What Does it Really Mean to be a Mother?
The question of what it really means to be a mother is inextricably connected with what it means to have a mother, one of the most universal facts of human existence. To be a mother is to take the risk to make oneself vulnerable. Equally, if we are to accept that our relationship with our mother matters deeply to us, it can put us in touch with strong feelings of longing, love, ambivalence, disappointment and loss.
In the collection of essays in The Mother in Psychoanalysis and Beyond, my co-edited book with Rosalind Mayo just published with Routledge, the profound experiences of motherhood and of our relationship with our mother unfold in a prism. Certain myths return again and again in many of the contributors’ chapters to highlight the conflicts and dilemmas of our collective relationship with the Mother. Such as the myth of Athena, the Goddess of wisdom who emerges fully dressed and armoured, gestated in the head of her Father, Zeus after he raped and swallowed Athena’s pregnant mother. Athena is a woman-symbol of patriarchy, a symbol of the denial of strong emotions and vulnerability. Athena’s existence is based on matricide. Persephone on the other hand, gets abducted by Hades, the God of death and the underworld and her mother, Demeter mourns for her loss for the rest of her life. Mother-daughter separation here brings about the sterility of winter and the death of nature. What happens to Demeter, one of the contributors asks, what happens to women’s desire and loss of fertile state as they grow older?
Melancholia, but also the potential for a different kind of existence, one in harmony with the natural cycle of life, the power of creativity and of words and stories underlie the book. From looking at how the feminist movement failed to make room for motherhood as a potentially life-enhancing experience, to how mothers are blamed for universal ills, to the implications of the mother-son relationship for the boys’ ability to relate to women as well as the wounding effects of patriarchy to men’s developing identity, to the Madonna stereotype of the perfect mother still implicitly underlying our cultural ideals, to how having a rejecting mother may make it a more honest choice for a woman to reject motherhood, the chapters in the first part of the book highlight in many ways how the silencing of the mother’s experience affects us all on a deep socio-cultural level.
In the second part of the book, the raw voices and experiences of mothers and daughters are given space. How one of the authors used visual art and photographing her children as an enormously creative response to her experience of postnatal depression and the shame it bought along with it, to the unsent letters that an adult daughter still addresses to her long lost mother, to the socio-political reality of disempowerment entailed in becoming a mother, the multiplicity of voices here are not afraid to name the strong feelings involved in our experiences of our mothers and of motherhood. One of the contributors shows us how her journey to motherhood entailed overcoming her strong ambivalence towards her own mother, another how she found in music a deep connection with her mother that words failed to deliver. My chapter highlights how closely our sense of ourselves as erotic beings is entangled with our beginning in life and the longing for the mother’s body. Finally, the last chapter brings together the silencing of the mother and the daughter through unspoken class divides as well as the deeply engrained cultural aversion to the ageing woman’s body.
Can some of our love and longing for the mother and ourselves be recovered through opening ourselves up to our connection with our roots and the stories that brought us in this world? Therapy of course, can potentially be a journey of self-discovery where the mother does not get murdered for her failings, intended or not, but she gets rediscovered as a creative and integral part of ourselves.
Book launch: Regent's University, Inner Circle, NW1 4NS. October 18 7-9pm: