Gender, Illness & Motherhood
Words By Ione Gamble
For multidisciplinary artist Panteha Abareshi, motherhood as never been on the cards. Diagnosed with sickle cell at aged two, the now 19-year-old was told during her early pre-teens that birthing children would never be an option for her. She was infertile.
If conventional media narratives of fertility are to be believed, Panteha should have been crushed. Despite the fact that many millennials are choosing to have children later than their own parents; it’s undeniable that motherhood is still viewed as the ultimate aspiration for women within our culture.
However, only in part due to her biological restriction, motherhood has never been a desirable thought to Panteha. Despite the pressure of societies urging us that we should all strive to start our own families, her chronic illness and sterility has forced the L.A dweller to configure her own femininity and gender identity outside of the traditional constructs we are still expected to abide by.
Working across illustration, performance, and video Panteha’s work is visceral, emotional, and as a chronically ill woman myself, extremely comforting. Below, I chatted to the artist about what compels her to make work about one of society's biggest taboos, and why to move forward in feminism we need to throw out our god-like upholding of motherhood as something that represents all that is good.
You found out you were infertile as a child. How did this affect your experience of motherhood growing up?
I was raised by my father who is an amazing single dad, but my mother is a very conservative a severe southern Baptist. She would say things like, “the greatest day of your life will be the day you get married, until you have your first child, then that will be the greatest day of your life.”
I found out that I was infertile when I was 12 or perhaps even younger than that. A doctor told me very bluntly at one of my doctor visits. My mother built up all these ideas of me being able to have children, and that being such a gift and being such a necessity. When she heard that she cried, it was devastating for her. She mourned the loss of the children I would never have. To her it was earth shattering. Me seeing that was like wow, “there’s something really wrong here.”
How has that revelation and experience found its way into your work?
In my most recent work I’ve been thinking about the body and the evolutionary theory of vestigial biology discussed by Darwin; the idea that your body evolves in a certain way and you’re left with these parts that don’t work or are just there as evolutionary remnants because they didn’t evolve out. But I was examining my own body having vestigial parts because you know I see myself as so highly anatomical and I see my body in that very literal way. It’s crazy I have a womb, why do I have a uterus? Why do I have a vagina? Why do I have breasts? If I have never had the capability of bearing children, if I’m never going to breastfeed.
Being forced to see your body through this heavy media lens, you’re treated as an ill person, as a disabled person—it breaks down the concept that your body is one “thing”, or one gender. To me, my womb has just been collecting spider webs, it doesn’t have any connotations of femininity. Gender is so fundamentally performative. Through my experience of living with chronic illness I’ve realised that every aspect of identity is highly performative.
Would you say in a way, your chronic illness and infertility has been quite freeing in terms of the way you view gender, and specifically motherhood?
You’re really dehumanised a lot of the times as a patient and made to feel very insignificant and meaningless. From the point of being sterile it was like I no longer had that concrete anchor to define my gender so, I had to completely define my gender abstractly which I’m really thankful for. Now identity can mean whatever I want it to mean because I anatomically can’t function as a woman. For me gender is such an open door that you can walk through whenever you want to or need to. It’s difficult too because I’ve had these strange experiences in the hospital where I’m either extremely, aggressively gendered or completely stripped of any semblance of human respect.
In terms of people not believing you, it’s the same if you say you don’t want to have kids. They’ll be like, “Oh you’ll get it sometime, it’s a feeling you can’t help.”
When I tell people that I’m infertile, because I bring it up in casual conversations, people are always fascinated with how open I am when talking about it, that I’m not dripping with shame. People apologise to me as if I’ve been robbed. It gets very archaic very quickly and people don’t even realise that. People get very uncomfortable when you’re comfortable with a part of your body that doesn’t work. It contradicts some people’s idea that a woman should also be a mother at some point in her life.
So, it’s almost as if your combined experience of illness, infertility, and your own mother has helped you really see the construct of motherhood for something of a farce?
It’s interesting because I have such a fraught relationship with my mother and I see the way that motherhood is worshipped in a very dehumanising way. We lift up the image of a mother to an inhuman level of expectation and a lot of people would say the figure of the mother is greatly respected and so greatly loved. But exalting something to such an inhuman level is just as degrading. We place female bodies to this improbable standard of existence where motherhood is not only the greatest achievement but also the cornerstone of every female identifier’s existence.
It’s so reductive. So violent. Not only that but pregnancy— the biological aspect of it—is often one of the most violent, painful, dirty, messy things that a human body can go through but it’s painted with this ideal of pristine, clean, feminine execution of an easy nine-month task that solidifies this perfect loving relationship.
How do you think that this extreme glorification of motherhood negatively affects those without a womb?
People don’t think about the how the connotations of motherhood affect the people that are physically incapable of having children, whether that be because of illness or because of their anatomy. It just really pigeonholes what a woman is which is so damaging. There are people who don’t have a womb who want to be mothers and there’s no space for them societally. There are chronically ill people who are infertile and who want to be mothers but there is no space for them, just like there is no space for me talking about not wanting to be a mother. Everyone is being silenced for the sake of upholding this one image.