Seven questions with Katherine Mack, author of “The Case for Single Motherhood: Contemporary Maternal Identities and Family Formations”

Katherine Mack, PhD, Professor in the Department of English

Mack’s latest book delves into the rhetorical work of elective single mothers (ESMs) in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries as they sought—and continue to seek—to legitimize their maternal identities and family formations.

The Case for Single Motherhood: Contemporary Maternal Identities and Family Formations” was published by the University of Alabama Press in December 2023.

To share more, Mack answered seven questions about her book below.

1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?

“The Case for Single Motherhood: Contemporary Maternal Identities and Family Formations” is about how, in the face of ongoing stigma around single motherhood, self-identified elective single mothers distinguish themselves from other single mothers and justify their motherhood to themselves and to others. I describe these efforts as “legitimacy work.” This book is about the pitfalls of legitimacy work, which tends, consciously or not, to deprecate others in the effort to uplift oneself or one’s group. Inspired by the tenets of reproductive justice, I try in this book to imagine how we can center and value ourselves and our distinctive experiences, while building solidarity with and respecting others.

2. How did you get the idea for your project?

As I started on my maternal journey as a single woman, I read many of the texts (guidebooks, memoirs, and scholarship) I examine in this book. Though I initially used the label “elective single mother” (ESM) to describe myself, after examining this label’s history and exclusionary effects, I opted not to do so. It struck me that this material posed important rhetorical questions. Krista Ratcliffe defines rhetoric as “what we do to language and what language does to us.” I wanted to understand what ESM were doing with language, and what that language was doing to those woman who identified as such. I soon discovered that my rhetorical study would contribute to the vibrant interdisciplinary field of motherhood studies.

3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process? 

I thought initially that I would focus on fictional representations of elective single mothers, but after I wrote an article about four feature films, I decided to focus on non-fiction texts produced by elective single mothers themselves. I wanted to listen to the thinking and experiences of elective single mothers as expressed in their own words in various genres, not filtered through the conventions and expectations of feature films.

4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?      

In the context of this writing project, reproductive justice (RJ) most excites and inspires me. As RJ leader and visionary Loretta Ross puts it, RJ offers a way beyond the pro-life/pro-choice divide. RJ’s three central tenets—the right not to have children, the right to have children, and the right to parent the children we have—offer an ethical, human-rights centered framework in which ESM can thrive without criticizing others’ parental decisions and journeys.

5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?           

I prefer to write at home, at our dining room table by the stove when it is cold, and at the table in my home office when it is warm. I think most clearly in the mornings and appreciate a good stretch of time then to write, but I find micro-writing sessions at any time of day to be helpful as well. I need to eat lots of chocolate to keep myself focused and rewarded, and I take lots of walks to work through ideas and overcome roadblocks in my thinking.

6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?

“Directing one’s gaze, energy, and intentions beyond maternal legitimacy would be empowering and liberating. Ultimately, it would allow maternal rhetors to harness their energy and time toward the work that bonds and motivates us: that of mothering” (214).

7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered?

In response to this question, I’ll offer another quote from my book: “As the title of the conclusion of this project, “Beyond Legitimacy,” suggests, I’m left wondering how ESMs might conceive and talk about themselves were they less concerned with legitimizing themselves, via comparisons to other mothers, and fully open to the possibilities of being and relating that elective single motherhood makes available. I look forward to pursuing that line of inquiry in my next book” (36).

UCCS celebrates faculty and staff who author and edit books each year. In recognition of their achievement, and as part of the UCCS Author Spotlight initiative, authors are invited to submit details on their published works.