I left the kitchen radio on while reading Jacqueline Rose
's Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018) in preparation for this interview. It was June. Putting the book down for a minute to get a glass of water, I heard a news report that the children of refugee women were being removed from them at the American border.
Rose is nothing if not prescient in her thinking and in this book, perhaps especially so. While most of us learn what we think “alla nachträghlichkeit
” (after the fact), her mind has the capacity to trip the light fantastic. I follow her writing to discover what I won’t let myself know. Perhaps she has more access than most to the realm of the preconscious. It seems to be the case.
This wide-ranging book (Rose is an exemplary literary critic and feminist theorist so she pulls from multiple intellectual arenas) is largely about motherhood and its enemies. She examines “mother” as a signifier demonstrating how it functions as a repository for blame and misogynist aggression. The book’s twilight message and hot tip for women on the religious right: beware veneration of the maternal for behind it often lies something quite venal.
Mothers, Rose argues, cannot win for losing and yet remain fantastically vested with delivering the impossible: never ending happiness and total safety. “A simple argument,” she writes, “guides this book: that motherhood is, in Western discourse, the place in our culture where we … bury the reality of our own conflicts, of what it means to be fully human.” To be fully human involves being in need of help, failing frequently and feeling unwieldy hate. (Her chapter on hating and the negation of mothers’ hateful feelings and the social impact of that negation is worth the price of the book alone.)
I have the urge to offer an example from the social realm to make clear what Rose is getting at throughout this text—if only because I found myself fogging over at times while reading. My hazy response I believe relates to my resistance to the topic. Hearkening back to Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born
(another powerful book that caused me to often drift), Rose dares to look at motherhood as an institution, denaturalizing it to the core.
The example that comes to mind comes from Kristin Luker’s incredible Dubious Conceptions
, which debunked the ever-popular idea (see the Clinton Administration, circa 1996 that eviscerated the social safety net) that teen pregnancy creates poverty. The truth, Luker argues, is closer to the reverse: teen poverty may generate teen pregnancy, as poverty can foreclose roads to adulthood, leaving motherhood as a last resort. Poor teen girls who don’t carry to term and poor teen girls who become mothers occupy the same economic strata ten years on. It’s not the pregnancy that hurts their life chances but rather that economic policies are culpable. And yet, teenage mothers, scapegoats really, have long served to hide planned economic inequality; the truth, as it were, is buried in young female flesh.
As our ugly summer wore on, I re-read this book, further preparing for the interview, in addition to spending time in the consulting room, doing what I do: listening to patients elaborate upon themselves. To state the obvious, the psychoanalyst makes her living being inundated with a plethora of words about mothers. To state the further obvious, as temps skyrocketed, Freud’s maxim regarding the repudiation of femininity as bedrock was being powerfully reinforced in America. July and August offered daily opportunities to witness mighty men offering apologies for sexual intimidation and assault to female colleagues in most every profession.
Motherhood is nothing if not the sine qua non of femininity. And Rose unflinchingly discusses its repudiation, delineating the dark hearts of those who seek to punish mothers for falling short of fantasies of perfection, thusly laying the world’s problems at their feet. She asks, tout court, what makes us think mothers are better people than anyone else? Where does this demand come from?
Looking at the present and the past, she poses “ur” questions from various points of view: what do we expect of mothers, what do our expectations do to mothers, and how do we set them up to fail? Why do we refuse to accept, in the words of Melanie Klein as quoted by Rose, that, “Even the most loving mother cannot satisfy the infant’s most powerful emotional needs”?
Klein’s words were published in 1963, the very-same year the birth control pill became available in America, opening doors for women to enter the workforce in record numbers by giving women a chance to control whether or when to have a child. I am writing on the eve of the vote that will likely place Brett Kavanaugh, a man accused of sexual assault, a man who thinks of birth control as an abortafacient, onto the Supreme Court.
In a moment where public ills are deemed private problems, and women’s bodies are arousing powerful public anxieties, this book is a terribly important read.