Matilda the Musical, adapted from Roald Dahl, opens with what might be described as the paradox of maternal recognition. A troupe of hideously grimacing children sing ‘My Mummy says I’m a miracle’ in such a way as to suggest that they are monsters while Matilda, who really is miraculous in that she has magic powers, fails to be recognised by her parents. Her mother, unaware that she was pregnant until very near the point of delivery, neither wanted a baby nor knew what to do with one; her father was expecting a boy (he persists in calling Matilda ‘boy’ till almost the end of the play). They both hate their daughter for her gifts, and have nothing but contempt for the love of reading into which she pours her unhappiness and through which she escapes it. Matilda is special, we are repeatedly told. She needs to be seen. She is eventually adopted by a schoolteacher, Jenny Honey, an orphan whose mother died in childbirth (in the book, when she was two), who recognises her unique qualities. The implication is that Jenny can save Matilda because she herself was denied, and therefore knows, what Matilda is looking for. Failed mothers are everywhere – overinvested, neglectful, dead. Just how high the stakes are can be gauged by the immense difficulty Dahl had in completing his story. In the first version, Matilda herself didn’t survive.
In the book he makes a point of stating which of these forms of parental failure is worse: parents ‘who take no interest in their children … of course are far worse than the doting ones’, although the venom he directs at the latter is pretty intense. It’s clear that to be seen by a mother is a mixed blessing either way. Too much and you will be a monster. Not enough and again the chances are you will enter a not fully human world. The genius of Dahl’s story is to make something very difficult and very strange – Matilda is nothing if not strange – seem easy and obvious. A mother, as most writing on mothers seems to concur, must be there for her baby. This process will only kick in if she recognises the baby as her own, but not as ‘His Majesty the Baby’, to use Freud’s famous formula, not as a narcissistic object, a mirror that simply reflects her own idealised image back onto her (‘My mummy says I’m a miracle’). Instead her task is to recognise who the baby is for her or himself, even though what that may mean is something neither of them can know in advance. Perhaps it’s because this uncertainty is hard to tolerate that ‘His Majesty the Baby’ continues to wield such power. During the grand royal tour in April this year, we were given a daily dose, as Prince George was credited with, among other things, having quelled any remnants of republicanism in Australia. Proffered as a role model for mothers all over the world, the Duchess of Cambridge must also turn her baby into a king. The challenge will be to stop him becoming a monster or a nobody (or, most likely, a bit of both).
The subject of mothers is thick with idealisations, one of the earliest and foremost targets of feminist critique. Expecting mothers to be perfect is not unrelated to the drive to perfection that characterises an ‘overinvested’ or ‘narcissistic’ mother’s relationship to her baby. Or to put it another way, if you are asking mothers to be perfect, why wouldn’t they pass that impossible demand on to their children? Any mother who obeys this diktat could be said to be perversely fulfilling the requirements of her role. Perfection breeds perfection, lives stopped in time, fawning over themselves (it is surely no coincidence that perfection is also the false promise of consumer objects, which is why every disappointing purchase leads to another). Once again Dahl is making a profound point. Bringing up a child to believe it is a miracle is a form of cruelty, albeit at the opposite pole from neglect. How can such a child find a place in the world, when the only person it will be able to see will be her or himself? This is the opposite of saying that all children are miracles, a proposition which recognises each child as unique while placing every individual child on a par with every other. It also has nothing to do with what Winnicott, and many analysts after him, term ‘primary maternal preoccupation’, which refers to the form of attention a mother, in the very earliest stages, bestows on a baby, something many mothers may well recognise without accepting its punishing intensifier, the version of motherhood into which it is so effortlessly folded: that a mother must live only for her child – a mother is a mother and nothing else.
The question then is how to acknowledge a new birth as the event it is, without immediately divesting the newborn of her or his humanity. ‘Every infant born,’ Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born (1976), her meditation on being a mother, ‘is testimony to the intricacy and breadth of possibilities inherent in humanity.’ The rest of the book relentlessly charts the way motherhood as an institution crushes that dream. For Hannah Arendt, in a passage Rich seems to be alluding to, every new birth is the supreme anti-totalitarian moment. In Arendt’s view, freedom is identical with the capacity to begin. Over beginning, she writes, ‘no logic, no cogent deduction can have any power because its chain presupposes, in the form of a premise, a new beginning’. Totalitarian terror is therefore needed ‘lest with the birth of each new human being a new beginning arise and raise its voice in the world’.
In The Years, written on the eve of fascism, Virginia Woolf treads similar ground. She is commenting on the dire consequences of parental exclusivity, on the damage it does to the social fabric – which was on the point of being rent beyond repair – to think it right to put your child, your family, before everyone else. She is also suggesting that, while England takes pride in its difference from Nazi Germany, there might even so be a link between the overweening egoism of the bourgeois family and the autocracy of statehood (a point central to Three Guineas, which she was writing at the same time). At a family gathering in the mid-1930s – this final section of the novel is called ‘Present Day’ – North, the now grown-up grandson of Colonel Pargiter, watches as people inquire after each other’s children:
My boy – my girl … they were saying. But they’re not interested in other people’s children, he observed. Only in their own; their own property; their own flesh and blood, which they would protect with the unsheathed claws of the primeval swamp, he thought … how then can we be civilised?
Protecting with unsheathed claws is an image commonly used to describe a mother lioness with her cubs. In their different but connected ways, Rich, Arendt and Woolf are all describing how, at the core of human nurture and in its name, the intricacy and breadth of human possibility can be sidelined or quashed before it has even begun. And the ones expected to realise this deadly template of absolute devotion and blindness – all in the guise of nourishing the world’s future – are mothers.
There was a time when becoming a mother could signal a woman’s entry into civic life. In ancient Greece, a woman was maiden, bride and then, after childbirth, mature female, which allowed her to enter the community of women and participate in religious ceremonies. Established in her household as a mother, a woman gained new economic and affective power (she had ceased to be an object of exchange). She could fulfil her destiny only by becoming a mother, but according to one account of Greek motherhood, in doing so she became more rather than less engaged in the polity. Having a child ushered the woman on a path that led to something other than motherhood itself – an idea which modern times seem progressively to have lost. This version of motherhood expanded horizons. It gave women a voice. In Euripides’ The Suppliant Women, Aethra pleads with her son Theseus to be allowed to speak on behalf of the Argive mothers whose fallen sons lie unburied. When he objects, ‘You do not belong to them,’ she replies: ‘Shall I say something, my son, that brings honour to you and the city?’ Defying him in the name of a cross-national community of mothers, she makes her case in terms of women’s contribution to the civic good: if he ignores their plea, the city over which he rules will be destroyed. Aethra is drawing on the authority owing to her as mother of the Athenian king. She speaks for women on behalf of the state. Women are citizens and civic membership is something they possess. The fact that women on the Greek stage also had the ability to destroy the polis simply bears witness to the power that mothers could wield over the fate of nations. Clytemnestra, around whose death the royal household rebuilds itself, failed to destroy it; Medea, who murders her children by Jason as well as Glauce, Jason’s new princess bride, succeeded by thus wiping out any future progeny of Corinth. In Greek literature, mothers only ever kill sons, never daughters. Infanticide is therefore a political act through which an enraged mother deprives her spouse, in the words of the French scholar Nicole Loraux, ‘of the arrogant tranquillity of a father whose sons would perpetuate his name and lineage’.
Motherhood was part of the public stage in another sense. According to Plutarch, the only exceptions to the rule against naming the dead on Sparta’s tombstones were men who fell in battle and women who died in childbirth: the woman, the producer of the future citizens of the city state, bore childbirth ‘just as the warrior bears the enemy’s assault, by struggling against pain: giving birth is a battle.’ ‘Not just a symmetry,’ Loraux writes, ‘it is more like an act of exchange or at the very least the presence of war at the heart of childbirth.’Could it be, Jean-Pierre Vernant suggests to Loraux in conversation, that ‘giving birth is the most accomplished test of a woman’s virility?’ In which case, the act that is seen as supremely defining of a woman, as the acme of femininity, is also the moment when she leaves her femininity behind. The equation also works in the other direction, with men becoming women, as the wounded soldier’s pain is compared by Loraux, after Euripides, to the agonies of childbirth: ‘Fortune and misfortune of the warrior: to break all limits, including that of the virility he ostensibly embodies, in order to suffer like a woman.’ From which, Loraux concludes, we shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to charge Greek thought with misogyny.
Motherhood, as Lauren Hackworth Petersen and Patricia Salzman-Mitchell insist in their collection of essays on mothering in the ancient world, was no less an ‘uncontested territory’ then than it is today. Instances abound of women cherished only as nurturers. In one version of the mother as warrior, the embryo is permanently at war with the uterus, which, to be born, it must defeat. According to Diogenes of Apollonia and some Pythagoreans, the father was sole generator, the woman a mere vehicle for the foetus she must nourish and then release: ‘a stranger for a stranger’ in Aeschylus’ phrase. There are few testimonies from the women themselves, who ‘left little trace of their own existence’ (many examples are taken of necessity from their funeral urns). But why in modern times is the participation of mothers in political and public life seen as the exception – Great Britain lagging behind the rest of Europe and the US? Why are mothers not seen as an essential part of a contested polity? Why are they exhorted to make their stand in the boardroom – to ‘lean in’, as the ghastly imperative of Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller has it – as if being the props of neoliberalism were the most mothers could aspire to, the highest form of social belonging they could expect. Today we are witnessing what Angela McRobbie has described as a ‘neoliberal intensification of mothering’: perfectly turned out middle-class, mainly white mothers, with their perfect jobs, perfect husbands and marriages, whose permanent glow of self-satisfaction is intended to make all the women who don’t conform to that image – because they are poorer or black or their lives are just more humanly complicated – feel like total failures.This has the added advantage of letting a government whose austerity policy has disproportionately targeted women and mothers completely off the hook.
‘Parenthood is not a transition,’ Rachel Cusk writes in A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, ‘but a defection, a political act.’ She is describing the way motherhood can leave women stranded on the far shore of any viable political life, but it’s also possible to read her sentence as a demand that the isolation of mothers be recognised as a disenfranchisement and hence as a fully political fact. Much praised, much hated on its publication in 2001, her book provides a visceral account of the loss of any sense of social personhood, of herself as a woman in the world, which followed the birth of her first baby. But perhaps it is because she charts that collapse so bloodily that she can at the same time see the heightened emotional link to the world’s wider stage that motherhood offers: ‘In motherhood, I have experienced myself as both more virtuous and terrible, and more implicated in the world’s virtue and terror, than I could from the anonymity of childlessness have thought possible.’ This is just one reason why any discourse that dwells solely on the virtue of mothers and motherhood is such a con, since, among other things, it is asking women to conspire in cutting the world off from self-knowledge. If we are all capable of virtue and terror, then no one culture, certainly not Western culture, can claim a monopoly on virtue, and the capacity for terror can’t conveniently be projected onto everyone else. ‘I do not see the mother with her child as either more morally credible or more morally capable than any other woman,’ Adrienne Rich, once more way ahead of the game, writes in Of Woman Born.
For the same reason, Denise Riley concluded in War in the Nursery (1983), her pathbreaking study of maternal social policy after the Second World War, that feminism has nothing to gain from a validation of motherhood in the name of female creativity or power. Women who are mothers are not better or more creative than women who aren’t. They have just chosen to do things differently, to live other lives. This isn’t to say that motherhood can’t be experienced as creative or that being a mother doesn’t give you another take on the world. It is simply to warn of the ease with which such ideas slip out of women’s own grasp and into the imperative mode: ‘Be good!’ – a demand, a trap. Women like Rich and Cusk, and also Rozsika Parker and Lisa Baraitser, who lay bare the complex run of emotions to which motherhood gives rise, are issuing a political corrective, sourced in but reaching far beyond the domain of motherhood itself. The idea of maternal virtue is a myth that serves no one, neither mothers nor the world for whose redemption it is intended. Or to put it more simply, no woman who has ever been a mother can believe for a second that she is only ever nice (virtue and terror both).
One of the most striking characteristics of discourse on mothering is that the idealisation doesn’t let up as reality makes the ideal harder for mothers to meet. If anything, it seems to intensify. This isn’t quite the same as saying that mothers are always to blame, although the two propositions are surely linked. As austerity and inequality increase – the Conservatives are promising that if they win the 2015 election, austerity will continue well into their second term – more and more children will fall into poverty. More and more families will be fighting a rearguard action to protect their children from inexorable social decline. Social unrest is likely to increase. In this context, as in so many moments of social crisis, focusing on mothers is a perfect diversionary tactic, not least because it so effectively deflects what might be far more disruptive forms of social critique. Mothers always fail: the point of most of the writing I have mentioned so far is to make that not catastrophic but normal, to allow failure to be seen as part of the task. But in so far as mothers are seen as the fons et origo of the world, there is nothing easier than to make social deterioration look like something which it’s the sacred duty of mothers to prevent (a socially upgraded version of the tendency in families to blame mothers for everything).
The first measure proposed by Tony Blair’s government in 1997 was a cut in benefits to single mothers. This so obviously contradicted the supposed humanitarian ethos of New Labour that he had to back down immediately. But his move was symptomatic of the way lone mothers are singled out for punishment. In troubled times, the most vulnerable are always the easiest targets. But might there also be a connection between the demand for singular devotion on the part of mothers and the hostility which single mothers – even if they aren’t single by choice and even if they are obeying that injunction to the letter – have historically incurred?
A single mother stands as a glaring rebuke to the ideal. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the number of single mothers in this country rose faster than at any other time in history, seemingly unaffected by an increasingly strident Conservative rhetoric of blame. The most pervasive image was of an unemployed teenager who had deliberately got herself pregnant in order to claim benefits, although as Pat Thane and Tanya Evans point out in Sinners? Scroungers? Saints?, their study of 20th-century unmarried motherhood, she was ‘very rarely to be found’. Over the past century, single mothers have variously been accorded one or other, or all three, of those epithets, the first and last stringing them between opprobrium and holiness (neither of this world), the second more prosaically casting them as objects of moral contempt. The single mother, it seems, was the original ‘scrounger’, the term which allows a cruelly unequal society to turn its back on those it has thrown on the scrapheap. This manipulative, undeserving mother was the perfect embodiment of the ‘dependency’ culture, an idea which is being revived today in order to justify an ever more thorough dismantling of the welfare state. It is also worth noting how far her vulnerability and her needs, not to speak of those of the children for whom she has sole responsibility, seem to count against her – lone parents, especially unmarried mothers, are still today one of the poorest groups in Britain.
As if genuine neediness – being, or having once been, a baby – is what this Conservative rhetoric most hates. Perhaps when right-wing politicians wrinkle their noses at scroungers, asylum seekers and refugees, it is their own vaguely remembered years of dependency that they are trying, and instructing us, to repudiate. The one who most loudly proclaims the ideal of iron-clad self-sufficiency must surely have the echo of the baby in the nursery hovering in the back of his or her – mostly his – head. The complaint that so many of the present cabinet went to Eton – where life is already nicely regimented – as if there were no life before schooling, while true and worth making, would also be something of a decoy. There is a feminist point to be made here. The problem for everyone, but especially for men, to cite Rich again, is that ‘all human life on the planet is born of woman’ (the first line of her book). ‘There is much to suggest,’ she continues, ‘that the male mind has always been haunted by the force of the idea of dependence on a woman for life itself’ (her italics).
It is then immensely reassuring to register the occasions when women organise against the forms of prejudice and social exclusion directed at them. Sinners? Scroungers? Saints? is also a history of the pioneering National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child, set up in 1918 to support such women and still active today (renamed the National Council for One-Parent Families in 1970, known since 2007 as Gingerbread). The story includes moments of unlikely solidarity. A midwife working during the First World War explains to the executive of the Prince of Wales Fund, a charity that had decided not to support unmarried mothers, how the ‘respectable married woman’ she had attended the previous day had been happy to ‘wash herself and leave her child unwashed’ so that the midwife could go to plead the cause of unmarried mothers. A report on mother and baby hostels set up during the Second World War – another moment when unmarried mothers were the object of moral panic – describes the way the matrons turned desolate premises into havens for ‘utterly friendless girls’ who may never have known a home or ‘whose parents set their own petty respectability above the ordinary decencies of human relationships’. The girls would leave the hostels ‘with a great deal more confidence than they had when they arrived’. The report was never published.
Note too the sexual undertow (these girls are not ‘respectable’). One of the great wartime fears was that single girls would become pregnant by black American servicemen, with dire consequences both for the nation and, potentially, for the servicemen themselves: ‘Any English girl who walks out, however harmlessly, with a coloured American soldier,’ a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary, the queen mother, wrote to Violet Markham in 1942, ‘should be made to understand that she will very probably cause his death.’ Her remark manages to express in one breath solicitude for the girl and the soldier and raw prejudice against the idea of ‘mixed marriages’. During the First World War, Markham had been secretary to an official investigation into suggested ‘immorality’ among servicewomen stationed in France.
It is another common assumption that a single mother is a woman who puts her sex life ahead of her social responsibility. Manipulative or sexual, she exhibits either too much self-control or not enough (what is never mentioned in relation to teenage pregnancies is the possibility of child abuse and rape). Behind the idea of maternal virtue, therefore, another demand and/or reproach. A mother is a woman whose sexual being must be invisible. She must save the world from her desire – a further projection that allows the world to conceal from itself the unmanageable nature of all human sexuality, and its own voraciousness. Even in the years leading up to the 1960s, when there was more sympathy for the predicament of single mothers, the basic assumption was there. ‘Innocent’ girls could get into trouble and deserved understanding ‘provided that they did not flaunt their transgressions’. Nor is the childless woman immune from sexual taint. ‘Surely,’ one journalist said recently, expressing a common attitude to the declining birth rate in 21st-century France, ‘a woman who refuses to be a mother enjoys lovemaking rather too much?’
In this context, ancient Greece and Rome are again refreshing. Cleopatra, deemed the most desirable of women, was the mother of four children, one, she claimed, by Julius Caesar and the three youngest by Mark Antony, something most representations of Cleopatra conspire not to remember or talk about (no one I have mentioned this to had the faintest idea she was a mother). In fact the silence began with Octavian in a bid to prevent his conflict with Mark Antony being seen as a civil war, with his offspring potentially in arms against hers in a battle for the keys of the city state. Venus was referred to as mater amoris or ‘mother of love’ (how, one might ask, do you mother eros other than incestuously, which might be the whole point?). Genevieve Lively, in her essay on mothers and lovers in ancient Rome, in Petersen and Salzman-Mitchell’s anthology, cites the description of Venus in the Aeneid that follows her dismissive response to Aeneas’ account of his woes: ‘She spoke, and as she turned away, her rosy neck gleamed, while from her head her heavenly hair breathed a divine fragrance, her robes slipped down to her feet and in her step she was revealed as a true goddess.’ This is breathless and brutal: her sexuality, her body, is exposed as the naked truth of her cruelty towards her son, who only now fully recognises her as his mother. But other images are less damning. The Terra Mater, a panel of the Ara Pacis in Rome dated 13-9 BCE, shows the mother goddess and her two children with her garment slipping gently from her shoulders (as this is a sculpture the exposure stops there). She is therefore also Venus and her sensuality is part of her tenderness towards the two boys cavorting on her lap.
At a gathering of British psychoanalysts, students and academics organised by John Forrester in the 1980s the French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche asked why there are no artistic representations of the erotic pleasure a mother gains in breastfeeding her child. Behind that question was another one. Why does the psychoanalytic representation of the infant focus on the baby’s sexual impulses towards the mother and remain mostly silent on those of the mother towards her child? For Laplanche this was the question since, for him, the infant’s inability to decipher the mother’s unconscious sexuality – the point being that, as is the way with all sexuality, she cannot decipher it herself – will precipitate the child’s lifelong endeavour to read a world that makes no sense. (I was delighted a short while later to come across Liberale da Verona’s Two studies of a woman with head tilted back and eyes closed, her child at her breast in Vienna.)
Laplanche was right about the psychoanalytic literature which, in a move that could be seen as un-Freudian, tends to make erotic desire in the mother-baby pair almost exclusively the province of the infant. A rare exception is Helene Deutsch, who describes birth and after as a more or less continuous erotic exchange of bodily organs and pleasures: ‘In coitus,’ she writes in ‘The Psychology of Woman in Relation to the Functions of Reproduction’, ‘the penis becomes the breast while in lactation the breast becomes the penis’ (the mind boggles). Mostly however, the idea of motherhood brings the idea of woman as a subject of sexual desire to a standstill. Mothering, it seems, is one of the ways our culture purifies itself of the sexuality that in most cases still brings motherhood about. Even if, as Rachel Bowlby argues in A Child of One’s Own, advances in reproductive technology mean we are approaching a time when we will no longer be able to assume that children come ‘from two parents, of two sexes, who once had sex’.
Against what is all this a defence? What are all these pious, oversexualised, punitive or simply dotty versions of motherhood covering for? Elisabeth Badinter argues in The Conflict that things are getting worse. In response to economic crisis, and what she sees as a crisis of identity between the sexes, a new eco-maternalism, an updated ecological version of the maternal instinct as ‘innate, essential, eternal, non-negotiable’ in the words of one commentator, is driving women back into the home (French women come in for special praise for bucking the trend). Badinter blames a ‘sacred alliance’ of reactionaries and a new ‘essentialist feminism’ with mother nature at its core. Central to this project is breastfeeding, and central to that is La Leche League. Formed by American mothers to promote breastfeeding in 1956, the LLL, as it is known, had 17,000 trained group leaders by 1981; by 1990 its book, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, had sold more than two million copies. According to Badinter, the breastfeeding rate in the US rose from 38 per cent in the late 1940s to 60 per cent by the mid-1980s, and reached 75 per cent by 2011 (a rise for which LLL can presumably take some, if not all, the ‘credit’). ‘I am the milk of your breasts, you shall have no other form of infant nutrition in your house’ is one of the pronouncements on the website Alternamoms that takes its cue from the ‘ten commandments’ of the LLL. When Courtney Love opened her concert on US Mothers’ Day this year with the words: ‘Happy Mother’s Day. I got flowers for mine with a note saying, “Thanks for not breastfeeding,”’ she may or may not have been fully aware of what she was talking about.
The Conflict is not Badinter’s first excursion into this domain. Mother Love, her original critique of the maternal instinct, was published in 1981. When her editor invited Bruno Bettelheim to contribute a preface, he replied:
I’ve spent my whole life working with children whose lives have been destroyed because their mothers hated them … Which demonstrates that there is no maternal instinct – of course there isn’t … This book will only serve to free women from their feelings of guilt, the only restraint that means some children are saved from destruction, suicide, anorexia etc. I don’t want to give my name to suppressing the last buttress that protects a lot of unhappy children from destruction.
The vitriol of this statement takes us close to the heart of the matter. There is no maternal instinct, he agrees with Badinter, which is why so many children are doomed. (We didn’t know when he said this how Bettelheim himself treated the children in his care.) There is also only the mother, so no fathers, no social deprivation, and therefore outside the nursery – the mother-baby bond – no world. Only guilt will secure a mother to her child. Bettelheim has invented a listen-with-mother version of Freud’s account of the superego which lashes the poor, defenceless ego to its allotted social role. For Freud, this meant acknowledging the oppressive and self-defeating nature of civilisation’s highest commands. The last thing analysis should do is join in. For Bettelheim, on the other hand, mothers must be driven by guilt into a role which, by his own account, is false. Children must be saved from hatred at any price. And since he will not give his name to Badinter’s book even though he thinks she is right, the price includes suppressing the truth. Hatred is therefore the guilty party (something of a tautology). What is being asked of mothers – the demand behind all demands, as one might say – is a hate-free world.
When Winnicott wrote ‘Hate in the Counter-Transference’, he must have known he was breaking taboos. When he listed the 18 reasons a mother has to hate her baby, he must have known he was pushing hard against the ideal (‘The mother hates her infant from the word go’). The last and most often cited in his list (‘He excites her but frustrates – she mustn’t eat him or trade in sex with him’) is another of the rare instances in psychoanalytic writing where a mother is allowed to be sexually aroused by her baby. Winnicott’s essay has become an ur-text for women seeking to shatter the cliché of benign, devoted motherhood, a weapon to be wielded on behalf of maternal ambivalence as it struggles to be recognised. Ambivalence doesn’t, however, seem quite right to me, at least not as something to be ‘managed’ or as contributing to the creativity of a mother’s task, a reparative move often made in such discussions, as if the only way to deal with maternal ambivalence is by giving it with one hand and taking it back with the other (which is oddly in tune with its nature).
In Winnicott’s vocabulary, the Kleinian concept of reparation doesn’t figure. He is talking about something else, something so acutely painful it can only be felt at the risk of effacing itself. He is talking about a form of hatred which, against all her better ‘instincts’, as one might say, the mother needs to know she is feeling, and to stay with, if the infant is to have any chance of experiencing, other than by means of a violent ejection, true affect in her or himself. The alternative is masochism. Winnicott is therefore making a political point: ‘If, for fear of what she may do, she cannot hate appropriately when hurt by her child she must fall back on masochism, and I think it is this that gives rise to the false theory of a natural masochism in women.’ The baby, he writes, ‘needs hate to hate’. Sentimentality, he concludes, ‘is useless for parents’. This has lost none of its pertinence today. ‘What we have, for the most part,’ Daisy Waugh writes in I Don’t Know Why She Bothers: Guilt-Free Motherhood for Thoroughly Modern Women, ‘is a repressive sentimentality, a smiling acceptance of female martyrdom, which teeters, at times, beyond martyrdom into a sort of approved, mass-culture masochism.’ But Waugh’s insights are trounced by her breeziness, which makes you feel that mothers have only themselves to blame – that ‘thoroughly modern’ in the title is the give-away.
Winnicott’s argument doesn’t mean that the mother doesn’t love her baby. As Alison Bechdel puts it in her cartoon-strip drama, Are You My Mother?, ‘The mother loves the baby too. But this is the point. Hate is a part of love.’ Bechdel’s book, published in 2012, narrates her quest to reach some kind of mutual recognition with her mother. Her bestselling Fun Home (2006), subtitled ‘A Family Tragicomic’, focused on her relationship with her father, the director of a funeral parlour – hence ‘fun home’ – who had homosexual relations as a young man and at the age of 44 committed suicide. (As well as being turned into a musical, Fun Home was removed from a public library in Missouri after residents objected to its contents.) Are You My Mother? is a type of Winnicott primer. The chapter from which the quote about love/hate is taken is called ‘Hate’, others – ‘True and False Self’ and ‘The Use of an Object’ – are lifted straight from Winnicott’s writing. Bechdel tells us his life story, lays his 18 reasons out on the page (reminding us that he was ‘revolutionary’ for using ‘he or she’ and ‘his or her’ decades before anyone else). She also graphically pursues him into the bedroom of his second marriage, where he and his wife discuss the oddity of sex (Bechdel is not alone in assuming that only this marriage was consummated). ‘I want him,’ the narrator says at one point during therapy, ‘to be my mother.’
‘Hate in the Counter-Transference’ should be compulsory reading for anyone involved with today’s government-sponsored talking cures (cognitive behavioural therapy and the like). Winnicott was addressing psychoanalysts who cannot bear the strain of acutely disturbed patients. Only an analyst in touch with ‘his own fear and hate’ will be of use to such a patient; only such an analyst will be responding to the patient’s – as opposed to the analyst’s – own needs (in that way of thinking, CBT, with its questionnaires and instant results, is therapy designed to protect the therapist by getting hatred out of the room as fast as it can). For Winnicott, the analyst must place her or himself ‘in the position of the mother of an infant unborn or newly born’. This is not, in my understanding, how most analysts think of themselves (although Michael Balint’s idea of analysis as fostering the birth of a ‘new beginning’ gets close). Winnicott is presenting us with a choice. We can go for the therapeutic quick fix, the full-frontal political assault on any traces of dependency, to be smoked out like rats in the basement. We can opt for hatred of hatred (Bettelheim’s problem, I would say). Or we can take as a model for our social as well as psychological well-being the complex, often painful reality of motherhood. This isn’t quite the same as suggesting mothers should rule the world, but it is close. What qualifies mothers for this task is that they aren’t in flight from the anguish of what it means to be human. Not that mothers are the only ones who ever have access to that insight.
Are You My Mother? is full of writers. Alongside Winnicott, they are mostly but not exclusively women: Rich, Woolf, but also Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. The book is a textual collage. It is through fierce verbal and textual contestation that the narrator’s struggle with her mother takes place: ‘Language was our field of contest.’ When Alison was 11, her mother ‘took over’ writing her diary entries on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the day ‘when the deeds of humanity are open for review’, ‘the righteous are inscribed’ and ‘the wicked blotted out’ (Alison doesn’t appear to see a problem in her mother thus assigning herself the place of divine writ and punishment). Alison’s mother is a dedicated reader, has an MA, is a qualified teacher, and was an amateur actress. As a young woman, she had attended Roe v. Wade demonstrations in support of abortion rights. None of this means, however, that she can tolerate her daughter’s lesbianism. When Alison, now at university, plucks up the courage to write and tell her, she replies: ‘Couldn’t you just get on with your work? You are young, you have talent, you have a mind.’ The response echoes Mrs Winterson’s: ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’ The tragedy for Alison is that her mother can’t see the link between her daughter’s right to mental freedom, no less the result of women’s struggle, and her right to freedom in the sexual choices of her life. In fact they are alternatives: ‘You have a mind.’
Alison’s mother suffered depression as a young woman. Psychoanalysis was not an option for her. We could say that psychoanalysis, like feminism, came too late: ‘By the time The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, Mom was stuck at home with two small children.’ She is part of a generation whose destiny was above all to become mothers and who found themselves, after a devastating war, under the harshest obligation to be happy and fulfilled in that role. Could it be that, however much they encouraged their own daughters’ independence, however much they urged their daughters to live their own unlived lives, they were also silently obeying an injunction against experiencing the full range of their emotions? And that what they demanded of their daughters was that they protect them from their own raging hearts? If that is the case Winnicott’s 1949 essay would not have come out of nowhere, but would be his response to the suffocating psychic legacy which the aftermath of the war was in danger of passing on to its children. For, to stay inside his vocabulary, the child of such a mother will be a false self, compliant not just with her mother’s demands – which is how he mostly describes it – but with the mother’s hidden inner world, a world seen in cloying tunnel vision, in which the mother is flailing without knowing it. Unless the daughter manages to shatter the carapace that binds her to a mother who, through no fault of her own, was never given the chance to understand her own mettle, to realise what – in all senses of the term – she was truly made of. Bechdel’s answer to her own question – Are You My Mother? – is finally affirmative. But the path to understanding is littered with images, lifted from her dreams and nightmares, of cracking ice, shattered glass and kicked-in walls. ‘It only occurs to me now as I am writing this book about my mother,’ Alison muses as she lies with a patch over one eye, ‘that perhaps I had scratched my cornea to punish myself for “seeing” the truth about my family.’ Has Bechdel chosen to be a graphic artist to make us see?
Perhaps, then, we should be asking a slightly different question: not what a mother is or should be, but what version of motherhood might make it possible for a mother to listen to her child? For if Western culture in our times, especially in America and Europe, has repeatedly conspired to silence the inner life of the mother by laying on her the weight of its own impossible and most punishing ideals, if the term ‘mothers’ is a trigger for a willed self-perfection that crushes women as mothers, then how can mothers be expected to hear their children’s cry – the cry not of wailing babies, which is hard enough, but the cry of protest and plaint? How can they bear to watch their child cast off the yoke of false mental safety, turning on its head what was meant to be the psychic legacy of their own version of motherhood?
For me this has always been the best way to think about the relationship between Sylvia Plath and her mother, which is not quite the same as the excessive closeness or osmosis through which it has often been analysed. In Are You My Mother? Alison reads Woolf but not Plath, her mother more or less the reverse (as if, between mother and daughter the one has to exclude the other). This leaves a gaping hole between the two writers, at least on the subject of mothers. Plath’s 1962 verse drama, Three Women, her voice meditation set in a maternity ward, was inspired by The Waves. When Aurelia, Plath’s mother, lectured on Plath after her death, she interspersed her memory of her daughter with lines like these from the First Voice, the only one of the three who ends up with her baby (the Second miscarries, the Third abandons her newborn child):
What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do with its love?
I shall meditate upon normality.
I shall meditate upon my little son.
I do not will him to be exceptional.
It is the exception that interests the devil.
She left out lines like these:
There is no miracle more cruel than this.
I am the centre of an atrocity.
What pains, what sorrow must I be mothering?
Can such innocence kill and kill? It milks my life.
The point being that Plath didn’t shy from putting atrocity, cruelty and murderousness in the midst of a mother’s love: ‘The world conceives/Its end and runs towards it, arms held out in love.’ But her own mother couldn’t stand it. A mother censors a daughter’s representation of mothering, shutting down the world of thought. If it was just a question of cramping her daughter’s style, then, however poignant this story, it would be easy to blame Plath’s mother and turn away. But the implications surely reach beyond the tragedy of this famous case. What do we expect when society continues to believe it has the right to trample over the mental lives of mothers?
‘If Freud had been less preoccupied with Oedipus and more observant of Medea when he remarked that “aggression forms the basis of every relation of affection and love among people,”’ Loraux writes in Mothers in Mourning, ‘he would certainly not have added: “with the single exception, perhaps, of the mother’s relation to her male child.”’ The great theorist of Oedipus, she elaborates, was blind to the strand in Greek tragic thinking in which wrath against the spouse triumphs over physical intimacy with the child. It perhaps goes without saying that Freud was probably recounting his own memories, however reliable, and/or describing something he longed to be true – that is, not for the first or last time, he was talking about himself. But even this reading of Medea is uncertain. In other versions of the tale, some written before Euripides, Medea doesn’t murder her children: hatred of Medea drives the Corinthians to kill them, or the relatives of Creon kill them in revenge after Medea has murdered Creon and fled to Athens, or she puts her children through a rite designed to make them immortal in the course of which they die. Even in Euripides’ drama, what drives Medea to kill is not, or not only, her sexual rage against their father, but equally the loss of his love for their children which condemns them to an uncertain future. Her cry is for justice and her famous diatribe on the pains of mothering the lament of a mother whose greatest fear is that she and her children will be homeless and stateless (hence her plea to Creon to delay her expulsion from the city). Only in their final confrontation after the murder, when Jason accuses her of being ‘stung by thoughts of sex’ (‘And you believe it justified/to kill them for the sake of sex?’), does she return: ‘Do you suppose such troubles to be trivial for a woman?’ For the most part it isn’t sex that Medea has on her mind but survival. Although she is finally given all the assurances she seeks, she doesn’t believe them. She kills her children to save them from a worse fate: ‘I swear, there is no way that I shall leave/my boys among my enemies so they/can treat them with atrocity.’
It is interesting, therefore, that it is the image of sexual frenzy that has most popularly attached itself to Medea and that what gets lost in translation is any trace of the reasons a mother might have for thinking there is no longer any place in the world for her child. That is certainly the reality confronted by Véronique Olmi’s narrator in her bestselling rewrite of Medea from 2001, Bord de mer (the translated title, Beside the Sea, loses the pun mer/mère, by the sea/mother at the edge), who, before murdering her two sons on a visit to the seaside, goes quietly mad and dreams of spending her life in bed with her children watching the TV: ‘Holding on to the remote, we’d have switched the world off as soon as it fucked up.’ ‘What woman,’ Rich asks in her chapter ‘Violence: The Heart of Maternal Darkness’, ‘has not dreamed of “going over the edge”?’ Despite being criticised for including this chapter, which starts with its own story of a mother who murdered the two youngest of her eight children in a Chicago suburb in 1974, Rich chose to include it in the 1995 reprint of her book.
But it is Christa Wolf’s 1996 retelling which is, for me, the true feminist text. In this version, Medea doesn’t kill her children, or Glauce, or her brother Absyrtus whom, in another strand of the legend, she murdered before fleeing her original home of Colchis with Jason. If all this is laid at her door by the citizens of Corinth it’s because she has uncovered the city’s ugly secret: Creon’s killing of Glauce’s sister in order to keep his succession out of the grasp of his wife, who after the killing goes silent and progressively mad (Medea’s father had similarly murdered Absyrtus, whom he saw as a rival for the succession). ‘Either I’m out of my mind,’ Medea muses in her first soliloquy, ‘or their city is founded on a crime.’ This makes Medea into a psychoanalyst – the allusions are explicit – as she slowly persuades the ailing Glauce that she knows the truth, saw the deed. Medea taught me, Glauce reflects, that ‘there is no thought I must forbid myself to have.’
Medea’s true crime is to have shattered a myth of collective innocence. She is a scapegoat: ‘They’re looking for a woman who will tell them they are not guilty of anything.’ Worse, by exposing the crime, she risks plunging the whole nation into sorrow: ‘Someone must grieve.’ Compare, one last time, Adrienne Rich: ‘We know too much at first hand [of] the violence which over centuries we have been told is the way of the world, but which we exist to mitigate and assuage.’ In Wolf’s version, it is because Medea assuages nothing that she is indicted of all crimes. It is because she knows the city is built on the corpses of children that she is hounded out of Corinth. Wolf has written a parable of Germany in the 20th century. In On the Natural History of Destruction, his account of the silence that followed the Allied bombing of German cities at the end of the war, W.G. Sebald writes of the ‘well-kept secret of the corpses built into the foundations of our state’. Above all Wolf has turned Medea into the story of what happens when a woman is held responsible for the ills of the world. Medea ‘has no need of our doubt, of our endeavours to do her justice’, she writes in her prelude: ‘We must venture into the darkest core of our misjudgment – of her and of ourselves – simply walk in, with one another, behind one another, while the crash of collapsing walls sounds in our ears.’
To conclude. When I was preparing to adopt my daughter, I would try to seduce my social worker with obscenely large red cherries which would sit in their bowl, I liked to think, as a flagrant riposte to, and distraction from, her steely, unrelenting inquisition (the adoption process takes the idea of a fault-finding mission to a new height). I remember thinking later that the two things the whole process could never prepare you for and which made it as useless as it was invasive were, first, the worry – the OMG of every scratch and fall, at once absurd and wholly in tune with the fragility of life – and the joy. In the famous story, Tiresias is struck blind by Juno for having revealed that a woman’s sexual pleasure is greater than a man’s. As I was reading the outpourings of all these recent books on motherhood, it occurred to me that we need a version of this story for mothers, a version in which, without any need to deny everything else talked about here, the acute pleasure of being a mother would be neither a guilty secret, nor something enviously co-opted by bullies – ‘You will be happy!’ – but instead would be allowed to get on quietly with its work of making the experience of motherhood more than worth it.
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