Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Jen Cellio get right to the point in introducing their smart new collection, stating up front the book's motivation: "The figure of the mother is overdetermined and vexed for both feminism and disability studies" (3). It is easy to see why. Mothers have often been blamed for their children's impairments or perceived impairments; the figure of the mother is closely linked to cultural scripts of care and dependency; the politics of abortion and reproductive technologies remain deeply contested in terms of disability; pregnant women and disabled people are both constructed as vulnerable subjects in need of protection; and the role of nondisabled parents (and perhaps especially of mothers) within disability rights movements and disability activism remains controversial. Disability and Mothering addresses each of these concerns, often in unexpected ways, offering readers multiple opportunities to contextualize and complicate these associations. 1

According to the editors and their contributors, we can begin this necessary work by focusing on the liminal spaces or borderlands "between the social and the personal, outside and inside, others and self" (1). These transitional spaces reveal both the tensions and the transformative possibilities of focusing on the disability/mothering intersection. We can even understand disability and motherhood as liminal experiences, as they destabilize the binaries between independent/dependent and self/other. Neither is as fixed or stable as first appears, but rather comes into being in relation, "constituted out of an ever-changing flow of relations among bodies, practices, institutions, experienced personally and socially constructed" (3).

In their introduction, "On Liminality and Cultural Embodiment," Lewiecki-Wilson and Cellio provide a solid overview of disability theory, introducing existing models of disability and highlighting the theoretical questions currently animating the field. What they suggest—and what their collection persuasively illustrates—is that a focus on disability and mothering exposes readers to many of the debates and discussions at work in disability studies as a whole. Their book thus serves not only as a source of information on the intersection of disability and mothering, but also as an exciting introduction to contemporary disability theory and scholarship more broadly.

Lewiecki-Wilson and Cellio divide the book into five sections, each with a brief introduction linking the themes of the chapters to key debates in the field. The titles of each section—"Reproductive Technologies in the Disciplining of Bodies"; "Refusals: Contesting Diagnoses and Cultural Scripts"; "Narrativity and Meaning-Making: Rewriting Stories of Mothering and Disability"; "Reimagining Activism: A Politics of Disability and Mothering"; and "Multiple Identities, Overlapping Borders"—give a sense of the book's scope as well as its overarching methodological assumptions. The editors are both grounded in rhetoric and writing, and many of the pieces are deeply concerned with rhetorical or literary analysis, even though they may take different forms (personal narratives sit alongside historical studies and theoretical explorations). The collection is interdisciplinary and, as Lewiecki-Wilson and Cellio explain in their introduction, "undergirding all the pieces in this volume is the assumption that social and cultural expectations, practices, representations, and institutions shape received attitudes toward and treatment of women and the disabled, but also—importantly—that our interactions can remake this world" (13-14). Hence attention to activism and the rewriting of cultural scripts surfaces throughout the collection, not just in the sections explicitly named for them.

As a whole, the collection is accessible and straightforward; it could easily serve as a textbook for students new to disability studies (and rhetoric), even as it encourages those of us more familiar with the field to stretch our assumptions of what disability and disability studies can mean or entail. Readers outside of the academy will also find the book useful, as it provides diverse examples of parenting with or alongside disability. Indeed, the editors have assembled a broad spectrum of essays, offering explorations of "disability and mothering" from the perspectives not only of disabled mothers and mothers of disabled children, but also children of disabled mothers, mothers of nondisabled kids, and mothers who had disabled siblings, as well as mothers who avoid or refuse diagnosis for themselves and/or their children.

Much as one would expect, all of the essays in this collection offer explorations of dependency, interdependency, and caregiving; while these have long been areas of concern in disability studies, the pieces here provide insightful contributions to those discussions. By focusing on mothering less as an identity and more as a practice, contributors raise fascinating questions about what it means to mother in the context of disability. Is mothering a synonym for caregiving? How might our conceptions of mothering, and of caring, shift when both mother and baby require care? What does caregiving entail or require in the context of poverty, or racism, or immigration struggles? How might we understand mothering as a cross-cultural activity when one member of the relation is disabled and the other is not? How does the intersection of disability and mothering illuminate the assumptions of neoliberal welfare policies that make caregiving all the more precarious and necessary? These questions then radiate outward, touching on other emerging areas of interest within disability studies. Many of the contributors in the volume are wrestling with the question of diagnosis—for themselves, for their children, for their mothers—offering diverse perspectives on the necessity, and dangers, of diagnostic categories. Others raise questions, both implicitly and explicitly, of what counts as disability and to what effect. Is infertility disabling? Is pregnancy? And how are our answers to such questions influenced by larger cultural scripts about femininity, vulnerability, or care?

The editors' decision to close the book with a set of keywords—"Afterword(s)"—was brilliant; each word or set of words serves as a way to revisit the preceding chapters, to highlight key themes that have surfaced through the course of the book, and/or to introduce other scholars engaging with these ideas. As a result, the conclusion operates expansively, encouraging readers to see this collection as a springboard for further studies of disability and mothering. Indeed, the editors make this desire explicit, explaining that the goal of "Afterword(s)" is "not to stabilize meanings but instead to surface issues and tensions embedded in these terms" and "to unravel" the connections made throughout the book "so that other threads may become visible" (302). With this prompt to introduce their definitions/undefinitions, Lewiecki-Wilson and Cellio invite readers to analyze how knowledge is actively being produced in disability studies, to see, in other words, how terms and concepts are shifting as the field grows. It makes for an excellent teaching moment, for example, to point out how the editors have grouped "passing, queer studies, [and] race studies" into a single entry, rather than three separate ones, as a way of positioning disability studies within a larger political and theoretical history (as does the entry "subjectivity, subjectification, [and] vulnerable subjects").

Collectively and singly, contributors to Disability and Mothering make clear that we all have a stake in the debates over these terms, regardless of our individual positions vis à vis disability or mothering. As our conceptualizations of disability shift, so, too, do the cultural meanings attached to mothering, and vice versa. Disability and Mothering offers a useful guide to understanding those shifts and to pushing forward more of our own.


  1. I depart here from the tradition of summarizing individual essays in a collection, choosing instead to focus on the book as a whole. I do this to signal the book's strength; the editors and contributors have worked carefully to multiply our notions of what "disability and mothering" can mean, and highlighting only a few pieces to represent the book—and the intersection of disability and mothering itself—would run counter to that mission.
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Copyright (c) 2012 Alison Kafer

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

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ISSN: 2159-8371