched out” phenomenon also treats it as a matter-of-course phase, “a natural condition of biology, perhaps even of the feminine condition, but also normal, a vague designation that sidesteps culture and politics.” But how “normal’ is it really, Montei asks, for legions of mothers to want “to pull their own skin off”? The stories of sexual violence flooding forth these past few years have made clear the dangers of conflating commonness with normalcy. The ubiquity of “touched out” mothers is the problem, a symptom of the systems that have made the violation of women’s bodies standard operating procedure.
The central achievement of “Touched Out” — the one that makes me want to press this book into the hands of every parent and expectant parent I know — is how artfully Montei connects the dots between her private shame and this collective assault, opening the door for her readers to do the same. Maybe, like those first few #MeToo revelations, her story could awaken a chorus of touched out mothers, joining their voices to declare that enough is enough.
From where I write this, hiding in my office from my children’s encroaching footsteps, I would very much like to think so.
TOUCHED OUT: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control
By Amanda Montei
Beacon, 256 pp., $27.95
Nicole Graev Lipson is a freelance writer and book critic and the author of the forthcoming memoir-in-essays “Mothers and Other Fictional Characters.” Follow her on Instagram @nglipson.