An excerpt from the chapter ‘Generating Possibilities, Together’ of the book ‘Vulnerability As Generativity’  by Cristiana Ottaviano and Alessia Santambrogio



The path we have taken so far has led us to address a number of issues we would now like to briefly recapitulate before moving on.
We have explored the topic of female generativity in relation to a fundamental issue in Gender Studies: that one of motherhood as an experience that gives significance to the feminine and, at the same time, is an instrument of patriarchy through which women are consigned to a de-signed or de-signated destiny due to biological characteristics. The most marked and evident transition to fertility, menarche, followed by a monthly regular menstrual cycle (menses) — as well as the irreplaceable feminine role in gestation — have concurred with women being always assigned the primacy of generativity (5.) Hardly aware of their reproductive role at the dawn of human history, males have gradually set up a system of traditions and laws (6) to guarantee for themselves — through marriage and patrilineage — control over their offspring. In this way, they have moved and established outside of themselves a task which is fundamental as — in most cases — a feminine and a masculine biological principle are necessary to procreate.
Speaking about generativity as a male function, therefore, means deconstructing common ways of thinking: the term still refers almost exclusively and automatically to the feminine world. Thus, the eulogy of an idealized maternal role often condemns mothers to pursue the utopia of inevitably unattainable perfection (with a consequent sense of guilt and inadequacy, which can also affect their children). Other distorted processes may follow: women’s confinement in caring and nursing roles; an insufficient investment in non-domestic jobs (above all when reconciling domestic work and work outside the home becomes unsustainable); the disparagement of caring tasks and work (specifically, those dealing with the body or the family orbit: educators, nurses, home help, family auxiliaries (7)). Most of all, the relinquishment of family responsibilities by men and fathers is implicitly legitimated. (8)

Yet, there are other risks and consequences that are not so often reported in literature, but are indeed more interesting to investigate: men’s difficulty in being autonomous and competent in daily life, which is also made up of practical tasks such as going shopping, cooking, ensuring the safety and cleanliness of the dwellings. But also the rarity with which men experience — when caring children or elderly people — the indispensability of their presence together with the strength of the bonds (9) that are brought into play with physical and emotional vulnerability. Once again, there may be the risk of forgetting responsibility in the parental experience, if by parenthood we mean a dynamic, never-ending process that does not base its legitimation on blood or on the law, but on the will and the commitment to hold to a generative agreement, to the choice of taking care of other beings.
Considering parenthood — biological and non-biological — above all as the process of taking responsibility for minors means contextualizing it as a distinct process, but one that is very close to what Erikson called ‘generativity’(10): that way of being that advances (through responsible care) one’s own life, but also the life of others, giving importance to the ability to contribute (11). From this point of view, studying homoparenthood (12), but also trans and queer parenthood (13), or adoptive or single-parent families, allows us to ‘undo parenthood’; not, of course, to diminish the importance and the significance of parenthood but rather to undo its mechanisms and bring to light the possible rigidities and habits which lead to a lack of awareness and to inequality. Such a critical approach is also useful to understand how motherhood — as Donath (14 ) would say — but more in general parenthood — as we would say — is performative, that is to say a cultural construct that often assigns fixed parts and roles without properly considering and understanding the specific characteristics, the potential and the desires of each actor involved.
Broadening the boundaries of parenthood means being able to recognize different and innovative forms of parental generativity, wonders and plural interweaving of new families, where desire is the first form of love, empathy (15) is the term of recognition, faithful responsibility is the premise and the promise of a possible future, and bond and care are both a form of self-awareness and awareness of what is beyond oneself. Yet, all of these aspects are not necessarily guaranteed by biological bonds.
Just like Lingiardi and Carone (16), we believe that the research and debate about non-traditional forms of parenthood have the merit not only of describing more accurately how social and cultural change defines the boundaries in our relationships, but above all of urging us to think about what the word ‘parenthood’ means. Acknowledging and pondering the fact that medically assisted procreation techniques, but also adoptions by single parents or same-sex couples, necessarily introduce a ‘flexible choreography’ (17) into family structures, is a way to give more and more room to the idea that kinship is, first of all, a responsible relation and practice to do, to put into effect in everyday life. It is not something given, once and for all, which ‘exclusively depends on biogenetic and affinity ties’. (18)

Referring to Gustav Mahler’s renowned metaphoric expression, the point is not turning ‘the preservation of fire (the setting up of the bond) into the worship of ash (heterosexual reproductive parenthood as the only form of parenthood)’(19) and, more in general, not clinging to what we believe — because someone made us do — as the only way possible. Instead, it is necessary to open up a new, more just and liveable future for each human being. Preserving the fire also means not forgetting what we were and what happened at a time difficult to investigate, a time almost nobody tells us about, although traces are uncertain (at least, according to what positivist science has had us come to believe they should be), although we do not have the evidence that forensic department laboratories are now able to provide to verify facts (20).
It was a time, Gylany, when binarism was not an obsession, and the lack of any hierarchy, the equal value — not the sameness — of males and females (and, in general, of different subjectivities) set up a social organization rich in a ‘human policy’, as Nussbaum (21) would say. It is a policy that does not deny differences, but simply makes us see the others as human beings with the same dignity and equal rights to pursue a wide range of human goals: without any humiliating habits, fixed schemes, unmodifiable destinies, obnoxious inequalities. Human beings that are equally non-dispensable, and therefore recognized.
In order to build a just and open future, we need to recount everything we have been or could have been: we need stories beyond (or before) what has already been told, other stories — true or simply imagined — which allow us to see the same humanity in all of us, and we need to see the past not only as a ‘not any longer’, but as a ‘not yet’, and therefore as something possible.
What we expect, for the most part, implicitly also includes images of a future that, more or less consciously, we envision. Different pictures may coexist, not necessarily chiming in with one another, which also depend ‘on how we consider the expectations we cultivated in the past’ (22). The memory of what we lived or imagined is a mine of possibilities; ‘the memory of past futures can help: on the one hand, to understand how the situation we are in has been caused; on the other hand, to revitalize our enthusiasm’ (23).
If a form of circularity does exist between narration and life, because we tend to represent our experiences, to justify our inclinations and plan our actions in narrative terms, we can say life itself is a form of narration (24). Life, reality — as socio-constructivism theorists have clearly explained — is the result of the interaction among individuals and of the meanings that develop from them (25). Thus, narration has a productive nature: it gives sense to our existence as individuals, but it is also the main tool to recognize our identity with respect to the Other. ‘Telling our story, we are recognized as subjects and the wish to tell our own story is the wish to be recognized’ (26), if possible within a symmetric mechanism or one of fair swap between speaking about and listening to us and others. As Cavarero writes (27), we get our identity back when we listen to our story being told and made significant by others: our wish to be recognized also unfolds through that.What History and what stories have been told about humanity? What subjectivities had and still have full recognizability and recognition? On what basis can we stop building oppressive and often pernicious hierarchies?

We die when living together is impossible as who lives together interposes and throws his/her judgement at the person, who comes into existence only when they share something. We die from a sentence, condemned to isolation by ‘the Other’ (28).

One can also die from always listening to stories that do not render justice, do not recognize us, do not open up any future. Then, we wonder, what voices demand to be listened to? What other stories can be spread so that we may all identify ourselves with them? What really makes us human? What do we really have in common?


5 It is interesting to notice that nothing prevents adults from making highlightings and providing information on ‘spermarche’ (the first male ejaculation). Yet, the event is delegated to pre-teens who, as Rinaldi also underlines in Sesso, sé e società (Milan: Mondadori Università, 2016), risk experiencing it completely unaware of what is happening to them, and are often left to feel ashamed of themselves and embarassed with others. There is no rite, no stigma — at least in Western culture — to mark the male transition to his potentially generative biological life. Not even its name seems to be known by most people.

6 It is rather symptomatic that, in Italy, every newborn baby is still given only the surname of his/her father and that the bill, which would allow giving him/her the surname of his/her mother (out of choice or in addition to the father’s one), has been lying dormant in Parliament, although — following Constitutional Court sentence no. 286/2016 — applicants can ask the register office to register their child with both surnames.

7 Interestingly, in education and care contexts the roles which require more education, less contact with body secretions and are better paid (for example, university teaching or the medical profession) have mainly been men’s prerogative. Even with regard to culinary skills, when somebody mentions a great chef, everybody thinks about a man, while it is the woman everyone thinks of the everyday cooking done at home.

8 Here we refer to a historical construct that, as we have already said, is showing clear signs of subsidence, but also of change, above all within a few families in some territorial contexts, yet without dismantling the patriarchal structure (see Chapter 2).

9 According to Chiara Giaccardi (Il legame genera. Sulla generatività, in, 15.2.2017), the term ‘bonds/links’ derives from the Sanskrit word ‘lingami’, which means ‘I bend to cocoon’, therefore also ‘I hug’.

10 Eric H. Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed (New York: Norton, 1982).

11 Mauro Magatti, Chiara Giaccardi, Generativi di tutto il mondo unitevi! Manifesto per la società dei liberi (Milan: Feltrinelli, 2014).

12 As mentioned in the Introduction, our essay also takes inspiration from the field research conducted by the Italian Association of Rainbow Families [for the specifics of the results see Chapter 6 in Cristiana Ottaviano and Laura Mentasti, Oltre i destini. Attraversamenti del femminile e del maschile (Rome: Ediesse, 2015)]. For a general view on homoparenthood see Abbie E. Goldberg, Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children: Research on the Family Life Cycle (Washington, DC: American Psycological Association, 2010).

13 Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts: A Memoir (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015).

14 Orna Donath, #regrettingmotherhood. Wenn Mütter bereuen (München: Albrecht Knaus Verlag, 2016).

15 The term ‘empathy’ has a very rich philosophical meaning. We recommend, as the most thorough, the work of Edith Stein Zum Problem der Einfühlung (1917). The work of the evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy [quoted in Carol Gilligan, Joining the resistance (Cambridge, UK Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2011)] is also very interesting in that she defines ‘empathy’ as the human ability that distinguishes humankind from big Primates. According to Hrdy, the empathic skills children manifest very early in their relationship with the environment derive from ‘alloparental’ care, that is to say the involvement in minors’ upbringing of people other than biological parents, as it used to be in the Hominidae’s life structure. The centrality of empathy is also underlined by Alice Miller [For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985)] as the emotive-relational basis for non-violent education.

16 Vittorio Lingiardi and Nicola Carone, ‘La tradizione è custodire il fuoco, non adorare le ceneri. Alcune riflessioni sulle idee della ricerca con le famiglie omogenitoriali’, in Marina Everri (ed.), Genitori come gli altri e tra gli altri. Essere genitori omosessuali in Italia (Milan: Mimesis, 2016), p. 169.

17 Charis Thompson, ‘Strategic Naturalizing: Kinship in a Infertility Clinic’, in Sarah Franklin, Susan McKinnon (eds.), Relative Values, Reconfiguring Kinship Studies (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 175–202.

18 Corinna Sabina Guerzoni, ‘Essere “in due dentro un nome”. Rappresentazioni e pratiche genitoriali di madri omosessuali’, in Everri, Genitori come gli altri e tra gli altri, p. 50.

19 Lingiardi and Nicola Carone, ‘La tradizione è custodire il fuoco, non adorare le ceneri’, p. 169.

20 See the almost obsessive presence, in Italian and in foreign TV seasons over the last twenty years, of police TV series in which the criminal case is solved thanks to increasingly precise and detailed analyses, often dependent on technology.

21 Martha Nussbaum, From Disgust to Umanity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).102 Vulnerability ad Generativity

22 Paolo Jedlowski, Memorie del futuro. Un percorso tra sociologia e studi culturali (Rome: Carocci, 2017), p. 25.

23 Ivi, p. 65.

24 The stories we collected in our research corroborate it, as well.

25 With regard to human predisposition for storytelling and to the social and shared matrix of stories see Jonathan Gottshall, The Storytelling Animal. How Stories Make Us Human (Boston: Mariner Books, 2013).

26 Elisa A.G. Arfini, ‘La ricercatrice vulnerabile. Percorsi di co-costruzione di genere, sessualità e dis/abilità’, in Gaia Giuliani, Manuela Galetto, Chiara Martucci, L’amore ai tempi dello tsunami (Verona: Ombre corte, 2014), p. 93.

27 Adriana Cavarero, Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti. Filosofia della narrazione (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1997).
If, as Maria Zambrano says, living is living together, one can die from not being listened to, when one cannot tell anybody his/her story, when his/her story is not given any credit. One can die from the criticism from those who should instead listen to him/her and be close to him/her.

28 María Zambrano, Delirio y destino (Madrid: Mondadori, 1989), p. 16.