Reviews — From the April 2018 issue

Never Done

The impossible work of motherhood

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Jacqueline Rose, a British literary critic who writes often about psychoanalysis and feminist theory, is interested in maternal failure writ large. In her new book, Mothers, which extends an essay she published in the London Review of Books in 2014, she laments the undue symbolic burdens we place on mothers. We scapegoat mothers for “our personal and political failings . . . which it becomes the task — unrealisable, of course — of mothers to repair.” We want mothers to “hold up the skies,” to make things “bright and innocent and safe,” to “carry the burden of everything that is hardest to contemplate about our society and ourselves.” They can’t. We must let them fail at what we ask so that we can learn to ask for something else.

Mothers receive too little and too much attention, or the wrong kind of attention. They are ordered to “return to their instincts and stay home” or “to make their stand in the boardroom,” but in either case are excluded from “public, political space,” where “the shameful debris of the human body is unwelcome.” Mothers bring mess with them everywhere they go — spilled milk, sticky fingers, too many tote bags. A friend of mine who is not a mother recently complained that her seatmate on a long international flight had changed a diaper on the tray table, as if it were a public health hazard. Yesterday, while my son was screaming himself to sleep on a short domestic flight, I realized that tears are another form of human debris. A mother receives pity and disgust for bringing them into public view. But far worse is the conflict that arises within a mother when a child cries in public: the feeling of failure and anxiety, the concern for the child, the effort not to shame him, and her attempts to remind herself that there is nothing wrong with crying, even if it’s bothersome for whoever else is around. What are tears but the universal expression of frustration and rage?

“63 Objects Taken from My Son’s Mouth,” by Lenka Clayton, who collected these items when her son was between the ages of eight and fifteenth months

Mothers themselves are expected to feel only along a narrowly approved continuum, and to accept, with mournful resignation, sacrificing their children for higher ends. (Rose admires a novella by Colm Tóibín in which Mary runs away from the sight of Jesus on the cross.) But mothers can “see the reality of the cruel political world they are being asked to gestate” and thus “expose misfortune as injustice.” Rose cites as examples the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children were “disappeared” in Argentina’s Dirty War; Doreen Lawrence, whose son was murdered by London’s Metropolitan Police in 1993; and British women who demanded suffrage during the First World War “as the fair if partial recompense for having been expected to send their sons to war.”

I assume that there are those who think that mothers have too much social or public authority. It’s lose-lose-lose: the culture deifies and loathes mothers in equal measure, and treats childless (or, as some would have it, “child-free”) women with suspicion and contempt. It wasn’t enough for Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state; she was also “a mother and a grandmother.” But the world is not set up for women with children to succeed professionally. In the United States and Europe, women with children make less money than men and women without children. Rose cites startling statistics: 54,000 women lose their jobs every year in the UK because of pregnancy; 77 percent of pregnant women and new mothers experience workplace discrimination.

So often mothers are accused of retreating, narcissistically, from the political world to protect and care for their offspring. (This was Rebecca Solnit’s argument in her essay “The Mother of All Questions,” which appeared in these pages: that she chose a life of public activism over the retreat of the family.) Rose, however, thinks that motherhood can be a model for a broad and inclusive politics. “To be a mother . . . is to welcome a foreigner,” she writes, a notion that she connects to migrant crises and other international emergencies, and in which she sees a possible “foundation for a different ethics, and, perhaps, a different world.” Rose is not naïvely suggesting that holding someone else’s baby makes you feel the same as holding your own. She’s asking us to see “a mother’s body and the public world all around her” as “indissolubly linked.”

Rose adopted a daughter from China, and this experience helps her see a fundamental truth that the intimacy of birth can hide: “An adopting mother knows somewhere deep down that she does not own her child, something I have always seen as a caution, a truth and a gift.” Even children who were umbilically attached to their mothers are radically distinct. One of the terrors of pregnancy is the feeling that something is growing inside you of its own volition. You are joined with it, which is to say that it is separate. From a very early age, the child has his own goals, agendas, projects, and desires. Rose quotes Simone de Beauvoir:

The child brings joy only to the woman who is capable of disinterestedly desiring the happiness of another, to one who without reversion to herself, seeks to go beyond her own experience.

A mother’s job is to love her child in such a way that he can love other people, specifically other people who treat him with kindness. It is an insane task to undertake, to give (almost) everything to someone who will, without thanks and probably with some rudeness, depart and go live his life elsewhere. It becomes easier to bear if one takes up Rose’s image, seeing the child not as a thing you own but as a person passing through, in need of temporary refuge. That you will fail at providing this refuge is part of the deal.

Mothers, for Rose, are the “original subversives”; they give the lie to the clichés and myths that would suffocate them. One myth: that they exist only for their children. Another: that they neither hate nor desire. (Rose is very good on the romance of breastfeeding.) Yet another, the most awful of all: that they can fix everything, make everything okay. Children slip, trip, fall, and worse. I think of the mothers who watched, unknowing, while their daughters were molested by Larry Nassar. I think of “bland American” Charlotte Haze, who cottons on to Humbert Humbert’s schemes just before a hit-and-run removes her from the plot. Was she a bad mother? Or only helpless, in Rose’s terms, incapable of making the world safe? Is a mother responsible for the dirty water in the tap, for the bullets that fly over her kid’s route to school? Is she in charge of school funding, health care costs, job growth? Opioids, bullies, toxic friendships, school shooters? Mall shooters? Movie-theater shooters? Nightclub shooters?

To be a mother is to struggle to save — while also knowing that you will fail to save — your child. To be faced with the prospect that the world is not getting better, that there will not be a better life for the lives you have made.

But seriously all my love.

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