Author Pragya Agarwal on diversity in motherhood and writing a book on the pandemic

“Tick tock, tick tock”. Pragya Agarwal repeatedly writes on the hands of an analog clock that are meant to serve as a ubiquitous reminder of a woman’s supposed “window of fertility” – according to her body clock, her time to conceive is running out. But “35 is not a magic marker of a slippery slope towards oblivion,” she writes in her latest book. (M) otherness: On the choices of being a woman.

The non-fiction tome is packed with research alongside Agarwal’s own experiences of motherhood, as she forms what she calls a ‘non-traditional’ family. She works through her reflections on topics such as fertility, abortion, and surrogacy, and explores how these topics relate to concepts such as choice, consent, and agency.

“The notion of motherhood shapes so much of our lives, whether it’s deciding not to be a mother or having the urge to be a mother in any way possible,” writes Behavioralist Agarwal. and data and behavioral science teacher. social inequalities and injustice in the UK. His previous books include I wish we knew what to say: talk with the children of the race and Sway: Unravel the unconscious biases.

In (Maternity, Agarwal refers to many poets, psychologists, doctors, studies, statistics, and memoirs of other women, as well as biblical, Greek, Egyptian and Indian mythology, to show how the role of motherhood was viewed as achieving ultimate of femininity since time immemorial.

Agarwal also deconstructs modern motherhood – from the cultural gender roles that cause women to choose to raise children rather than cultivate their careers, to the normative images and fertility advertisements bombarded with them – while also recounting her own memories. over the past 30 years.

Writing and “mothering” during confinement

(Maternity was ordered in March 2020 by Canongate Books. “It really came out of me,” she said The National, ahead of her conference and panel discussions on February 12 at the Emirates Airline 2022 Literature Festival. “I intensely mothered and wrote this book during the entire lockdown. It was really high pressure.

Much of her memoir covers the mental and physical trauma of fertility treatments and the eventual birth of her twins through surrogacy. Now 5 years old, the twins were at home with Agarwal without any education or childcare, while she wrote her book.

Agarwal writes that the pandemic has exposed inequalities of privilege and that she is “keenly aware” of her own privilege. Her book mentions the murder of George Floyd, which sparked the global #BlackLivesMatter movement, as well as India’s recent Surrogacy (Regulatory) Bill, which was passed to help protect disadvantaged women at risk of be exploited for their womb through transnational and commercial surrogacy.

She writes that “being a mother is considered the most natural state” of women in all cultures of East and West, and says that while there are other memoirs on motherhood, they are. often centered on a white middle class. perspective. “It’s rooted in the systemic hierarchies that are put in place in our society,” she says. “We don’t hear stories of women of color, working class people, or non-binary people, and all of those stories are equally worthwhile.”

Part memory, part social criticism

“I think we have more open discussions about motherhood – it has become such a relevant topic after the pandemic because we have been so intensely parenting during that time,” says Agarwal, who draws on her Indian heritage and her behavioral research while analyzing how motherhood and feminism have generally been viewed as binary.

“While I was growing up, I saw this model: if you choose motherhood, then you must be immersed in patriarchy, where your role models are mothers who sacrifice themselves. They don’t come first; they do everything for the children and for the family. And on the other side were the outliers from the norm, rebelling against those traditions, ”she explains.

Agarwal examines her own role in the “system” of patriarchy, which is at odds with its fundamentally feminist ideals. “I always believed that feminism meant rejecting these traditional models of femininity because I internalized that femininity is deeply associated with fertility and being a mother. But I don’t think they should be binary choices, because there are gray spaces in between where we can absorb those two roles, ”she says.

This is why Agarwal decided to keep the letter “M” in brackets, in his title, (Maternity. “It’s about the ‘otherness’ of motherhood,” she explains. “I wanted to show through cultural and historical analyzes and research that a woman’s fertility was so closely linked to these female roles that we have to play in our society. We are not always given a choice, or the possibility of being ambivalent about that choice and saying, “Actually, I don’t want to be a mother and I don’t need to justify it to anyone. that is “.

Agarwal emphasizes the problematic nature of using insensitive medical terms such as “inhospitable uterus” and cites a 1940s urban myth that links infertility to women who had “too much” ambition and education, thus perpetuating the stigmatization of women in the labor market – an area culturally and historically reserved for men.

Challenging gender roles

“When we create binary ideologies of masculinity and femininity, we find ourselves trapped in these traditional roles and stereotypes that are socially determined and deeply embedded in our society. Unless we talk about dismantling the binary ideologies of masculinity and femininity, we cannot change these social attitudes and beliefs, ”Agarwal says, expressing the motivations that are at the heart of her work.

In 'Sway: Unraveling Conscious Bias', the author dissects how our brains unwittingly label people by race and how we form implicit biases.  Photo: Bloomsbury

In the same way that Agarwal analyzes the societal prejudices surrounding femininity in (Maternity, in his previous book, Sway: Unravel unconscious prejudices, which was published in 2020 by Bloomsbury, it dissects how our brains unwittingly label people by race. She describes how we form implicit biases and asks how we can overcome them. These are the conversations she hopes to participate in at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where she will discuss her book, To balance, and appearing on a panel on stereotypes and struggles surrounding motherhood.

“I can only see myself as a small cog, and I think the conversations at the literary festival will be stimulating, about how we create change. Our world is changing – right now we’re in this really volatile phase of trying to establish identities and sometimes we fall back on those historical tropes of nationalist or gender identity, ”she explains.

“The books I write are about how we can challenge the status quo because it’s easier to believe and comply with it since they’re already there. It’s harder and more cognitively dissonant for us to dismiss them and try to unlearn the behaviors. We all have these biases, we all have these internalized biases, but we can challenge them – every little conversation can help change attitudes and beliefs.

Tickets for Pragya Agarwal sessions are available at

Updated: January 7, 2022 04:16

Lola R. McClure